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How to Paint Over Varnished Wood

Painting over varnished wood can breathe new life into tired, outdated furniture and wood features in your home. With the right preparation and painting techniques, you can transform the look of varnished wood surfaces without having to strip off the old varnish completely. This guide from Bob’s Painting Company will walk you through the process step-by-step.

Assessing the Varnished Surface

Before starting to paint, you need to assess the condition of the varnished surface. Here are some things to check:

Type of varnish. Is it polyurethane, lacquer, shellac or another type? Polyurethane is the most common for furniture. Knowing the type of varnish will help determine the best approach for prep and painting.

Age and condition. Make note of any damaged or peeling areas of the varnish coating. Old, degraded varnish will need more sanding and prep work.

Stain underneath. Is the wood just varnished or is there stain underneath? Stain can bleed through paint if not properly sealed.

Finish level. Does the varnished surface have a gloss, semi-gloss or matte/satin finish? Glossy surfaces require more sanding.

Wood type. Soft woods like pine are more porous than hardwoods like oak. The wood type affects the prep and priming process.

Cleaning and Light Sanding

Before painting, the surface needs to be cleaned and lightly sanded:

  • Wash the surface with a deglosser or mild detergent and water. Rinse and let dry fully.
  • Lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper to rough up the varnish coating. This helps the primer and paint adhere better.
  • Sand just enough to scuff up the glossy areas—don’t try to remove all of the varnish.
  • Vacuum up all sanding dust with a brush attachment.
  • Use a tack cloth to remove any remaining dust particles.

Sanding opens up the porous wood grain beneath the varnish so the paint can penetrate better. But be careful not to sand away too much of the varnish coating.

Priming the Surface

Priming is a crucial step for painting over varnish successfully:

  • Use an oil-based primer made for varnished surfaces. Oil-based primers work best to seal in wood tannins and previous finishes.
  • For stain blocking, a shellac-based primer is best at preventing bleed-through.
  • Apply two coats of primer, allowing proper dry time between coats.
  • Read the primer labels for correct application instructions. Most require at least 24 hours dry time before painting.
  • After the first primer coat dries, do a light sanding with 320 grit sandpaper. This will create a smooth surface for painting.

The primer creates a solid, uniform surface for the paint to adhere to. Proper priming prevents chipping or peeling of the new paint job.

Choosing the Right Paint

For painting over varnish, an oil-based enamel paint is the best choice:

  • Oil-based enamels bond well to previous finishes and hold up better than latex paints.
  • The enamel provides a hard, durable and washable painted finish.
  • For furniture, opt for a satin, semi-gloss or high gloss enamel sheen. These are more stain-resistant than flat finishes.
  • Make sure to choose a top-quality enamel paint from a reputable brand. Avoid cheap bargain paints.

If concerned about odor or cleanup, you can use a high quality latex enamel instead. Just make sure to prime thoroughly first.

Applying the Paint

Follow these tips for flawless paint application over varnish:

  • Read the paint manufacturer’s instructions for proper application tools and techniques.
  • Use a good quality bristle brush and a small foam roller if needed.
  • Apply in thin, even coats and maintain a wet edge to prevent lap marks and brush strokes.
  • Work methodically in small sections, following the wood grain pattern.
  • Allow proper dry time between coats (usually overnight). Lightly sand between coats with 320 grit sandpaper.
  • Apply at least 2-3 coats for best coverage and durability. More coats may be needed for darker colors.
  • Remove hardware, taping over hardware if necessary, for best results in painting.

Proper painting technique is key for a smooth painted finish over varnish. Rushing the job leads to drips, uneven coverage and other problems.

Maintaining the Painted Finish

Once fully cured, oil enamel paint provides a durable, washable surface:

  • Cure times vary by brand—check paint labels. Allow at least 2-4 weeks curing time before cleaning.
  • For cleaning, use a mild soap and water solution. Avoid harsh cleaners or abrasive scrubbing.
  • Apply paste wax or furniture polish to protect the finish from spills, scratches, etc.
  • Avoid placing hot plates or dishes directly on a painted surface. Use trivets or hot pads.
  • Touch up scratches or damaged areas promptly to prevent further deterioration.

With proper care, your painted varnish surface should hold up well for many years, saving you from extensive stripping or refinishing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of painting over varnished wood?

Painting over varnish allows you to change the color and style of wood pieces without removing the existing finish. It saves significant time and labor compared to stripping and staining the raw wood.

What kind of preparation is required before painting?

Proper prep is crucial. Clean the surface thoroughly, scuff sand to rough up the glossy varnish, and apply two coats of an oil-based primer made for painting over varnish.

What type of paint works best?

An oil-based enamel paint bonds best and provides the most durable finish. Latex enamels also work, but may require additional priming. Avoid standard wall paints—they won’t hold up on varnished wood.

How long does it take to fully cure?

Oil-based enamel paints take longer to cure, especially in cooler temperatures. Most won’t fully harden for 2-4 weeks. Don’t scrub or place hot items on the surface until fully cured.

How do I maintain the painted finish over time?

Allow paint to cure fully first. Then clean with mild soap and water. Waxing also protects the finish. Touch up worn areas promptly to prevent damage. Avoid abrasive cleaners.

Final Thoughts

With the right prep work and painting methods, virtually any varnished wood surface can be updated with a fresh coat of paint. Just remember to thoroughly clean, sand and prime the surface first, and use a high quality oil-based enamel paint. Maintain the finish by cleaning gently and touching up worn areas promptly. Follow these steps and your painted-over varnish should maintain its beautiful, durable finish for years to come.

Laura Kassovic

Laura Kassovic, a former engineer at Intel SOC, now dedicates her efforts to mentoring startups in the realms of Wearables and AI. As a co-founder of New Tech Brake, she spearheads a wireless sensing solution enterprise catering to diverse applications including product development, research, location tracking, and people monitoring, as well as asset and cargo supervision. The platform empowers developers to craft an array of innovations such as fitness trackers, temperature-monitored cargo systems, medical trial tools, smart running garments, or even straightforward transmission of unprocessed accelerometer data to cloud-based repositories.

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