How to Paint Wood and Eliminate Brushstrokes
Painting wood is an easy way to update furniture, change the look of a feature of your home, or cover up wood flaws.
But painting wood takes more skill than you might think! It’s important to sand and prime wood before painting, even thought people like to skip these steps!
And getting a flawless finish free of brushstrokes takes skill (and knowing a few secrets!)
Note: This blog contains affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may receive compensation (at no additional cost to you.)
Purchasing Affordable Painting Supplies
Every blogger ever will tell you that nice painting supplies are essential to getting a high-quality finish. And they’re not wrong.
But that doesn’t mean you always have to shell out the big bucks for painting supplies. Just like every other craft supply, I’ve figured out some money-saving secrets, so you’re not stuck throwing down $12 for a single paintbrush.
Buying Paint Brushes and Rollers
Everyone says you need a high quality paintbrush for painting. And I’ll admit that I own three Purdy paintbrushes that are only used on very special projects.
But I’ve found other brands that are also quite nice. My very best secret is the Painter’s Collection paintbrushes at Menards. They run about $6 a paintbrush, but a few times a year Menards runs a rebate sale on them, and they’re free after rebate.
They’re really nice for a free paintbrush. I’ve never run them head-to-head in an experiment against Purdy, but frankly, I can’t tell the difference.
Unfortunately, that’s probably not an option for those of you who live outside of the Midwest (aka, far away from a Menards.)
So, my next recommendation is to check and see if there’s a Habitat for Humanity Restore near you. They often have a solid collection of paintbrushes, rollers and other miscellaneous painting supplies at a decent price.
This varies from store to store, but I have a habit of checking out Habitats when I’m traveling, and most of them tend to stock reasonably priced painting supplies.
Harbor Freight, a discount tool store, also sells painting supplies. Known for their poor quality, I’m not going to enthusiastically recommend them, and I wouldn’t buy a paintbrush there, but the quality of your paint tray is not going to make a major difference to your finish.
I typically buy paint trays and (what I consider) disposable mini foam rollers from Harbor Freight. I used to buy foam brushes there too, but Menards occasionally sells 24-packs of foam brushes for 99 cents after rebate, and that beats Harbor Freight.
When you go to the store, given you’re purchasing regular latex paint you’re going to need to provide a color and a sheen. Satin sheen is my go-to for smaller projects, but if you’re painting woodwork, you’ll probably want semi-gloss.
Given most of the wood I paint is for small furniture projects, I usually purchase samples. I try to stay on the lookout for unique color samples in the “oops” section whenever I’m in Home Depot. That way, I can stock up my inventory of colors at a reasonable price.
Then when I need a certain color, I try to mix what I already have together. Occasionally I’ll buy something new if there’s a good sale on samples and I want to expand my color inventory, but I’m a big fan of making do with what I already have.
I also want to briefly mention other types of paint. To be honest, I usually paint wood with latex paint. It’s cheap, accessible, and easy to use.
Some people swear by chalk paint, but I find it’s not worth the price. If you’re really opposed to sanding and want to use it for the “no-sanding” claim, you’re better off just getting a good primer.
I’ve found regular latex paint to be more durable anyway, so I really see no point in paying double (or triple!) the price for chalk paint, unless I’m going for a really unique “distressed” look that’s better done with chalk or milk paint.
When Wagner sent me a paint sprayer about a year ago, I honestly thought it was going to be a game changer for me.
It… wasn’t. I found that for most projects, it was more work to setup the sprayer, find a spray-friendly spot and/or mask the surrounding area, and clean the sprayer afterward than it was to just paint with a paintbrush or a foam roller.
The only time I break out the paint sprayer is if I’m working on a project that I really want to be brushstroke-free, and even then, most of the time I opt for a foam roller.
How to Prep Wood to Be Painted
People like to skip the prep step, but it’s actually really important! If you don’t prime your wood, tannins from the wood can seep through the paint, discoloring the finish and looking really strange.
And even small steps like caulking and adding wood filler can take a project from okay to professional. If you don’t believe me, here’s a picture of some baseboard without caulk:
(For the record, I do plan to caulk this. I’m just still working on the basement, and haven’t gotten around to this section yet!)
And with caulk:
Adding caulk clearly makes the wood look more professional. Even on smaller projects, caulk can make a huge difference!
Step 1: Wood Fill Any Cracks, Gouges or Knots
Wood filler doesn’t stain well, so I rarely recommend using it if you’re staining wood. But if you’re painting, it’s a great way to fix any flaws.
Squeeze a little wood filler onto your finger, and pack it into any cracks, gouges or holes.
Wood filler shrinks when it dries, so add more wood filler than you need. You’ll sand away the excess in the next step.
Step 2: Sand
I know. You hate sanding. And to be honest, if you’re using the right primer (which I’ll talk about in a few steps,) you can probably skip sanding.
But if you have a good orbital sander, it’s really a painless process that makes your wood just a little bit smoother, and your finish just a bit higher quality.
