I’ve recently read some oversimplified advice by searching to see if you can paint over stain. You should ask a pro who has done it dozens of times: yes, it is out of the ordinary, but it’s not rocket science.
A one-minute video at the end of this post explains the basic problem: all stains bleed. Special paint primer stops the bleeding.
If you have to spray, you should wear a respirator. It’s a complex world to figure out, but I have explained it with my top pick, but people seem to prefer the the big dog, the full face mask respirator. Safety first.
- Prepare the wood. If necessary, wash with my go-to product to remove oils and dirt
- Fill holes and then de-gloss/sand the wood
- Prime with stain-blocking primer. Our favorite for most cases is Kilz Original.
- Repair with filler and/or caulk
- Now you can paint!
We will get to wood refinishing, but first this…
Can you paint over stain on interior walls?
Water leaks in walls are tough, but you can paint over stain of any kind with the right priming procedure and it’s pretty much the same. Water stains come from wood tannins and they will bleed through every coat of latex if not primed with exactly the same stain killing primer described below: this is the key.
If you want to lighten or darken stain, scroll down all the way down.
Can you paint over stain in wood?
Of course. Just follow the rules carefully.
How to Paint Over Stain in 5 Steps:
- Prepare the area for painting
- Fill holes and then de-gloss/sand the wood
- Prime with stain blocking primer
- Repair with filler and/or caulk
- Now you can paint over stain!
1 – Prepare the area for painting over the stain
Lay down drop cloths and clear a wide working area. If you’re painting a floor, empty the room. In all cases, an old table is very helpful here to use as your work base. Remove hardware such as knobs, hinges, door latches etc. In small pieces, it can be helpful to insert a hook or screw in the empty holes(use the same diameter so you don’t enlarge the hole). This will give you a handle for moving when you have wet paint, and for hanging while drying.
- Number the doors/parts and keep track of where they come from. Not all parts are interchangeable. We use a pencil to number the item in a hinge pocket or someplace unseen, then cover that pencil with some painter’s tape. We label the same number near or on its home position. This gives you freedom from having to track every piece.
- If necessary, wash with TSP to remove oils and dirt (oils will gunk up your sandpaper: not so good.
- Any dings or cracks? Use wood filler and let dry. For large holes or for items that get hard use, use Bondo.
2 – Degloss or sand the wood before painting
We start with 120 or150 grit sandpaper (higher=finer). For shiny coatings over the stain, the amount of sanding that the wood requires will depend on the state of the wood and type of stain and varnish used.
- Deglossers are the most dangerous chemical we use: you MUST have chemical gloves and a respirator: this one protects eyes and lungs from organic vapors, (read my simplified explanation about respirators plus my top pick), but those are very good things to have around anyway. This stuff evaporates incredibly fast–like a senator when environmentalists are in the building! Read the instructions very carefully and ventilate your house for hours afterward. This will harm you and your pets (but it far easier and faster than sanding!)
- In some cases, the stain may not be varnished and the primer may have no trouble adhering to the wood. In this case, you will only need to sand the rough spots.
- After sanding with 120/150, you can hit it lightly with some 220 grit for a very smooth surface.
3 – Prime the wood with stain killing primer (with sprayer info)
Regardless of stain color, you need a stain-blocking primer, or this might be called a stain killing primer. Our go-to can is Kilz Original. It’s water based and heavy stains may take 2 coats. In that case, we go with the nasty: BIN alcohol based white shellac—the Rolls Royce of primers, but very nasty. See my post about mold and these primers: we leave a brush in the can forever. This is for advanced users: easy to leave fat brush strokes. Every coat of any primer/paint you apply will have brush strokes visible in the end, so you want to apply a full even coat. You won’t get this exactly right unless you spray, just take your time and accept imperfections. Practice on the backsides of doors and less visible areas first.
- Hang doors if possible when painting, but if not, you have to paint one side, let dry, then flip. This is time-consuming for us pros, but we make sure we get paid for all the trips we have to make. This won’t matter if you are doing floors or woodwork etc. Doing plywood floors is tricky business.*
- Wait for the primer to dry: The waiting time depends on the type of primer used and the humidity of the air and temperature of the room. Plan to wait at least an hour or two, although it may take less time.
