In our new section called "Ask Old Town Home" you have the opportunity to ask and have your questions answered to the best of our ability. Today's topic comes courtesy of Jen from Harrisonburg, Virginia. Jen asks:

My question is about how to get a smooth finish when painting wood furniture. I used the instructions from another blog perfectly and even used the exact paint that she raved about (Zinsser primer and Ben Moore Metal and Wood paint, low lustre in black). As suggested in the other blog, I used a foam roller to apply the paint which gave the paint an awful, rough texture on the wood. This was unexpected, and not what the blogger had promised. It almost felt like the roller was coming off in tiny pieces and adhering to the paint on the dresser! After the first coat dried, I ended up sanding most of the roughness off and re-applying another coat with a paintbrush which left bristle marks. The end result LOOKS great, but when I run my hands across the top I'm not happy with the texture. Do you have any tips that could make my life easier when I tackle my next furniture-painting project this summer? I love the look of painted furniture, but I'm afraid to get the same result again! Thanks.

Thanks, Jen. This is a great question, and one that we have a lot more first hand experience with now then we did at this time last year. Our information largely comes courtesy of our recent experience painting our salvaged front door and French doors last summer. We wanted as smooth and as high gloss of a finish as we could accomplish on our own, so I ended up doing a lot of research on the best possible methods and paints to achieve this look. This information can be generically applied to painting furniture or just about any wood surface. Here's what we learned:

Old Town Home's Answer:

The smoothness of finish on paint depends on three important factors: surface prep; the type and brand of paint and primer you use; and the methods and tools used for applying the paint. Taking a short cut or not selecting the correct approach in any of these areas with be quite detrimental to your final project, and even if you do everything right, you may still have a hard time. Essentially, obtaining a perfectly smooth finish in paint is hard, and it can be darn near impossible to achieve with a roller and brush.

  1. Surface Prep

    Last summer we covered the extensive process we used to prepare the surface of our doors for paint. After all, there's no way you'll get a smooth finished surface if the wood you're applying it to is rough and bumpy. 

    There are two aspects of surface prep that matter in achieving a smooth finish. The first is the prep you do prior to your first coat of primer, and the second is the prep you do between coats of primer or paint. Prior to priming, I like to use sandpaper in several stages, typically starting with 150 grit and working my way up to a 220 grit paper done (all done by hand). The smoothness left on bare wood after a nice 220 grit sanding is almost silky to the touch.

    Once you're happy with the texture of the wood you'll want to prime your surface with your primer of choice. We'll cover primer selection in the next section, but once the primer is dry you'll move onto the between coat surface prep.

    Between coats of paint the best method is to alter your sanding approach a bit. I used a wet sanding technique using 600 grit sandpaper on the primer, and 1500 grit paper between the coats of paint. The link to the right is the brand of high grit wet sanding paper I like to use on my projects. While wet sanding sounds complicated, it's actually a very straight forward process. Start by placing a little bit of water on the surface you are sanding and then use a sanding block with your paper to sand right through that water. The water creates a sort of suction between the paint and sandpaper and really lets the paper knock down any high spots in the paint or primer. The primary point of wet sanding between coats is just that -- it lets you take off the peaks of any bumps while leaving the valleys. After the high spots are removed, the next coat of paint can then fill in the valleys. Once you build up the paint with enough coats, you're left with a smooth finish since each coat works to smooth out the prior coat's imperfections.
  2. Paint and Primer

    This is a very sensitive subject. Some people swear by certain paint brands (waving our hands, we do), while others feel that "paint is paint." We feel that your finished surface is only as good as the qualify of the paint you're using, and that's especially true with the smoothness of your finish. In order to get a very smooth surface you need to have a paint that exhibits excellent "flow characteristics." 

    "What are flow characteristics" you ask? The flow characteristics in paint are the amount of settling or flowing the paint will do once it's applied to a surface and still wet. A very slow drying and thin or loose paint will tend to settle out once applied, where a fast drying and thick paint will tend to keep its ridges and bumps since it doesn't have has much time or tendency to settle down. The blog you followed that outlined how well the Zinsser primer worked (probably the shellac based primer) liked it because it was thin and left what seemed like a nice and smooth finish. For my money, you really want something that's designed for this sort of application. A good oil/alkyd primer from Benjamin Moore would do the trick quite well, or you could also use the Chromatic primer we used from 1-Shot on our French doors. Though it is a water based primer, the smoothness of the primer and excellent flow left an extremely smooth finish on our project. Unfortunately, there isn't a place online where I've been able to purchase this primer. Your best bet is to stop in on the 1-Shot website to find your local supplier.

