How to avoid brush strokes when painting furniture

When refinishers first start painting furniture it’s normal habit to start with paint brush.  Unfortunately, it can be a long learning curve to master brush stroke free painting. So, how do you avoid brush strokes when painting furniture?  Now that’ the million-dollar question to take your furniture from part-time flipper to professional furniture refinisher.

Table of Contents

Brush Strokes on Furniture – no big deal?

Before you start panicking about your brush strokes, consider this first!

For some types of styles brush strokes may add to the charm of the finished piece.  Furthermore, if you are selling your pieces as hand painted art, then the occasional brush stroke is expected and even lends to the authenticity of the painted by hand element.

However, if you are selling modern and sleek pieces, brush strokes will create an amateur appearance.  If you are trying to establish yourself as a professional refinisher, you will want to minimize that dreaded brush stroke.

Let’s run out and get a paint sprayer!

A paint Sprayer seems like the easiest solution.  Everyone is using a paint sprayer on social media, these days.  But what if you simply love brushing paint?  

Or perhaps you have limited space to spray indoors, and you live in a perpetually windy, rainy country which doesn’t permit spraying outdoors?  (Could you tell I am speaking from experience?)

So, if you are like me and not able or willing to step over to a paint sprayer (or your artistic expression requires a paint brush), then how can we banish brush strokes?

How to avoid brush strokes, choosing the right tools

Let’s start at the basics! You require minimal tools succeed with painting.  At the very basic level, a good quality brush. 

A sea of Paint Brushes

Paint brushes are a very personal matter.  Every Refinisher has a favourite and rarely do we agree with each other. This is why I recommend that you should experiment with different paint brushes when first starting. 

Now that doesn’t mean you need to run out and drop some serious money on expensive paint brushes.  While I will admit that some of my favourite brushes were not cheap, I have also found great priced brushes at the local hardware store that could give many more pricey brushes a run for their money.

The most expensive is not necessarily the best brush for your project and painting style. 

What should you consider when looking at brushes? The Bristles, shape, and size!

How to avoid brush strokes, choosing a paint brush from a basket filled with brushes

Natural vs Synthetic Brushes

The very first step of choosing a brush can be already challenging. The Bristles!  Do you require a synthetic brush or a natural brush? 

Natural bristle brushes

Natural bristles are created by using actual animal hair.  Such as hog, badger, or sable; to name a few. These types of bristles are known for soaking up the product which they are being used in.  If used with water-based products, the bristles will soak up the water, swell and can cause brush strokes in the paint.

Therefore, Natural Bristles are best used with Oil Based Paints.

Synthetic Bristled Brushes

Many furniture paint companies offer their own paint brushes, consisting of synthetic bristles.  This is because synthetic bristles do not absorb water. So, the bristles don’t swell up and keeps them stiff and more likely to stop brush strokes.

Therefore, Synthetic Bristles are best used with water-based paints.

Popular types of Synthetic Bristled Brushes; Cling On, Dixie Belle, Zibra, Staalmeester… Just to name a few.

Used cling On Paint Brushes, synthetic brushes for water based paints
Dixie Belle Paint Brushes; brushes for how to avoid brush strokes when painting furniture
Zibra Paint Brushes for painting furniture

Brush Shapes

Using the wrong shaped brush for your project could also cause brush strokes. While there are a variety of different shaped paint brushes on the market, let’s look at the most popular shapes needed in furniture refinishing.

Round – to be used with any rounded or curved shape, as well as ornate details.  Think Chair Spindles.

Fan – For ornate shapes and crevices. Think edge moulding. 

Round and Fan brushes from Zibra
Round and Fan Brushes from Zibra
Oval Brush from Dixie Belle - Great for Painting Spindles and avoiding brush marks
Small Oval Brush from Dixie Belle

Triangle or pointed – For internal corners. Those hard-to-reach internal corners in a shelf.

Flat – For larger flat surfaces.  Think the top of that dresser, or sides.

Pointed brush tip from zibra
Pointed or Slanted Paint Brush
Flat Brushes from Dixie Belle in 2"and 1"
Flat Brushes in 2" and 1"

Brush Sizes - How big should you go?

The flatter and larger the surface, the larger the brush that you should use.  You ideally want to cover your surface with as minimal amount of brush strokes as possible.  I usually do not go above a 2’’ brush and I rather like working with a 1.5’’ as it just feels easier to control in my hand.

Other options for stroke free painting?

Well, the focus on this blog post is How to Avoid brush strokes when painting furniture, with a focus on paint brushes.  However, I would not be providing all information if I left out the two other methods which you could turn to, for the modern, sleek look.

Paint Rollers

Paint rollers are a quick solution to cover large, flat surfaces.  They will not work on ornate details, mouldings etc. 

There are many different types of rollers on the market, but in general can be broken down into lambswool, microfibres or foam rollers.

Lambswool – tends to be expensive and if longer haired will create a rougher surface. 

Microfibres – huge range in prices but opting for a good quality microfibre roller on a smooth surface can leave a streak free finish.

