How to Achieve Smooth Results When Painting Wood

Priming the wood

Claire Cohen 

Overview
  • Working Time: 3 hrs
  • Total Time: 10 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Painting wood appears to be such an elemental, foolproof project that many people rush the job along or attempt shortcuts that produce poor results. Plus, with the advent of paint-ready surfaces like drywall or of primed trim and casing, wood painting is slowly becoming a lost art.

Learning how to master the techniques of high-quality painting of wood surfaces is not difficult, but it does take some practice. Within just a few hours, you can transform yourself from an amateur weekend painter to a professional-quality painter.

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Watch Now: How to Paint Wood Smoothly

Always use a dust mask when sanding. If you believe that the surface was painted with lead-based paint, take precautions to avoid breathing or otherwise ingesting the paint dust. Hearing protection is essential when operating the oscillating sander.

how to paint wood
Claire Cohen 
supplies needed to paint wood
Claire Cohen  

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Plastic sheeting
  • Canvas drop cloth
  • Eye and hearing protection
  • Rubber gloves
  • Bucket
  • Clean cloths
  • Random orbital sander
  • Shop vacuum
  • 2 1/2-inch paintbrush
  • Roller assembly with a high-density foam cover
  • Paint tray and liner

Materials

  • TSP (tri-sodium phosphate)
  • 180-grit and 220-grit sandpaper
  • Tack cloth
  • Primer
  • Interior acrylic-latex paint
  • Paint additive such as Penetrol or Floetrol (optional)

Instructions

  1. Cover Your Work Surface

    Drape plastic sheeting over the floor or other work surface to protect it from paint spills. Lay a canvas drop cloth or contractor's paper over the plastic sheeting. The plastic keeps the paint from soaking through to the floor, while the canvas provides a non-slip surface and helps to contain paint spills.

  2. Clean the Wood Surfaces

    Put on eye protection and rubber gloves. Mix a solution of TSP with warm water to the proportions recommended by the manufacturer. Dip a cloth in the water, firmly squeeze it dry, then wipe down the wood to remove all oils, dirt, and grime. Rinse the area with clean, warm water and a clean cloth. Let the wood dry completely.

    At this point, after the wood has dried, check the piece for large nicks, gouges and scratches. If necessary, fill them with a wood filler using a flexible putty knife.

    TSP is a strong cleaner, degreaser, and deglosser that has long been used for cleaning surfaces in preparation for painting. If you would like to avoid using phosphates (which are banned in many communities), use a TSP substitute instead.

    how to clean wood with TSP
     Claire Cohen 
  3. Sand the Flat Areas

    Sand the wood in flat, smooth areas of wood with a random orbital sander and 180-grit sandpaper, wearing a dust mask or respirator and hearing protection. The intent is not to strip the wood of all of the coatings and stains but simply to smooth out the surface and provide some "tooth," or slight scratches, to help the paint bond.

    sanding the wood with a random orbital sander
     Claire Cohen 
  4. Sand the Corners and Details

    If you are sanding furniture and other pieces that have uneven surfaces, switch to hand-sanding so that the sandpaper can better conform to the shape of the piece.

    hand sanding wood
    Claire Cohen  
  5. Clean Off the Dust

    Thoroughly remove the sanding dust from all surfaces. Begin with a shop vacuum outfitted with a brush attachment. Do not use a blower, as this will only redistribute the dust back on the surface. Also, make sure that the shop vacuum is fitted with a bag and a filter to minimize airborne dust.

    After you have removed a majority of the dust with the shop vacuum, use a tack cloth or a cotton rag that has been dipped in water and thoroughly squeezed out to remove the remainder of the dust.

    sanded wood desk
     Claire Cohen 
  6. Prime the Wood

    Mix the primer well and apply it with a brush or roller. After drying, if the primer looks transparent on the wood, prime a second time. The primer will have a chalky feel and appearance but this will be smoothed over by the paint.

    priming the wood
    Claire Cohen 
  7. Apply Primer With a Roller (optional)

    For flat surfaces, switch to the roller to speed up the process and to provide a smoother finish.

    priming the wood with a roller
     Claire Cohen 
    prime wood
     Claire Cohen 
  8. Sand the Primer

    Let the primer dry completely, then sand it down before painting. Use very fine 220-grit sandpaper, and apply light pressure to prevent gouging the primer. Remove the primer dust with a quick brush from the shop vacuum, followed by a light swipe of the tack cloth.

    sand after prime
     Claire Cohen 
  9. Paint the Wood With a Brush

    For highly irregular surfaces, such as furniture, crown molding, and trim, it is best to use a paintbrush only. For surfaces that have large, flat areas, incorporating a high-density foam roller will help you get the job done more quickly.

    Dab the end of the paintbrush bristles only about 1/4-inch into the paint each time you load the brush. Transfer the paint to the wood, dragging the brush in short strokes that run parallel to the wood grain. Keep a wet edge at all times to prevent lap marks. Do not add a second coat of paint during this step, as this can cause the paint to tear.

  10. Paint the Wood With a Roller (optional)

    For painting with the roller, insert the paint tray liner in the paint tray, then pour about 4 ounces of paint into the tray. Gently dab the roller into the paint. Roll the paint up and down the slope of the tray a few times to distribute the paint on the roller pad.

    Transfer the roller to the wood. Roll the paint onto the wood, beginning with light pressure only. High-density foam roller covers tend to trap paint in the roller pad, so you may have to gently increase pressure to release the paint.

    how to paint wood smoothly
     Claire Cohen 
  11. Sand the First Coat

    You can usually achieve an even smoother coat if you opt to sand and paint one final time. Sanding the first paint coat brings down bumps and inconsistencies introduced by the roller or brush. Using 220-grit sandpaper, sand gently by hand, or attach the paper to the orbital sander and run it extremely lightly across the surface. Do not apply pressure to the sander other than the weight of the sander itself. 

    After sanding, open up the tack cloth, bunch it up but keep it loose, then lightly run it across the surface. Too much pressure on the tack cloth will be counter-productive, as this will press the tack cloth's embedded wax onto the surface.

  12. Add a Second Coat of Paint

    Apply a final coat of paint, using a brush and/or roller, as desired. Let the paint dry as directed. If possible, let the piece dry overnight or longer before using it. Paint becomes more durable after it fully cures.

Tips for Painting Wood

Professional results are easy to achieve if you follow a few professional tips:

  • Use a brush and a roller: Paintbrushes and rollers have complementary roles. Rollers cover large areas quickly but cannot reach into corners. For smooth surfaces, use a high-density foam roller. Paintbrushes are good at painting corners and edges, but they take a long time when painting large areas. Brushing after rolling to eliminate lines and drips is a professional technique known as back-brushing.
  • Primers are important: Primers are formulated to bond to problem surfaces and to give the paint a consistent surface to bond to. Primer also helps prevent flashing, a condition where areas of the final paint job look as if they were painted with different paint glosses. Use a high-quality primer brand, such as Kilz or Zinsser.
  • Consider paint additives: Paint can get tacky and create brush-drag if you take too long while painting. You can either pick up the pace or buy an additive that extends your working time. Penetrol and Floetrol are popular additives that help you create smooth brush strokes. Avoid painting underneath a fan or heating vent or in direct sunlight, as all of these will accelerate drying time and lead to tacky paint.