Prep school: The dos and don'ts of prep work.

Prep school: The dos and don'ts of prep work.

Let’s start with the most important rule that I can provide when discussing prepping your piece for painting, the don’ts. DON’T NOT PREP! I don’t care what the paint can tells you, I don’t care what your friends say, I really, really don’t care what you read on that blog selling you a miracle paint that requires no prep. You want your hard work to last? You want to have that beautiful finish you saw in the Pinterest post? Then DON’T, I repeat DON’T skip the prep work.

I am still on a learning curve when it comes to using furniture as my creative medium, but I learned very early on, if you do not do your prep, you will not get the results you want, NOT EVER. As a matter of fact, you may end up with extra prep work in the end.

A good furniture artist friend of mine once said, “if you don’t have time to do it right the first time, when will you have time to do it right a second time.” Words to live by, and words I am still learning to live by. It is so easy to want to skip over just one step to get to the fun part, but I promise you, it will only take one time of having to strip away, and sand away all of your hard work to learn this valuable lesson.

So let’s talk prep, because you are going to prep, correct? First and foremost is repairs. Wobbly legs, creaky drawers, door that doesn’t open, fix these first so you have a stable piece to work with. I promise, if you do not fix the issues first, you will redeposit oils from your hands, scratch primed areas, or simply end up with a beautifully painted warbly piece (don’t pretend you don’t know what warbly means). So tighten your screws, nail down the base of the drawer, and enter the back of the piece to see why that door won’t budge (use a dehumidifier first, because it could just be swelling from moisture).

It had been a long, long day.

Once we have everything repaired, remove your hardware, take out every drawer, pull off the doors, and essentially fully dismantle the piece, because unless you want to hide the hardware with paint, and risk it chipping, it needs to be removed. A little tip, put all of your hardware in a baggy, label it (correctly, please see image), and put it somewhere safe (somewhere the cats or kids can’t find it, but you will remember). Then we clean!

I wish I loved cleaning, but I can’t love it, I love the results, and the feeling of a job well done, but I HATE the process. It is however extremely important, because any residual oils, or waxes on your piece can spell disaster for paint. So make sure you clean every single piece thoroughly, inside and out. There are a number of products out there you can use to fully clean your piece, but really it depends on the piece, and on you. I will discuss a few here:

TSP is a cleaner you can get from your local hardware store, that is designed to prepare your piece for painting as it removes dirt, grease, and grime, but it is really, really strong, and it has to be fully rinsed to ensure it doesn’t impact your paint. I have TSP on hand, but I have not personally used it, because I haven’t quite had the need for it yet.

LA’s Totally Awesome, is a cleaner that you can get at your local Dollar Tree or Dollar General store, and it is absolutely amazing at cutting through grease and oil. However, it is a soapy cleaner, so again you will need to fully rinse your piece after using it.

Cleaning Vinegar is my go to. I find that the cleaning vinegar, cut with a little water is strong enough to remove the oils, and dirt, without having to worry about the extra rinsing work.

Lastly, I will use Alcohol, after cleaning, if I am going to paint. I will hit the areas I am intending to paint with a quick wipe of alcohol, just to ensure I have removed any residual oils.


Now, this could be where your prep work stops, if your piece isn’t covered in a slick finish, but in the event it does have a high gloss, or slick finish, you probably want to scuff sand, prime, or both. For scuff sanding I use my rotary sander and a fine grit sand paper to start (usually around 120) because the idea is just to rough up the surface a little to give the paint something to adhere to, but not to complete remove the finish (unless that is the look you are going for). For priming I use our Wise Owl Stain Eliminating Primer in either clear or white.

Desk after cleaning and scuff sanding

Why Prime? Priming has a number of benefits that sanding alone cannot provide, especially when working with deep rich woods. Have you ever finished a piece, and immediately started seeing this odd discoloration seeping through your paint? More than likely you are experiencing tannin bleed through, which priming with the right product can help eliminate. This is where I get to boast about our primers, because they do an amazing job of not only helping the paint to really adhere to your project, but also of preventing stains from rising to the surface of your amazing paint job. There are two different options available, white and clear. White is if you do not want any of the wood showing through, clear is made for those individuals that would like to distress the piece to allow some of the beautiful wood to show through the paint. You can get your primer here.

My go to Cling-On! S50 Brush and Primer

Once you have scuff sanded your piece, guess what time it is? It is cleaning time once again! Take your cleaning vinegar and wipe the piece thoroughly as you do not want any lingering saw dust hanging around, (unless you are looking for a textured finish, and then you might want to save your saw dust for later). You might want to also hit the piece with alcohol once more, just in case, especially if you happen to have oily skin like I do (it might mess with your paint, but at least it slows the aging process some).

Now it is finally time to paint!

That being said, this is where I leave you for another day! Questions or Comments about how to prep, or how you prep that has worked amazingly, please leave them below as we would love to hear from you!

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1 comment

I’m getting ready to prime and paint with Wise Owl on new, raw cabinets. Other than removing the hardware, how will the prep work differ from that of vintage or (already) painted pieces?

Kylea Lewis

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