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, painting over stained wood is not rocket science, if you prep right. Below we have a section on how to paint over stained wood in 5 steps.
Can you paint over stained wood without sanding? Yes, with a very toxic liquid known generally as Liquid Sandpaper. Tip: we professionals like to use sandpaper in the wide-open spaces trim because that goes very fast… and we use the Liquid Sandpaper in the tight corners: you have to de-gloss the entire surface for the primer to bond properly. More below about de-glossing both ways.
Spaying? 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 respirator pick in this post. Some people seem to prefer the big dog, the full face mask respirator which protects the eyes too. Safety first.
Quick Summary of Important Points
- Prepare the wood. If necessary, wash with my first choice cleaner to remove oils and dirt: TSP works too but it’s harsh
- Fill holes and then de-gloss/sand the wood
- Prime with stain-blocking primer. My favorite for the toughest cases is alcohol-based BIN (quart). Here is a gallon.(Other primers below.)
- Repair with filler and/or caulk
- Now you can paint!
Most people want to know…
Is it OK to paint over stained wood?
Yes, painting stained wood is not hard. Just follow the rules on how to paint stained wood carefully.
A one-minute video at the end of this post explains the basic problem: all stains bleed. This special type of paint primer stops the bleeding.
What kind of paint do you use on stained wood/water stains in walls?
You can paint over any kind of stain with kind of paint as long as you do the right priming procedure. It’s pretty much the same for all stains. If you don’t use the right stain-blocking primer, water stains come from wood tannins and they will bleed through every coat of latex paint. Good stain killing primers are described below: this is the key. My favorite paint for trim is in #5 below.
If you want to lighten or darken a stained wood, scroll down all the way down.
How to Paint Over Stained Wood in 5 Steps:
- Prepare the area for painting over stained wood
- Fill holes and then de-gloss/sand the wood
- Prime with stain blocking primer
- Repair with filler and/or caulk
- Now you are ready to paint over any kind of stain!
1. Prepare the area for painting over stained wood
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 cut-out or someplace unseen, then cover that pencil with some painter’s tape. We label the same number near or on the location where it came from. This gives you freedom from having to track every piece.
- If greasy, wash with TSP to remove oils and dirt (oils will gunk up your sandpaper: not so good.
- I no longer use TSP as it’s too nasty: Simple Green is the best in the kitchen too.
- 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: KEY POINT
We start with 120 or 150 grit (see this variety pack of sandpaper). The numbers? 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 like this Klean Strip are the most dangerous chemical we use: you really MUST have chemical gloves and a respirator (see above). I would recommend the respirator shown above protects eyes and lungs from organic vapors when using this substance. Often, I use the half mask described in my explanation about respirators plus my top pick). A good respirator is a very good thing to have around for many reasons. Think of the zombie apocalypse.
- Deglossers evaporate incredibly fast—like a senator when environmentalists are in the building! Read the instructions very carefully and ventilate your house for hours afterward. The fumes will harm you and your pets, but it far easier and faster than sanding! Ventilate the whole house for a long time until the smell is totally gone.
- 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. Professionally, we de-gloss it all.
- 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
Regardless of stain color, you need a stain-blocking primer. One of my go-to stain blockers is Kilz Premium. It’s water-based and heavy stains may take 2 coats.
How many coats of primer? How to know if you should apply one or two: The rule is that one coat will block most stains from coming through the top-coats of paint. However, after you apply it, if what you see is more brown than white, (assuming the stian was brown), just hit it again. If you don’t, you may be ok, but if the stain can leech into the top-coats, it will come through all your coats! So be safe and do the insurance coat. If the stain bleeds into your paint, you’ll have to do that extra coat of primer then MORE top-coats. So you see now: it may be unnecessary, but if in doubt, do it.