- Sand between coats and clean up the dust: this is the difference between an “okay” job that is a little rough and gritty and an excellent professional job. Careful not to rub primer off edges. A spray can helps here if you goof: it’s super fast drying.
- Sprayers—two recommendations for two budgets:
- We have an entire post just featuring 3 sprayers for 3 budgets.
- The best non-commercial paint sprayer today is hands down the Graco Pro 210 ES. It’s pricey but will last a lifetime with proper care. (The Magnum line costs less but is less reliable.)
- The budget version is the Wagner Flexio 590. It has a very reasonable price for what you get.
4 – It’s caulking time (yes, after the primer – caulk bonds better)
When wood is stained, you don’t see the cracks between pieces of wood that exist in the joints naturally. But when you paint over stain, they stick out like a sore crack. These must be caulked after the sanding because you cannot sand dried caulk! Use a quality “painter’s caulk”, a non-silicon caulk. Silicon may seem better (and for wet areas, it is), but it’s usually overkill plus its more difficult to use. Wipe the excess caulk with a dripping wet, fine weave rag (cloth diapers or flannel sheets are great here, not terrycloth). Remove excess water. Let it dry completely which may be overnight.
- Wipe all dust: tack cloths are nice here, but a damp cloth works fine: just don’t proceed until your wood is bone dry.
Read more about how to use a caulk gun here.
5- Can you paint over stain now? YES
advance, oil vs latex
Apply as many coats as needed, sanding lightly between coats with 220 grit or finer. Careful when sanding the corners and edges because it’s easy to accidentally remove your previous coatings. If you use a brush and latex paint (the easiest method) you will see brush strokes in your final product.
- Avoid brush strokes by spraying. This would be worth buying a home sprayer (there are 2 we have recommended above). We hang cabinet doors in a store-bought spray booth I got as a gift, or a very cool home-made spray booth in a garage or shed, hanging small items from hooks in the screw-holes. Woodwork could be sprayed if the surroundings are carefully masked. A tape and paper hand dispenser is key for this.
- Oil paints like the trusty Rust-oleum (not just for rust!), will leave little to no brush strokes: but they are much harder to work with and of course, there are the deadly fumes. Benjamin Moore's Advance is a water-based alkyd that dries much slower than latex and this causes the brush strokes to flatten out almost entirely. It is also difficult to work with but not nearly the hassle of oils. (Ben Moore website).
- Tip: too much paint in door hinge pockets and hardware spots causes re-hanging difficulties. Consider masking them, even if brushing.
- Pro tip: we use a roller to apply paint to big areas, just like a wall, then ‘tip it out’ with a brush: much faster. Even cabinet boxes are worth doing this way. Oh, bradthepainter!
*If you are doing plywood floors, there is an important step not menitioned here about primers. It is covered in this post all about painting plywood. The key point is that you cannot use any primer. Most SPF woods have resins that bleed through a simple primer without much sealant quality. Buy the good stuff mentioned in the above plywood post.
How to darken a light stain
No brainer. Strip the varnish or polyurethane and simply stain the wood as you wood any wood woodchuck. Do test carefully in hidden areas as stains multiply. Read below about strippers.
How to lighten dark stained wood
Well, if you are reading this, you are in for a world of hurt*. There is a stripper in your future, but not the kind you get in Tampa. The only way to remove a dark stain from wood is to take out the stained grain: first, you will stripping all varnish or poly-whatever is on there, and then you will be sanding the upper portion of the wood off and the dark stains with it. Think carefully about what it is like to sand in tiny corners, over and over and over.
If you go there girlfriend, look for a store that will dip your wood in a pool of stripper, and if not, you might consider a citrus based stripper as the old-fashioned ones are very nasty to work with. Good luck… but…
* But wait: you may not need to. Few people know that very old varnish (used a long time ago) will certainly have darkened over the years. The dark color you see may just be the varnish! Remove a section for testing and strip the varnish. It may be that the actual wood stain is not as dark as you thought and you can simply strip the finish and re-coat with a modern product (that will not darken like the old stuff). Glad you came to bradthepainter,com now aren’t cha?
Ask me anything on any topic! See the comments below.