Painting Over Varnished Wood – Reviving Old Woodwork With Paint

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Sentimentality is part of what makes us human, it’s one of our most endearing qualities, but there are certain instances where it works against us. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to let go of things we’ve had for a long time, whether they remind us of happier times or whether they were gifted to us by someone close to our hearts. The problem with this is that things tend to age and degrade over time, or their aesthetic becomes a bit outdated. In this case, we can either choose to bite the bullet and throw these things away, or we can put in the effort to update and repair these items. One particularly challenging type of older surface to modernize and repair are varnished ones, so let’s have a look at how to repair or paint over them in the interest of giving them a new lease on life.




Why is Painting Over Varnished Wood so Difficult?

If you’ve ever looked up the topic of painting over wood that has an existing varnish coating, you’ll probably find that there are loads of comments and/or articles that detail how challenging it can be to paint over varnished wood. Why is painting over varnished wood so challenging though? Here are a few factors that influence why it can be a bit difficult to paint over wooden surfaces with an existing varnish coating.

Use Primer Over Varnished Wood

If all wood is essentially the same thing, why is it difficult to paint over wood that has been treated with varnish? Well, it has to do with the surface friction of particular material. Naked or raw wood typically has a lot of surface friction that allows things like paint and other surface coatings to stick to the wood and even seep into the wood fibers. Varnish is what’s called a wood treatment, it not only creates a thin layer of surface protection but seeps seep into the wood pores to ensure its protection.

This surface coating makes the surface of the wood in question smooth to the touch, which means that things like paint or other wood treatments won’t be able to penetrate the surface of the wood. This means that if you tried to paint over a newly varnished surface, the paint would simply run off and make a mess. This begs the question then: can you paint over varnish if you really need to?

Methods for Painting Over Varnished Wood

In theory, you can paint over varnish, but it really does depend on the type of paint you intend on using, the age of the varnish you’ll be attempting to paint over, and the degree of preparation you’re willing to put into the surface before you get to painting. So, can you paint over varnish? Yes, absolutely, but it will require some elbow grease, patience, the right tools, and proper preparation on your part.



What Types of Paint Can You Use on Varnished Wood?

While painting over varnished wood is challenging, it can help to have the right type of paint for the job. there are only a few types of paint you should use to paint over varnish as most other types will likely result in a blotchy mess that you’ll need to clean up. Since painting over varnished wood is difficult enough, we thought we’d save you the trouble a give you a shortlist of paints you can and cannot use on varnished wood surfaces.

Type Of Paint Can You Use It to Paint Over Varnish?
Oil-Based Paint
Acrylic Paint
Latex Paint
Enamel Paint
Synthetic Rubber Paint
Lead-Based Paint



Why Do Only Certain Types of Paint Work on Varnished Surfaces?

If you’re thinking about just using any type of paint on your varnished wood, it’s important for you to understand why each type of paint works on varnish. These paints have certain characteristics that allow them to adhere to varnished surfaces a lot better than others, so let’s have a look at what makes these paints so special as well as some brands that we think are the best on the market for painting over varnished surfaces.

Chalk Paint Over Varnished Wood


Latex Paints

There seems to be a lot of confusion around latex paints these days, but in reality, they’re one of the simplest paint types out there, not to mention one of the most versatile and effective tools for restoring old furniture. What is latex paint you ask? Well, latex paint doesn’t actually contain any latex at all, in fact, they’re actually water-based and therefore are some of the thinnest paints on the market.

Paint Over Primer on Varnished Wood

If you’re going to be painting over varnished wooden surfaces, you’re going to need paint that is thin in consistency to penetrate the varnish. The thicker the paint, the lower the probability of it being able to bond to the surface of your workpiece, in which case it will just end up running off and ruining your floor. Latex paints are also really cheap, which is great for larger workpieces.

If you’re looking for a good latex paint for your next workpiece, we think that you might be impressed by Rust-Oleum’s Painter’s Touch latex paint. As far as paint manufacturers go, Rust-Oleum is one of the best in the business. Starting all the way back in 1921, this brand has a proven track record of providing quality, affordable paints that often last the lifetime of the workpieces they’re used on. This comes as no surprise considering that they’ve basically written the book on paints.

