A Guide to Cleaning and Prepping Furniture for Chalk Painting

Chalk painting furniture is popular in the DIY niche. However, there’s still some confusion on what qualifies as adequate prepping before you whip out the paintbrush. This is undoubtedly due to chalk paint products’ heavy marketing as options you can use with little preparation. So how much prepping do you need? How should you go about it?

Cleaning and prepping furniture for chalk paint typically only involves deeply cleaning the furniture. However, some cases where the piece of furniture will benefit from prepping are similar to the methods used for other types of paint—including sanding and priming.

The rest of the article will cover all you need to know about cleaning and preparing your furniture before using chalk paint on it.

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What Is Chalk Paint?

Chalk paint is a decorative product first designed by Annie Sloan. In fact, “Chalk Paint” is a registered trademark of the company. It is a water-based solution intended to be easy to use. It’s known for the chalky appearance and feels. Since it first hit the shelves, many other brands have launched their versions of the same product.

Chalk paint is different from chalkboard paint. The latter is used to transform surfaces and make it easy to write on them with chalk. Chalk paint can paint furniture for all kinds of décor themes ranging from farmhouse to minimalist styles.

General Furniture Prepping For Chalk Painting

Chalk paint sticks to furniture easily even when you don’t do prepping routines like sanding and priming. However, this case is only for non-problematic furniture pieces or those that haven’t yet seen much wear and tear. In such a general scenario, proper cleaning is the bulk of the prepping you need to do. Here are the full steps to follow when generally prepping furniture for chalk paint:

Repair Damaged Parts of the Furniture

Look through your furniture piece and to see if there’s some damage. This is the time to repair broken legs, check loose fittings to see if they need replacing, etc. It would help if you also filled any obvious gaps or scratches with wood filler like the Elmer’s E917 Wood Filler or Minwax 42853000 Stainable Wood Filler.

Elmer's Carpenter's Color Change Wood Filler, 16 oz., White (E917)
  • Patented formula goes on purple and dries white when ready to sand, stain or paint
  • Stainable, paintable and sand able
  • Appeals to light Dyers

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Minwax 42853000 Stainable Wood Filler, 16-Ounce
  • Ideal for repairing cracks, small gouges, nail holes, knot holes and other defects in all types of unfinished indoor and outdoor wood surfaces
  • Stainable Wood Filler is specially formulated to accept Minwax penetrating wood stains
  • It is designed for use with oil-based and water-based wood stains

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Remove Hardware You Don’t Want to Paint

Drawer handles, locks, and other such fittings you don’t want to paint over should be removed and safely stored away in a Ziploc bag or container. Take note of the fittings’ position on the furniture piece so you can reinstall seamlessly after you’re done painting.

Clean the Furniture Piece

To properly clean your furniture piece, here are the options available to you:

Liquid Soap and Water

Mix a small amount of liquid detergent with water and use a sponge to wash the piece properly. This is to remove grit and grime that may have formed on the furniture over time, especially if it’s been stored away for a long time. Washing it will ensure you have a clear view of the surface you’re about to paint. It’s a good way to unearth details you weren’t aware of before.

Denatured Alcohol in Water

A good tip for cleaning furniture at this stage is to mix some denatured alcohol with water (in equal parts) and use it to wipe down the furniture. This is a good approach to use if you don’t want to use liquid soap. 

You should apply the mix using a pad. This combo is strong enough to get rid of the grease and grime but not strong enough to damage the surface of your furniture. Denatured alcohol also works great when you’re using water-based paint, such as chalk paint. It has a way of making the furniture surface more receptive to the paint.

Odorless Mineral Spirits

You can wipe down your furniture before chalk painting using an odorless spirit. Use a piece of rag to rub the furniture piece down in the direction of the wood grain. Once you’re done, allow the piece to dry. The spirit will evaporate quickly.

Standard TSP

Trisodium phosphate (TSP) is another popular furniture cleaning agent you can use before chalk painting. However, you have to wipe the furniture with denatured alcohol once you’re done cleaning with TSP. Otherwise, the components of the paint will react with the TSP, leaving you with peeling paint.

