Can You Paint Over Stain?

Painting stained furniture is an inexpensive way to freshen up the look of a room without spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on new furnishings. An old china cabinet, a dining room table, kitchen cabinets: all of these are candidates for a new paint job.

You can paint over stain by cleaning the surface with warm soapy water, removing the shiny finish with a deglosser, and lightly sanding once dry. Use a damp rag to remove the dust, then coat with a high-quality primer. Once dry, apply the first coat of paint, making sure to follow the wood grain. Apply a final coat and a top coat, if needed.

Can You Paint Over Stain

Why Paint Over Stain?

Staining is hands down the best way to bring out the natural beauty of wood, but sometimes there’s a need to paint over it.

Perhaps you’ve decided to change the design of your living room but don’t want to part with a beloved dining room table. Maybe you’re looking for a way to update a bedroom but can’t afford to buy all new furniture.

There are plenty of reasons to paint stained wood on the exterior of your home as well. Perhaps that deck has gotten old and worn, or perhaps it’s time to freshen up that stained fence with some bright white paint.

Indoors or out, there are plenty of reasons for painting over both interior and exterior stains. Below, we’ll review how to do both:

Interior Stain

Whether you want a semi-gloss finish for a bedroom dresser or are after a matte finish to match the farmhouse look you’re after, you have plenty of options when it comes to painting furniture.

Painting over matte stained furniture is a relatively simple process requiring some easy prep work involving light sanding and a coat of primer.

Often furniture has a glossy finish, meaning it has been coated with polyurethane or varnish. It used to be that painting over wood sealed with a glossy coat involved two very unappealing options.

Either the furniture would have to be stripped using noxious chemicals and a metal scraper, a messy and laborious process, or it would have to be sanded completely off an equally messy and difficult process.

Both options were enough of a reason to forget the whole project. That has all changed. With the invention of liquid sandpaper, removing glossy topcoats can be completed in mere minutes, making the option of painting stained furniture much more appealing.

Exterior Stain

Exterior staining projects include decks, fences, siding, and trim. Painting over stained exterior wood can be a relatively simple process as exterior stain jobs usually do not have shiny polyurethane coatings that complicate the painting process.

Why paint a deck or siding? In addition to achieving a different look, painting is an excellent way to protect weathered wood. Stains and sealers penetrate the wood, providing limited protection against moisture and the sun. Paint creates a barrier that protects the wood from moisture and harmful UV rays.

Stained fences, siding, trim and decking can typically be cleaned, lightly sanded, and then painted with quality exterior paint. There is typically no need for primer or special chemical treatments unless the stain is oil-based.

Read on for how to prep oil-based stain for painting.

How to Paint Over Stained Wood

How to paint over stained wood

Assess the situation

Whatever your situation is, it’s essential that you know what you’re dealing with, so your painting effort isn’t all for naught. There’s nothing worse than spending time and money on a project that ends up being a failure.

Begin by taking a careful look at the wood you’re going to be painting. You need to determine if the stain is water-based or oil-based. If you’re not sure, try this simple water test. Sprinkle the wood with water. If the water resists the stain by beading up, it is more than likely an oil-based stain.

Also, you need to determine if you’re dealing with a glossy finish or matte finish. Is the stain sealed with several coats of polyurethane? Answering these questions is critical to effectively preparing the surface to receive paint.

Given that sanding usually tops the list of the least favorable steps in DIY projects, you might be wondering if there is a way to skip this step. You may not be able to skip sanding entirely, but you can certainly reduce the amount needed.

Most jobs that involve painting over stained wood will require at least some light sanding. This isn’t to remove the stain but to rough up the surface, so it better receives paint.

A glossy finish used to mean a lot of sanding was required before you could paint the surface. Because paint does not adhere well to a glossy finish, this finish would typically need to be completely sanded off before paint could be applied.

That, in itself, was enough of a barrier to forgo the whole project altogether. But, thanks to the advent of liquid sandpaper, times have changed. Now, you can leave the sandpaper in your workbench drawer in favor of a deglosser that will chemically remove that finish with just a few wipes of a rag.

What Type of Paint to Use Over Stained Wood?

When considering what kind of paint to paint over stained wood, it’s good to remember that water and oil don’t mix. As such, if you’re painting over a water-based stain, it’s best to use a water-based primer as it will better adhere to the stained surface, preventing peeling or cracking.

If you’re painting over an oil-based stain or a surface that has been coated with a topcoat such as polyurethane, the process is a bit more complicated. Because oil-based stain will resist paint, you’ll need to clean the surface with trisodium phosphate, commonly known as TSP.

