Can You Paint Over Polyurethane?

If you aren’t thrilled with the look of polyurethane, you might think about painting over it. After all, repainting would let you achieve a new color and finish, potentially rather quickly. But many people aren’t sure if the answer to “Can you paint over polyurethane?” is actually “yes.”

Technically, you can paint over polyurethane. However, you need to prep the surface – usually by sanding and priming – before applying paint. Otherwise, the paint won’t bind correctly, leaving you with cracking, bubbling, and other similar issues.

By understanding more about the challenges of painting over polyurethane and how to overcome them, you can choose the right approach for your project. If you’re trying to figure out if you can paint over polyurethane, here’s what you need to know.

Can You Paint Over Polyurethane

Can You Paint Over Polyurethane?

You can paint over polyurethane. However, you need to use the right approach.

When applied, polyurethane creates a glossy finish, and paint won’t stick well to that kind of surface. If you try to paint over polyurethane without prepping the surface, you could experience many issues. Cracking, bubbling, and peeling are all possible if you don’t prepare correctly.

In most cases, the best way to prepare polyurethane for painting is a combination approach. First, you’ll want to sand the surface. That creates a rougher finish, making it easier for the paint to bind. However, that alone may not be enough.

Second, you’ll want to apply a primer. Primer will have an easier time sticking to the sanded polyurethane surface. Additionally, it’ll help the paint bond as well.

Another benefit of primer is that it can lead to more even color. It can hide variances in wood surfaces and cover even the strongest of other paint colors. Additionally, it reduces the odds that stronger stains will bleed through, resulting in splotchiness or other issues with the newly-applied paint finish. As a result, the shade is often more accurate in fewer coats when you apply new paint.

It’s important to note that there are specialty products that could make sanding and priming less necessary. Oil Bond is a prime example. It’s an additive for latex paint that helps the paint adhere to glossy surfaces, including polyurethane. While a coat of Oil Bond has to be applied before painting, causing it to act a bit like a primer, it may allow you to avoid the sanding step.

What Paint Will Stick to Polyurethane?

Whether a pint will stick to polyurethane usually has less to do with the paint itself and more with the preparation. If you sand and prime the surface or use a specialty product that makes those steps less necessary, nearly any kind of paint will bind to the polyurethane coating.

Here is a breakdown of the most popular paint options and whether they’ll stick to polyurethane.

Latex Paint

Latex paint will stick to polyurethane if you prepare the surface using the right approach.

One of the main challenges with using latex paint over polyurethane is that latex paint is water-based and polyurethane is not. As a result, you’ll need to use the right primer or specialty product if you want to use latex paint for your project.

As mentioned above, a product like Oil Bond is one way to get latex paint to stick to polyurethane. It’s actually designed for latex paint.

Otherwise, you’ll need to get a suitable primer. Since water-based options won’t adhere to polyurethane properly, you’ll need an oil-based primer that’s compatible with latex paint. That way, it’ll stick to the polyurethane and allow you to apply a water-based paint like latex over the top.

Oil-Based Paint

Oil-based paint will stick to polyurethane if you sand the surface and apply a primer. One benefit of using oil-based paint is that you don’t need a specialty primer. Instead, a basic oil-based primer will do the trick since it’s compatible with the oil-based paint.

Before you apply the primer, you’ll still want to sand the surface. That way, it’ll have the best chance of bonding correctly, leaving you with an even surface for the paint.

Water-Based Paint

Water-based paint will stick to polyurethane. As mentioned in the section about latex paint above, you do have to use the right approach. In most cases, that means sanding the surface and applying an oil-based primer compatible with water-based paint.


Enamel will stick to polyurethane if the surface is prepped correctly. For enamel, you’ll want to start with sanding. Then, you’ll need a layer of oil-based primer to get the surface ready for painting, as that’s what works best for enamel.

If you’re looking for a tough surface similar to what you get with polyurethane, enamel can be a great choice. It’s incredibly durable, creating a harder finish than you get with latex or acrylic paint. However, enamel can create its own challenges if you want to repaint the surface later, so keep that in mind.

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint will stick to polyurethane if the surface is readier properly. Along with sanding, you’ll want to apply primer.