Most people avoid using this chemical because even though it’s an excellent cleaning agent, it can irritate the skin and the eyes. It’s also dangerous for the flora in your yard. It will disrupt the ecosystem if it gets into water bodies through your sink.

Rinse the piece with warm water when you’re done cleaning—regardless of the cleaning option you’ve chosen to go with. You don’t need to pour water directly onto the furniture. Rinse with a dampened rag instead.

Cover Surfaces You Don’t Want to Paint

You may not be able to get rid of all the hardware on your furniture piece. Therefore, you’ll need to cover up with the painter’s tape. It would help if you also did the same for any other parts of the furniture you don’t want to paint. The ScotchBlue Original Multi-Surface Painter’s Tape is one of the top options you should consider.

Sale
ScotchBlue 2090-72A Original Multi-Surface Painter's Tape, 2.83 inches x 60 yards, 2090, Blue
  • Designed for use on multiple surfaces such as smooth or lightly textured walls, trim, baseboards, tile and glass
  • 14-day clean removal leaves behind no damage or sticky residue
  • Medium adhesive

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Once you’ve covered all the surfaces, it’s time to start painting.

Prepping Old or Worn Out Furniture Pieces for Chalk Painting

The prepping steps above are for pieces of furniture that need little or no work before getting painted. However, if you’re looking at painting used furniture, you’ll most likely have to deal with more than just some grime and dirt. There’d be lots of scratches and peels you can’t just paint over. 

Below is a look at some of the possible issues you’d have with worn-out furniture and how you can remedy each situation and ensure adequate prepping before painting. However, you should note that most of the recommendations will need you first to clean the furniture piece.

Very Rough Furniture Surface

If your furniture piece has lots of deep scratches, uneven finish, and gouges, your prepping certainly can’t be just about cleaning with denatured alcohol or TCP anymore. You’ll have to fill the gouges and then sand down the scratches until they are either removed or hidden well enough to not remain visible after two coats of chalk paint.

This may come as a surprise to you if you’re one of those that have bought into the chalk paint “no-prep” marketing. However, the reality is that a very rough surface will still look untidy if you paint it without sanding. 

Use the Ryobi CFS1503GK Orbital Finishing Sander to smooth out the surface after filling out gauges with a wood filler like the Elmer or Minwax models we’ve already recommended earlier.

Ryobi CFS1503GK Compact Corner Cat 12,500 OPM 1.2 Amp Corded Orbital Finishing Sander w/ 10 Pads and Carrying Case
  • COMPACT DESIGN AND UNIQUE SHAPE allows you to dig into tight corners for flooring or stair sanding
  • KEEP A COMFORTABLE GRIP with the rubber overmolding on top of the unit than increases friction between it and your hand. This lets you work effectively even in slippery conditions
  • ONBOARD DUST BAG will keep your workstation clear of debris, so you can focus on the task at hand instead of having to take constant cleaning breaks

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Peeling Veneer

Does your furniture piece have veneer? It would be best to look at it to be sure it is not loose or coming off. Otherwise, it would help if you spent time either fixing it or removing it entirely before you start painting. You can fill out missing veneer on your furniture piece on your own easily. However, if the damage is well beyond remedy, getting rid of it completely is often the best approach to take.

Removing the veneer is as simple as pulling it off from the loose ends and then running a hot iron over a damp towel to loosen the glue on the remaining part and get rid of everything. Once the veneer is off, you’ll have clear wood underneath to continue prepping or paint directly if there are no other problems.

Wood that Can Bleed Through Paint

If the furniture is made of mahogany, knotty pine, cherry, and other similar woods, painting it without proper prep will lead to the wood bleeding into the chalk paint in no time. In such a scenario, the best approach to take is to spray it with a few coats of Rust-Oleum Zinsser 408 Bulls Eye Clear Shellac.

