Art&Craft - DIY Finishing - Finishing Techniques

How to paint or varnish wooden objects at home - tips for beginners

From the number of questions received during this period of isolation, it was obvious that many have discovered new hobbies. At one point a lady asked me for a link to an article describing, step by step, for a beginner, the stages of finishing a wooden object. That's how I discovered that no such article existed. There are all sorts of tips and hints on finishing, defects that may occur and how to solve them, but nothing gathered in one place like a technical data sheet or description of a technological process. I promised I'd straighten this out so I'm rushing to do it right now.

dyeing and colouring tips for beginners

1. Materials needed

First of all you need to prepare yourself with the necessary materials. In addition to the varnishes and paints you will be using, you will need a means of application and some auxiliary materials. Here are the ones I consider necessary:

  • Lint-free cotton rags. From experience I can tell you that the best for such operations are good quality cotton shirts that you have retired. White ones are ideal, but you can also use coloured ones if you know the colour won't come out. You'll need them for stripping, spot wiping, hand wiping, brush cleaning;
  • Abrasive paper/sponges. You need them both for sanding wood and between coats of primer/lacquer. For sanding wood the paper should be 150 or 180 grit and the sponges should be medium. For sanding between coats use 280 or 320 grit sandpaper or fine grit sponges. For glossy surfaces (which I do not recommend because they are difficult to achieve even for an advanced) the grit should be min.400. Abrasives can also be used for special effects such as distressed.
  • Wooden rods for mixing paint, a short-bladed knife, a pocket knife for opening cans.
  • Adhesive paper rollsto mark out the parts you do not want to paint. They can be found in any DIY store and are very easy to use.
  • Vessel to hold brushes in water or solvent. After you have finished applying the paint, so that it does not harden on them and you can use them again, wash the brushes with water or thinner, depending on the nature of the paints used. When not in use, keep the brushes in a bowl of water/diluent.
  • Protective gloves. Wear gloves even when using water-based products. Water-based products are not always environmentally friendly. And anyway, after curing, any varnish or paint is hard to remove.

For application use brushes, sponges or mops. Don't buy cheap brushes, you'll waste more time picking up fallen hairs or fixing faults. Buy a set of brushes in different sizes. In corners or on different patterns it is easier to paint with narrow and thin brushes and flat and large surfaces are painted faster and better with large brushes. The trafalto should have a hard sponge because it absorbs less air and the resulting surface will be nicer, more pleasant to the touch. Make sure the sponge is resistant to thinner. Ordinary sponges expand in contact with the thinner.

Buy the right varnishes/paints. If you're finishing something that will stay outside, buy products made especially for outdoors. Water-based products are recommended for DIY projects. This gets rid of the smell of thinner in the house. Go to specialist shops, say what you need the material for and ask for as much information as possible.

painting and varnishing tips for beginners

2. You'll make a mess, so prepare your workspace beforehand

You will need to have a place where you can work without being disturbed and without fear of getting dirty. Some recommendations for this place:

  • Choose the place inside. If possible, find a place inside. Using water-based paints this becomes possible. This way you get rid of the goo and dust that stick to the painted surface during drying.
  • Choose a place as bright as possible. Natural light is ideal, but if the windows are not large enough, a lamp can provide the necessary light.
  • Make sure the place is ventilated (air currents are created). Ventilation is very important for drying paints, especially water-based paints.
  • Protect the floor. You never know when an accident might happen so it's best to use protective foils (available in DIY stores).

painting and varnishing tips for beginners

3. Always sand the wood substrate before painting

Sanding the wood support is very important to get a quality product. It is done for solid wood as well as plywood, veneer, or milled MDF. As mentioned, sanding at this stage is done with 150 or 180 grit sandpaper or medium abrasive sponges. A lower grit leaves the surface rough and unpleasant to the touch and too fine a grit fills the pores with fine wood dust, decreasing adhesion.

Insist on sanding at this stage. The better it is sanded, the better the surface will look in the end. After sanding, roughen with a cotton cloth and check the smoothness of the surface with the palm of your hand. If you feel a smooth, even surface that doesn't scratch, you can move on to the next phase.

varnishing and painting tips for beginners

4. Colouring

If you are going to use a varnish, which is transparent and you don't want the wood to remain its natural colour, use for coloring stains (staining solutions) to give the wood the desired colour. Find the classic wood colours in the shops - nuc, oak, mahon, pin, wagons - but also common colours - red, yellow, black, brown - which you can mix in different proportions to get the colour you want.

Don't use a concentrated colour from the start. It's better to apply several coats to get the colour right than to have to open up the resulting colour, which is very difficult to do.