Renew Old Varnished Wood Furniture with Paint

Their paints choice range is no different, ensuring that you have the best quality paint for all manner of projects, including painting over varnish. It’s available in 63 different colors, can be used both indoors and outdoors, covers about 120 square feet, and is dry to the touch in just under 30 minutes! This flat finish is ideal for interior furnishings as it won’t cause any excessive glare when in contact with natural or artificial lighting, and really seems to open up smaller spaces quite well.


Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is a relatively new paint type and has fast become one of the most popular types of paint on the market today. Acrylic paint is also one of the best choices for painting varnished surfaces, it has some unique qualities that make it ideal for adhering to surfaces that would be considered challenging for other paint types. What are these characteristics you ask?

How to Paint Over Varnished Wood

While latex-based paints adhere to varnished surfaces by being thin enough to penetrate beneath the treatment, acrylic paint adheres to varnished surfaces through the use of its thick consistency. This, in combination with acrylic paints’ inherent characteristics, makes it ideal for painting over varnished surfaces. Not all acrylic paints are made equal though, so what should you look for in a good acrylic paint when faced with painting over varnished surfaces?

Well, we think that you would do well with the Krylon’s Colormaxx acrylic latex brush on paint. Krylon happens to be one of the world’s most reputable manufacturers of paint products and has proven time and time again that they only produce the best quality paints, primers, and home improvement tools on the market. This comes as no surprise considering that they’ve been around since the late 1940s.

Use a Tarp when Painting Over Varnish

What really sets acrylic paint apart from some of the other paints on the market is its versatility and durability. This paint can be used on a number of surfaces including really tough-to-paint ones like ceramic and metal, not to mention masonry, brick, and drywall surfaces too. Like the latex paint we mentioned previously, this paint can be used for both interior and exterior applications if need be.

Refurbish Wooden Furniture with Paint

If its adhesion strength and versatility still haven’t sold you on this brand, consider that it’s also available in nine different colors, all of which are just perfect for remodeling your old, varnished furnishings and bringing them into the 21st century. Krylon’s color max formula is also easy to clean up and is dry to the touch typically within an hour of being applied to your varnished surfaces.


Oil-Based Paints

Oil-based paints a great for loads of reasons, they help to protect wooden surfaces from things like rot, insect infestation, mold, UV damage, and even things like heat and cold. Oil-based paints were used almost exclusively before the advent of alternatives like acrylic and latex paints, but because of their impact on the environment, many companies and crafters have sought out alternatives.

Types of Paint for Varnished Wood

Modern oil-based paints have significantly less volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in them compared to the ones that were initially used, and they just so happen to be great at painting over varnished surfaces. Their ability to seep in and bond with a wood’s fibers make them ideal for painting over wood treatments and even other paints, plus they’re readily available in pretty much any store and online.

If you’re looking for good oil-based paint for your varnished surfaces, the Zinsser high hide cover stain primer and sealer happen to be an excellent choice. Their product not only works well as a paint for covering up varnished surfaces but can be used as a priming layer for additional paints, and has the added advantage of being able to cover other wood treatments like a wood stain. Unfortunately, it’s only available in white, so it only works if you’re looking for a minimalist finish or simply want to use it as a base coat.

Paint Suitable for Varnished Wood

The great thing about oil-based paints is that they last for a really long time, and they do an excellent job of protecting surfaces coated with them for years, rarely needing things like touch-ups or replacement. The trouble with using oil-based paints is that you need a good primer to ensure that it adheres to the varnished surface correctly. Using a self-priming paint can aid in avoiding this issue.

This product from the Zinsser team is self-priming, and it’s ideal for time-sensitive projects thanks to its fast-drying formula that sets in around 35 minutes. You also have the added benefit of its stain blocking property which means that things like dirt, grime, moisture stains, and even direct heat won’t ruin the finish of your workpiece.



