March 22nd, 2012
Yesterday I opined that if I could get my newest creation painted by day’s end, the paint would be sufficiently cured to allow the tallboy dresser to travel from Star, Idaho to Pocatello, Idaho, in the back of my old Ford truck.
I’m proud to report: Mission Accomplished!
Before I get too far into this post, please accept my apology for the quality of the “after” dresser photos, especially in regards to color. I snapped them this morning with my cell phone. You’ll just have to trust me that this green really is an awesome color.
Back on topic…painting is not my favorite task. Back in the early 1990’s I put bread on the table as a professional painter. And by professional, I mean working as the number-one-lackey to a painting contractor. Painting day-in and day-out kind of soiled the whole process for me.
Thus, as a furniture repurposer, I’ve developed shortcuts and tricks to minimize the time it takes to paint something, and make the painting experience a little more palatable. I’m happy to share some of my secrets with you.
You’ll notice in the following quasi-tutorial at no time are you instructed to give your piece of furniture a wholesale sanding. Why? Because in all but the most extreme cases it’s an unnecessary waste of time! I promise the primer and paint you use will stick to an existing finish if it still relatively intact, not too glossy, and cleaned properly. And if the old finish is starting to flake away in small areas, that’s alright too, as the primer and subsequent coats of paint will encapsulate some of the flakiness and help hold things together. The faults in the original finish will transform into positive features and add to the patina of the overall piece.
The caveat, of course, is that as you join the various repurposed parts and pieces, some sanding may be required to make everything fit and transition nicely, but you don’t need to overdo it. If I’m painting a piece, I never sand with a grit finer than 120. Most of the time I stop with 100 grit, and sometimes even 80 grit.
At times in repurposed pieces, there may be unacceptable crevices were disjointed pieces were brought together. An easy way to deal with these gaps is by applying a clean coat of liquid trim, which is my pet name for latex calk. I’m a fan of DAP products, especially the least expensive ones.
So on to the process. Forget everything you’ve read about achieving a perfect paint job, and instead follow these four easy steps:
- Thoroughly clean the piece
- Correct major imperfections
- Apply two coats of quality primer
- Apply two coats of quality topcoat paint
Thoroughly Clean the Piece
A coat of primer paint will stick to dirt, food residue, bubble gum and the like, but the problem is, it won’t stick long. That’s why it’s important for you to clean the furniture before you start painting. The best quality cleaner I’ve come across also happens to be one of the cheapest: ammonia and warm water. Mix about one cup of ammonia to a half-gallon of warm water, and wipe every surface of the piece that will be painted with a damp, but not sopping wet, cloth. You may want to wear rubber gloves, as the ammonia is hard on bare skin.
This donor dresser featured some unidentifiable baked-on-hard crud on its sides. I cheated and removed with crud with 80 grit sand paper.
It’s usually a good idea to remove all of the hardware from your furniture, like knobs and hinges, before you clean it. Grime finds its way into the smallest crevasses. Store all of the parts and screws in a plastic ziplock bag, so they don’t get lost. Please, please, respect the hardware and remove it before painting. Paint encrusted hardware looks, well, crusty. The exception to this rule is wooden knobs; I paint them all the time.
Rinse your cleaning rag often, as garage sale and thrift store finds have a habit of being dirty. Allow the piece to dry before moving on to the next step.
As you can see in the “before” photo, this donor dresser came adorned with only two mismatched wooden knobs.
I added these to my hardware bin. If your hardware was previously painted, try soaking it in a stout ammonia bath for a few hours and scrubbing it with a kitchen brush, then slapping whoever sloshed paint all over it. If this treatment doesn’t work, you may have to soak the hardware in a chemical stripper or paint thinner, buy new or used hardware, or just live with the wantonly applied paint and call it a feature. I’ve been known to purposely apply paint to hardware, as in spray cans of paint, to change bright brass into black, or oil rubbed into antique brass.
Correct Major Imperfections
This step is optional, as it’s the imperfections in wood and finish that give repurposed pieces of furniture their character. However, if you feel you must fill in gouges, or putty errant screw holes, know that not all wood fillers are created equal.
I recommend that you never, ever use wood putties that do not fully harden. Typically, these are sold in stick form, or in small jars, and are waxy. They’re often called color putty. They may work fine when filling a small hole in a stained and clear coated piece of furniture, but you will probably regret using them on a piece you want to paint.
Instead, use the type of filler typically that’s commonly called wood dough. It’s a paintable and stainable sometimes-wood and sometimes-plastic, solvent based filler that hardens when exposed to air. Apply the bare minimum amount you need to fix the problem at hand. When filling most holes, wiping off the excess filler with your finger will yield satisfactory results. If there’s a shallow depression after filling the hole, don’t worry about it. It will virtually disappear after painting. In extreme cases, like for filling deep scratches, you may need to, aghast, sand the filled surface. If you must lower yourself to sanding, use 120 grit paper. It will cut away the excess filler quickly without scratching the piece too aggressively. Typically if the nail hole or gouge isn’t easily visible on the piece, I won’t even bother filling it.
For really big and nasty repairs, like filling in the mortise left after removing a chair rung, replacing a split-out piece of wood, or rebuilding a chipped-away detail, I use a product called Bondo.
Bondo is typically used for automotive collision repair, and it’s more difficult to use than wood dough, but it cures fast and can fill vast voids. If you’ve never smeared Bondo on a fender or quarter panel, don’t start out by smearing it on your furniture. Instead, start out by practicing with it.
It’s sold by weight in quart and gallon sized cans. A quart runs about $12, but a gallon can be had for less than $25. I buy Bondo by the gallon. Bondo might be the best damned wood filler ever made.
