How to Breathe New Life into Old Furniture

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The generations of our mothers and grandmothers had a strong penchant for treating furniture as absolute necessities without paying too much attention to the aesthetics. We were raised like that too. The only difference now is that the home interiors are stripped from the heavy tones ornate armoires and chests bring to the room. The difference then was that the furniture was built to last and so all pieces were distinguishable & unique – hence, the reason why some pieces travel from one generation to the next.

The problem today?

What was once fresh and elegant now seems too passé for our taste and often boring. Old furniture is distinguished for its dark brown tones which make modern living rooms and bedrooms depressing. We still need the grandma’s chest, the entertainment furniture, the old armoire (a gift from the in-laws) and definitely the coffee table but also want to lighten up the room.

One way to do that is to repaint them. One stroke of a different hue is enough to change entirely the appearance of an old table, bookcase, or chest. You can go for a solid color or the distressed look. We chose the latter since we simply love it and are fans of the wabi-sabi interior design.

Why don’t we just kick the old furniture in the curb and just buy new pieces that will suit our lifestyle and home interior design instead? Yes, we can definitely do that. On the other hand, we can refurbish the old ones to align with our taste in the home. Why?


  • It’s cheaper than buying new furniture or hiring an expert
  • It’s one of the most cost-effective ways to remodel the home
  • Some old tables or chests might have a sentimental value
  • It’s an easy way to change the homestyle & color
  • You get to have unique furniture in your home
  • It will be a great interior idea if you fancy the wabi-sabi look
  • You give old furniture the chance to play a new role
  • You can transform second-hand pieces
  • It’s time to bring back into the house the old wooden bookcase you keep in the garage
  • The wood tones are classic but depressing too. A fresh hue will make you happier
  • You don’t need to be an expert to do the job

What’s the downside of this task?

  • It requires plenty of space, especially if you have bulky furniture
  • It will devour your free time
  • The work-space will be messy for a while
  • You need to be very careful to cause no damage to the furniture or property

Clearly, the disadvantages of the task can easily be surpassed, especially if you can work on the porch, have a big balcony, or don’t mind a little mess in the living room for a while. Since this is one of the easiest ways to change the looks of the living room or add the old chest to the bedroom (and thus use old furniture for a new purpose), it’s definitely worth your while.

2 helpful tips

  • It’s always helpful to engage in such tasks during the spring, summer or early autumn and when the weather is still nice. Not only can you work outside but the furniture will dry faster too.
  • Since the job involves plenty of sanding, it’s preferable to do the job outside or in the garage so that your house won’t get dusty.

The supplies you need to repaint the old furniture

  • Gloves
  • Face mask
  • Craft paper or plastic
  • Sandpaper
  • Electric sander (optional)
  • Paint
  • Primer (optional)
  • Sealer
  • Brushes (roller)

Protect the floor

Don’t underestimate the importance of covering the floor with drop cloths, plastic, or craft paper. You might have a steady hand or decide to work outdoors but still, paint splashes are often unavoidable. And it’s a pity to waste time and put a lot of effort to scrub them off afterward. Don’t forget to cover the whole work area and not just under the furniture. After all, you will need the brushes and paint close to you and it’s vital that the floor is protected from them too.

Protect your hands

Avoid scrubbing paint off your hands too by wearing gloves. The truth is that there is no health concern here. The paints are not harmful today otherwise we wouldn’t use them indoors but still having to wash over and over the paint off your hands will be frustrating, especially if you have to show up at work Monday morning all neat and clean. Just get a regular pair of gloves and you will be all set.

Get sandpaper or a power sander

You will find all kinds of sandpaper in your local hardware store. You can ask the people there which ones will be best for the job but they usually come out in different grit sizes. When you shop for sandpaper, you will be given choices among grit sizes (80-grit, 150-grit etc.). It’s crucial to remember that the higher the number, the finer the grit. The smaller sizes indicate that the sandpaper’s grains are larger.

Which sandpaper do you need? A smaller grit-size and thus a coarser sandpaper is useful when the glossy finish of the existing furniture is intact or thick. If the varnish of the furniture is already worn, prefer a larger grit-size so that you won’t ruin the surface. If you are not sure of which one to get, go for a medium grit size, like a 100 or 150 grit sandpaper and then sand carefully. Your intention is not to expose the bare wood but make the surface rough enough for the primer or paint to adhere to it.