TSP is a very powerful degreaser that will break up the oils on the surface of the oil-based stain, providing a surface that paint can adhere to. After this treatment, you can use a water-based latex primer followed by latex paint.

Surface Preparation

Once you’ve made a plan of action and purchased the proper materials for the job, it’s time to get started. Begin by finding a location to complete your project. Ideally, a garage or shed with a door that can be opened for ventilation works best.

If this isn’t possible, make sure you use a location that can be adequately ventilated, especially if you’re using TSP to clean a piece of furniture. Open windows, set up fans to promote airflow and arrange drop cloths to protect the floor area.

If you’re working on an exterior job, such as a fence or deck, check the weather and pick a time when you’ll have a couple of dry days. The last thing you want is to have your job ruined by an untimely storm.

Once you’ve prepped the work area for your repainting project, it’s time to prepare the wood. If you’re working on a piece of furniture, use a screwdriver to carefully remove all of the hardware from the piece. While this may seem tedious, it will make the painting process go much more quickly as you won’t have to paint around hinges and pulls.

Make sure to carefully store your hardware for reinstallation, so it’s easy to find once the painting is completed, and it’s time to put everything back together. For hardware that can’t be removed, use painters tape to protect it from paint.

If you plan on repainting kitchen cabinets, you’ll need to remove the cabinet doors and set them up in your workspace. Obviously, you’ll need to paint the cabinets themselves in their location. Just make sure to protect the floor space, walls, and countertops around the cabinets with drop cloths.

Next, you’ll need to thoroughly clean the project. For cabinet doors or pieces of furniture, clean the surface with soapy water and a rag. The goal here is to get all loose dirt off of the object. This is especially important for kitchen cabinets, which typically pick up grease and oils from cooking and frequent handling.

painting stained woodIf you’re dealing with grease and grime, you’ll need to do a more thorough job of cleaning by using TSP. Remember, TSP is a very powerful cleaning agent used to remove grease and oil. It’s important that you follow safety protocols when using TSP to avoid injury.

Use rubber or latex gloves when mixing and applying TSP. Also, make sure you are working in a well-ventilated area as TSP fumes are toxic. It’s also a good idea to wear a mask and safety glasses.

Deglosser typically comes as a powder that must be mixed with water to create a solution. Mix a half cup of TSP with two gallons of water to create your cleaning solution. Soak a sponge in the solution and wipe down the grimy areas. Allow the solution to soak in, then remove it with clean, warm water.

Most stained furniture is covered in a glossy finish for appearance and to protect the wood. If this is the case with your project, then you’ll need to remove it with a deglosser. Like TSP, deglosser is a very powerful chemical. Wear gloves and protective eyewear when using it and work in a well-ventilated space.

Begin by liberally applying deglosser to the cabinets using circular motions. Make sure to treat all areas. Wait about 15 minutes for the deglosser to dry. You’ll notice the treated areas become hazy since the deglosser leaves a light film.

Once the deglosser has dried, it’s ready for paint. That’s it. No mess, no wiping needed. Just apply, let dry, and you’re ready to prime.

Before priming, do check for any damaged areas. Repair any damage with wood filler as needed. Once dry, sand and clean before moving on to the next step.

For large exterior projects, such as decks and fences, the process is a little different. Again, begin with cleaning. Due to the size of exterior projects, it’s advisable to use a power washer to clean the surface. These areas are likely to be dirtier given their exposure to the elements, and a power washer will do a much more thorough job of cleaning.

Sanding before painting over stain

And, given the scale of these projects, a power washer will allow you to clean much more quickly and thoroughly than scrubbing by hand, saving you a significant amount of time. Just keep in mind that you will need to wait a bit longer for the wood to dry if using a power washer as power washing tends to saturate the wood.

Once clean and dry, you’ll need to lightly sand the wood before applying paint or primer. This sanding is not meant to remove the stain, but rather to create a rough surface for the paint and primer to adhere to. Use fine sandpaper (150 grit plus) and make sure to sand with the grain to ensure a smooth paint finish.

Once you’ve sanded all surfaces, use a damp cloth or sponge to remove the sanding dust. As with interior projects, check for any damaged areas in the wood. Use wood filler to repair. Once dry, resand the repaired area.

Apply Primer

paint over stainPrimer is a necessary part of this process. It will cover and seal the stain, preventing bleed through. It also creates a sticky surface on which paint will better adhere, resulting in a more durable finish.

For best results, ask your paint store to tint your primer a slightly lighter shade of the paint color you plan to use to achieve better coverage from your paint.

Unless you’re using chalk paint, which we will get into in a moment, don’t skip this step. Apply the primer using a good quality brush, making sure to paint with the grain to avoid a cross hatch look. Even though you’re painting over primer, the paint strokes will still show through the paint.

