Painting Over Varnished Wood

Painting Over Varnished Wood – How to Add Color to Dated Wood Pieces

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We have all been faced with a situation where we have a piece of old furniture that is old or not the color we want, and you would like to change it. Most good quality or old pieces of furniture have a top or sealing coat of varnish. So, if you want to change it, then you need to ask yourself the question, “Can you paint over varnish or other protective coatings?” We will be helping you through all you need to know when painting over varnished wood.



Can You Paint Over Varnish?

Restoring or refurbishing your old furniture is much cheaper than getting new furniture. However, painting over varnished wood may sound like an easy task, but it is one of the trickiest paint jobs around and may take a lot of time and effort. There is nothing worse than after putting in a lot of effort and spending money, you find the newly painted furniture starting to peel.

Renew Varnished Wood Furniture with Paint

Yes, you can paint over varnish, which can be on cabinets, staircases, trims, doors, furniture, and much more. However, you must use the proper materials, as well as the right painting process. The main purpose is to get the paint to stick properly to the wood surface, whatever the type of paint. The most suitable paint is the water-based acrylic option. Another very important factor to consider is the state of the wood as well as the varnish, you need to ensure they are in good condition before you do anything. So, let us now examine these conditions in more detail. 

Equipment for Painting Over Varnished Wood

Determining the condition of the wood and the varnish is important, as it will help you to follow the correct painting process. Remember that the success of painting over varnished wood is only as good as the surface you are going to paint over, making sure you have a secure strong bond the paint can adhere to.  Here are the major conditions that you might find.

  • If the wood surface you are going to paint has been properly looked after and is free from any scratches, marks, peeling paint, or gouges. Then the painting process is simple: you wash the surface, wipe it clean, and then, using some fine-grit sandpaper, give it a slightly rough surface and then begin painting.
  • When the wood surface has been slightly neglected and there are some gouges and scratch marks, then the painting process will need some extra attention. You will have to sand the surface properly, fill all the scratches and gouges with some wood filler, and then follow the same process above.
  • If the wood surface is badly damaged with the varnish peeling off, then you will have to take some paint stripper and remove all the varnish from the surface and start from scratch.



What Paint Is Best for Painting Over Varnished Wood?

Almost all types of paint are either water or oil-based, and it does not matter what type of paint you use to paint over varnished wood. Any paint will work, but you need to ensure that you prepare and treat the surface correctly before you start, or your new paintjob will quickly deteriorate and fail.

Stained and Peeling Paint Over Unprepared Varnish

If you fail to prepare your surface, the paint will not be able to adhere properly, resulting in the paint chipping and peeling off. Another problem that you can encounter when painting over varnished wood is tannins, for example, oak can bleed through, leaving an ugly blotchy finish. Here are the different types of paints that you can use to paint over varnished wood.


Water-Based Paint

Water-based paint, which is latex or acrylic, is regarded as the best option when painting over varnish, as it gives you quick and effective results. If there is already an oil-based primer for varnished wood, then the water-based paint can still be applied.

Latex paint is usually the best option because it comes in three finishes: flat, satin, semi-gloss, and high- gloss. Before you apply the paint, it is recommended that you first prepare the surface properly, and then sand it down. Then apply a primer and only then can you apply the paint. The best primer for varnished wood is Zinsser Cover Stain Interior/Exterior Oil Primer Sealer, which is an oil-based primer.

Painting Over Varnished Wood

The best Latex paint is Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch, which is easy to apply and leaves a smooth finish. The paint also has low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) formula, which makes it ideal for indoor use, and the paint also dries very fast. You can apply it with a roller if the area you are covering is large or use a brush for smaller areas. Cleaning up afterward is easy as you only need to use water and some soap. The paint also comes in a variety of colors and can be found in most hardware stores.

Painting Over Primer on Varnished Wood

The latex paint bonds to the surface of the wood and may become prone to scratching and chipping. The paint does not stand up to heavy use and may require a few touch-ups in the future. However, you can make use of a sealer to protect the surface, and the best brand to use for large or small jobs is Mod Podge – 1469 Clear Acrylic Sealer.  


