Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood? (How-To)

The varnish applied over my kitchen cabinet was looking old and outdated. So I wanted to paint over it but I wasn’t sure if I could paint over varnished wood. So I made some research and here is what I found out.

You can paint over varnished wood as long as the varnish is stripped off the wood. This is because the paint will not adhere to varnish. Varnish has a higher solid to liquid ratio when compared to other sealants.

The make-up of varnish makes it very difficult for paints to adhere to the stain. So you’ll need to remove the varnish before painting. You’ll also need to do a bit of sanding after removing the varnish.

But that’s not all. There is more to know about painting over varnish and this post digs right into the topic. So let’s dive in.

Can I Paint Straight Onto Varnished Wood?

You shouldn’t paint straight onto varnished wood. This is because the varnish will repel the paint coating making paint adhesion difficult. Before you paint on varnished wood, you need to remove the varnish first.

Varnish is common with old furniture and is usually seen in old houses. This is because varnish unlike polyurethane is an old sealant. As such, the paint has a more traditional than modern chemical make-up. Varnish is designed with several rigid resins, chemicals, and solvents that make the sealant more protective of the wood underneath and less likely to absorb paint.

Unlike modern sealants that are more welcome to additional coats, varnish is designed specifically to be the final coat of a paint job. The traditional chemical make-up of the sealant makes it almost impossible for paint to be applied over the varnish directly.

Also, varnish has a higher ratio of solids to liquid. This means that varnish contains a higher volume of solid compounds. Varnish also contains resinous compounds, solvents, and chemicals all of which combine to make the varnish super strong. The chemicals and solids in the varnish will repel any paint applied over the varnish. So paint shouldn’t be applied directly into varnished wood.

If you apply paint directly on varnish, it will take very little for the paint to be swiped off the varnish material. Also, the paint will remain tacky for several days properly sanded.

How To Paint Over Varnished Wood (Made Easy)

Painting over varnished wood is easy but the task can be time-consuming because you need to remove the varnish first. This guide will show you how to do that and how to paint over varnish properly.

But first, you’ll need a few tools:

  • Fine-Grit Sandpaper
  • Water-based Acrylic Paint
  • Latex Primer
  • Paintbrush
  • Drop Cloth
  • A Sealant

For this guide, we’ll check out how to paint over varnished wood with acrylic paint.

Here is a quick rundown of how to do that:

  1. Prep The Wood
  2. Remove the varnish from the wood
  3. Sand with fine-grit sandpaper
  4. Apply two coats of the latex paint primer
  5. Apply two coats of water-based acrylic paint
  6. Seal with a topcoat

Now, let’s get to work.

1. Prep The Wood

The first thing you have to check is the wood condition. If you have rotten wood, then it’s best to try and repair the wood first and then paint it. Use wood filler to fill any holes that the wood may have.

2. Remove The Varnish From The Wood

Remove The Varnish From The Wood

The next step is to remove the varnish finish from the wood. Remember, paint will not stick to varnish. You can remove the varnish by sanding or by using paint stripping chemicals. While the first method is safer and eco-friendly, it’s also time-consuming and stressful.

Paint chemicals though quick and less stressful also pose the most risks due to the potency and toxic nature of some paint-removing chemicals. For this guide, I’ll recommend sanding to remove the varnish.

With paint stripping chemicals, you can damage the wood or even worse, hurt yourself. Also, you can use an orbital sander to remove the varnish and then use sanding sheets to reach tight corners and crevices.

To sand off the varnish, use fine-grit sandpaper, preferably 220-grit. This grit is usually not coarse enough to remove the entire varnish. But it will roughen the varnish making it easier for the paint to penetrate and grip the wood fibers.

Coarse or medium-grit sandpaper tends to not just remove the varnish but the top layer of the wood too. So stick with a fine-grit sandpaper.

Next, you should…

3. Sand The Wood Again

Sand The Wood Again

Another round of sanding. The first was done to remove the varnish. This step is to even put grain and seal the wood so the paint can be applied smoothly. You’ll also need fine-grit sandpaper for this but you can finish off with ultra fine-grit sandpaper, preferably 320-grit.

There will be a lot of dust nibs and wood grain on the surface after sanding. These can cause bumps and paint pimples in the paint when applied. You can get rid of dust by wiping the surface with a rag or by using a portable vacuum.

4. Apply Two Coats of Latex Paint Primer

Apply Two Coats of Latex Paint Primer

Removing varnish and sanding alone will not make the finish smooth. You need to prime the wood too. You should use a primer that will fit the type of paint to be used. For oil-based paints, use an oil-based primer. Latex and acrylic paints will require two coats of a water-based primer. Some primers will work for both oil and water-based paints.