Sandpaper is cheap and each pack contains quite a few sheets. So, you can get different sizes. Before you decide how many sandpapers you need, consider how many pieces of furniture you are planning to paint and of course, their size.

Now, the easiest way to do this phase of the furniture remodeling is to get a power sander. It will save you time and efforts and they are not all expensive. Unless you only plan to paint one small piece of furniture, it’s totally worth getting an electric sander. Prefer one that includes a dust collection bag. Some can get attached to the vacuum cleaner too. Don’t forget to check if it includes sandpaper and whether or not the pieces included are enough for your project.

Whether you sand manually or not, wear a dust mask. You will also find face masks in the hardware store.

We found a trustworthy power sander if you want to bye one…

Buy the right brushes

There is no need to buy the most expensive brush in the hardware store but it’s important to remember that the cheap ones might annoy you. The problem with low-quality paint brushes is the bristles. When you apply the paint, the bristles might come off and remain there mixed with the paint ruining the appearance of the freshly painted surface.

Between synthetic and natural bristles, prefer the former for water-based paints – that’s the paint we recommend. Between long and short bristles, prefer the former for convenience.

Now, the size of the paintbrush depends on the size of the furniture. Remember that if you have a large piece of furniture or a flat surface, you can also use a small roller. The paintbrush will come handy for the edges, rounded parts, or details. As for the width of the brushes, you need small ones if you only intend to paint details but larger ones if this is going to be your main tool.

The number of brushes you’ll need is subject to the number of colors you’ll apply. To make your life easier, get as many brushes as the colors you’ll use. And don’t forget to consider how many people will be involved in the job. If you are planning to paint furniture along with your better half, you need brushes for both of you.

Choose your colors

You say: I want to paint furniture gray. Then, the salesman in the hardware store will say: Sure, which gray do you want? That’s a small illustration of what will happen if you are not very specific about the color you want. Keep in mind that each color is available in many tones. When it comes to gray, for example, you will be offered options among fossil, cloud, silver, smoke, fog, ash, coin etc. Okay, you don’t have to be exact about the tone but it would be helpful if you knew the shade of your preference or the shade of gray that will best match the living room décor. That’s one way to consider the huge chapter called colors.

Then, it’s about choosing the actual hue. That’s entirely up to you but remember that you are trying to brighten up the space here. Avoid brownish colors. Invest in whites, grays, light greens and blues, or even reds and their variations. Intense colors are great for accent furniture. For example, we wanted to distress some old small tables and chose a green color to create the impression of a corroded appearance. One more thing to consider is the size of the furniture. Large pieces and intense colors are not a good combination. Imagine painting a big bookcase or chest black, red or blue. Unless you want it to act as the focal point in the room, it will only overwhelm it.

This is how we distressed our furniture...

5 things to consider when it comes to color

  1. The hue you see on the color chart is the one you get. BUT…when you apply it on the furniture, it seems darker. That’s because the larger the surface, the darker a color looks. It’s not actually darker but it seems to be so due to the large surface. So, keep this in mind when you choose colors.
  2. You can make colors appear lighter or darker. So, if you run into the above problem, you can simply mix the paint with more water and the color will seem lighter. Or you can do the reverse – if you want it darker.
  3. Always take into account that the colors you see in a hardware store are affected by the artificial light and the size of the store. Homes are usually smaller and so the colors seem different. It’s like buying a television. It looks rather small in the store but when you bring it home, it seems huge. It’s all about scale & proportion. In the house, you have windows and large openings. Therefore, the light is completely different from that at the store. The colors usually look lighter & brighter at home.
  4. You can mix & match colors, especially if you want the old furniture to look refreshed but…old. For example, you can mix different grays or whites and greens. Or you can use the same color in two different ways: once mixed with more water and once not mixed with water at all. The latter will be a bit darker.
  5. Don’t get disappointed once you apply the first coat. After the very first strokes, the result will be yucky. You need 2-3 hands to get the best results, especially if you opt for a solid color. Distressed appearances are more forgiving. If you miss some points, it’s not the end of the world. After all, when the paint dries, you will sand the furniture again.