Oil-Based Paint

Oil-based paint sometimes referred to as alkyd paint, is an ideal choice for application over varnished wood surfaces like furniture, doors, and cupboards. The paint is also good for outdoor wooden surfaces like decks and outdoor wooden furniture as it is durable can stand up to rough use, and will not chip or scratch easily as latex paint does. The best oil-based paint for use on your varnished wooden surfaces is Rust-Oleum’s Protective Enamel.

Paint for Varnished Wood

Keep in mind that oil-based paint is not very easy to work with and contains multiple Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). So, you will require a good ventilation system and you will need to use protective gear. Oil-based paints are also very difficult to apply using a roller, so a paintbrush is recommended. This type of paint also takes a long time to dry, up to 24 hours, which slows down your working time. However, oil-based paint will give you a vibrant color finish, and it does not require sealing or a topcoat.

Types of Paint to Use on Varnished Wood

Although the paint gives you a very durable finish, it comes at a cost as oil-based paints are a lot more expensive than water-based paints.  The paint adheres very easily to the surface and is self-leveling, which makes it easier to apply to almost any surface. Like all other paints, you need to prepare the surface properly by lightly sanding and then applying an oil-based primer, the same as you used for the water-based paint being Zinsser’s Cover Stain Interior/Exterior Oil Primer Sealer.


Chalk Paint

Chalk paint is an ideal choice for painting over varnished wood as it can hide any imperfections that are evident on your varnished wooden surface, with only a few strokes of the brush. However, it is a paint that is not popular with a lot of people as it leaves you with a trendy, vintage ultra-matte finish.

Chalk Paint on Varnished Wood Furniture

Chalk paint does not require any primer before use, but you will have to apply a top or sealing coat to protect the paint, which can also be wax. The best sealing or topcoat for varnished wood is Minwax Paste Finishing Wax, or you may want to use polyurethane if the item you have painted comes into contact with food or water daily. The best polyurethane topcoat would be General Finishes Flat Out Flat Topcoat.

Tips for Painting Over Varnished Wood

Applying chalk can be a little difficult if you are doing it for the first time, but it dries fast, adheres to most surfaces, and leaves a smooth silky finish. However, brush strokes may become evident if you do some touch-ups after the paint has dried. The price of chalk is more expensive than latex paint, so some people have even made their own chalk paint. The best chalk paint available is Rust-Oleum’s Chalked Ultra Matte Paint. We have compiled a short table, which has all three options of paint that can be used to paint over varnished wood surfaces.

Type of PaintPaint Over Varnished WoodRemarks
Water-Based PaintCan be used to paint over varnished wood, but it is recommended that the surface be prepared, sanded, and primed before application.
Oil-Based PaintCan be used to paint over varnished wood, but it is recommended that the surface be sanded, preferably primed before application.
Chalk PaintCan be used to paint over varnished wood, but it is recommended that the surface be sanded before application.



How to Paint Varnished Wood

In most instances, the condition of the varnished surface will determine what form of painting process you need to follow for painting over varnished wood. If you follow the tutorials below, we will be guiding you through each process, making sure your results are good.

Wood Painting Work Area


Complete Process for Painting Over Varnished Wood

This process is usually followed when the varnish on the wood surface has been badly damaged, leaving it with marks, scratches, gouges, and varnish peeling off. You will need to remove all the varnish from the wood surface until you are almost left with the bare wood.


Tools and Supplies You Will Need

The first thing you need to do before you start with the refurbishing job is to ensure you have all the necessary tools and supplies. This will save you a lot of time, not having to run around looking for some tool after you have started. This is the list that you will need:

  • Household detergent or cleaner
  • Tack cloth or lint-free rag
  • Fine to medium grit sandpaper
  • Safety mask, eyewear as well as gloves
  • Paintbrush, paint roller, or paint sprayer
  • The right type of primer for varnished wood
  • Choice of paint
  • Wood filler
  • Paint remover
  • Plastic protective sheets

Work on a Tarp when Painting Over Varnish


Cleaning the Old Varnished Wood Surface

The wood surface needs to be clean before you can continue to ensure that no dust or grease can mix with your paint or your primer. This step may seem unimportant to you, but if you want to have a good job, it must be done. Here is what you need to do:

  • Use the house cleaner and spray it onto the wood surface and use the clean cloth to wipe off any grime or dirt. Try not to take too long as the varnish is not water-proof and may start to interact with the moisture.
  • If there are some stubborn spots or stains use some Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) to remove them.
  • Wipe clean and then allow it to dry properly.