The baths can be water-based or solvent-based. Solvent-based stains dry faster, stain more evenly but duller and lift the wood grain less. Water-based stains dry more slowly, can stain the wood, soak in deeply, highlighting the wood's pattern, give brighter colours and lift the wood grain more. Whatever its nature, let it dry thoroughly before applying a coat of varnish or primer.

To avoid staining the stain can be added to the first coat of varnish/primer. The stain is more uniform, but the natural pattern of the wood is less emphasised.

4. Applying the first coat of varnish or primer

Wood primer is not what you know for metal. It's not something you apply to prevent rust but to increase adhesion and the amount of material that forms the film. There are finishing systems that recommend applying primer and varnish or others that use a single product, varnish or paint, which is applied in successive coats. They are designed to ensure sufficiently good adhesion. Primers do not have surface properties, i.e. they do not have the resistance to scratching or knocks, and do not have the same nice tint or appearance as varnishes or paints. That is why it should always be covered with a final coat of varnish/paint.

Apply 1-2 coats of primer before varnish. Thin it so that it spreads well with a brush or trowel. If you use the same product (successive coats of varnish/paint), the primer is replaced by varnish/paint. Allow the recommended drying time before sanding. It is best to leave it on overnight.

varnishing and painting tips for beginners

5. Sanding between coats

Sanding between layers is done to remove raised fibre from staining or priming, dust trapped in the film or film bumps that occur during application. The film must be thoroughly dry when sanding. Use 280 or 320 grit sandpaper or fine sanding sponges. The better the sanding, the finer the final surface will be. Finally, sand with a cotton cloth.

6. Applying the final coat of varnish or paint

Finally apply the varnish or paint coat. If by now you've discovered that the brush is not the right one, change it. You don't want a bumpy, hairy surface from the brush. Thin the varnish according to the directions on the packaging so that it doesn't clean up or form streaks. Apply very carefully because it's the final coat. You can straighten out any mistakes just by buffing, but it's hard to do for a beginner and you can get shinier surfaces than you want.

  • Remove dust each time by wiping with a cloth. Dust decreases adhesion and spoils the appearance of the film;
  • Never shake the dusting cloth near the wet film or in the area where you are going to paint. Dust is the worst enemy of varnish or paint film;
  • Colour only if you are going to apply varnish. These are transparent and you can see the colour and pattern of the wood. The paint is opaque and staining becomes unnecessary. This can only be done in the distressed effect, when partial sanding will get to the bottom layer;
  • Do not force dry. The film may remain soft inside. With water-based varnishes it can happen that water remains in the film and gives an opalescent appearance. It will fade in time, but for a while it will not look good;
  • Do not place wet objects in strong draughts. The film will unravel and form 'waves';
  • Do not apply thick coats. Better 2-3 thin coats than one thick one. Thick coats give rise to tensions in the film which can crack over time;
  • Chalky paints, the Annie Sloan type, should be covered with wax or varnish. Otherwise they don't set and have no resistance to moisture and scratching.

I promise to complete this guide if I discover that I have missed something. It can also be completed with your questions. Leave them below in the space provided and I promise to answer each one.

varnishing and painting tips for beginners

About the author

Mihaela Radu

Mihaela Radu is a chemical engineer but has a great passion for wood. She has been working in the field for more than 20 years, wood finishing being what defined her during this period. She gained experience working in a research institute, in her own company, as well as in a multinational. She wants to continuously share her experience with those who have the same passion - and more.


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  • Hi,
    If the surface has been oiled (it's a laminated oak top) can it still be varnished?if so, is it the same steps or is it a different process?
    Thank you

    • Hello!
      The oil is the final coat, the surface can be left as it is, there is no need for varnish coating. However, if you want to varnish, you can only use varnish based on white spirit (petrosin, gas), turpentine or alkyd varnishes. Water-based varnishes or varnishes based on organic solvents (nitrocellulose, polyurethane, etc.) cannot be used. Such varnishes are also resistant outdoors.
      Before application, sand the surface (as if the wood were unpolished) to increase the adhesion of the varnish. If the wood is saturated with oil it will absorb very little varnish and will have poor adhesion. Sanding will increase the absorption and therefore the adhesion. Apply 2 thin coats, with sanding in between (for a pleasant to the touch surface).
      The oiled countertop can also be coated with wax. Apply a thin layer of furniture wax with a cloth, then polish with a soft cotton cloth. The surface will acquire a very pleasant silky sheen. However, it stains when exposed to hot water and hot springs (hot cup of coffee), alcohol and is not resistant to the outside.
      All the best!

  • Hello, although I sanded the wood of the chairs, then cleaned them with thinner, one of them, the color migrates, more precisely the white paint (water-based) becomes yellowish. I sanded lightly and the first layer of paint, what did I do wrong?

