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Can You Paint Over Stain? “It’s not THAT Complicated”

example of wood stain that you can paint over
Can you paint over stain? Any stain? Yes! These days all the realtors you work for ask you if you can paint over stain: cabinets, floors, trim. It's like a mantra. I love wood, but sometimes you do what you gotta do. Lucky you, you don’t need to strip the varnish or polyurethane off!
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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. This special type of 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 big dog, the full face mask respirator which protects the eyes too. Safety first.

Quick Summary

  1. Prepare the wood. If necessary, wash with my first choice cleaner to remove oils and dirt: TSP works too but it’s harsh
  2. Fill holes and then de-gloss/sand the wood
  3. Prime with stain-blocking primer. Our favorite for most cases is this Kilz
  4. Repair with filler and/or caulk
  5. Now you can paint!

We will get to wood refinishing, but first this…

Can you paint over stain on interior walls?

You can paint over stain of any kind with the right priming procedure and it’s pretty much the same for all stains. Water stains come from wood tannins and they will bleed through every coat of latex (like most other stains) if not primed with exactly the same stain killing primer described below: this is the key.

If you want to lighten or darken stained wood, scroll down all the way down.

Can you paint over stain in old wood?
Yes, of course. Just follow the rules carefully.

We have a post just about changing from interior stained trim to paint. For all of this work, make sure you have all your painting tools ready.

How to Paint Over Stain in 5 Steps:

  1. Prepare the area for painting
  2. Fill holes and then de-gloss/sand the wood
  3. Prime with stain blocking primer
  4. Repair with filler and/or caulk
  5. 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.
  • 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

We start with 120 or 150 grit (a 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 are the most dangerous chemical we use: you really MUST have chemical gloves and a respirator: the one shown above protects eyes and lungs from organic vapors. I use the half mask described in my explanation about respirators plus my top pick), but those are very good things to have around anyway.
  • 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. This will harm you and your pets, but it far easier and faster than sanding! Ventilate the whole house.
  • 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.

paint over stain

3 – Prime the wood with stain killing primer (with sprayer info)

Regardless of stain color, you need a stain-blocking primer. Our go-to stain blocker is Kilz Premium. It’s water-based and heavy stains may take 2 coats.

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. See my post about mold paint and these primers: we leave a brush in the can forever.

Note: 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 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.
  • Painting plywood floors? Read that post: it 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 helps here if you goof: it’s super-fast drying. Don’t breathe it.
  • Sprayers—two recommendations for 2 budgets:

We have an entire post just featuring 3 sprayers for 3 budgets.

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 is for bathrooms, but it may seem better (and for wet areas, it is). But it’s usually overkill everywhere else, plus its more difficult to use and it stinks like a dead skunk in the middle of the road.

Wipe the excess caulk with a dripping wet, fine weave rag (cloth diapers or flannel sheets are great here, not terry cloth). 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- Can you paint over stain now? YES

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 (there are 2 we have recommended 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 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!
Can you paint over stain on furniture?
Can you paint over stain on furniture? Yes, but… sniff, sniff, it was so nice before!

*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 have resins that bleed through a simple primer without much sealant quality. Buy the good stuff above or what is 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

paint stain on woodWell, 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 cha?

paint over stain
Who works harder? This MALE stripper or bradthepainter? Answer: 10 adoring women. Stil, I love my work. I love my work. I. Hrrmphfff.

 

Ask me anything on any topic! See the comments below.

Video: all stains bleed

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18 thoughts on “Can You Paint Over Stain? “It’s not THAT Complicated””

  1. I just put a coat of Zinsser Mold Killing Primer over some (cleaned up but still visible) mold stains on my ceiling that are from condensation. In the past, using Kilz Latex Stainblocking primer, the same stains have come back. My question is, having done one coat of Zinsser and still seeing the stains through it, should I just apply another coat and hope it covers further, or should I now use the BIN that you refer to on top of my other coat? Any advice you can lend to help stop the stains showing through would be much appreciated! Thanks!!

    • Hi Bailey. The reason the stain is coming back is that there are different kinds of stain blocking primers for different problems. Your problem was clearly too much for the primer you used. Yes is the answer to your question, whether or not you should upgrade your primers to the nuclear powered BIN. I can guarantee you that nothing will come through, but you have to know that this is very nasty stuff. Your last resort short of changing wall board.
      Read my post on respirators and buy one! It’s good for bleaching the tub also! 🙂
      But this BIN is a shellac, it has an alcohol base, dries unbelievably fast and stinks to high heaven for about an hour. Open windows and protect your skin and lungs!
      The product you want is: https://amzn.to/2MSAef5
      Zinsser 00904 B-I-N Pigmented Shellac Primer-Sealer & Stain Killer, White, 1 Quart

      Buy a brush/roller you will throw away: sad but true, you cannot clean tools well enough to use again. Don’t go too cheap on brush/roller as bristles etc will fall out and stick on wall. Tip: I cut off the handle of an old brush and leave in the can! Disgusting later, but works over and over! Regular rubbing alcohol works to clean your hands/drips.

  2. We built a bookcase with different woods, stained it, and do not like the outcome. There is no varnish over the stain. We now want to paint the bookcase. What steps to we have to take to apply a latex paint?

    • Thanks for writing. It’s easier because you did not varnish it… lucky you.
      Now, just use the BIN primer liked in the post above. This will seal out all the stain and wood sap (knots etc).
      It’s the nastiest stuff in a can, but is amazing. Have rubbing alcohol handy to clean up.
      Good luck!