Key Varnish with Liquid Deglosser


Repair Surface Defects

After you have cleaned the wood surface properly, you will be able to assess the condition of the varnished woodwork better, and ascertain if the surface is smooth enough or are there some dents, bad scratches, or gouges. If there are some imperfections in the wood surface, these need to be eliminated as the paint will not be sufficient to cover them and will result in the paint peeling or blistering. Use the wood filler to repair any of the visible imperfections.

Wood Filler before Painting Over Varnished Wood


Strip or Remove the Varnish

Nobody likes to spend time and effort on sanding, but if your varnished surface is in a bad condition then sanding the varnish off is the only answer.  As this process releases dust into the air, before you start to sand, you need to ensure the space where you are working is well ventilated by opening windows and doors or putting on the fan. You must shield your eyes and protect your lungs by wearing safety goggles and a mask or a respirator.

Sand Varnish to Texture for Painting

You need to use a medium to fine grit sandpaper of 120 to 220 grit, which will give you the texture required for paint to adhere to a varnished surface. Sand in the direction of the wood grain and stop sanding before you remove all the varnish. Clean off all the dust from the wooden surface when you are done sanding. 

Texture Varnish for Painting

If you find that sanding is too much hard work and far too messy, then you can make use of a deglosser. You can apply this to the varnished wood surface, using a lint-free cloth, in a circular motion, then you need to clean the surface to prepare it for the primer. Make sure you wear chemical-resistant gloves and work in a well-ventilated area. Deglosser is also known as liquid sandpaper, and the best deglosser that you can buy is Klean-Strip 2-Pack Quart Easy Liquid Sander Deglosser. 


Apply the Primer

Is it necessary to apply a primer on the wood surface before you start to paint? You can apply your paint without a primer, but unless you are using chalk paint, then we recommend that you apply a primer first, as a primer will improve the durability of the paint and save you from other problems that may occur. Using a primer on your wood surface before you apply the paint serves the following purposes:

  • It seals off the wood surface
  • Blocks the wood grain from showing through your sealing or topcoat
  • Prevents tannins from the knots rising to the surface
  • Increases the adhesion of the layers of paint you apply over it
  • Drastically reduces the number of topcoats

To apply the primer, you need to make sure the surface is clean, and then apply it using a paintbrush, foam roller, or sprayer. Apply the primer over the entire wood surface and allow it to dry for about one hour, then you can apply the second coat and allow it to dry overnight. Now take fine-grit sandpaper and lightly sand the total surface area, then wipe it clean using a tack cloth.

Painting Primer Over Varnished Wood


Apply the Paint

You are now ready to apply the paint to your wood surface. You need to apply the correct paint that will be suitable and compatible for the varnished wood and also the primer you applied. If you choose water-based paint, is a good choice as there will be no problem with the paint adhering to the surface, there are no harmful odors to put up with, and it also dries much faster than oil-based paints. However, you need to bear in mind that when you choose a water-based paint, you need to use an oil-based primer for varnished wood.

Use Primer after Sanding Varnish

If you choose to use oil-based paint, this is also very good as it will provide you with a much more durable surface finish, as well as the colors will be more vibrant. It is possible to paint over your varnished wood with oil-based paint, without using a primer, but we do suggest for best results that you still apply a primer first. Remember that oil-based paints take a lot longer to dry, around eight hours before you can apply the next coat. Sometimes it can take as much as 72 hours. Because the oil-based paint is thicker, it is better to apply it with a brush or use a sprayer. 

Refurbish Old Wood Furniture with Paint

If you choose to use chalk paint, this is also a good choice and there is no need for a primer coat. The paint will be able to hide any imperfections on your wood surface. However, you need to be someone who appreciates the vintage, trendy and ultra-matte finish it provides. 


Painting Process

When painting over varnished wood, certain tricks and tips can help achieve the finish you are looking for. Before you start to paint, it is a good idea to make sure your primer is completely dry, some have even suggested that you wait for a week before you start to paint over it.

