Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood?

Last Updated on August 17, 2023 by Ernest Godia

Varnishing is a timeless way of protecting surfaces against wear and tear and general damage. Like everything else, it will age, or you might outgrow the look and itch for change. The big question, then, is, can you paint over varnished wood?

The short answer is yes. The long answer? Read along to find out what it would take for you to revamp your dated pieces with a fresh coat of paint. Not much, actually.

By the end of this post, you’ll have all the information you need to successfully paint over varnished wood and transform your furniture into a beautiful new piece.

Let’s get started!

Can you paint over varnished wood?

Yes, you can paint over varnish, but you need to do it properly for the paint to adhere well. First, clean and sand the surface, and then prime and paint it. To guarantee longevity, use a primer designed for painting over varnish and ensure it’s compatible with the paint. 

Can you paint over varnish?

You can paint over any varnish on your wooden surface, whether polyurethane, polycrylic, lacquer, shellac, or epoxy. 

Generally, oil-based varnishes are renowned for their durability but can be challenging to paint over. In contrast, water-based varnishes might be easier to paint over but may need specific paints. 

What paint is best for painting over varnished wood?

Several options can deliver excellent results when choosing the best paint for painting over varnished wood. Let’s explore three popular choices: chalk paint, oil-based paint, and water-based paint. 

Chalk paint

This type of paint is made from calcium carbonate, pigment, and a binder. It is designed to be easily sanded and repainted, making it a good choice for furniture makeovers.

Chalk paint provides excellent coverage and can create a distressed or vintage look with a few coats. It adheres well to various surfaces, including varnished wood, with minimal surface preparation required.

Oil-based paints

These are the most durable paints, making them a good choice for outdoor projects and heavily-trafficked indoor surfaces. 

They are also more opaque than water-based paints, which can cover up dark or stained wood. They are excellent for projects where a high-gloss finish is desired.

Water-based paint

Great for those who want a quick drying time, like when working on a weekend project to repaint a varnished wooden chair.

Also referred to as latex or acrylic, water-based paints are a good choice for painting over varnished wood because they are easy to apply and less toxic. They are also less likely to yellow or fade over time than oil-based paints. 

Consider factors such as durability, desired sheen, ease of use, and environmental impact when choosing the right paint for your varnished wood surface.

How to paint over varnished wood

Start by cleaning the surface, inspecting for damage, and making the necessary repairs. Then sand the surface, prime, and apply at least two coats of paint. Finish with a varnish to protect the painted wood. 

That’s a snippet of the process; keep reading for a detailed procedure on painting varnished wood. 

Tools and materials you will need

  • Clean rags or sponges for cleaning
  • Cleaning solution or mild detergent
  • Drop cloths or plastic sheets
  • Paint
  • Paintbrushes or rollers
  • Painter’s tape (optional)
  • Primer
  • Wood filler or putty
  • Sandpaper (medium and fine grit)
  • Sealant (optional)
  • Tack cloth

A step-by-step guide to painting over varnished wood.

Now that we’ve got our materials sorted move the furniture or object to be painted to a well-ventilated area. Line the surrounding area with drop cloths or plastic sheets to cover it from paint splatter.

Step 1:  Clean the varnished wood surface

Wipe the surface with a mild detergent solution or a grease-cutting cleaner to clean the surface.

This removes dirt, dust, or grease that could hinder effortless paint adhesion. Allow the wood surface to air dry completely before proceeding.

Step 2: Assess the surface and repair defects, if any

Take a close look at the varnished wood surface and identify any defects or damages that need to be addressed. Look for cracks, holes, or imperfections that may affect the final result. 

Use a suitable wood filler or putty to repair these areas. Prepare and apply the filler according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Once it dries completely, smooth the area with medium-grit sandpaper.

Step 3: Sand and clean the wood surface

Start sanding the entire surface with medium-grit sandpaper, following the wood grain. Then, switch to fine-grit sandpaper for a smoother finish. This will help remove the glossy finish of the varnish and provide a rougher surface for the paint to adhere to.

After sanding, remove residual dust or debris using a clean rag or tack cloth. This ensures that the surface is clean and ready for painting. Remember, a flawless surface makes for a flawless paint job.

Step 4: Apply the primer

A primer is your paint’s best friend. It ensures that your paint sticks well and looks great. Choose a primer designed for painting over varnish that is compatible with the paint you plan to use. 