Speaking of distressed furniture, let’s see how you will do that. The short version is this: you paint the furniture and then ruin parts of the paint. Nice, ha?

We call them distressed furniture. We say that we’ll use the aging method to refurbish furniture. This also goes as patina. This is actually the greenish look corroded surfaces get over the years. It is noticed on steel items or wood surfaces. Now, we do that intentionally to give the impression that our old furniture is truly old but have a character too without emitting bad odors or looking ready to collapse. In other words, they are refreshed but distressed.

How to distress your old wood furniture?

You go through the above steps of sanding and painting. When these two phases are done, you need to wait till the paint is dry. Then you manually sand again the edged parts of the furniture, around the drawers or ornamental details. You simply want to give the impression of aging and so you don’t need to put a lot of force when sanding.

One small tip: when it comes to large surfaces (like the surface of a dining table), the sandpaper might form lines/scratches, especially if you put pressure. It’s best to be gentle and use a thick sandpaper that will create the patina look in an effortless manner.

Whether or not you like the charm of aging, make the surface water resistant

Naturally, if you don’t like the idea of patina, you simply skip this step and paint the furniture a solid color. In either case, you must make sure the freshly painted furniture is water resistant even if it’s not placed in the bathroom or used in the kitchen or basement where there is often humidity. Should you decide to clean the furniture tomorrow with a wet cloth, you don’t want it to be absorbent. It’s best to seal the furniture to protect it from water spills and humidity. If you have chosen a whitish color for your furniture, avoid polyurethane because it will turn yellowish over time. And for both the sealers and paints, prefer water based ones for reduced fumes.

Prime or not?

Most of the times, furniture which is first sanded doesn’t need a primer. But it’s best to prime on three occasions:

  1. When you are painting wood with red undertones

Red undertones have a tendency to bleed through the fresh paint and will do so if the color you plan to apply is lighter than the one already there. The primer will keep them from bleeding.

  1. When you are applying a lighter color than the one of the furniture

 Naturally, if your furniture is black or dark brown and you want to apply a light blue or white color, you will need plenty of coats to achieve that. In this case, use a primer first to reduce the number of coats.

  1. When you don’t sand the furniture

In this case, the primer will help the paint adhere better and faster.

Pay attention to the hardware

If you can remove the knobs or handles, your job will be easier since you won’t have to strive to cover them with a painters tape. Even if you do so, it’s really hard to avoid painting over them and will even be harder to clean them later on. If you don’t like them, that’s your chance to replace them. Another solution is to paint hardware too.

A few more tips to make your efforts worth your while

  • Prefer light and soothing colors. They are timeless, relaxing, and match with all other hues and home styles. Reserve your excitement about intense hues for accent items.
  • Think about the aftermath. Take all prep steps needed so that you won’t spend more time cleaning afterward than painting the furniture.
  • If you get a water-based paint, add some water at first, mix and see the results before you add more water.
  • Take it slow to see how it goes. Don’t dig the brush into the paint completely or it will drip. If the brush leaves hair, try to pick them with the brush or tweezers. And always wear gloves.
  • Make sure the coating leaves the surface smooth without bumps or drops.
  • Prefer to do the job outdoors and in a sheltered area where there is not too much sun that might make you dizzy.
  • Once you are done, wash well all the brushes and place them in a holder upside down.
  • If you don’t like the color, don’t panic. You can either make it darker/lighter by mixing or not more water or you can apply another color.
  • If your furniture needs some repairs, fix them before you get started with the painting.

Quality furniture deserves to be cherished over generations. But you deserve to enjoy the furniture you want today. Remember that even contemporary pieces often need an updated look. And so painting or distressing them will be a win-win. You’ll get to keep old furniture and exactly how you like it. Fingers crossed!


Alexia studied sociology at Essex University and did postgraduate studies at Sussex University in the media field. In Greece she worked for many years in printed and electronic media. She has written and illustrated the children's book "Little Bobby Steps Into the World", which is available on Amazon. Today she is spending endless hours with, regularly writes articles for websites in America and Europe, and is a top rated content writer on Upwork. Alexia has always been interested in interior design and has written relative content over the years.

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