    Beyond the primer, the type of paint is even more important. Quite honestly, you can't beat the flow of an oil paint. Today, latex just can't hold a candle to the smoothness of oil paint. Hopefully some day it will get there, but I'm not holding off on painting until that day comes. I'm typically more concerned about smoothness of finish in high gloss applications, and for those I've learned that Benjamin Moore C133 alkyd paint does a great job. But if I want the maximum smoothness of finish (and high gloss), I'll use 1-Shot lettering enamel. (See link to the right.) This stuff goes on smooth and then flows even smoother. We used a brush to apply it to our doors, and though you can see brush marks if you look closely, it isn't apparent at first glance. If you're looking for a lower lustre finish, 1-Shot produces a "de-glosser" that can be applied after painting. This knocks down the sheen but allows you to use their high quality paints to achieve the look you're going for.

  3. Methods and Tools

    The final critical aspects of achieving a truly smooth paint finish are the tools that you use to apply the paint to the job. I don't mind subtle brush marks as long as they go with the grain and are consistent and even. But in order to achieve nice looking brush marks I find a natural hair brush or high quality brush tends to work best for providing a smoother finish surface, but it does almost always leave brush marks. We did a whole "Painting Essentials" post a while back that outlined all of our favorite high quality brushes that we use.

    Beyond brushes, low nap and smooth rollers offer a finish without the brush ridges, though they seem to leave the textured "orange peel" surface rather than the perfectly smooth look you're going for. Theoretically, if you sand between coats and apply enough coats to the surface, it will eventually smooth out almost perfectly, but this will take many *many* coats to accomplish. I find that I can keep bits and pieces of rollers from coming off in my paint by vacuuming the roller prior to using it, then using painters' tape like a lint roller to pull off any other fuzz, and then vacuuming it one final time.  

    All that being said, the only way to achieve a truly perfectly smooth finish is to spray the furniture using an HVLP, airless, or other sprayer (think automotive style sprayer). Using even and smooth strokes with the proper settings, paint, and prep, you can apply paint to a surface in a way that gives you the perfectly smooth finish you are trying to achieve. It isn't easy, nor is it cheap if you're buying the tools yourself, but that's the only true way to make it happen.

    In order to use these tools, you'll need a piston driven or air driven system (like an air compressor), hoses, and a sprayer (like the one to the right) just to get it up and running. Let's not forget the spray booth or plastic to keep the paint out of areas it shouldn't go, and various masks and deflectors to avoid overspray and potential lung damage from breathing the paint. In other words, it's an investment. A frequent blog commenter, JC, has offered his advice in a previous comment and this is something we plan to eventually look into doing ourselves. 

    However, several places in most cities offer spray services. You just bring the furniture in, choose the paint color, and their professional painters (often autobody painters) will gladly take on a little extra work for a few extra dollars.

So there you have it. In our opinion, the combination of diligent prep work, high quality paint and primer, and the right tools for the job can leave you with the perfectly smooth finish you're looking for. Overkill? Maybe. But if you're insistent on a smooth-as-glass finish, this is the way we recommend you go.

If you're looking for an easier and less expensive way to achieve a "better" paint finish with minimal brush marks, we recommend you read our post on painting essentials. This will give you more information on the painting supplies and tools we use, as well as how we care for them to achieve the best finish. 

Well, what do you think of our advice? Have you been able to achieve the elusive perfectly smooth finish in a project you've worked on? What were your secrets to a job well done? Any assistance you can offer in the realm of "smooth paint" would be of a great help to other readers and me. Leave a comment for Jen and give her your two cents on what you think she can do to smooth out her bumpy paint..

Do you have a question? Just head on over to our "Ask" form, located in the right hand column of the site and fill out any questions you may have about our projects, your projects, a recipe you saw on our site, Alexandria, Washington, DC, or or anything you think we may be able to help you with. 

Disclaimer: Ask Old Town Home is meant simply as a friendly bit of advice and is provided free of charge. It is your responsibility to fully research any and all items related to projects or suggestions to ensure proper safety and code precautions and regulations are fully followed. In other words, any advice we provide is just our opinion, and our opinion is only worth the price we charge for it. :-)

Comments 14


5/23/2012 at 5:07 PM
Wonderful answer to a difficult question. I just wanted to add to the comments about HVLP spray painting.

The expense of an HVLP spray system seems more daunting than it really is, especially if you already own an air compressor. Even small (pancake) compressors are often sufficient for medium sized paint jobs (i.e. your vestibule doors).

This gun from Harbor Freight regularly goes on sale for ~$35.00 and is a very good entry level gun.

It is frequently discussed on wood finishing forums and receives very positive reviews. (Note: the other guns sold at Harbor Freight should be avoided.)