I have this orbital sander, and it’s the VIP of my shop. It’s efficient, easy to use, and relatively affordable. I don’t consider sanding a big deal, but that’s because I own a good sander.
Step 3: Caulk Any Gaps
Caulk goes a long way to making a project look professional, and it’s actually pretty easy to use.
Grab some cold water and paper towels. Squeeze a line of caulk into the gap. Then dip your finger in the water, and smooth the caulk with your finger. Wipe any excess caulk on the paper towels.
As long as you’re using water-soluble caulk (normal latex caulk,) it’s easy as pie!
Step 4: Clean the Wood
After sanding, caulking, and wood-filling, there’s likely to be dust and debris on your wood. This is not something you want stuck your paint.
Therefore, you should clean the wood before you apply any paint or primer. I often use my shop vac to do this, and suck any sawdust and debris off the piece.
You can also take a damp cloth, and rub the wood down, although give the wood 30 or so minutes to dry after you do this.
Step 5: Tape Up Any Spaces You Don’t Want to Paint
If you’ve ever painted anything before, you know you need to cover anything you don’t plan to paint with painters tape.
But I’ve got an extra tip for you – if you want extra clean lines, grab some mod podge. Paint the seam between the tape and the wood with clear mod podge.
This will seal the tape and prevent any paint from seeping underneath it.
Step 6: Prime
I know you want to skip this step. Don’t.
A good primer is magic. With a good primer, you don’t have to sand for adhesion reasons, you don’t have to worry about tannins seeping through the paint, and you can save money on paint.
Yes, you can save money on paint. If you’re painting with a white paint, and you prime before hand, you can often eliminate a coat of paint. Primer is significantly cheaper than paint, so win!
My favorite primer is Zinsser’s Oil-Based Bonding Primer. It’s my go-to primer for pretty much all my projects.
I also keep Zinsser’s 123 primer on hand, simply because it’s water-based and is easier to use in paint sprayers, but I honestly don’t use it anywhere near as much.
Zinsser’s Shellac-Based Primer is great for heavy-duty situations, but it’s pretty pricy, which is why it’s not my go-to choice.
You don’t typically need a ton of primer – one coat is usually enough! If I’m using the oil-based primer, I try to apply with a disposable brush or roller so I don’t have to worry about cleaning it afterward.
I should also mention that you don’t need to sand after applying primer. Sometimes I do anyway if I think there are really visible brushstrokes that will show through the paint, but most of the time it’s unnecessary.
How to Paint Wood
Once your wood is sanded and primed, you’re ready to actually paint!
Step 1: Load the Paint Brush or Roller With Paint
If you’re using a paintbrush, you should only have paint on the lower third of your brush. Adding too much paint makes the brush difficult to clean and results in a less even coat. You’re aiming for a thin, smooth coat, which both looks better and adheres better.
Once you’ve dipped your paintbrush in the paint, wipe the side of the brush against the bin. This will help remove excess paint so that you don’t get too much on your piece.
If you’re using a roller, roll the roller into the paint, then onto the slanted part of the tray. Roll the roller back and forth a few times until the paint is evenly distributed on the roller.
Step 2: Spread the Paint on the Wood
Take your paintbrush, and brush the paint onto the wood. Working in short strokes from the top of the piece down helps eliminate brush strokes and drips.
Work quickly; paint is self-leveling, meaning the brushstrokes should flatten out as the paint dries. If you’re ending up with brushstrokes, it’s because the paint dried before the it had a chance to level.
Because of the this, once you’ve applied the paint, move on. Continuing the brush the same area, or going back for spot you missed adds brushstrokes to partially dried paint, meaning that they probably won’t have a chance to level out before drying.
If you’re using a roller, the same rule applies, but for a different reason. When paint dries, it creates a sheen. When you go over partially dried paint, a different sheen appears over the new paint.
This is why when you touch up a wall, the new color never seems to match the old color perfectly. There’s not much you can do about it there, but if you’re painting wood for the first time, you can avoid the issue by working quickly and keeping a wet edge.
Step 3: Allow the Paint to Dry
Most latex paints require about two hours of dry time between coats. Follow this – you don’t want to have adhesion or drying problems because you were impatient.
If after two hours, the paint still seems a little sticky, let it dry for another hour or two. Despite the two hour recommendation, dry times often depend on the weather conditions. A humid day often means a longer dry time.
Step 4: Sand
For a long time, I didn’t understand this step. What was the point of sanding? Didn’t I just put paint on the piece? Why would I want to remove it?
The purpose of sanding between coats is to eliminate any brushstrokes from the first coat. The key to doing this and not removing your fresh paint is to use a high grit sandpaper.
I usually go for 400 grit or higher with my orbital sander. I am very careful around edges to avoid sanding off too much paint. If you have a variable speed orbital sander, now is the time to put it on a lower speed.
I have a fixed speed orbital sander, and it gets the job done, but if you have a variable speed sander, it can help reduce the possibility of sanding through the paint.
