Cleaning Furniture before Painting

How to Clean Furniture Before Painting

Have you acquired a new or old piece of furniture that needs painting? In this guide, we explain how to properly clean furniture pre-painting, to ensure a great paint finish and adhesion.

Cleaning Furniture before Painting
Even brand new furniture needs to be cleaned before painting.

While most people hate the idea of cleaning, the reality is that your paint may not stick to your furniture or will crack and peel in a few months if you skip the cleaning preparation step. As well as adhesion issues, there will be grease, grime, dirt and maybe even insect (eww…) deposits on the surface of your furniture.

While the furniture may look clean at a glance, oils from your hands, cooking grease, or even spray polish solutions all leave a built-up layer that you may not notice. Cleaning old and new furniture will give your finished furniture piece a look that is gorgeous and long-lasting. Painting on a nice and cleaned piece of furniture is like painting on a blank canvas.

If the piece has been sitting for a long time, washing will also help you see what you are going to refinish or paint. You’d be surprised what lovely details can be hidden under a layer of grime. Likewise, washing brand new furniture may uncover details that you didn’t know existed.

Your painting furniture goals will go much easier and look undeniably nicer if you thoroughly clean your furniture before painting. In this guide, we explain how to clean your furniture before painting.

How to Clean Furniture Before Painting

Step 1 | Gather supplies and set up

The first step in any project is to get yourself organized before you start. Once you are organized, your job will go faster, and you will not be running around looking for cleaning and repairing supplies. Gather your supplies and clear a space to work in.

Rags, scrubbers, and wood cleaners should be part of your cleaning arsenal. You also need medium grit sandpaper, fine-grit sandpaper, and a tack cloth.

There are several products you can use when you clean your old furniture for painting, including Murphy’s Oil Soap, denatured alcohol, lukewarm water, mineral spirits, or TCP. One good piece of advice is to wear gloves when are you use chemicals and detergents to clean wood.

Step 2 | Disassemble the furniture

The next step to an awesome paint job is preparation. You don’t just throw on a coat of paint and sit back and be happy with your work. Wood furniture needs a good cleaning before you do anything else, and that includes all the hidden cracks and crevices you don’t normally notice.

To reach those parts, you need to disassemble the furniture as much as you feel comfortable in doing. Remove the hardware such as knobs and handles, shelves and drawers, so you can get to work on the main body of the wood piece. It will also be easier to clean those accessories when they aren’t in your furniture.

Step 3 | Wash the furniture with detergent and water

  1. Start by mixing a small amount of liquid detergent with warm water. Warm water will help dissolve any grease or oils, compared with cold water.
  2. Using a sponge or cloth, wash the entire piece of furniture thoroughly, to remove all grit or grime that may be on your wood piece.
  3. Finish your cleaning with a lukewarm water rinse. This helps remove any residual dirt or grime left from dirty washing water, and any detergent. Don’t soak the furniture, just gently rinse with a rag dampened with water.
  4. Allow the furniture to dry thoroughly. I suggest wiping it down with a dry towel, and then leaving it somewhere with a breeze or in front of a fan. If you are in a rush, a hairdryer may help.

Step 4 | Clean furniture before painting with alcohol, mineral spirits or TSP

There are a few options for this step, depending on what paint you are using and what you are comfortable with.

Option #1: Diluted alcohol (if using water-based paint):

  • One great suggestion from furniture restorers is to use denatured alcohol mixed with water at a 50/50 ratio.
  • You can use scotch bright pads that are strong enough to clean off grime and grease, but gentle enough not to damage your furniture.
  • We have also found that using denatured alcohol is great if you are planning to use water-based paints, including chalk paint, milk paint, latex, and acrylic paint.
  • If you are going to use oil-based paint, straight denatured alcohol for cleaning is still good, but don’t mix it with water. Water will hinder oil-based paints from adhering to the surface.

Option #2: Mineral spirits (if using oil-based paint):

  • You can also use odorless mineral spirits to wipe down your furniture.
  • This option is good if you are used oil-based paints, but works for water-based paints too.
  • Use a rag that is slightly damp with the mineral spirits. Rub the piece of furniture in the direction of the wood grain.
  • After wiping your furniture with mineral spirits, let the piece dry or allow the mineral spirits to evaporate. Mineral spirits are petroleum-based and used as replacements for vegetable-based turpentine or paint thinner. Mineral spirits are more refined than paint thinner and have no additional solvents. Mineral spirits are not smelly and are equally effective and less harsh as paint thinner in cleaning the furniture.