Additionally, spraying outside is a very viable alternative to building a spray booth in your garage or basement. Transfer rates for most HVLP spray systems are close to 90%. There is very little overspray, and often an old tarp to protect the concrete path in the back yard is all that I use.

A respirator/mask rated for paint and organic vapors costs about $30 and replacement filters are pretty inexpensive too.

The amount knowledge needed to get good looking finishes from an HVLP sprayer is also deceptive. It is much less complicated than it appears, especially if you only want to do one type of finish (e.g. just spraying paint or just lacquer top coats). Spray Finishing Made Simple by Jeff Jewitt is a phenomenal resource for the first time HVLP user. It even comes with a companion DVD demonstrating the techniques discussed in the text.

Any success that I have had spray finishing I attribute to Jeff Jewitt’s book and having the good entry level Harbor Freight gun to learn with.
Awesome, thank you for the additional information! We have a couple of projects coming up that will require us to paint furniture. I think it's about a perfect time to start looking into a sprayer to add to our tool collection.
5/24/2012 at 1:16 PM
Great advice. Be sure to watch water on shellac finishes, though. It can bring up a white haze that ruins the underneath coat. There's one builtin in THE bungalow that I haven't yet put right from an owner application error...... (who me, get in over my head? you must be joking - not.)

Great tip. Thanks Karla!
Different shades
8/23/2012 at 1:11 PM
I tend to use a foam brush when I paint or varnish. It leaves a very flat surface and no ridges like bristle brushes, and no 'orange peel' effect or bubbles like rollers.

Wire wool or one of those nylon pads to rub between coats and after the final coat.

You can't use the foam brushes with shellac or sanding sealer for too long as it seems to eat away the foam
8/13/2014 at 10:46 AM

For a perfect finish when using brushes use a top quality oil-based paint and add 10% Penetrol paint conditioner to it. Penetrol extends the drying time and lets the paint flatten out to a mirror surface.

Use top quality brushes too, not the ones from Home Depot.

11/21/2014 at 11:20 PM

Paint in general terms is made for what would be an average room temperature or outdoor temperature for the market where those paints are sold. The problem is, whenever there is a deviation in temperature either up or down that paint will be more difficult to brush out or roll on to the wall. Indoor water based paints, Emulsions or Latex tend to dry too fast when the temperature is warmer than average, and the result of this is that each new section painted can have streaks because the piece before has dried out too quickly.

1/11/2015 at 12:29 AM

You mention that "several places in most cities offer spray services. You just bring the furniture in, choose the paint color, and their professional painters (often autobody painters) will gladly take on a little extra work for a few extra dollars." I would love to find a place that would be able to do this in NYC. Do you have any suggestions as to how to go about doing so?

4/24/2015 at 2:34 AM

Just had wood work professionally painted and it is rough and chalky to the touch. I want it to be smooth like it was before. What needs to be done.

6/6/2015 at 4:25 AM

For a perfect finish when using brushes use a top quality oil-based paint and add 10% Penetrol paint conditioner to it. Penetrol extends the drying time and lets the paint flatten out to a mirror surface.

Use top quality brushes too, not the ones from Home Depot.

1/16/2016 at 9:24 PM

This tutorial is amazing! So perfect for a beginner like me. I really appreciate the detail. I am painting a dresser and just finished my first coat of paint. I used an extender and almost everything feels smooth but looks streaky. Is this what you meant by the first coat of paint will look bad? I’m worried and wondering how much I should sand? Thanks for this tutorial!!

4/1/2016 at 6:36 PM

I'm not a professional, but a homeowner who has done a lot of painting. Paints are harder to work with these days because of VOC regulations. My favorite, Ben. Moore Satin Impervo can't be used straight from the can anymore. I add 20 percent Penetrol to help minimize bursh marks.. As for primer, I've had good results with an old standby – Kilz. I tried Zinsser oil primer (hyped a lot in blogs) and hated it. It looked like corduroy when dry and was very hard to sand out. In the can, it was as thick as tar and took forever to stir. Luckily, I didn't use it on my whole door after how I saw it perform on touch-ups. I put the lid back on and went and got another can of Kilz Original for my unfinished cabinet doors. It sands satiny smooth.

9/22/2016 at 2:06 PM

Please can you give any advice on how to spray paint a very smooth plastic/fibreglass Adams fire surround. It only houses an electric coal effect fire, so heat will not be a problem.
I am. 70 yr old female D I Y er. And would love my lovely surround to be returned to its original white.
God Bless....

11/30/2016 at 3:12 PM

I'm moving to a new house, and my new room has a built-in-desk that is painted. I absolutely love the color, it matches the whole room. But my problem is I don't like the texture of it, but I don't want to re-paint it because I'm scared of getting the wrong color. Is there a way to make it smooth without having to re-paint? ??Love your blog!??

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