From Trash to Treasure: The Easy Way to Paint Furniture

How to Paint Furniture (The Easy Way)

To an organizer, an empty desk is like manna from Heaven. So much functional storage, just waiting to be filled with containers and caddies. The possibilities are endless!

So when I stumbled upon this diamond in the rough at a thrift store, I couldn’t help myself. All those drawers were calling out to me: Save us from this fate. Disinfect us, paint us, fill us with meticulously organized office supplies. I had no choice but to haul this desk home (or rather, Hubs did).

How to rehab and paint old furniture

The desk was exactly what I had been searching for: small enough to fit in the space beneath my bedroom window, but not lacking in storage. And check out all that molding–a fresh coat of chalk paint would really make it pop.

Great details or not, there was no denying that this little guy needed a face-lift. And with a price tag too low to pass up, I decided I’d be just the person for the job.

Disclaimer: This post outlines my process and the results. This is by no means a guarantee that this approach is foolproof and will work on every piece of furniture. Exercise discretion and your best judgement when undertaking your own project. 

I started by giving the entire desk a good cleaning. I wiped all of the outer surfaces and inside each drawer. And look what I found below the bottom one:


A 1976 Ford/Dole campaign button! I looked it up on eBay, and it’s selling for a whopping $2.95. So much for Hubs’s early retirement.

Anyway…after I cleaned every nook and cranny, I removed all of the hardware and roughed up the wood with 150-grit sandpaper. I didn’t invest much time in this step, five minutes tops. There weren’t any major imperfections, such as deep scratches in the finish, so the job didn’t require much sanding. Just enough to smooth things out and help the paint stick.

When prepping furniture with more damage, you should start with a coarser grit (don’t go any lower than 80-grit) and work your way up to a finer grit until the surface is like butter. Just take care not to over-sand and damage the furniture.


As you can see, I taped the edges where I wanted clean lines. I know, I know–the drawers will hide any imperfections, but don’t try to reason with a perfectionist.

After wiping everything down with a damp cloth, I applied a coat of paint/primer before my chalk paint. Yes, chalk paint typically doesn’t require primer, but I’ve learned from past projects (where I tried to use white chalk paint over a dark stain) that it’s sometimes necessary.

I would have used KILZ (my favorite primer), but didn’t have any on hand. Since I’m impatient and didn’t feel like another trip to the store, I used what I had in my garage: Behr Premium Plus Interior Satin Enamel Paint and Primer (Ultra Pure White).

How to rehab and paint thrift store furniture

How to rehab and paint thrift store furniture

I lightly sanded the paint/primer before covering it with several coats of Valspar chalky finish paint in Kid Gloves (that’s the color). Why do I love chalk paint? 1. Minimal prep work. 2. Brushstrokes disappear once dried. 3. Ultra matte finish.

How to rehab and paint thrift store furniture


I know many people recommend specialized brushes with chalk paint, but guess what? I used a regular paintbrush and mini roller, and everything came out fine. But…learn from my mistake, and use a sponge roller rather than a fuzzy one. I started with one of those fluffy rollers and ended up with a desktop full of lint. I had to sand it off and start again. Grrr…

Next came the wax. Now, my method is somewhat unorthodox in the world of furniture rehabbing: I use floor wax. A few years ago, I purchased a coffee table from a woman who flipped furniture for a living, and she let me in on her finishing secret…

SC Johnson Paste Wax!

How to rehab and paint thrift store furniture

It’s super cheap (you can find it in most grocery store cleaning sections with the wood floor products) and easy to apply. Just make sure your workspace is well-ventilated. I used an old t-shirt (again, to avoid lint residue) to apply the wax in small sections, following the wood grain. I let it sit until cloudy (a minute or so) and then buffed it until smooth. It’s probably okay to use the furniture after a few hours, but I always let my pieces “cure” for a few days, just to be safe.

Some wax did collect around the delicious detailing on the front of the desk, but it wasn’t really noticeable and added to the antique look (if that’s what you’re going for). However, I wanted a cleaner aesthetic. The below picture shows the wax buildup before I removed it all with a toothpick. I promise, it wasn’t as tedious as it sounds.

How to rehab and paint old furniture

After the wax, the drawers went back in. A word of caution on the drawers…I painted the edges because I thought it looked more finished, but take care to not glob on the paint. The drawers might stick!

How to rehab and paint old furniture

How to rehab and paint old furniture

I considered buying new hardware or at least cleaning up the old handles, but in the end, the tarnished metal won me over. I think it contrasts nicely against the fresh white paint.

How to rehab and paint thrift store furniture

I styled the desk with a succulent and a few accessories. I’m still searching for a cute (and comfy) desk chair, a family photo to fill my new frame, and of course, some drawer organizers! I’ll share a peek inside the desk once I get everything situated.

How to rehab and paint thrift store furniture

Before I close, I wanted to include a few tips on finding thrift store furniture. No one wants to bring home junk, so here’s what to look for:

  1. Good bones (solid wood, no major structural issues, dovetailing as seen below).

How to rehab and paint old furniture

2. No funky smells. Open every drawer and door, and give it the sniff test. Most thrift store pieces will smell a little musty, which can be remedied with some airing out or KILZ primer. But if it stinks of cigarette smoke or mildew, don’t buy it.

3. Everything operates properly. Drawers slide smoothly, doors stay closed. Unless you’re open to doing additional repairs, steer clear of anything with functional issues.

4. Be willing to look past the surface imperfections. Water marks or ugly colors can be hidden beneath some paint. Judge the piece by its design–the lines, details, shape.

Happy hunting!



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