Paint Like a Pro

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This article is from Issue 87 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A simple strategy for a showroom-quality finish.

Having worked as a professional finisher who has relied on the creative use of color for several decades, I’m surprised by the number of woodworkers that I meet who treat “paint” as if it was a dirty word. The truth is, the right combination of colors can be used to either make a piece stand out as a scene-stealing showpiece, or blend in to an established décor.

Paint does more than simply look good. Practically speaking, “paint grade” building materials—such as poplar, pine, birch plywood and medium density fiberboard (MDF)—cost significantly less than furniture-grade hardwoods. Paint even enables builders to combine dissimilar materials. Hidden under a thin colored skin, these different materials blend together, redirecting attention to the piece’s shape and overall proportions.

From bare to beautiful. The finishing strategy for this bookcase included two paint colors, stain, and a clear top coat. To see other color combinations, go to:

A piece of this size can be finished in a weekend, but bear in mind that there’s a bit more to the process than beating it with a brush. On the next few pages, I’ll show my approach for prepping, followed by my sequence for applying paint and stain. Finally, I’ll tie it all together under a tinted clear coat.

Prep makes perfect

Surface preparation is important, but many folks spend more time sanding than they should. For a project this size, this step shouldn’t require more than a few hours. (If you’re planning to finish this piece over a weekend, do your prep work in the morning. The piece should be ready for its first coat of paint and stain later that afternoon.)

To start, round up your gear, and then give the piece a quick inspection. Take care of the defects that paint won’t hide first. These include glue drips, surface irregularities, knots, and large cracks. (Although I prefer water-based putty because it’s easy to sand and dries more quickly than solvent-based filler, for major defects, you can use epoxy or auto-body filler.) Next, fill the smaller cracks and nail holes as shown.

Give the filler time to dry, then scuff-sand the entire piece. One grit is all it takes. 150-grit sandpaper levels high spots and creates enough “tooth” for the paint to hold on to. The bare wood surfaces should only need a light touch. Give the pre-primed materials a quick hit, too. (I discovered that some factory-applied primers are too slick for the paint to stick.) After using a power sander, hand-sand the spots that the machine might have missed. Finally, clean off your project. A brush and blow gun can get the job done, but a vacuum and tack cloth are far less likely to create a cloud of dust.

Give your defects the finger. For filling nail holes and small cracks, my go-to tool is my index finger. This method is a little messier, but it offers more control than a knife, and is easier on the wood. Putty knives are handy for other chores, like scooping filler from the container and smoothing over larger holes.

Swipe more, sand less. Wiping away excess putty with a wet rag is quicker and easier than waiting for a glob to dry and then levelling the spot with a sander. Water-based putties shrink, but because they dry so quickly, you can spot a divot and add more putty on the first side after finishing the second.

Start with a quick spin. Power sanders speed though light sanding but can create a choking cloud of dust. An in-line vacuum helps clears the air and enables the abrasive to work more efficiently. Finish up by gently breaking sharp edges (inset).

A soft sponge hugs the curves. Sanding sponges conform to match convex and concave profiles. I find that sponges don’t cut as aggressively as sanding discs or sheets. To compensate, I select a slightly coarser grit.
This disc’s not done, yet.
Slightly worn sanding discs can be repurposed for use as a detail sanders. Pairing the disc with a paint stirring stick backer helps it get into narrow coves and tight crevices 


ape keeps your colors in control. Any brand-name painter’s tape will keep your paint within your lines. For a good bond, pull the putty knife along the tape, tilting the blade slightly and applying moderate pressure.

Work from the inside out. A 4" mini roller is great tool for painting flat surfaces, especially case interiors. I prefer using a sleeve made from 1⁄4" thick mohair or microfiber. Foam sleeves leave a smoother finish, but they don’t hold much paint.

Painting’s the easy part

I think that water-based finishes offer the easiest and safest path for small-shop woodworkers to achieve professional-looking results. Compared to solvent-based finishes, waterbornes dry faster, are easier to clean up, and won’t make your house smell like a chemical factory. Another plus: sticking with water-based finishes enables you to combine different paint colors, stains, and top coats without any worry about compatibility issues.

General Finishes Milk Paints are designed to work straight out of the can, whether you’re planning to use a roller, brush, or sprayer. (To keep this job moving, I used all three.) After applying the first coat, give the piece a few hours to dry (preferably, over night) before applying the second.

Waterbased finishes dry quickly, but don’t rush it. Your project can be moved out of the shop in a few hours, but give the finish a week before filling the shelves.

A bargain brush does the job. When painting large surfaces or trim work, a quality brush earns it’s keep. When simply stabbing paint into corners, I prefer using inexpensive chip brushes. Finish the corners with a roller to blend in brush marks.

Make a clean break. Painting the shelves isn’t difficult, but removing the tape can be tricky. For a clean edge, try to peel back tape when the paint’s still wet. If the paint starts to peel, cut the intersection with a utility knife.
Blend in the bumps. To erase drips or other minor imperfections, I use a 500 - 600-grit sanding sponge and a light touch.

Spraying makes it simple. The quickest and easiest way to get a smooth finish is with a high volume, low-pressure (HVLP) sprayer. Homeright’s SuperMax gun ($99), is a great way to take your finishing to the next level. Aside from the speed, the light sprayed-on coat allows the wood grain to show through in a way that I couldn’t achieve with a brush. When spraying the front, I used a cardboard shield to keep the paint out of the case (above).

Stand-out shelving. Staining the solid-wood edges is an easy way to adds interest to the case’s interior. Apply the stain with a foam brush, then wipe off the excess.

Use color to attract extra attention. A simple two-color treatment enhances the depth created by the built-up sides. Wipe the section with a rag to blend in brush marks.

Finishing a Finish

Applying a clear coat is an extra step, but the added protection and depth of color that it provides make it worth the effort. To add extra richness, I added a few tablespoons of stain to the finish (below). This simple subtle toner helped tie the project together.

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