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If the wood isn’t just concentrated on one spot (like the sides of a table, for example), you’ll be better served to prime the entire piece with a primer like Rust-Oleum 2004 Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Primer. You’ll need at least two coats of primer to keep the wood from bleeding. Again, this may come as a surprise to you if you thought using chalk paint will help you avoid priming. 

Zinsser 02004 Bulls Eye 1-2-3 All Surface Primer, Quart, White
  • Interior/exterior use on new or previously painted drywall, concrete, wood, masonry, metal and glossy or difficult surfaces
  • Water-based formula seals uniformly and will stick to surface without sanding
  • Dries to the touch in 35 minutes, ready to topcoat in 1 hour and covers up between 87-112 sq. ft. per quart

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However, there’s no escaping it if you want to do a paint job; you won’t have to redo in a few months.

Furniture Pieces With Oily Surfaces

If you’re trying to use chalk paint on a surface with an oily finish or a shiny surface, it may be hard to get the chalk paint to stick properly. In this scenario, you’ll have to wipe down the surface with mineral spirits and apply a few coats of primer. In some cases, this won’t be enough. So, most DIY experts will advise sanding off the finish to expose the raw wood and then apply a few primer coats before painting.

Furniture Pieces that Require Hardware Change

If you remove the handles, locks, and other such hardware on your furniture, you’ll find some indentation on the surface of the wood. You need to lightly sand the area to smoothen things out if you’re changing the hardware to an option that isn’t wide enough to hide the indentations. You can also use wood filler to remedy the situation.

While changing hardware with screws, you need to keep in mind that the position of the screws may vary slightly, even for identical hardware. The new hardware may end up not fitting in the existing hole. So you should confirm this first before you start painting to avoid disappointment in the end. If the hole for screws on the new hardware won’t fit into the existing one on the furniture piece, use a wood filler to cover the old openings before painting.

Furniture with Bad Smell

If you’re trying to paint a furniture piece with a strong cigarette smoke smell or one that generally smells musty, cleaning it with soap and water may not get it clean. You’ll have to keep it under direct sunlight for a couple of days to see if the smell will dissipate.

Where that doesn’t work, you’ll have to prime the furniture with a primer that can keep odors in before painting. A good example of such primers is the Zinsser 00904 B-I-N Pigmented Shellac Primer. It’s a tough option to use because it is thin and shellac-based (instead of the water-based Zinsser 123 we’ve recommended earlier). It’s also hard to clean up. However, it’s one of the best options available to you if you want to block out the smell.

Zinsser 00904 B-I-N Pigmented Shellac Primer-Sealer & Stain Killer, White, 1 Quart
  • Shellac-base primer-sealer
  • Seals knots and sap streaks
  • Seals pet, smoke and musty odors

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These are particular situations when just cleaning the furniture piece and painting won’t work. Remember, you still have to clean the furniture piece before adopting the remedies recommended for these specific situations.

Things to Keep in Mind When Using Chalk Paint

To help you understand chalk paint a bit better and also be better prepared to handle the painting process, here are a few things you have to keep in mind:

You Can’t Discount Sanding and Priming Completely

As you’ve seen above, the chalk paint marketing rhetoric; you don’t need to prime or sand before using the paint isn’t always true. Most furniture pieces won’t need sanding and priming when you want to use chalk paint, but there will always be exceptions.

A Guide to Cleaning and Prepping Furniture for Chalk Painting

Even when you don’t sand, you may need priming to ensure the wood color doesn’t bleed into your paint—especially true with reddish wood or furniture with reddish stain. There may be other things that have soaked into the wood over the years, which may rise to the surface of the chalk paint if you don’t use a primer to seal the wood before painting.

Similarly, rough or chipped furniture or one that has a very slick finish will benefit from sanding before you paint. Some people might want to go straight to painting and jump this stage, but if your furniture has any of these features above, the result will be far from the best you could have.

However, for non-problem furniture pieces, chalk paint is user-friendly and won’t require more than cleaning to stick properly.