It’s a two part product, akin to a super thick epoxy resin, with grey colored and sticky filler, and a paste-like red catalyst. The catalyst comes in smaller and larger tubes, like toothpaste. The tube of catalyst that comes with each package is never enough to last for a full can of Bondo, but fortunately, you can buy extra catalyst separate. Do.
Directions on how to mix Bondo are printed on each can. You can adjust how quickly the product sets up by increasing, for a faster set, or decreasing the amount of catalyst. I usually mix the batches pretty hot, because I’m impatient and hate to wait for the filler to harden.
Timing is everything. If you let the Bondo totally cure before you try to shape it or sand it down, you’re screwed. It gets hard like, well, steel body panels on cars. Instead, as soon as it starts to feel solid, and still feels warm from the chemical reaction, use a sure-form rasp to get it close to its final shape and contour. Then, use 100 grit sandpaper to get it to its final contour or make it flush, and clean everything up with 120 grit sandpaper. Bondo clogs sure-form rasps and sandpaper quickly. While you can just pitch the clogged paper, it’s good practice to run a wire brush over the teeth on your rasp immediately after cutting Bondo with it, to remove the filler before it hardens. For once it hardens, you cannot remove it without considerable effort.
I was going to use some Bondo to fill in three exposed pocket holes on the back of this tallboy dresser’s crown, but I forgot. Instead, after it was primed, I covered the elongated holes with cut-down popsicle sticks, held in place by super glue.
Apply Two Coats of Quality Primer
This step is optional,Do not, under any circumstance, try to use oil based primer, or any oil based paint for that matter. It is messy, foul smelling, slow drying and necessitates the use of some pretty harsh solvents to clean up. Modern latex and acrylic based, i.e. water based primers and paints work exceptionally well, are durable, have more elasticity than their oil counterparts, don’t yellow or crack as they age, and clean up with water.
Usually, you should start painting at the highest point on your piece. However, if you need to turn the piece upside down to reach its legs or some other surface, then paint these first. It’s helpful to set pieces with legs atop wooden blocks prior to painting. That way you won’t paint the floor, or drop clothes won’t bunch up and stick to the freshly painted surfaces.
Also, when possible, paint with the grain of the wood, in long even strokes, and overlap your paint strokes to “keep a wet edge”. If the surface is totally smooth, devoid of tactile grain, then run your strokes parallel to the longest edge of the surface. Just as brevity is the soul of wit, practice economy when applying paint. Thick coats tend to drip, sag, crack, and in general look amateurish.
Work fast, and remember you don’t need to perfectly and flawlessly cover every square inch with your first coat. But do avoid drips and runs. A good way to do this is not bury your brush in paint up to its metal ferrule, the band that holds the bristles in place. Instead, dip only the first inch or so of the bristles in the paint.
Some advocate not painting out of the bucket the paint came in. I don’t. I think transferring paint between pales increases the odds of spillage, and wastes paint. With a distressed finish, the errant particles of dust that may make their way into your paint can are inconsequential. But do try to avoid wiping paint into the lip of the can, or at lease wipe the spilled paint from it. Here’s a tip: buy one of the inexpensive flexible plastic “spouts” that clip to the edge of a paint can, and use it to wipe away excess paint from the tip of your brush.
Or, do as I do and use a sprayer to paint your projects. Hum, a blog post about how to spray furniture could be interesting, don’t you think?
Wait for the first primer coat to dry before applying the second. It doesn’t have to be super dry, just dry enough.
Also, paint in a warm area. Cold temperatures retard paint’s ability to dry, and never let your paint freeze – it will separate and become clumpy. This applies to all coats and types of paint. If your paint is clumpy, it can be sort of resurrected with a good stirring and straining through a filter. Old nylons make pretty good paint filters.
I personally prefer to use the least expensive grades of water based primers manufactured by both Killz and Zinzer. In my opinion, both are good paints and work equally well. As a bonus, they’re relatively inexpensive. They run about twelve to fifteen dollars a gallon. Generally, I prefer to have my primer tinted grey.
Apply Two Coats of Quality Topcoat Paint
Apply the two topcoats as you did with the primer and undercoats, making sure you allow everything sufficient time to dry. By sufficient, I mean the second top coat can be applied as soon as the first top coat is no longer visibly wet.
Because I used a sprayer to paint this tallboy dresser, it only took me about an hour and a half to completely paint it, and that includes the dry-time between coats. It took me longer to clean the two paint guns I used than it did to actually paint the project!
I also accelerated the drying time of my paint by spraying relatively thin coats, and I heated my small shop to being nearly unbearably warm by building a really hot fire in my wood stove.
Last night, I started painting at about 8:00 pm, and finished and came back in the house before 9:30pm. By 6:00 am this morning I was back out in my shop, and put new knobs on two drawers. I’ll install the hardware on the rest of the drawers tonight.
Before putting the hardware back on your piece of furniture, or sliding drawers back into dressers, it’s important to let the painted finish cure for at least a dozen hours in a warm place. This will help ensure the finish achieves maximum durability.
Drawers on painted furniture can be a sticky proposition. If the piece of furniture has drawers, and you’ve painted them in entirety, they may stick to the runners on which they slide. If so, you can reduce the friction with a targeted application of bar soap. It’s a great lubricant for sticky drawers, inexpensive, and easy to apply to wooden slides and runners. Just about any soap will do, I’m presently waxing drawer slides in my shop with a bar of Coast.
I always paint drawers in their entirety, because if one only paints the front of a drawer, the line where paint ends and raw wood begins looks amateurish. But that’s just my opinion.
Part 1: Building a Repurposed Tallboy Dresser
Part 3: La Grenouille Verte Tallboy Dresser