Using a paintbrush, apply two thin coats of the primer on the wood. Let the first coating dry fully before applying the second coating. When the primer is dry, sand lightly with ultra-fine sandpaper to buff the primer coating. This helps the paint adhere better. Then you should…

5. Apply Two Coats of Water-Based Acrylic Paint

Apply Two Coats of Water-Based Acrylic Paint

If you aren’t using acrylic paint, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how many coats of the paint is required. Usually, you don’t need more than 3 coats regardless of the paint type.

You don’t need to sand between coats of paint. Just ensure the first coating is fully dry before you paint the second coating. When both coats are dry, you should…

6. Seal With Top Coat

Seal With Top Coat

When the paint is dry, it should be sealed. This makes the paint last longer and more resistant to damages. You can use a clear coat like polyurethane or a tinted sealant like spray enamel. The choice is yours.

Tip: Let the paint dry for at least 24 hours before sealing.

Will Paint Stick To Varnished Wood?

Paint will not stick to varnished wood unless the varnish is removed. This is because the paint will not stick to the glossy varnish finish. Also, the paint wouldn’t bite into the wood and stick properly because the varnish is super thick and moisture-resistant.

Varnish as explained earlier is filled with several resins and solvents. These compounds make the varnish coating super thick and strong. Strong enough to prevent any paint applied over it from getting to the wood underneath. Since the paint can’t get to the wood, it won’t stick to the varnish. To fully understand this, you need to know how paint dries.

When paint is applied over wood, the paint is absorbed by the wood. The paint then grips the wood fibers to ensure that the coating sticks to the wood. Varnish however prevents paint from having a good grip and sticking to the wood for two main reasons.

First, varnish has a glossy finish that prevents paint from having a good grip. As explained earlier, paint needs to grip or bite into something to stick properly. The paint however can’t bite into gloss because glossy surfaces are slick. So there is nothing for the paint to bite or sink into and therefore, the paint will not stick to the varnish.

Secondly, varnish has a super thick film that prevents moisture (oil and water) from penetrating to get to the wood underneath. Since all paints are either oil or water-based, the paint coating will not penetrate the varnish.

The combination of these two factors makes it almost impossible for the paint to stick to varnish. But if the varnish is removed or stripped off first, then the paint when applied can grip the wood fibers and stick or adhere properly.

Related Read: Can You Paint Over Varnish With Varnish Paint?

What Is The Best Paint To Cover Varnished Wood?

The best paint to cover varnished wood is water-based acrylic or latex paint. This is because these paints are user-friendly, they dry quickly, and most importantly, they can be painted over without removing the paint first.

Also, water-based latex or acrylic paints adhere to wood perfectly and don’t produce any fumes or offensive odor. This makes these paints perfect for interior wood.

When it comes to painting over varnished wood, you can use any paint. This is because the paint used will be applied over the wood and not the varnish. Remember, always remove the varnish before painting over it. Once the varnish is off, any paint type will stick to the wood underneath.

However, the best paint for wood is water-based acrylic or latex finish. This is because these paints are super easy to use and you can seal them to get a high-gloss, satin, clear, wax, or lacquered finish. This is because latex and acrylic paints can be easily painted over without removing them first.

Every time you dewax wood or remove varnish from wood, you wear the wood material. Over time, the wood will become damaged. But with latex or acrylic paints, you don’t need to strip or remove paint. You can seal these paints easily to protect the wood underneath.

So not only are acrylic and latex paints easy to use, but they also improve the durability of the wood. This makes them the best over varnished wood.

So how do you paint over varnished wood? Let’s take a closer look.

Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood Without Sanding?

Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood Without Sanding

You can paint over varnished wood without sanding first but it’s not recommended to do so. This is because, without sanding, the paint will not have a smooth finish.

Sanding before painting over varnished wood is done to even out the grain and improve the smoothness of the finish. However, it’s not easy to sand varnished wood. So many DIYers want to skip this step.

You can paint over varnished wood without sanding but you will need to properly prime the varnished wood first. If you use a quality primer, you can get away with not sanding before painting over varnished wood.

Also, you can skip sanding if you plan on using paint with great bonding qualities. One of such paints is chalk. Chalk paint is super easy to apply and it will stick to and dry on any surface in minutes. However, chalk is not great for heavily used wood since the finish is not durable.

Though you can paint over varnish without sanding first, you should know that the finish will not be as smooth or durable as when you sand.

Do You Have to Remove The Entire Varnish Before Painting

You don’t need to remove the entire varnish before painting over varnished wood. You just need to remove a part of the varnish to roughen it a bit so the paint can penetrate and bite into the wood underneath.

It’s also not recommended to remove all the varnish. In most cases, when you remove all the varnish, you will remove a large chunk of the wood as well. This will create dents and gouges in the wood making the paint finish very rough and amateurish.

Final Words

Overall, you can paint over varnished wood. But to get the best result, the varnish has to be removed first. With the varnish off, the paint will stick properly and the finish will come out fine and smooth. You should also remember to sand and prime the wood before painting.

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