A Weekend-Friendly Project for Your Plain, Old Wood Furniture

All you need is some paint.

July 10, 2020

With help from our sponsor Behr—makers of high-quality paints in every shade—we're sharing color-filled paint projects anyone can pull off, whether you're a first-time DIY-er or a seasoned pro. To make your upgrades even easier, check out the BEHR® Express kit, which has all the tools you'll need, plus an expertly curated color palette.

I once found a small dresser in the alleyway outside of my apartment building in near-perfect condition. Three drawers, no scratches or stains, and the perfect height for it to be a nightstand.

The only downside was its lack of finish—it was untreated pine, and while pretty, definitely needed updating. After picking out the perfect color for the drawer fronts (a deep, forest-y blue), I added two coats, stained the sides, and added new drawer pulls. It’s still one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever done, and it couldn’t have been easier.

Much like that chest of drawers, any unfinished (or undesirably finished) piece of furniture you might have in your house is way easier to transform than you might think. Since the trend of minimalism seems to be tapering off (making room for more maximalists!), why not give a plain, old piece a colorful upgrade? Like this ho-hum wood bookcase—maybe you've got something similar sitting in an oft-forgotten corner of the living room, just begging for a refresh.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Roller texture is generally considered inappropriate for wooden furniture or trim- a roller can be useful for getting the paint on (even a small one holds way more paint than a brush), but it really needs to be brushed out with the grain. Spraying is by far the best, but it takes some practice.”
— Smaug

A neutral shade for the outer portion of the bookcase lets it easily hang with the rest of your furniture, but a pop of color on the back panel makes it an instant accent piece. Below, we’ll walk you through the step-by-step method, from picking out colors to painting.

Here's What You'll Need

Before getting started, you'll want to make sure you've got the BEHR® Express kit and a few other tools handy.

The BEHR® Express kit:

  • Two colors of eggshell sheen paint, like interior BEHR ULTRA™ Paint (one comes included with the kit)
  • A metal tray
  • Tray liner
  • Roller frame
  • Shed-resistant 3/8-inch nap roller cover
  • A 2-inch thin angled sash nylon and polyester brush

The Rest of the Essentials

  • Tarp or drop cloth
  • Fine-grit sandpaper (220 is ideal)
  • A lightly damp rag
  • Painter’s tape
  • Protective eyewear

Pick Your Paint Colors

Since we painted a bookshelf, we wanted to choose two colors: one for the outside portion, and one for the back panel behind the shelves. You can find a ton of tools online to help you choose paint colors, like this roundup of BEHR 2020 color trends with pre-selected coordinating hues. We went with a gentle gray (Toasty Gray) on the outside of the bookshelf, to blend seamlessly with any room, and painted the back panel a subdued gold (Cellini Gold), for a splash of color.

Prep Your Furniture

Remove any hardware the shelf might have, and stash in a memorable place while you paint. Lay down your tarp or drop cloth (or newspaper, an old sheet, broken down boxes, whatever you’ve got!) to protect your workspace. Open the windows to ensure proper ventilation, and try to work on a sunny, clear day. Paint dries faster and smoother in warm, non-humid weather.

Even if you’re working with a piece of furniture that’s unfinished, you’ll want to give it a quick sand with a fine-grit paper to make sure the paint will fully stick to the surface. A 220-grit piece of sandpaper or sanding block will get the job done—if you’re lucky enough to have an electric sander, you can accomplish this step even quicker. Once sanded, wipe the entire piece down with a slightly damp rag to remove any debris, and let fully dry.

If you’re working with a piece of furniture that’s already been painted, stained, or finished in any way, you’ll need to put a little more work into prepping it. The goal is to make sure you have a semi-porous, even surface to work on, so you’ll want to remove any layer that’s shiny and super smooth. To efficiently remove layers of paint or varnish, start with a coarser grit (between 60 and 100) first, then go over it again with a finer grit (up to 220) to get the best results. Just like the unfinished piece, make sure you wipe it down entirely before painting to remove any debris.

Paint the Outside

When working with a previously finished piece, you'll want to use a paint with a built-in primer. This will make sure the paint better adheres to the surface, and also camouflage any leftover color or finish on the piece.

Make sure your paint is properly mixed by stirring, stirring, and stirring some more (you can use a paint stirrer from the hardware store or anything disposable). The ingredients in a can of paint will separate from each other while stagnant, and need a thorough reintroducing before use.

We recommend painting in a “W” formation, which means you'll use a zig-zag pattern to fill the empty space, instead of an up-and-down motion. This will help place an even distribution of paint onto the wood, and you’ll get a much more cohesive finish. Once the first coat is dry (about one to two hours), apply a second coat if needed.

Tape Off the Inside

Let the outside color completely dry overnight—seriously, it has to be totally dry so the tape won’t peel it back up (and if you’re not sure, always err on the side of caution and give it extra time). Then, apply painter’s tape to every junction where the outside color meets the back panel. Be sure to apply the tape onto the first color, and not the unpainted part.

Paint the Inside

You’re almost done! This final step is the most fun, because it comes with a big tape reveal. Apply a coat (or two, if needed) of the accent color to the back panel (in the same method as before) and remove the painter’s tape while—wait for it—the paint is still wet. Believe it or not, this will result in the cleanest line. Let the whole thing dry overnight, then add your favorite books, knickknacks, and pretty much anything you want to put on display.

Which paint color combo would you choose for this project? Tell us in the comments below!

From our sponsor Behr: We're highlighting beginner-friendly paint projects for every room in the house—from upgrading plain wood furniture with a pop of color to brightening up blank walls with graphic stencils. For this project, we used Toasty Gray and Cellini Gold for a subtle, yet eye-catching accent piece perfect for your favorite display-worthy items. To make the job even easier, we snagged the BEHR® Express kit, which delivers all the handy tools and supplies you'll need for any painting project straight to your door. One last tip: Always make sure to refer to the instructions on the product label or visit for the best results.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Heather Grant Lindsley
    Heather Grant Lindsley
  • Sara
  • Smaug
Caroline Mullen

Written by: Caroline Mullen


Heather G. July 11, 2020
I am sorry...did I miss the photo of the finished product?
Sara July 11, 2020
Why is this article on the Food section rather than on the Home52 section? This seems to be happening frequently. Very odd. I come here because I want to read about food and am disappointed to find otherwise.
Smaug July 10, 2020
Roller texture is generally considered inappropriate for wooden furniture or trim- a roller can be useful for getting the paint on (even a small one holds way more paint than a brush), but it really needs to be brushed out with the grain. Spraying is by far the best, but it takes some practice.