Step 5: Clean Piece
Once again, when you sanded the paint, you created dust. Dust and paint don’t go well together, so you want to be sure you’ve removed all the dust from your piece before you put on the next coat of paint.
A shop vac or damp cloth is great for this!
Step 6: Reapply Paint
Finally, you can put on your next coat of paint. The same rules apply: work quickly, keep your paintbrush lightly loaded with paint, and use light strokes.
Often times, two coats of paint is plenty, especially if you used a tinted primer. Otherwise, repeat steps three through six for a third (or fourth or fifth) coat.
Finishing Painted Wood
One of the most common questions I hear is “do I need to put a topcoat/finish over my paint?”
You probably don’t need a topcoat on your painted wood. Paint is actually a really durable finish, so unless you’re painting a piece that’s going to see a lot of action (a desk, a kitchen tabletop, a kid’s toy,) you’re probably fine with paint alone.
But if you are painting something that needs the extra protection, or are painting an outdoor piece with something other than exterior paint, lets talk.
If you’ve used latex paint, you have pretty much one choice of finish: water-based polyurethane. Oil-based finishes yellow, and that will distort your color.
If you used chalk paint, then the chalk paint manufacturer probably recommended a wax topcoat. This baffles me, to be honest, because wax is not known as a durable finish, but somehow it has a reputation for being durable on top of chalk paint.
I don’t feel that chalk paint should change the durability of a finish on top of it, but what do I know?
Either way, unless you’re using chalk paint, water-based polyurethane is the way to go.
You should sand your piece with 400+ grit sandpaper, and vacuum any dust away afterward. Then apply the polyurethane with a foam brush. The secret to water-based polyurethane is to keep the coats as thin as possible – thick coats really struggle to dry.
For more information on applying water-based polyurethane, check out this post!
Painting Previously Finished Wood
As I’m sure you’ve realized, painting a wood piece is a quick and easy way to update it! But if you’re painting wood that’s been finished before, there’s some special consideration you should take during the preparation steps.
Painting Previously Painted Wood
First off, you’ll want to note the condition of the old paint. Is it well-adhered to the wood, or is it chipping off?
Well-adered paint can simply be painted over. I recommend either sanding first or applying a coat of primer to help with adhesion, but a super thorough sanding job isn’t necessary.
On the other hand, if the paint is chipping off, that’s a problem. You can paint over it, but in a few months/years those chips are going to detach from the wood, and cause issues with your paint job.
Because of this, you’ll need to remove any chipping paint before adding another coat. This is best accomplished by sanding. I recommend a low grit sandpaper (like 60-80,) which will help remove the chips faster than a higher grit sandpaper.
Once you’ve removed as many chips as possible with the sandpaper, put a layer of good bonding primer on the piece before painting.
Painting Topcoated Wood
If your piece has a clear topcoat on it, good news! That’s pretty easy to deal with. You’ll need a layer of good bonding primer in order for the paint to adhere to the glossy layer, but I recommend that for bare wood too, so there’s really not much difference.
This applies for when you’re painting faux-wood pieces too. Laminate, particleboard, and veneer can all be painted over simply by applying a layer of bonding primer first.
I’ve tried to address the best ways to get a flawless finish when painting wood throughout the piece, but there are a couple more tips that I wasn’t able to fit in, so I thought I’d address them here.
First off, as I discussed above, brushstrokes happen when the paint dries before it has a chance to self-level. If you can extend the dry time of the paint, you can increase the amount of leveling time, and therefore reduce brushstrokes.
Paint conditioner sounds like a gimmick product paint manufacturers created to scam you and make more money, but I swear it isn’t. The primary purpose of it is to extend the dry time of your paint, and therefore reduce brushstrokes.
I like Floetrol, which works on both latex and acrylic paints. It’s recommend you add about 8 ounces per gallon of paint. Note that the whole purpose of this stuff is to increase dry time, so the downside of using this product that you’ll probably have to wait significantly longer between coats.
But no brushstrokes, so tradeoff!
Secondly, paintbrushes do make a difference. I mentioned my go-to free after rebate paintbrushes above, which is what I use for most of my projects.
But I do own three Purdy paintbrushes of varying sizes, which is what I break out when I’m really worried about brushstrokes. I’m not actually convinced they make a big difference, but everyone else on the internet is, so I thought I’d mention it.
Finally, technique matters. If you’re putting a lot of pressure on your paintbrush as you stroke, it’s going to lead to deeper marks that take longer to level (and are therefore less likely to level before the paint dries.)
Light, thin strokes are the way to go in order to reduce brushstrokes.
Finally, the most foolproof way to avoid brushstrokes is to not use a paintbrush. Paint sprayers can be a big hassle, but they also produce a flawless finish that’s difficult to beat.
This is even more gorgeous if you combine a paint sprayer with the Floetrol paint conditioner I mentioned above, which thins the paint for better spraying, and increases dry time to improve self-leveling and achieve a smoother finish.