If painting over an oil-based stain, use a bonding primer to prep the surface. For exterior jobs or if painting over a dark stain, consider using a shellac primer. Oil-based shellac primers do the best job of stain blocking and creating a seal between stain and paint.

Once the primer is dry, lightly sand.

One exception to the primer requirement is if you are using chalk paint. With the increase in popularity of farmhouse style, this matte style of paint has become a popular choice for refinishing furniture.

Chalk paint differs from regular paint in that it includes a dry bonding agent mixed in with it. This bonding agent can be a variety of materials, including unsanded grout, baking soda, calcium carbonate (chalk), talc, and plaster of Paris.

Aside from the matte look you can achieve with chalk paint, it’s also appealing because it acts as a self primer. This paint is generally thicker and stickier and covers much better than standard paint. Hence, primer is unnecessary when using chalk paint.

Just keep in mind that chalk paint is also significantly more expensive than standard paint.

Paint Stained Wood

Painting over stained wood

First, keep in mind that not all brushes are created equal. You often get what you pay for. While you may be tempted to go with a budget brush, a cheap paint brush will not give you the same quality finish as a more expensive high-quality brush.

Before applying the paint, determine which type of brush you plan to use. A synthetic paint brush will give you a smoother look while a natural brush will allow the paint strokes to show more prominently.

If you want a smooth look, consider using a roller. This works especially well if you are painting a piece of furniture with a large flat surface such as a tabletop or cabinet doors.

If you go this route, don’t purchase the same roller you would use to paint a wall. Instead, you want to use a high-density foam roller, which will give you a smoother finish.

Rollers also work well for large exterior projects that would take considerably longer to paint with a brush. Decks, siding, and fences typically have smooth sides that can be quickly and easily rolled.

If you’re looking for that smooth look, but a roller just won’t work, consider investing in, borrowing, or renting a sprayer.

Sprayers create an even smooth coat, making them effective for painting all kinds of furniture. They also make the painting job much faster (although cleanup can be a pain with sprayers). They are especially handy on such large jobs as painting a fence, deck, or siding.

Regardless of what you choose to apply the paint, it’s important to get an even coat. You’ll want to look for drips and runs as you work to smooth these areas.

If you choose to roll or spray, keep in mind that you’ll still need a brush to coat those areas a roller won’t reach or to smooth out drips and runs.

As with most paint jobs, you’ll need more than one coat of paint. Apply at least two coats, waiting for the first coat to dry before applying the finish coat. If you’re not satisfied with the coverage, add a third coat.


Although a top coat isn’t a requirement, you may want to add one. Top coats serve as an exterior sealant to the paint, protecting it from wear and tear, and, in the case of exterior jobs, sun and moisture.

Polyurethane is one of the most effective ways to seal a paint job. It is a liquid polymer that forms a strong barrier once dry. Polyurethane is available for interior and exterior projects and comes in three sheens: satin, semi-gloss, and gloss.

Keep in mind that most polyurethanes will add some level of sheen to your finished project, so if you’re looking for a true matte finish, this may not be the right option.

Also, remember that if you’re using water-based paint, you need to also use a water-based polyurethane for a finish coat. Oil-based polyurethane will leave a yellowish sheen on light-colored water-based paints.

If you like the appearance of polyurethane, but don’t want the work that goes into brushing it on, then consider using polycrylic as a topcoat. Polycrylic can be difficult to work with as it dries quickly, making it hard to get an even coat. Because of this, polycrylic typically needs to be applied with many thin coats.

Polycrilic does have one big advantage in that it comes in spray form, which can be very convenient, especially if you are coating a piece of furniture with many uneven surfaces that are difficult to coat with a paintbrush.

If you’re looking for a more natural-looking way of protecting your wood, then consider furniture wax. Unlike polyurethane and polycrylic, which essentially serve as a plastic coating over the wood, Furniture wax penetrates the wood and acts as a barrier against moisture and stains.

And, although furniture wax has a sheen when it is initially applied, once it completely dries the wood retains its natural appearance.

There are some cases in which a top coat is entirely unnecessary. Decor that is rarely handled, such as picture frames and accent pieces, don’t need the protection that a top coat provides. Also, objects painted with high-gloss or semi-gloss paint don’t need a top coat either as these finishes usually provide enough protection on their own.


Painting over stain is an excellent way to change the look of a piece of furniture, freshen up faded siding or bring life to a tired old deck. And, with the advent of liquid sandpaper, painting high gloss stained furniture is more doable.

By following the above steps, you can paint over stained wood and still achieve a high-quality durable paint finish. I hope this article has provided you with information to help you complete your paint project. If you have any questions, please let me know.