While acrylic paint isn’t water-based, it does require a water-based compatible primer. As a result, you need to choose an oil-based primer that works with water-based paint, ensuring the acrylic will adhere correctly.

Chalk Paint

Chalk paint will stick to polyurethane. However, like all of the options above, preparation is necessary.

At times, that takes chalk paint fans by surprise. Chalk paint is usually one of the easier options to apply to different finishes without having to do substantial prep.

If you want it to bind correctly to polyurethane, it’s best to do some sanding and priming. Chalk paint is water-based, so you’ll need to go with an oil-based primer that’s compatible with water-based paint to ensure it sticks correctly.

Should I Prime Polyurethane Before Painting?

How to paint over polyurethane

Generally speaking, priming polyurethane before painting is the best approach. Even if you sand the surface, the paint may have trouble sticking to what is left of the polyurethane. This is particularly true if you want to apply a water-based paint like latex over an oil-based polyurethane.

However, you may be able to bypass priming by using specialty products that are specifically designed for painting over polyurethane. Otherwise, it’s usually better to apply primer, ensuring you’ll get the desired result for your project the first time.

Do I Need to Strip Polyurethane Before Painting?

You don’t need to strip polyurethane before painting. If you sand and prime the surface properly, stripping the polyurethane is unnecessary. However, you can choose to strip the polyurethane if you like, but it does take more work.

In most cases, stripping polyurethane before painting the surface requires more steps than you’d need for painting over the polyurethane using the processes mentioned above. First, you would need to apply a chemical remover, allowing you to scrape up the polyurethane. Next, you’ll need to wipe down the surface to clean off any remaining remover.

After that, you’d still want to sand the surface, ensuring it’s even and ready for refinishing. Then, you may even want to prime and paint or simply paint, depending on the paint you’d like to use, the underlying material, and your preferred final look.

In the end, stripping the polyurethane creates more work. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on the table. If you’re dealing with a surface with several layers of primer, paint, and polyurethane, removing those layers first isn’t a bad idea. This is especially true if the item you’re repainting has intricate designs that are getting muddied under all of the coatings.

If there aren’t a lot of existing layers or design-related issues, you can typically skip stripping the polyurethane. Instead, just sand, prime, and paint.

Can You Paint Over Polyurethane Without Sanding?

Painting over polyurethane

You could technically paint over polyurethane without sanding. However, you’ll need a specialty product designed specifically for preparing a polyurethane-coated surface for painting.

Along with options like Oil Bond, you can find primers designed for hard-to-paint surfaces. With some of those, sanding could be optional.

However, if you don’t sand, you are taking a risk. There’s always a chance that even the toughest primers may not bond correctly to polyurethane, especially if the finish is high gloss.

If you have one of the specialty products and want to see if sanding isn’t necessary, it’s best to do a test before coating the entire surface in primer. That may alert you to potential issues. However, it might not show everything that could occur, so keep that in mind.

How to Paint Over Polyurethane

While you need to prep the surface before painting over polyurethane, the process usually isn’t as challenging as it first seems. Here is a step-by-step breakdown of how to paint over polyurethane.

Start with Cleaning

Many may assume that cleaning isn’t necessary if you’re planning to sand a surface. However, it’s always best to remove dirt, grime, dust, and residue first. That way, you’ll have a gunk-free surface to work with, ensuring you reach the polyurethane when sanding.

What you want to use may depend a bit on the kind of polyurethane you have and the amount and kind of build-up on the surface. In some cases, a moist cloth may be enough. In others, a water and vinegar mix could do the trick. The same goes for water and a bit of dish soap.

If you need something stronger, you need to consider the type of polyurethane as well as the kind of primer and paint you’ll be using. Some cleaning options aren’t ideal for certain finishes, primers, and paints. For example, while mineral spirits aren’t an issue with oil-based products, they could cause problems with water-based ones.

After cleaning, make sure the surface dries quickly. You may want to wipe it down with a clean, dry cloth to remove moisture. That way, it won’t linger on the surface and potentially cause problems.

Handle the Sanding

Once the cleaning is done, it’s time to sand. Usually, you want finer grit sandpaper. Typically, something near 300-grit will do the trick. It should let you remove the glossy surface layer of the polyurethane without going deep enough to hit the underlying material.