Chalk Paint Dries Quickly

If you’re an impatient painter, you’d love using chalk paint as it dries quickly once applied. This property also means you have to think about handling the paint when using it to ensure it doesn’t dry out while you’re still using it. It would be best if you kept the can tightly close immediately after taking out some paint. You’ll also need to keep some water nearby to keep the paint you’ve poured out into a smaller container to work with from becoming too dry.

 You Can Achieve More With It

If you’re looking for a paint that goes further, chalk paint is up there with the best you can find. However, this will depend on the product you go with and, sometimes, the color. In general, however, you can expect to paint a bunch of furniture pieces or one large piece with a can of chalk paint.

You Can Work With a Paint Sprayer

If using a paintbrush is too much hassle for you, or if you already have a paint sprayer, you’ll love chalk paint. Using a paint sprayer also means you won’t have to worry about the brush marks typical of chalk paint. Of course, sanding between coats and thinning out the paint with water are all excellent ways to avoid brush marks while working, but using a paint sprayer is the easiest method to ensure a super-smooth finish.

A Guide to Cleaning and Prepping Furniture for Chalk Painting

You Can Combine Different Shades Easily

If you’re looking to be a little artsy, you can blend two or more chalk paint shades to come up with variations and interesting looks. You don’t have to worry about the colors combining to form something completely different either.

You’ll Need Wax

Chalk paint is durable when dry but will easily chip or scratch if you don’t protect it with a seal. Clear wax is typically the go-to option for most people, but you can also use dark wax for effect.

Distressing is Easy

Do you want to give your furniture a time-worn appearance? Chalk paint is the best way to achieve it. Distressing it is easy, and you can do it before or after sealing the paint with wax. Some people distress by lightly sanding the edges and other similar parts of the furniture. Still, you can also achieve the same result with a paper towel or a wet rag.

Cleanup is Straightforward

Most DIY experts will agree that cleaning up after chalk painting is very easy compared to other paint options. Even when you mistakenly let your paintbrush dry while painting, all you need to get it back to life is soak it in water for a few minutes. Spills are also less scary as you’ll only need to spend a bit of time with some water and dishwashing soap.

Brush Marks Can Look Good

If you look around Pinterest and Instagram, you’ll find lots of chalk paint inspirations when the brush marks stand out but still look great. It’s a look you can definitely go for. However, if you don’t want the brush marks at all, we’ve covered tips to avoid them above already.

Chalk Paint Can be Costly

If you look around and compare prices, you’ll find that most chalk paint products are costlier than latex paints of the same size. This means that you can’t afford to make any mistakes in your paint selection. 

A Guide to Cleaning and Prepping Furniture for Chalk Painting

Take the time to scrutinize the options available to you, in line with the expectations you’re going for, so you won’t feel like you’ve wasted money at the end of your painting. Of course, you can also land bargains by shopping for your paint on promo weeks on the online stores that stock them.

FAQs

Which Chalk Paint is the Best for Furniture?

Over the last few years, many paint brands have come to the market with their unique take on chalk paint. They are all good in their own right, but most people choose Annie Sloan, the first chalk paint registered. However, the prices aren’t always pocket-friendly, so people look at alternatives like Retique It by Renaissance, Rust-Oleum Chalked Ultra-Matte, and more. 

Retique It Chalk Furniture Paint by Renaissance DIY, 32 oz (Quart), 32 Fl Oz, White
  • GREAT RESULTS - Superior coverage, usually 1 to 2 coats with Amazing adhesion to a wide variety of surfaces; little-to-no prep work required (just clean first)
  • FURNITURE, CABINETS & MORE- Formulated specifically for furniture, cabinets & home decor; can be used for craft and art projects as well
  • INTERIOR / EXTERIOR- Works great for interior and exterior projects alike. For exterior projects, simply use a marine finish topcoat like our Polytique It before applying the clear wax

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So which one should you go for? It’s hard to say. Most of the products in the market are good. Your option will be influenced by factors such as pricing and the availability of your preferred color options.

Why is it a Good Idea to Use Chalk Paint on Furniture?