    • Good evening!
      Doesn't seem to have done anything wrong. The color could be from the bathing in the pores of the wood (if it's a repainted chair) or the tannin in the wood. The water in the paint dissolved them and made them migrate to the surface. In these cases insulators are used. These are clear, thinner, hardening products that penetrate deep into the wood and lock the tannins and whatever else is there inside.
      I think the insulation is now done with the first coat of paint. The second coat should still be yellowing.
      All the best!

  • Good evening. I'm going to paint a desk made of pale wood. I was thinking of oskar water-based paint, but I'm afraid that the work surface will scratch over time. What could I use for better resistance? I've read about colourless varnish. Does it work over white paint? Thanks for your answer! Beautiful evening!

    • Hello!
      First of all you need to make sure that the paint adheres to the melamine chipboard. As far as I know, Oskar has such a paint.
      Varnish can be applied over paint, but it is important that the products are also compatible with hard varnish. Not all varnishes are hard. It is possible that the paint is even harder. Floor varnish has very good hardness. There are water-based floor lacquers with very good hardness. You will need to sand the painted surface lightly to ensure adhesion between the two coats.
      It's good to know that the varnish will easily change the colour of the paint due to the yellow tint it has.
      Before varnishing it is good to see how hard the paint used is, what it is recommended for. If it is recommended for furniture and no other protective coating is required, the paint should not be varnished.
      All the best!

  • Hello,
    I have a lacquered kitchen countertop but the craftsman left a bunch of imperfections ( holes )
    My question is how could I cover all these irregularities
    I'm thinking of giving a coat of epoxy resin but I don't know if it's right
    Maybe the craftsman didn't seal the pores of the countertop before applying the varnish (by the way with what product the wood pores are sealed)

    • Hello!
      There are touch-up putties, in different colours, with which you can repair defective surfaces.
      If the lacquer that the countertop was made with is not hardened, the resin might affect it. And in order to have adhesion the lacquer should be sanded. Generally varnish is applied over the resin, but you can check the compatibility between varnish and resin in a hidden area. If nothing happens, you can pour the resin. Sand beforehand to have adhesion between coats.
      The pores are closed with pore-filling primer or by applying several successive thin coats of varnish. On wood with large pores (walnut, oak, ash), the surface should be checked 1-2 weeks after the finish has been finished. During this time the varnish "falls" into the pores and they become visible again. By using a hardening varnish (polyurethane, water-thinnable with hardener) this phenomenon can be avoided.
      All the best!

    • Hello!
      You can use ordinary, simple (containing only solvent and solvent, no added resins), water-based and organic solvent-based wood stains. It is important that the wood is thoroughly dry when applying the varnish. Use special varnish for parquet, otherwise the steps will scratch easily.
      If the indoor ladder is fitted, I recommend using water-based products. There are also very hard, water-based parquet varnishes. This will get rid of unpleasant odours.
      All the best!

  • Hello!
    I have a concern.
    I want to paint an oak furniture that is already lacquered. I know that the furniture needs to be cleaned, sanded, dusted and then degreased, after which I can apply the coat of paint (I was thinking of using Oskar water based). My question is: how can I clean the furniture if it gets dirty? Would I have to wax it to be able to do that?
    I should mention that I want the furniture to have a matt appearance.
    Thank you!

    • Hello!
      Once the water-based paint dries and hardens, it is no longer water-soluble so you can clean it like any other furniture.
      To prepare it for dyeing you must first degrease it by washing it with a cloth dampened with water and dish soap. After wiping it with a clean cloth and letting it soak, sand it with 280 or 320 grit sandpaper or a fine sanding sponge. Sanding should be done no more than a few hours before painting (3-4 hours) so that the paint adheres.
      To have matt furniture you need to buy matt paint.
      Regular paint, such as Oskar's, does not need to be waxed. There are several kinds of water-based paint. Only the chalky kind has to be fixed with wax or varnish because otherwise it has no resistance. Oskar paint can also be waxed, but only if you want to. Wax gives it extra protection.
      All the best!

  • Hello,
    I have a new ladder that has already been installed in my new house. Builder
    he couldn't wait any longer. The steps are bought ready-made and are beech. I need to stain them in a cappuccino shade (even if it comes out darker but it should be in the shade) because that's what the floor tiles in the living room are like; I've tried about 6 types of varnishes, baths, lacquers but almost all of them turn pink or reddish because that's what beech is like. What's not pink is something else but I still don't get the desired shade.
    Against the steps I want to make them white.
    I need help.
    Thank you!

