You’ve probably got at least one desk, end table, or chair in your house that is made of laminate or veneer. It’s recognizable by the sheer, slick coating on the outside.
Laminate and veneer furniture is generally cheaper than furniture made of real wood and is also lighter weight. Unfortunately, this type of material is limited in its aesthetics. More often than not, a solid wood look is the most common.
If you wish to upcycle your laminate or veneer item, painting it is a wonderful option. There are certain steps you have to follow in order to get the finish you want because laminate doesn’t take paint as well as real wood without some prep beforehand.
Table of Contents
Laminate vs. Veneer
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to both laminate and veneer furniture as simply “laminate,” but there is a slight difference – although this doesn’t really affect the painting process.
Laminate does not have any real wood present. It is very thin sheets of paper pressed tightly together, with a decorative “wood grain” sheet on the outside. This makes the material sturdy and gives the illusion of it being made of wood.
Veneer can be made of paper (or other thin particle material) but there is a very thin sheet of real wood adhered to the outside with a special coating to give it a shiny appearance.
If you’re not sure what your item is made out of, a quick way to tell is by looking at the grain. Laminate, because it is artificial, will usually have an uneven grain that doesn’t line up throughout the item.
Veneer will have a uniform, naturally looking grain – it is a real wood coating after all.
Sanding vs. Not Sanding
It’s highly recommended you lightly sand the surface of your laminate furniture before you apply any paint or primer. The coating on the outside of the material is slick and will make it difficult for any sort of paint to adhere properly.
Not only will sanding increase your options in terms of paint type, but it also helps to remove any surface stains or imperfections that could show through the new color.
Priming vs. Not Priming
This one is not so much a recommendation but a necessity. Just like sanding roughs up the surface of the laminate so that paint doesn’t slip, priming is the second step to this. It also gives a blank canvas for any color to pop & not be influenced by the shade of the laminate underneath.
If you have decided to skip the sanding portion of your project, a shellac-based primer is a must in order to ensure the best adhesion of paint. Water-based or oil-based primers will simply slip off the surface.
Water-based and oil-based primers should only be used if you have sanded the surface beforehand.
Best Paint Options for Laminate
While in theory, you can use any kind of paint once your surface is prepped, spray paint on your laminate furniture will provide a more even finish.
Rollers and brushes on a flat surface are fairly easy to work with, but they can make it tricky to evenly coat legs on a desk or handle depressions on a dresser.
Rust-Oleum American Accents is my personal favorite when it comes to upcycling my furniture because it can be used on multiple different surfaces. I used this in a gloss blue when I redid my bathroom in a nautical theme and haven’t had any issues with chipping after more than a year.
Krylon All-In-One is a universally loved product because of its diversity and superior adhesion properties. This brand also has more than 80 colors to choose from, so your design options won’t be limited.
If you want a velvety, ultra-matte finish, Rust-Oleum Chalked is a must! Halfway through the drying process, you can “scruff” in one direction to give it an old, distressed look if you want, or just let it dry completely and evenly.
Chalk paint also adheres better than any other paint option, but it’s only going to give you a flat finish, so if you want your furniture to be glossy, unfortunately, this won’t work.
Steps & Tips for Painting Laminate
It’s important to note that you should select your paint and primer based on whether or not you are sanding. If you don’t decide to sand, you’ll be limited in your options.
Even though this step is optional, it’s highly recommended. It provides the ideal surface for any paint and primer to stick to and prevents slipping or peeling.
A fine-grit sanding block or sponge will be all that you need. When you sand, go in circular motions and sand evenly but lightly. All you want to do is scuff up the top layer of material to remove the shine.
If you sand too hard or for too long, you’ll end up ruining the underlying material, like paper or particle board. For this reason, you should sand by hand and avoid orbital sanders.
Remove all sanding residue before continuing.
Primer (Highly Recommended)
Choose whichever primer suits your needs. Once again, the primer will stick better if the item has been sanded. Shellac-based primer is really your only option if you decide not to sand.
To avoid clumping and peeling, allow your primer to dry completely before adding your paint. To achieve the most even coat, opt for a spray primer for the same reasons you should opt for a spray paint.
Whichever spray paint you decide to use, use it with caution in a well-ventilated area with surrounding items protected. Check that the nozzle is working properly and do a couple of test strips on some cardboard to determine the width of the spray.
Apply it in even strokes at the recommended distance (it’s different for each brand). Allow each coat to dry completely before placing a second coat to prevent clumping and running.
Test & Retouch
24 hours after you have finished your piece of furniture, check that the paint is dry and adhered by choosing an inconspicuous area and gently running your fingernail across it.
If it peels or scrapes easily, that is an indication that the paint, primer, or both did not adhere properly to the surface. This shouldn’t be an issue if you sanded. You may leave it as is. Just be aware that it will be prone to further wear and tear.
If it leaves a slight indent, then your item is fine; it just needs another 24 hours of cure time.
If you notice drips in the spray paint, they can usually be sanded away after the paint has dried completely and given a thin coat of touch-up paint to blend them in.