As we’ve covered above, chalk paint doesn’t always demand elaborate prepping, and it’s easy to clean. It’s also easy to distress and deploy in a wide range of décor styles. You also don’t have to worry about toxicity as it is water-based.

 Chalk paint is also fairly thick, which means that a single can of it can go a long way on a project. It’s an excellent option to use when you want to bring a piece of furniture to life or when you want to spice it up for flipping later on.

Does Chalk Paint Contain Harmful Chemicals or Odors? 

Chalk paint is water-based, so it’s nontoxic and contains very little or no odors. There’s also a tiny quantity of volatile organic compounds in it.

Are There Special Paint Brushes for Chalk Paint?

There are no specific paintbrushes for chalk paint (even though Annie Sloan and other brands might have these). Any high-quality paintbrush can do the job. It would be best if you considered options like this Purdy 140853100 XL Brush Pack. If you use cheap or low-quality options, the bristles will disintegrate while you’re still painting—which can be very frustrating. In worst-case scenarios, the bristles will dry into the surface of your furniture with the paint.

Purdy 140853100 XL Brush 3 Pack
  • -3 piece value pack, includes 1 inch XL Dale, 1-1/2 inch XL Glide & 2 inch XL Sprig
  • -Purdy's XL is the most versatile brush series,
  • -Designed for use with all paints and stains.

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Should You Thin Out Chalk Paint?

This product is known for being generally thick, so you’ll almost always have to thin it out with some water. You can add a cup of water to the full paint can for fixed consistency or scoop out some paint to a separate container and add water to get a specific consistency level. 

The amount of water to use will come down to the level of consistency you’re looking to achieve. Thinning out the paint also makes it easier to brush on to the furniture surface, and you’ll have a smoother finish overall.

How Many Coats of Chalk Paint is Ideal?

There is no fixed number of coats, but most people agree that a single coat is never enough when painting furniture. Ideally, you should aim for two coats. Some furniture surfaces may, however, demand up to three coats.

Pay attention to the look of each coat to decide if you need to add another. Don’t forget to allow sufficient dry time between each coat. Most chalk paints will dry under an hour, so taking an hour break between coats is a great idea.

Is it Compulsory to Use Wax to Seal the Furniture Surface?

While the wax is the go-to option for sealing chalk paint, many DIY enthusiasts use other options, and you can go as well. Poly, for example, is more durable than wax. There’s also the fact that the wax seal isn’t permanent. You have to repeat the process every few months. Water-based poly, such as the General Finishes High Performance, can save you from the hassle. It delivers a flat finish that most people end up loving.

General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat, 1 Quart, Flat
  • Do not apply clear topcoats over bright white paint, as yellowing may occur due to a reaction to the substrate. Light color paints may also experience yellowing due to topcoat application, but it will less noticeable.
  • The hardest, most durable consumer polyurethane top coat on the market today
  • Dry Time Between Coats is only 1 to 2 Hours

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If you choose to go with a poly seal on chalk paint, always ensure you’re choosing a water-based solution. Oil-based options tend to develop yellowing after a while, and it’s a lot easier to clean up the water-based poly in the event of a spill. So, while there’s nothing wrong with using wax, you should know that there are other options you can use as your sealant.

Can You Leave Chalk Paint Unsealed?

Some chalk paint brands advertise their products as not needing any sealant, but that’s just innovative marketing. Of course, the paint will look great for a few weeks, but it won’t take long before you start to see the paint picking up stains and scratches. The general constitution of chalk paint is such that it is very porous, and thus, using it without sealing will be ill-advised.

Conclusion

Prepping furniture for chalk paint will come down to what you want to achieve and the state of the piece(s) of furniture. One key takeaway you should keep in mind is that the “no-prep” mantra often associated with chalk paints isn’t always true. If you want a smooth, clear result where the wood won’t bleed out into the paint very quickly, you have to sand and prime the furniture before painting.

Still, chalk paints are fantastic products you’ll love on furniture. With a bit of work, you’ll have a finished piece that can stand next to the colorful samples you find across social media and beyond!

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