When painting furniture, you should always use primer first. It stops stains and bleed-through and helps the paint stick better, so the end finish is better. But how many coats do you need?
I recommend anywhere from 1-3 coats of primer before painting wood furniture. If the wood has lots of natural oils (tannins) and is likely to bleed through, apply 3 coats. Shellac-based primers require fewer coats as they cover old stains and wood tannins much better.
If you are starting a furniture painting project and you want to learn more about primers, this guide will help you. I’ve included advice on how much primer to use and what happens if you don’t use enough. There are also some of my recommendations for the best primers to use on furniture.
What Can Happen if You Don’t Apply Enough Primer on Furniture?
Primer forms a protective barrier over the top of the wood and creates a good base for the paint to adhere to. Sometimes, if you don’t have enough primer, you get bleed-through. You’ll notice brown stains that come through the paint and even if you cover them with more paint or wipe them away, they keep coming back. This is caused by the natural oils in the wood (called tannins) which leak out and come through the paint. Primer seals the wood and stops the tannins from coming through. You need 2 or 3 coats to make sure that the wood is properly sealed.
Paint also bonds to primer much better than it does to bare wood. If you don’t have enough primer before you paint, it may not stick as well. Over time, the paint chips and peels much easier as a result.
Although you may think that skipping the primer or just doing a quick coat will save you time, it won’t in the long run. The paint job won’t last anywhere near as long and you will need to do the whole thing again, which takes triple the time than just doing it right the first time around.
Can You Get Away with One Coat of Primer on Furniture?
Technically, you can get away with one coat of primer if you’re lucky, but it is a gamble. I have done it a number of times, especially when rolling it on because you get a nice thick, even covering. But it will only work on wood types with lower levels of natural oils because they are less likely to bleed through.
That said, it is always a risk. You may find that you finish painting and add a clear coat over the top, only to see bleed-through a day or so later. In that case, you have to strip everything off and start again from scratch with the primer, which is a big waste of time. You can avoid all of that if you do 2 or 3 coats of primer to begin with, while choosing the right primer.
Do You Sand Between Your Primer Coats?
Yes, you should give the primer a light sanding with a 220 grit sanding sponge once it is dry. This is necessary because the grain raises slightly when you paint the primer on, giving the surface a slightly uneven finish. By gently sanding, you smooth it out again while still leaving the primer intact. It also creates a slightly roughed surface so the next coat of primer, or the first coat of paint, has a key to grip to and it adheres so much better.
How Many Coats of Primer Should Be Used on Laminate Furniture?
Laminate furniture can be painted, but it’s essential that you use a good quality primer that bonds to the shiny coating. Real wood is porous, so there is something for the primer or paint to stick to. But laminate is very smooth and non-porous, so it’s vital that you add a primer first so the paint can adhere.
If you try to paint straight on without a primer, the paint will peel in no time. Shellac based primers like BIN Shellac from Zinsser are great for laminate. It comes in a spray for easy application and shellac primers can go straight on without sanding, so it makes for an easy job. You need at least 2-3 good coats before paint will stick to the furniture.
I did paint laminate before and used a water-based polyurethane, it worked but it did not feel as durable as BIN shellac primer does.
Read my related article “How Long After Priming Can You Paint Furniture?“.
What Types of Primer are Best for Wood Furniture?
Oil-based and shellac primers are the best for wooden furniture because they cover stains easily and stop bleed-through the best.
Spray on primers are the quickest and easiest to use and they dry quickest. I use spray on primers for all of my furniture and I recommend them for detailed pieces especially. Getting into all of the small details with a brush is very time-consuming but it’s easy with a spray.
My 2 most recommended primers for wood furniture are:
Rustoleum Spray On Primer
Rust-Oleum makes some excellent primer products, like this spray on primer. The oil-based primer gives great coverage and easily blocks any stains or tannins from the wood. It only takes 20 minutes before it’s touch dry too, so you can get a few coats on in no time.
BIN Shellac Spray
I also like the BIN Shellac Spray because it blocks stains better than any other primer I’ve tried. You can spray it straight on, so it’s one of the quickest options. It also blocks odors like smoke or pets, so if you’re upcycling an old piece of furniture it’s ideal. This primer is the strongest stain sealing, tannin sealing, and odor sealing primer on the market. You can’t go wrong with it!
Should You Wear a Respirator When Priming Furniture?
Yes, especially when using oil-based and shellac-based products because they contain strong solvents and give off a lot of fumes. Always wear a respirator when spraying too because you can easily breathe in the fine particles and damage your lungs. You should also use a respirator when sanding the primer between coats, so you don’t breathe in the dust.
When looking for respirators, don’t just buy a simple mask. Use a reusable respirator with filters, and double check that they will filter out fumes and dust.
See the 5 best respirators for furniture refinishing here!
Proper ventilation will protect you when applying and sanding primer too. If you are working indoors, open some windows or garage door to get a good flow of air going through the room. This will help with drying time too.
It’s a mistake to think that primer isn’t that important and you can save time by skipping that step. You’ll only create more work for yourself in the long run when you have to strip the paint and start again. If you use a fast-drying spray primer, it doesn’t take long to do 2-3 coats and you can be sure that you don’t get any stains and the paint doesn’t chip or peel.
Feel free to read my related article How Long Does Primer Take to Dry on Wood? (See 25 Primers)!