    • Good evening!
      The reddish colour of the beech will influence the colour of the berry. It is virtually impossible for the red of the beech not to be reflected in the colour of the wood.
      The only solutions would be to bleach the steps and then stain them to the desired colour, or to stain with a more diluted cappuccino paint so that the result is a semi-coated wood.
      The first solution is common in factories working with beech, but it is not very simple and you should call in a specialist. Bleaching variants can be found in the link below. In the case of the second, it is not complicated, but the finish will not be as transparent as a varnish-coated berry. If you don't mind that the wood is less visible, this is the simplest solution.
      Good luck!

  • Hello,

    I read your article and if water based paints are used it says it lifts the wood grain more.
    Can you tell me more about this?

    Thank you!

    • Hello!
      Wood loves water and when it finds it, it absorbs it. When it absorbs water, the wood's chopped grain, i.e. that which results after the wood has been turned into planks, beams, veneer or other elements, swells and the end of it rises. Water-based paints have water in their composition which is, as I said, absorbed by the wood. After the paint dries and hardens on the raised grain of the wood, the raised grain remains hard and the surface becomes rough to the touch. To make it smooth again sanding is done between coats. Fine abrasive sponges or abrasive paper with a grain size above 240 are used for this operation under these hardened fibre ends and the surface becomes smooth again. Sanding is light, surface sanding only to remove these roughnesses. The phenomenon happens when the first coat of paint is applied because after that, at least in theory, the paint no longer comes into contact with the wood.
      Without this sanding, it is difficult to achieve a smooth and pleasant to the touch surface.
      Absorption also occurs in solvent-based products, but to a much lesser extent.
      I have included below a link to other articles that may be helpful.
      All the best!

  • Hello. I'm just starting out and want to know the exact steps for finishing. What I start with and what I finish with and here I mean primer, bait and varnish....
    After sanding the wood with the sanding sheet I apply the first time to get the final gloss. I mention that I do not want glass gloss. Something more rustic. But nice and elegant looking. You can apply only the bath and after the varnish.
    Fold primer and after lacquering....
    Or even all of them...
    I want to understand the exact stages of finishing.
    Thank you in advance!

    • Good evening!
      After sanding, apply the filler, then the primer and finally the varnish. Sand the wood along the grain with 120, 150 or 180 grit sandpaper. Finer paper (over 240) is used for sanding the primer. After sanding the surface is roughened by wiping or blowing with air.
      You can apply water-based or solvent-based bath. The water-based varnish penetrates the wood better and highlights the design. However, it lifts the grain more and dries more slowly. Raising the grain will mean more effort when sanding the primer to get a smooth surface. Solvent-based wood stain penetrates less into the wood, lifts the grain less and dries faster. The stain is more uniform but duller. The wood stain must be completely dry before applying primer.
      The primer ensures flatness of the surface and good adhesion to the wood. Apply 1-2 coats, allow to dry and then sand. Use sandpaper min.240 for sanding. If a gloss varnish is to be applied, the sanding paper should have a grit min.400.
      The varnish is applied at the end, after sanding and roughening the sanded surface. It is the varnish that gives the surface a pleasing appearance, gloss and resistance to scratching, abrasion, water, etc. Varnish is not sanded. To achieve perfect surfaces, glossy varnishes may need polishing. Polishing is done with abrasive pastes of min.1000 grit and special felt or microfibre discs.
      For all the above information I leave below links to dedicated articles where the explanations are more elaborate.
      It's good that you don't want high gloss. It's hard to achieve and doesn't go with rustic furniture at all.
      You can only apply bath and varnish. Paint and varnish is not possible because varnish has no surface properties, i.e. it is not scratch and abrasion resistant, does not have a pleasant look and feel, and has no gloss.
      Good luck!

      • Hello Mrs Mihaela Radu,
        Could you please guide me in choosing products for painting beech wood stairs + balusters in white? I would like a paint as resistant as possible to mechanical shocks and to keep its colour (not to yellow) for years.
        Do you think it is also necessary to insulate before applying primer?
        Thank you in advance!
        A beautiful day

        • Hello!
          The most resistant to yellowing is solvent-based acrylic paint. It is a two-component paint with hardener, so it has good mechanical resistance. Increasing the percentage of hardener with 5-10% increases hardness. Do not exceed the maximum percentage because the paint may become brittle.
          Another option is water-based floor paint with an anti-yellowing additive.
          I recommend you buy the professional materials. You can find them at varnish and paint distributors such as Sirca, ICA (Lomilux), Sayerlack, Renner, Milesi, etc. You can find them in most major cities.
          Beech is not a tannin wood so generally does not need insulation. If you are using water based lacquer my advice is to apply insulator as well. Water can dissolve dyes or other substances in the wood and the paint can change colour.
          Good luck!


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