Sanding needs to be a gentle process. The idea is to create enough texture to allow the primer to bind, not create noticeable individual scratches in the finish.

When in doubt, it’s better to do several lighter passes than one heavier one. A gradual approach gives you more control, ensuring you don’t overdo it. Once the surface has a dulled luster, you’re usually in the right place.

Clean Again

After sanding, you’ll need to clean the surface again. This time, your goal is to remove any dust created by sanding. In most cases, you can use a bit of water or mineral spirits. Wipe the surface down and then follow up that pass with a clean cloth.

As you clean, pay special attention to any designs and recesses. Debris may settle in those areas, so you’ll want to be incredibly thorough when going over those spots.

Apply Primer

Once the surface is clean again, you can apply primer. You’ll want to approach this part methodically. Long, even strokes create a better base for paint, so don’t rush while you work.

Like paint, you can build up layers of primer. As a result, it’s usually better to be a bit conservative as you apply the primer to your surface. If you’re keeping it even, but it seems a bit thin after the first coat, you can always add a second coat.

However, if you’re too heavy-handed at first, you could end up with an uneven surface. If that occurs, sanding it down and applying a new, thinner layer may be your only option, creating more work in the long run.

If you’re using multiple layers, you need to let the primer dry between each one. The primer also has to be completely dry before you start applying paint.

How long it will take for the primer to dry depends on the type and thickness of the layers. Generally speaking, water-based primers dry faster than oil-based ones.

However, the range of drying times can run from one hour to 24+ hours depending on the product and local conditions (such as humidity levels). Refer to the manufacturer’s directions to get more insights about drying times for your specific product.

Apply Paint

Once the primer is completely dry, it’s time for paint. As with the primer, you want to use long, even strokes and make sure that the layers aren’t too thick. That way, you’ll get better results.

How many coats of paint you’ll need to apply may depend on the paint type, brand, and chosen color. Start with one and let it dry fully. Then, see if it looks like a second coat is necessary. If so, apply another layer using the same approach as with the first one. Once that one dries, check your project again, repeating the process as needed.

If you notice unevenness after a coat, you could do a light sanding to even it out before applying a fresh coat. If you do, make sure to thoroughly clean the surface before adding a new layer of paint, removing any debris created by sanding. That way, you increase your odds of an even final finish.

Can You Spray Paint Over Polyurethane?

Painting polyurethane

You can use spray paint over polyurethane if you handle the prep work correctly. Spray paint is available in both oil-based and water-based versions, so that will play a role in the preparation steps you’ll need to take.

Additionally, there are specialty spray paints that could make priming unnecessary. Some all-in-one options essentially do the work of a primer while applying a new color.

There are also spray paints that may allow you to bypass sanding. However, if you’re dealing with a high gloss polyurethane and the paint doesn’t specifically say that you won’t need to sand when applying it to polyurethane, don’t assume that you can skip that step.

Plus, in many cases, sanding and priming aren’t just about addressing the polyurethane. With those steps, you create an even, neutral-toned surface for your new paint. That could help you achieve a better overall result, making it worth the effort.

Best Primer for Painting Over Polyurethane

Which primer is best for painting over polyurethane depends on the kind of polyurethane you have and the type of paint you’ll use. If the polyurethane is water-based, a water-based primer is your best bet. You can apply an oil-based paint over a water-based primer, so you won’t have to worry about adhering issues.

If you have oil-based polyurethane, you’ll need an oil-based primer. However, if you plan to use water-based paint or acrylic over the primer, it needs to be an oil-based primer compatible with water-based paint. That way, the paint will stick to the surface properly.

When in doubt, look for a bonding primer. It’s designed for a high level of adhesion, including on glossier surfaces. Not only will it have an easier time attaching to the polyurethane, but your paint will stick well, too.


If you were wondering, “Can you paint over polyurethane?” the answer is technically “yes.” As long as you prep the surface correctly, you can get a nice finish after painting over polyurethane. However, if you don’t take the time to sand, strip, prime, or otherwise prepare the polyurethane, you probably won’t get the results you were after.

Did you learn everything you needed to find out about painting over polyurethane? If so, head to the comments below and share your thoughts. If a family member, friend, or coworker could benefit from the information above, please feel free to share the article.