In many cases the stain you are going over will be sealed with a good stain-blocking primer like this Kilz, but it is not the best. It is suitable for many, or in most cases. But stain does bleed through some primers so…
Use the best: If you don’t want to take chances on having the stain bleed through a water-based primer, go with the nasty: BIN alcohol based white shellac—the Rolls Royce of primers, but very nasty. Shake/stir very well every 10 minutes as the solids settle out fast. See my post about mold paint and these primers: we leave a brush in the can forever, and just drag it out to ‘spot-prime’. Yes, nasty, but I don’t want to waste a brush every time I need a quick spot.
There is a different BIN “shellac” but it’s water-based and not as good at blocking stains. But the alcohol-based is difficult to work with as it dries very fast and gets gummy. This water-based “synthetic shellac” is very good, just not as good.
- Hang doors where they will go 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.
- Read this if you are painting plywood floors you need a good primer. Plywood can be 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 of BIN (the alcohol-based ‘good stuff’) helps here if you goof and need a quick spot: it’s super-fast drying. Don’t breathe it.
More on sprayers in #5 below.
4. It’s caulking time (yes, after the primer)
When wood is stained or natural, you don’t see the cracks between pieces of wood that exist in the joints naturally. But when you paint wood, they stick out like a sore crack.
They should be caulked after the primer also: caulk bonds poorly to porous surfaces (but it’s not the end of the world if you caulk unprimed wood).
Also, sand your primer before you caulk because you cannot sand dried caulk! And dust sticks to unpainted caulk.
Use a quality “painter’s caulk”, and in most cases, I use a non-silicon caulk. Silicon is for bathrooms, but it may seem better (and for wet areas, it is). But silicone usually overkill everywhere else, plus its more difficult to use and it stinks.
Wipe the excess caulk with a dripping wet, fine weave rag (cloth diapers or flannel sheets are great here, not terry cloth-too rough). Remove excess water. Let it dry completely which may take 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. Linked posts there teach how to load a caulk gun etc.
5. Painting at last
Apply the primer that you chose (above) for your situation. Sand lightly between coats with 180 or 220 grit or finer. Careful when sanding the corners and edges because it’s easy to accidentally remove your previous coatings.
- Hate brush strokes? Get a perfectly smooth finish by spraying.
- Big job? This is when it would be worth buying a home sprayer (I have recommended sprayer types in #3 above). We hang cabinet doors in a store-bought spray booth I got as a gift: nice, thanks Sis. Perfect for a garage or shed, hanging small items from hooks in the screw-holes. Woodwork could be sprayed if the surroundings are carefully masked.
- Oil paints like the trusty Rust-oleum rust paint (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 the door hinge cut-outs and hardware spots causes re-hanging difficulties. Consider masking them, even if brushing. Apply carefully where the hardware will go.
- Pro tip: we use a roller to apply paint to big areas, just like a wall, then ‘tip it out’ with a brush tip: much faster. Even cabinet boxes are worth doing this way.
- The Magnum X5 comes from Graco shown here: the best name in pro sprayers…but the Magnum is the DIY line for homeowners
- The budget version is the Wagner Flexio 590. It has a very reasonable price for what you get.
- A tape and paper hand dispenser is key for this. Read more about how to spray in pint #4 here.
Brushing: 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 and sand lightly between coats. You won’t get a ‘factory finish’ unless you spray, just take your time and accept imperfections.
Read about DIY airless sprayers here. I have also written about small low-pressure sprayers “HVLP” sprayers some of which can spray latex. Finally, there are now handheld airless sprayers that spray at about 2/3 the pressure of the big ones, but use a 1-liter cup of paint. They can all easily shoot latex.
*If you are doing plywood floors, there is an important step not mentioned here about primers. It is covered in this post all about painting plywood. The key point is that you cannot use just any primer. Most SPF woods (spruce, pine, fir) have resins from tree knots that bleed through a simple primer without much sealant or stain-blocking quality. Buy the good stuff above or what is mentioned in the above plywood post.
A few special cases
How to darken a light stain
No brainer. Strip the varnish or polyurethane and simply stain the wood as you wood any wood wood, chuck. Do test carefully in hidden areas as stains can be tricky. 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 got at your bachelorette party (see her picture). 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 you?
Ask me anything on any topic! See the comments below.