A Guide to Decorative Painting On Varnished Antiques

Decorative painting on an antique piece of furniture can give it new life and a unique look. The key to success with this project is proper cleaning and preparation of the wood surface. If you are painting a design on a varnished surface, there are some considerations to keep in mind depending on the condition of the varnish and the end result you want with this project. When using chemicals such as primer and sealant, work in a well ventilated area such as an open garage if at all possible.  

What You Will Need:

  • Sandpaper
  • Primer
  • Acrylic paint
  • Paint brushes
  • Sealant
  • Paint scraping tool (optional)
  • Cleaning rag
  • Rubbing alcohol

Step 1 -- Check for Oil-based Finishes

Many older wood pieces have oil-based finishes, which do not mix with acrylic paint and will first need to be removed. Test the surface for anything oil-based by using a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. If any of the finish comes off, you are working with an acrylic based paint or finish.

If no paint visibly rubs off, you have an oil-based surface that will first need to be sanded down before adding any primer or paint. The older the piece of furniture, the higher the chances that it has had an oil-based finish applied to it at some point, so knowing its age can be a helpful reference point.

Step 2 --Light Sanding

To remove a glossy varnish from your antique furniture piece, simply use a fine to medium-fine grain sandpaper. You do not have to rub very hard to get the varnish off; antique varnishes can sometimes help the process along if they are already chipping or pealing. If you want to remove this layer of old paint, carefully scrape it with a paint scraper or putty knife; be careful not to scratch the underlying wood.

If you like the existing paint under the varnish, you can keep it to use as a background for your painted design. Once you apply the clear wood primer, the old chipped design will still be visible. Set against your new decorative paint, this can create a unique and artistic antique furniture piece. Unless you plan to apply a wood stain, you do not need to sand all the way down to the bare surface of the wood.  

Step 3 -- Prime the Surface

Once you have sanded off the varnish, wipe off any sanding dust with a damp cleaning rag and apply a coat of primer that is meant to be used with acrylic paints. These can be found in hardware store paint departments. Allow the primer several hours to dry. A single coat of primer will usually be enough, unless you are working with some wood that has deeper scratches in its surface.

Step 4 -- Apply Paint and Sealant

Paint your decorative patterns with appropriately sized paint brushes, depending on the level of detail you are adding. If you are using multiple colors next to one another, allow one color to dry before painting another next to it. Once all of your painted design has dried after about 4 to 6 hours, apply a coat of acrylic paint sealant. As with the primer, you most often need to apply only a single coat.