Option #3: Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) – not recommended:

TSP is a chemical solution which we don’t recommend to home DIY’ers, unless you happen to already have some and are familiar with it. TSP or trisodium phosphate is often used for preparing wood furniture prior to painting. It is an inorganic chemical, and it works as a robust chemical cleaning agent, but there are risks associated with using TSP as with any chemical. Beware that using TSP can irritate your eyes and cause damage to your skin, as well as being damaging to the environment.

When using it, make sure that you wipe off your furniture with water or denatured alcohol after using TSP. If you don’t, the paint will not adhere to the wood, and you will have peeling paint.

Don’t let TSP come in direct contact with plants, or your plants will not be happy. TSP can cause harmful effects to the environment if you allow it to get into rivers, streams, or lakes. Check and see if TSP is authorized for use in your area and do watch what you are doing.

Step 5 | Sand the furniture 

It is a good idea to scuff up the surface of your furniture so that the paint will adhere to it. Lightly sand every piece you paint. You will find that sanding helps to fill in scratches and spots. It also helps you find areas that are still covered in oil and grime. Use your tack cloth to wipe off any sanding residue and rewash if necessary. 

A Man Sanding Furniture

If you are using chalk paint and want the piece to look distressed, you may want to skip the sanding step. (Chalk paint is designed to make your furniture piece look old and distressed. Sanding may take away the cracks and damages that make furniture pieces retain their character.)Even if you have removed old paint and varnish from your furniture piece, you still want to sand it.

Sanding will take out scratches or light damage and fully get furniture ready for paint. It is best to paint bare wood for the best results.To make sure your sanding preparation time is successful, take your time and sand slowly. If you are rushing through the job, you might scratch or mar the wood. Sand by hand and with the grain of the wood, not against it.

Step 6 | Fill in Holes and Cracks

Filling in Holes and Cracks

Filling in holes and cracks or chips in the wood is not exactly cleaning furniture before painting, but it is part of the preparation. We recommend you use wood glue and clamps to fix pieces back in place. Using wood filler if you have chunks taken out of the wood is a good idea. Fixing your cracks, joints that don’t fit, and filling up cracks and scratches will give you a final product that looks almost new.

  1. Wax sticks are similar to crayons, but a little harder. They come in colors to match different wood. Use wax sticks after you have cleaned your furniture and before you apply the final paint. If you use wax sticks before the final finish, seal the wood with shellac. Simply draw the wax stick on the wood by pressing it into the defect. Remove the excess with a putty knife.
  2. Wood putty is a thick paste that you spread into the crack with a putty knife. Sand. Let dry. This is my favorite option because it is inexpensive, easy to use, and durable enough for indoors furniture.
  3. Shellac sticks come in many colors that are easy to apply. Shellac is a natural product made from beetle excretion, and you melt it with a soldering iron. Let it drop into the imperfections. Press in with a putty knife and let it harden. Once it is hard, sand it down or scrape it flush with the furniture you want to paint.
  4. Glue and sawdust is inexpensive way to fill a crack in your furniture. A mixture of wood glue and sawdust works beautifully, and you can match the wood exactly. If you need to fill in very large gaps, this is the best option from this list. However, it can leave a very rough finish so you will need to sand it or run some wood putty over it, to make it smooth before painting.

Allow the filler to dry fully. Give the furniture one last pass with a dry cloth to remove any residue from the filler, and voila! Time to start painting.

Final Thoughts on Cleaning Furniture Before Painting

You may think paint will cover everything, but if you don’t spend time ensuring the wood piece is clean, your result will not be something you want. Prepare your wood project with the proper chemicals or cleaning supplies, repair damage, and sand. Don’t forget to reclean your wood piece with a damp cloth or with a tack cloth after initial cleaning and sanding. Let your furniture piece thoroughly dry before you paint.

It is always best to clean your wood furniture before painting, even if it is brand new. Without thorough preparation, you will fight old wax, grime, dust, cobwebs and irregularities in the wood surface. Now that you have cleaned your furniture, you can start painting your furniture with a paint sprayer, spruce it up with a coat of spray paint, paintbrush, or apply a wood stain.

Have you got a new piece of furniture? Head over to our article on painting unfinished cabinets for a step-by-step guide to painting unfinished furniture. 


  • Todd Davis

    A jack of all trades, Todd has been a DIY enthusiast, traveler, and writer for many years. He has a deep understanding of all types of painting tools and door hardware, and has shared many articles on these topics throughout the years.

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