How to Paint a Bookcase Like a Pro

Jeanne Huber

WASHINGTON POST – Q: How do you paint a bookcase to make it look professional?

A: A fresh coat of paint magically transforms a bookcase – or almost any type of piece of furniture.

But it’s a magic that even novices can master if they know a few details about how paint works.

You can prep intermittently, but allow time so you can paint uninterrupted. Water-based paint, which dominates the market, begins to dry almost as soon as it is applied.

The finished paint job will look much better if you avoid painting over sections that have started to dry out.

First set up a work area. Spread a drop cloth to protect your floor, use a stepladder if you can’t reach the top easily, and set up a rest area for paint and tools.

Remove any hardware, such as shelf brackets and door hinges, and label the parts.

Then prepare the surfaces for painting. If you’re starting with a new bookcase that’s never been painted or varnished, you probably just need to vacuum or dust thoroughly. An already finished library might also need it. But if it has dirty fingerprints, oily deposits, or mystery grime, you need to wash off the finish. Dampen a cloth in warm water mixed with a little hand dish soap. When there is no more dirt, go over the surface again with a clean cloth dampened with clear water.

Once the surface is dry, inspect the finish. If the paint or varnish is cracked or peeling in many areas, you may need to remove it, probably with a chemical stripper, which greatly increases the amount of work and damage. But if only a piece or two are loose, scrape off the chips, then sand lightly to round off any sharp edges where the paint has come off. Go over the entire surface with 120 or 180 grit sandpaper until it is uniformly dull. The idea is to scuff it so the paint will adhere better, not to remove the old finish.

Then, in many cases, you will prime. You definitely need a primer for a new bookcase that has never been painted or varnished. Water-based primer works well on natural wood, but use a solvent-based primer for particleboard because a water-based primer can cause the fibers to swell. Also prime if you’re going from a clear finish to paint, changing from an oil-based paint to a water-based paint, or doing a dramatic color change.

A primer may not be necessary if you are sticking with the same type of paint or just doing a slight color change. If in doubt, go first. Use a primer labeled as suitable for smooth surfaces if going over a finish such as polyurethane or lacquer.

Wait the recommended time, then lightly sand again, this time with a finer grit, maybe 220. The idea here is to remove any bits of paint that stick out. Wipe off sanding debris. Then apply the finish paint. Wait the suggested time, then apply a second coat.

For primers and topcoats, the process is similar. Paint from the innermost areas to the outermost areas, so you don’t have to reach for the wet paint to move on to the next section.

Open the box and mix the contents thoroughly. Pour some of the paint into a tray sized for this type of roller. Use the brush to paint the inside corners and edges and use the roller to spread the paint over the flat areas. You can leave the rolled areas as they are or immediately brush the area with the almost dry brush to level the paint. But places where you go over partially dried paint will show, as will places where you overlap dry paint with wet paint, so work in manageable areas, ideally in sections that run the full length of the board.

Once you’ve gone over an area once to smooth out the paint, move on to the next section.

Resist the temptation to go back and touch up bare spots; leave those for the second layer.

The water-based paint dries fairly quickly to the touch, but it will continue to harden over the next 30 days or so. During this time, two newly painted surfaces that touch each other will likely bond, causing paint to peel from one surface when the two are separated, which the paint industry calls “blocking”. So feel free to reinstall your hardware soon after the paint is dry, but wait as long as possible to close the doors or they’ll probably stick.

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