  • When applying the first coat, ensure you use solid and even strokes to avoid any brush marks.
  • It is a good idea to lightly sand the surface between coats to give you that seamless finish.
  • When you apply the second coat, you should cover the whole surface area. You do not want
  • Work only in areas that are well ventilated and use all safety equipment.
  • Weather conditions can affect the curing process of your paint, so try to work when it is sunny and warm.
  • Do not smoke or have open flames near where you are working.
  • Wait for a good few days before you make use of your newly painted wood.


Painting Over Varnished Wood Without Sanding

The process of painting over varnished wood is used mostly when the condition of the varnish and wood surface is in fairly good condition. All the preliminary processes referred to in the section above, need to be followed. A deglosser or liquid sander can be used instead of sanding, which can be applied with a cloth, sprayer or brush.

Spray-On Deglosser


Deglosser Application Process

Apply the deglosser over the entire surface of the varnished wood, using a cloth, sprayer or paintbrush, and allow it to penetrate the wood surface for about 15 to 20 minutes. Make use of a lint-free cloth and remove the deglosser from the wood surface. This process is easier and a lot less effort and time than sanding and needs to be carried out in a well-ventilated area. Once this has been done, then the same process as above must be followed for priming and painting.

Liquid Deglosser Instead of Sandpaper


Some Benefits of Applying Deglosser

The most important benefit of using a deglosser instead of sanding is that it saves you a lot of time and money, as one bottle goes a long way. It also saves you energy and effort and is much easier to use as it gets into all those nooks and crannies that you are unable to reach with sandpaper.


Places where You can Use Deglosser 

Deglosser is ideal for use on wooden cabinets as you can remove the doors and cover all the surfaces. Where there is a lot of wear and tear like trimmings, moldings, and doors, deglosser is a perfect choice, and also works well on any form of furniture you want to refurbish.



Painting Over Varnished Wood Without Sanding or Priming

This process of painting over varnished wood is used when the condition of your varnished wood surface has been properly looked after and is free from any gouges, marks, or scratches. First, you wash the wood surface, making sure it is clean from any dust or grit, and allow it to dry properly.

Clean Off Dust after Sanding Varnish

The paint you can use, in this case, is chalk paint and it can be applied directly over the varnished wood surface without sanding or using a primer. It is an ideal choice for this purpose as it can stick to virtually any surface. Apply the first layer and wait for it to dry completely, then you can apply the second or even a third coat.

Chalk paint is very durable and should last for a long time. However, you will need to apply a top or sealing coat to protect the painted surface. For this, you can use an acrylic sealer, wax, or varnish. This process of painting over varnished wood surfaces is quite popular, but you need to like and enjoy the finish it provides.



Now you know it is possible to paint over varnished wood. Always bear in mind that there are different types of paint that you can use, and with each of them there is a different process to follow. Remember that it takes effort and patience to get that perfect restored furniture or wood surface you desire.


View our Painting Over Varnished Wood web story here.



Frequently Asked Questions


Can You Paint Over Varnished Trim Using a Two-In-One Primer and Paint?

You can attempt it, but it is not recommended as the paint and primer in one is not a proper sealer. The paint itself is thicker, but this will not help to seal the varnished wood surface. You need to use an oil-based primer for varnished wood first, to seal the surface, and then you can apply the topcoat of paint.


Is Painting Over Varnished Wood Without Sanding Possible?

Yes, you can, if you paint using oil-based paint, but it is still recommended that you use a primer first to make sure the paint adheres to the surface properly. If you paint using chalk paint, then the need for a primer is not necessary.


Can You Paint Over Varnish?

Yes, you can, but remember to use the right type of paint, which can be oil or water-based. However, always sand the surface first and apply a primer for the best and most lasting results. 


What Is the Purpose of a Deglosser?

A deglosser is also known as liquid sandpaper and can be used instead of sanding the wood surface with sandpaper. This can save you a lot of time, effort, and money and is ideal for large wood surfaces or where there are nooks and crannies. You must make sure that it will not damage your wood first.


Will Paint Stick to a Varnished Surface?

The paint will stick to the varnished wood surface if you follow all the steps laid out for you in this article. You should prepare the wood, sand it, apply the primer, apply the paint, and make sure to apply a sealing coat.


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