  3. I built a console table, various pines.
    1. I bought MW Polyshades (espresso) and stained the legs.
    2. I bought latex in off white to water down to use over the stained legs.
    3. light bulb went off!……whitewash latex over a stain that has polyurethane??
    Me Thinks not.
    4.. Now what is the easiest solution to this problem?
    5. I was thinking maybe I could use MW Polyshades in Pickling shade over the espresso, but it may not be white enough. Instead of having to strip the polyshade?

    • I’m confused by the products you selected. A dark stain and then white paint? So you changed your mind? Happens to the best of them… now you want to do a lighter stain over the white?
      Can you send me a photo? What is your goal? Now the stain?
      If so, strip the white off if you applied it (a citrus stripper).
      If you have now espresso, and held off on the white, btw, it’s not eXpresso for all of you Starbucks hacks reading this!! ha ha just kidding…it is ESPResso… and you want to go to a lighter shade (I don’t know Pickling), it’s going to be tough.
      Stripping stain means sanding and sanding down, down down. Rock Lobster!
      You could try a stripper on the espresso, but you won’t get much out.
      Let me know if I’m totally off.. but don’t argue about ESPRESSO. My ambrosia. My love. Ah.
      I’m getting crazy in the comments..try to behave in the posts!

  4. Hi Brad, no I purposely stained it espresso (Siri doesn’t know it’s ES ha ha) in order to use a white laytex watered down paint over that stain so it will show through the paint. that’s the whitewash look I was going But now I realize the latex paint isn’t going to work good over the polyurethane that is in the polyshade stain. I haven’t applied that paint yet, it only has the poly shade espresso on it.

    • Ok, don’t. You need to research (ask a paint store) what will stick. The latex white certainly will not. Perhaps an oil-based white thinned down? No idea what I’m talking about… I always tell customers to take photos to the paint store and let them see… Good stores have good advice…find the old folks, not the young ones. Am I an age-ist? A-yep.

  5. Brad, I just purchased a whitewashed oak end table and it’s just too light to work . It will cost too much to insure it and send it back. Ir’d work if it was painted a lustrous grey. Do I have to sand this new finish? What about the Home Depot paint that will adhere to anything?

    • Hi. If it’s an expensive piece, you could certainly try a paint claiming to adhere to anything: I have never heard of that… If you want to do it right, sand the finish with a medium grit sandpaper (about 150 grit), being sure to scratch it well everywhere, then apply BIN primer shown on this page. Then you are all set to apply whatever you like and it will definitely stick.

  6. Hi Brad, so I’m having to pain all of the stained trim in my new house(wife’s idea of course lol). I’m in between two primers right now that I want to use. PPG gripper or cover stain. I know gripper is water based and cover stain is oil based. I plan on sanding between coats like you said above. I’m not familiar with Gripper and I’m worried that it being water based it will not grip well to the trim. It’s a big job as I have to paint the walls and ceilings to so I want to do it right. What brush do you recommend to use for the primer application? I don’t want to go cheap but I also don’t want to go to expensive seeing as how I will more than likely just throw it away. Also if I use the cover stain will it be fine laying down BM advance paint over it?

    • Hi. We have a new post just about this. The primer you want is Prime Lock, an oil-based stain blocker. You really need the stain blocking or you will have wood knots etc coming through…possibly. You are right about sanding It is essential to sand well the first time, then between coats is important as well especially if dust lands on your wet paint. Please read the new post: I’ll email you soon.
      The products you want are:
      Prime Lock
      Purdy XL brush
      Advance or Regal are best for top coats. I explain in that post.
      -b

  7. Hi – I have a cedar glider that sits on my porch. I have put stain/finish on it several times. The front exposed to the elements doesn’t retain the stain/finish but the back does. I want to paint it so I went over most of it with a palm sander to smooth it. The front was quite porous and dry but the stain /finish looks good on the back. Can I spray paint it and will the spray paint cover the back?

    • Hi. Well, I know nothing about gliders, but I’m guessing the lighter the better. If you just want protection and don’t care about looks, apply the Eco-Wood stain: it’s once in a life, but you have to accept one of 5 colors and then front and back won’t match..but you will never need to treat it again…for life. I think if you want satin to match, just keep doing the maintenance that you have been doing but be sure to use an exterior finish.

  8. Hi Brad. I have a cherry dining table that I am refinishing. I took all the finish off using the different grades of sandpaper. I chose to use an oil based stain in clear on the table top. The cherry wood came back to life. Looks great. My next step was to make the base of the table black. I used an oil based black stain. After applying 3 coats with wiping and light sanding between coats, it still shows the grain of the wood coming through. I have not used any polyurethane yet. My question to you is, can I paint over the black stain with a black latex paint without having to prime it? I just want the black finish to not look so washed out. Also if I can switch to latex, would you still finish it with a polyurethane? I still have 8 chairs to refinish to black from natural cherry. Would love your input before starting that part of the project. Thank you.

    • Hi. Yes indeed, just sand lightly and use an oil based paint. Always do a test..let the test spot dry and see how it bonds. You’ll be fine.
      Also, more coats of black stain, or a blacker black or more opaque black, it you want to stay in the stain family. Opaque stain is pretty much paint.
      You can probably do latex, but again, test.
      Poly over either will be fine.
      Good luck!

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