How to Paint Over Varnished Wood with Sanding

Now that you know which types of paint are ideal for painting over varnished surfaces you should probably know how to paint varnished wood effectively. Remember that the key to painting over varnish is in the preparation, which does require a bit of patience to get right the first time. This being said, is a short tutorial detailing how to go about painting over varnished surfaces sanding. Here are a few things you will need:

  • A clean cloth
  • Soap simple dish soap
  • A pair of gloves
  • A face mask (preferably with a respirator)
  • Sanding paper
  • Your choice of paint
  • A tarp or old newspaper


Prepare Your Workspace

Before you get to painting, it’s a good idea to prepare your workspace to ensure that no stray paint gets onto you or the floor of your workspace. You can do this by laying down a tarp or some old newspaper on the floor of your workspace and on top of your worktable. Once your immediate area has been covered, it’s time for you to get organized. Place all of your tools on the side of your dominant hand to ensure that you know where they are at all times.

Arrange Your Wood Painting Area

Eliminating clutter reduces the chances of accidentally spilling paint or touching wet paint on your workspace. Also, ensure that your workspace is well ventilated as most paints contain harmful VOCs which can cause serious discomfort if inhaled in large volumes. Once you’re satisfied with your setup, put on gloves and face mask before moving on to the next step in the process.


Prepare Your Workpiece

Now for the most important step in painting over varnished surfaces. Before we get to sanding, ensure that your workpiece has been cleaned adequately. You can do so by making use of any common household cleaner, or even some dish soap if you don’t have a general cleaner laying around.

Cleaning Wood for Repainting

Use your cleaner to mix some soapy water and give the surface of your workpiece a thorough cleaning, this ensures that there is no latent dirt or grime that could prevent your paint from adhering to the surface, and it prevents your sanding paper from getting sticky.

Once you’re sure that your workpiece has been cleaned, ensure that you remove most of the soapy water with a clean cloth and allow it to dry completely before getting on to the next step.

Clean Wood for Repainting Over Varnish

Now it’s time for you to correct any holes or imperfections in the surface of your workpiece. You could use wood filler if you catch any holes or small spots where wood has been gouged out over the years. The goal here is to have a surface that is as flush as possible.

Repair Dents before Painting Over Varnished Wood

Once you’re satisfied that your surface is completely dry and filled it’s time to get out your sanding paper. You’re going to want to use some medium grit sandpaper initially and then progress to finer grit once the majority of the old varnish has been removed. Remember that varnish is a wood treatment and seeps pretty deep into the wood, so this process only removes the surface varnish.

Sand Varnish to Key Surface for Painting

Keep in mind that the goal here is to have a surface that is completely flush, so if you’re working with a large workpiece you might want to opt for a power sander to avoid exhausting yourself before the painting starts. Sand with the direction of the grain and ensure that you expose as much wood as possible while using the medium grit sanding paper. Finish off by getting out your fine-grit sanding paper and smooth the surface of the workpiece out as best you can.

Hand Sanding Varnish for Painting

Once you are happy with the sanding of the workpiece ensure that you remove any stray wood particles that might still present on the surface of your workpiece. This is easy enough, all you need to do is use a clean cloth to wipe off any particles still clinging to your workpiece, or if you have a large workpiece, make use of some compressed air to clean the surface. If you do, ensure that you’re wearing your face mask, gloves, and eye protection.

Blow Away Sawdust After Sanding


Paint Your Workpiece

Here are a few pointers regarding how to paint varnished wood. Remember that the most challenging part is already over, you have prepared your surface and ensured that most of the wood underneath the old varnish surface has been exposed. Now it’s time to get your paint out and resurface your worn-out workpiece.

Equipment for Painting Varnished Wood

Remember that if you are using an oil-based paint you will need an oil-based primer for varnished wood. If you can’t decide on one, why not try out the Rust-Oleum corporation oil-based primer for varnished wood, it has incredible adhesion quality and comes in aerosol form, which saves you a lot of time and effort. If you’re using acrylic or latex paint, you do have the choice of using a primer, but they do pretty well on their own too. Once your primer has set, it’s time to get to painting.

