Finding the best paint for furniture goes beyond knowing the major brand names. Different types of paint adhere variously to certain surfaces, such as unfinished wood or non-porous surfaces, and some paints last longer or wear more elegantly than others. Specific paints also are better for achieving certain looks, whether the desired style is antique, shabby-chic, or bright and modern. In addition, each type of paint requires different prepping, and some work more effectively in paint sprayers than others.
To choose the best paint for your furniture, check out our guide below to the four major paint types—latex, enamel, chalk, and milk—which will tell you what each paint type is made of, the types of surfaces it works well with, the types of furniture that it can be used with, and the details on how much prepping is involved. Our guide also covers tips on using various paints with a paint sprayer, so you can find all the information you need to start your next DIY project. If you’re also looking to buy the best paint sprayer for furniture, check out our other reviews of the best handheld paint sprayers!
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Best Paint for Furniture
Latex paints are water-based paints, and they are probably the most versatile paints for furniture, in addition to being the most affordable. Latex paints are applicable to any type of surface material, from unfinished wood to galvanized metals. They are ideal for furniture like bookshelves, nightstands, armoires, dressers, and other pieces that won’t be subject to a lot of wear-and-tear.
Latex paints are popular with DIY folks and homeowners for many reasons, including that they are available in a variety of colors and sheens, dry quickly, have very little odor, and the water-base makes for easier clean-up. They are also easy to use with paint sprayers since they can be thinned using water.
Latex paints have excellent elasticity, making them preferable for application on porous surfaces (such as wood) since they won’t become brittle and crack.
There are a few downsides to using latex paint. Latex paints do not adhere easily to unfinished wood surfaces, and they also cannot be applied over oil-based painted surfaces or else the latex paint will flake and peel off in a matter of days. In both cases, the surface to be painted should be sanded and primed before applying the latex paint. Also, because latex paints are thinner and dry quickly, it’s easier to see imperfections (like brush strokes) in the painted surface.
Compared to other types of paint, latex paints are not as durable, lasting around 2-5 years, although some top-quality exterior latex paints are more durable and resistant to chalking and fading. Durability also depends on the sheen, and glossier sheens tend to be more durable. Exterior latex paints are better able to withstand wear-and-tear compared to interior latex paints, so they are better for furniture that is going to be handled more frequently.
Available in a variety of sheens (flat, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, gloss)
Just add water to thin paint (for paint sprayers)
Elastic—great for porous surfaces
Quick drying time (1-6 hrs)
Resistant to chalking and/or fading
Easy clean-up with water
Better mildew resistance
Not as durable as oil-based paints
Cannot be applied over oil-based paints
Vulnerable to showing flaws in the painted surface
Best Ways to Apply Latex Paint to Furniture
- For treated wood or previously painted surfaces: sand the surface! Sanding helps to eliminate any inconsistencies in texture and provides a smooth surface for painting.
- For untreated wood and/or wood that has been sanded, prime the area. Make sure to use a water-based primer to prep for the latex paint. Primer helps create a smooth surface, allows the latex paint to bond to the surface, and also provides a uniform color that prevents discoloration in the latex paint.
- Since latex paints are thinner and show imperfections in the painted surface, it is probably best to use a paint sprayer with latex paint to achieve a smooth finish.
- Once the initial layer is dry, add a topcoat of the latex paint to create a more saturated look and improve durability.
Enamel paints are oil-based, which makes them more durable and less susceptible to showing flaws in the painted surface. Compared to latex paints, enamel paints have a much better ability to withstand extensive wear and tear, so they are well-suited for furniture like chairs, headboards, media centers, coffee tables, tables, and other areas that will be used regularly.
The durability of enamel paints is better than latex paints, with enamel paints lasting as much as 10-15 years. Because they are oil-based, enamel paints are thicker and can cover up imperfections in the painted surface, making them ideal for doing touch-ups of chipped areas or for concealing and painting over cracks in surfaces.
They can paint over and adhere to surfaces of any type, latex or enamel based, which makes them ideal for touching up furniture that has been previously painted with an unknown paint. Enamel paints also give a hard finish without showing any signs of brush strokes, and they can be applied without primer.
There are some drawbacks to enamel paint. For one, unlike latex paints, enamel is less elastic, so it isn’t the best choice for wood furniture since any wood surface flexes with changes in humidity. Enamels are also subject to yellowing, so they don’t always retain the same vibrancy and color as the original coating. Painting with enamels can also be more of a headache since they give off strong fumes. In addition, the color selection for enamel paints tends to be more limited than latex paints.
Compared to latex paints, using enamel paints can sometimes require more supplies. For use in paint sprayers, enamel paints must be thinned down with mineral spirits. Clean-up is also more of a hassle since it requires turpentine, paint thinner or some other solvent.
Durable (10-15 years)
Flat, even finish
Conceals imperfections in painted surface
Can be applied over oil and latex paints
No top coat needed in some cases
Better resistance to scratches and wear
Limited color and sheen selection
Long drying time (8-24 hrs)
Strong odor and toxic fumes
Best Ways to Apply Enamel Paints to Furniture
- For touch-ups: sand the surface! Although enamel paints are great for concealing flaws in the painted surface, sanding helps to smooth out those imperfections, whether from layers of old paint, chips, or cracks.