Apply a thin and even coat of the primer using a brush or roller, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Ensure the primer dries to the touch before you carry on. 

Water-based primers should be ready for painting in about 30 minutes, while oil-based ones may need an hour or two to dry fully.

Step 5: Paint the prepped surface

Now comes the exciting part—painting! Stir the paint thoroughly before application to distribute the pigments evenly.

Using a brush or roller, apply the paint evenly in smooth, long strokes, following the direction of the wood grain. If you are painting a large surface, using a paint sprayer should give you better and quicker results.

Wait for the first paint coat to dry completely, per the manufacturer’s instructions. You will need 2–3 coats of paint, subject to the desired coverage and the type of paint used.

Remember to allow sufficient drying time between coats for flawless results.

Step 6: Seal the paint job

While not always necessary, sealing the painted wood surface provides added protection and longevity. 

Choose a suitable sealant, such as lacquer, polyurethane, or varnish, for the type of paint used. Apply the sealant evenly using a spray gun, brush, or roller, following the manufacturer’s instructions. 

Allow the finished project to dry and cure for at least a week before using it.

Can you paint over varnished wood without sanding?

Yes, you can, but there’s more to the process. While sanding is generally recommended for optimal adhesion, alternative ways to get the paint to bite onto the finished surface exist. Take a look.

1. Deglossers

Deglossers are chemical solutions that can be applied to the varnished surface to remove the gloss and create a better surface for paint adhesion. They work by chemically etching the varnish, allowing the paint to adhere more effectively. 

2. Bonding Primers

Bonding primers are specially formulated primers that are designed to adhere to glossy or varnished surfaces without the need for sanding. These primers have strong bonding properties that help the paint adhere securely to the surface. 

Limitations to Painting Over Varnish Without Sanding

While alternatives to sanding can be convenient, it’s important to consider a few limitations. 

Firstly, these alternatives may not provide the same level of adhesion as sanding, which could affect the longevity of the paint job.

Additionally, the success of these alternatives depends on the specific type and condition of the varnish, as well as the type of paint being used. 

Always paint on a small inconspicuous area before proceeding with the full project to ensure it matches your vision.

How to paint over varnish without sanding or priming

Chalk paint is a popular option for painting over varnished wood without sanding or priming. It has unique properties that allow it to adhere well to various surfaces, including varnished wood. 

To use chalk paint, simply clean the surface thoroughly, ensuring it is free of dust and grease. Using a bristle brush or roller, apply the chalk paint directly onto the varnished wood. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for application and drying time, if necessary.

Can you apply acrylic paint on varnished wood?

Yes, you can apply acrylic paint on varnished wood. The preparation and painting process remain the same as discussed above. Whether you want to touch up a varnished wooden picture frame or a bookshelf, you can get it done in a few simple steps.

Recommended read: Can you use acrylic paint on wood?

How long does painted varnished wood last?

The durability and longevity of painted, varnished wood can vary based on factors such as the quality of the paint and sealant used, the amount of wear and tear the surface receives, and environmental conditions. 

Depending on care and quality, painted varnished wood can last for decades. Regular dusting and cleaning with gentle cleaners can extend the lifespan of your newly painted, varnished wooden dining set.

Painting Over Varnish: FAQs

Here are some of the questions people ask about painting over varnish.

Can you paint directly onto varnished wood?

Yes, you can, but you shouldn’t because the paint won’t stick to the smooth varnished surface. Instead, it will peel and fall off soon after. If you want to paint to sit on the varnish, sand the surface, use a deglosser or a bonding primer to ensure the paint gets a good grip. 

White paint over varnished wood applied with a paintbrush.

What is the best way to paint over varnished wood?

The best way to paint over varnished wood is to properly clean the surface and sand or use alternative methods for better adhesion. Then apply a coat of suitable primer, and finally, spray, brush, or roll at least two layers of desired paint type.

Do I need to remove the varnish before painting?

You don’t have to remove the varnish completely; slightly etch the surface so the primer will stick to it. As a rule of thumb, always sand in the direction of the grain. After sanding, wipe away the residual dust with a damp cloth.

Can You Paint Over Varnish: Recap

So, can you paint over varnished wood? Sure you can. However, revamping varnished wood isn’t just about slapping on a new coat of paint. Proper preparation and choosing the right materials play a major role in a successful transformation. 

Now that you know you can paint over varnished wood, check out our article on painting over stained wood. Your creativity is the only limit. 

Happy painting.

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