When painting over varnished wood it’s important to follow the direction of the wood’s grain as far as possible. Also, remember to prepare your paint and mix it well before you get started. Why? When paint sits on a shelf for too long, some of the heavier particles have a habit of sinking to the bottom of the container. Therefore, giving the paint a good stir reintroduces these particles into the greater mixture, ensuring that you get the most out of your paint, and that you have a consistent mix of pigment throughout.

Primer and Topcoat Paint on Varnish

If you’re painting a square or rectangular board, you should paint from one end of the board to the other to ensure consistency. If you’re working with a round or irregularly shaped workpiece it’s best to start from the center and work your way out toward the edges of the workpiece. Either way, ensure that you maximize coverage and that you haven’t missed any spots.



Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood Without Sanding?

Painting over varnished wood without sanding is possible, but it can be a bit tricky especially if you have no experience working with things like solvents. This being said, if you have experience working with these types of chemicals, painting over varnished wood without sanding can save you lots of time and effort. All you need is a chemical known as deglosser.

Deglosser is also known as liquid sandpaper, and as the name suggests, roughs up smoother surfaces so that things like wood treatments and paints have a better chance of adhering. Deglosser can be found both in-store and online, usually in an aerosol or liquid form, the latter works best for varnish that has been applied fairly recently, whereas the aerosol variant is best suited for removing older finishes.

Aerosol Deglosser

How do you use this wonderful tool? Pretty much exactly the same way you would with regular sandpaper. All you need to do is ensure that your surface has been cleaned adequately and then either spray or paint your deglosser onto the varnished surface. Once applied, the deglosser does its thing for the manufacturer’s recommended time period.

Liquid Deglosser Prepares Vanished Wood

All that’s left to do once the deglosser has raised the surface of your varnished workpiece is to remove any excess with a clean cloth and allow the surface to dry completely. Then, apply your primer and paint as you would if you had sanded your workpiece conventionally. Although this is a lot simpler and less labor-intensive, it might not be suitable for beginner crafters.



Tips And Tricks for Painting Over Varnished Wood

Painting over any surface that has an existing wood treatment surface coating can be a challenge, this is why (as we mentioned previously) the key to getting it right is in the preparation process. One of the best things you can do to ensure that your workpiece retains the paint applied to its varnish surface is to remove the varnish as best you can, but not completely.

Texture Varnish for Painting

While liquid sandpaper works for lighter coats or varnish that have been applied more recently, for older coats medium grit sandpaper will be far more effective. Another thing that could save you some time and money is identifying what type of wood you’re working with, this will allow you to identify the grain density which should give you a good indication of which type of paint is most conducive to your workpiece.

Furthermore, if you’re working with a time-sensitive project you could use a combination of both deglosser and conventional sandpaper. This ensures that you remove the most amount of varnish possible, and it can be used to strip several finishes besides varnish. This being said, adapt your technique to the type of wood you’re working with and try a combination of approaches to ensure that your surface is adequately prepared for painting.



Now that you know why painting over a varnished surface is so challenging, what types of paint work when painting over varnish, what makes these paints uniquely qualified for the job, examples of some good paints for the job, and how to paint over a varnished surface both with and without sanding, it’s time for you to get out there and put your newfound knowledge to the test. Remember to always wear the appropriate personal protective gear when working with varnish and to always work in a well-ventilated area.



Frequently Asked Questions


Is There a Good Primer for Varnished Wood?

Considering that there are only a few paint types that are conducive to painting over varnished wood, there are only certain primers you can use. Acrylic, oil-based, and latex paints are great for painting over varnished wood, therefore you would use primers created for these specific paint types when painting over varnish (especially when using oil-based paints).


Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood Without Sanding?

When working with larger workpieces it can be a bit labor-intensive to use sanding paper or even a power sander. When painting over varnish you will need to sand the surface, and if you do not want to sand the surface conventionally, you can use deglosser or liquid sandpaper to save yourself some time and effort.


What Happens if You Paint Over Varnish?

While it is possible to paint over varnish, the result will likely be really bad. This is why it is always best to remove the varnish from the surface as much as possible before applying your new coat of paint. Remember that varnish makes the surface smooth and virtually frictionless, this means that there will be nothing for your paint to adhere to.