- Although you don’t technically need to prime with enamels, priming creates an evenly colored surface that prevents discoloration in the finished product. If you use a primer, make sure the primer is an oil-based stain blocking primer.
- Depending on the surface you’re painting, you can use a paint sprayer or a simple brush to do the job since enamels dry with a hard finish that is great for concealing inconsistencies in the paint. Of course, for larger surfaces, paint sprayers are more convenient and are a better guarantee of producing a smooth, finished surface. If you decide to go with a paint sprayer, make sure to use mineral spirits to thin the paint.
- No topcoat is needed for enamel paints! As the paint is drying, inspect the painted surface to look for any areas that might need touch-ups. Enamels dry slowly and to a flat and even finish, so it is possible to go back and carefully touch up any areas without messing up the rest of the painted area.
Chalk paint is a specific type of water-based paint that was invented 25 years ago by Annie Sloan although now various other companies offer products that have the same finish as chalk paint. Chalk paints are known for producing a soft, matte finish that is silky to the touch.
Chalk paints are great if you want to revive a piece of old furniture while still maintaining its aged beauty, or conversely if you want to give a piece of furniture an aged, distressed look. The matte finish is ideal for achieving a shabby-chic look, while also being great for creating an ultra-flat finish with no shine or gloss.
In addition, chalk paints adhere well to many surfaces, including glossy finishes, so it isn’t always necessary to sand and prime the area before painting. Chalk paints are extremely fast-drying.
The main disadvantage to using chalk paint is that because it dries so quickly while also being water-based, the chalk paint is highly susceptible to showing brush strokes. Chalk paint is also thick, so it absolutely must be thinned before using it in a paint sprayer.
Silky matte finish
Minimal prep work
Quick drying time
Easy to distress to create a chic, aged look
Shows brush strokes
More costly than standard latex paints
Best Ways to Apply Chalk Paint to Furniture
- Chalk paints don’t require sanding or priming, but both are recommended to produce an even and consistently colored surface.
- If you use a paint sprayer, it’s best to dilute the chalk paint with about 5-10% water. Some people profess to using the chalk paint without thinning it, but that might clog up the sprayer depending on the paint sprayer you have.
- To achieve the distressed look, apply two coats of the chalk paint and wait for it to dry. If you notice any areas that need to be touched up, don’t touch it until it’s dry! Chalk paint is so thick and dries so quickly that it will show any signs of repainting.
- Once the paint is dried, use either a wet rag or fine-grit sandpaper and gently rub the areas of the furniture that would normally show signs of wear and aging, such as corners, edges or large surface areas that people often press on (such as cabinet doors).
Milk paints are ideal for people looking for environmentally friendly paints because they are non-toxic, water-based paints made from milk protein, lime, and pigments for color. Milk paints have been around for centuries, which is fitting because they are most popular for creating an authentic, aged look for refurbished antiques.
Milk paint typically comes as a powder that is then mixed with water to create the paint itself. As eco-friendly paints, they lack VOCs and other chemicals typically found in most paints. For unfinished wooden surfaces, milk paints can penetrate the pores of the wood to accentuate and create beautiful colors in the wood grain.
The thinness of milk paint allows it to achieve a chipped look that is like the effect that one would normally find on any antique furniture. For non-porous surfaces, milk paint can still be applied if mixed with a bonding agent.
The setback to using milk paint is that it can and will chip, even after applying multiple coats, so for people who dislike the chipped look, milk paint is not the best and most durable option. Bonding agents can be added to improve durability, but even these are not failsafe solutions, and bonding agents should not be used in a paint sprayer.
Eco-friendly with natural ingredients like milk and lime
No VOCs or chemicals
Finish over time yields an antique, chipped look
Penetrates unfinished wood grain
Minimal prepping required
Durability is unpredictable even with a bonding agent
Cannot be stored—the milk in the paint can go sour, so once you mix it, use it!
Best Ways to Apply Milk Paint to Furniture
- Prep the area to be painted by sanding to create a smooth surface.
- For unfinished wood, don’t do anything except apply the milk paint. This will allow the paint to adhere and seep into the wood grain.
- If you intend to paint the furniture with a brush, then for finished wood or other surfaces, mix in a bonding agent with the milk paint to improve its adhesion and protect against excessive chipping.
- If you prefer to use a paint sprayer, do NOT mix in bonding agent, as this will clog the sprayer. While using the paint sprayer, make sure to stir frequently to make sure the milk powder stays mixed in. It can also be helpful to occasionally clean the nozzle to clear out sediment from the milk paint.
- Apply as many coats of milk paint as needed for the desired effect. Milk paint is thinner than most other paints so it requires more coats to attain a rich, saturated color.
Buy the Best Paint Sprayer for Furniture
Once you’ve determined the best paint for your furniture, make sure that the paint sprayer you own is up to the task. If not, check out our reviews and guides to help you buy the best paint sprayer for your furniture!