DIY One-of-a-Kind Painted Furniture

If you’ve got a piece of furniture that has good bones or sentimental value, but doesn’t quite fit the rest of your décor or looks outdated, a coat of paint could be just what it needs.

Tom Flint operates Re-Imagine, a custom furniture painting and refinishing business, out of his home in Three Oaks, Mich. Flint says paint is one of the fastest and most affordable ways to give furniture a new look.

“We paint a lot of furniture that is from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Furniture was made better then—it was made from real wood, not veneer or particleboard,” Flint says. “A lot of people have this stuff in the garage or attic, they inherited it from grandma, and we can paint it and make it look current and it’s going to last for another 50 years.”


Everything from dining tables to kitchen cabinets can be reinvented with paint, but Flint advises DIYers to start with smaller pieces like nightstands or accent chairs.

Ragsdale saw potential for this dated chair when she spotted it at a Lake Forest rummage sale. After two coats of electric blue paint (and plenty of elbow grease to sand it down), an old chair becomes a playful accent piece.

Prep Before You Paint

Grace Ragsdale is the founder of GracieR Interior Styling, a furniture restyling business in Lake Bluff. She says the most important part of painting furniture is the prep work. Start by thoroughly washing the piece to remove what could be years’ worth of dirt and grime. Ragsdale recommends trisodium phosphate, a heavy-duty cleaning powder.

Next, sand the wood to remove old paint and finishes. For finer finishes, Ragsdale says to use high-grit sandpaper. She uses 1000-grit sandpaper for high-gloss finishes. Flint says if you skimp on sanding, it will show: “You have to sand to the point that it looks smooth because paint will highlight any flaws in the wood.”

Before you start painting, apply a primer. Ragsdale uses an oil-based shellac to prep her pieces. Flint uses regular paint primer and doesn’t recommend paint-and-primer combo products.

Flint says the same paint you’d use on walls can also be used on wooden furniture. He likes Benjamin Moore and Behr. Ragsdale recommends Sherwin-Williams’ line of metallic paints, which she says can be tinted any color. To achieve a sleek, high-gloss finish, Flint says to add a topcoat of lacquer or polyurethane. For a distressed “shabby chic” look, gently sand random spots in between coats of paint.


Treasure Hunting

If you don’t already have furniture you’d like to paint, there are plenty of places where you can find old pieces waiting for a little TLC. Ragsdale and Flint shared their favorite spots to scout hidden treasures:

Flint says one of the best places to find unique furniture to restore is at garage sales. Download an app like Garage Sale Finder to locate sales near you. Wherever you’re hunting, Flint offers this advice: “Have an idea of what it is you’re looking for because you will burn out in no time if you don’t know that you are looking, for example, for a small dresser or six dining chairs.”

Finishing School

If you’d prefer some professional training before diving into a furniture-painting project, check out classes at The Chicago Institute of Fine Finishes in Carol Stream. Owner Kathy Carroll says students who enroll in the two-day courses learn up to 10 finishing techniques like distressing and aging, color washing and staining. The $695 fee includes supplies and pieces of wood to practice techniques.

If DIY isn’t your style, you can hire pros to paint your furniture. Flint offers pick-up and delivery service to the Chicago area. His fees start at $150 for smaller pieces and go up to several thousand dollars for large projects like kitchen cabinet renovation. Ragsdale’s refinishing prices range from $250 for a chair to about $800 for a dining table. She also will source furniture and provide design consultations for $100 per hour, and sells finished pieces out of her Lake Bluff retail space. Turn The Tables in Northbrook will also transform your favorite pieces locally.


Ragsdale found this beat-up coffee table at a Lake Bluff garage sale. 


After cleaning and priming, she transformed it with a custom-mixed vintage green paint and a top made of salvage wine corks.