Foam Rollers – Another favourite for smooth, furniture.

I have not experimented in depth with paint rollers yet but have had success with microfibre rollers from Two Fussy Blokes rollers.  

two fussy blokes paint rollers for furniture to avoid brush strokes
Two Fussy Blokes Microfibre Paint Rollers
Foam Roller for painting Furniture
Foam Roller for painting Furniture

Paint Sprayers

I have absolutely no experience with paint sprayers.  THE END.

Ok, I don’t have anything against paint sprayers and will most likely try one in the future. I do enjoy working with a brush though, and much of the work I do is tape design, for which a sprayer would not be handy.

A paint sprayer however, in addition to being a great tool to achieve that modern, sleek look is a great tool to speed up your processing time. When you are considering scaling your business, a paint sprayer can help to decrease your average time per piece.  I wrote about scaling up your business and 5 other things you should know before starting a furniture refinishing business.

90% of Painting success is the Prep Work

You can learn how to master the paint brush and wield it with professionalism, but if you don’t master the prep work, your piece will never achieve that smooth and flawless look.

I consider there to be 3 key steps in prep work: the holy trinity of Furniture Refinishing.  Cleaning, Sanding and Priming.   For pieces with a lot of damage, dings, and scratches, you may also want to include Wood Filling in that list.

Cleaning

You absolutely need to clean your piece before you do anything else.  By cleaning your furniture piece, you will remove any dust, dirt and debris which could get stuck in your paint.  I recommend that you review How to clean your furniture before painting to best prepare your piece.

Filling Imperfections

Wood Filler or Epoxy is your best friend when it comes to filling small dings and scratches.  These scratches when under layers of paint will ruin the smooth factor which you are striving for.

Using a putty knife, add your preferred wood filler to any imperfections and allow to dry. 

Sanding

You will want to sand your piece after cleaning and filling any imperfections.  Check out more in-depth details on sanding and sanding tool.

After sanding, wipe your piece down with a damp rag or use a tack cloth.  You want to remove all dust created when sanding to ensure your primer adheres smooth.

Priming

While often skipped for All-in-One paints, priming is a crucial step. It creates a surface ideal for paint to adhere to without failing.

Furthermore, priming is also a great moment to see if any flaws are coming up in the surface of your piece, prior to adding your paint. 

In depth details on priming can be found here; “Primer is it needed”?

Furniture Paints

There is a wide range of paints in the market.  Far more then I will ever be able to test. Though I am sure as hell trying!

For my furniture pieces, I always opt to use a paint specifically designed for furniture.  I prefer the durability that furniture paint is created with. Even limited yourself to paints designed for furniture in mind, your choice remains endless.  Chalk, Milk, Acrylic, Oil, Alkyd?  Which should you use for your project?

Check out this breakdown on the most common types of furniture paint to help you decide.

The Thicker the Paint

Some paints will cause brush strokes more readily than others.  The more liquid the paint, the less likely it will leave strokes behind.  Why?  Well water will help water-based paints level out and dry brush stroke free. 

The wateriest paint? Milk Paint.  If you are looking for a paint which will dry nearly 100% brush stroke free, then this is the paint for you. 

Diluting your Paint

Now the secret is out.  Water will be your friend when it comes to smoothing out the paint on the surface of your piece.  You can introduce water to your paint in 2 core ways.

  1. Add water directly to your paint. Firstly, pour the amount of paint you expect to use into a clean jar or container.  Then add up to 10% water to the volume of paint.  This can be a rough estimate.  If you feel that the paint is too watery, add a little more paint into the mixture.
  2. You can also opt to use a misting bottle. These bottles are originally used for hairdressers.  Rather than spray water in a larger volume, it mists.  You can mist the surface that you will be painting on lightly.  Then dip your paint brush into your paint and brush over the surface that you just misted.

 

When you opt to dilute your paint, I recommend first testing it out on a sample piece of wood to ensure that it flows smoothly and dries correctly.  Too much water can ruin your paint finish, so while water is helpful, too much isn’t.

Spray Mister to add water when painting
Misting Bottle
Adding Water to paint, misting directly into the paint
Adding Water Directly to Paint

Smooth Flow Additives

There are also several products on the market that can be added to paints to reduce brush stroke and increase the self-levelling component of paints.  The purpose is to increase the flow of the paint and increase the drying time.  Which permits you to work with the paint longer for different techniques. This also permits the paint to self level longer and reduce the possible brush strokes.  By adding a smooth flow additive, you will need to take into account that your drying and curing time could be affected. 

When looking for smooth flow additives, you will want to ensure that it is compatible with the type of paint that you are using.  For instance, if you are working with a water based acrylic paint, you will want to consider the following, which are suitable for water-based paints.

 

Tip:  additives to your paint can chance the sheen of your finished product.  Therefore, read that small print.

Is straining your paint necessary?

I personally do not strain my paint.  But what I do opt to do is pour the paint I expect to use in a clean container.  This minimizes the chances that I may accidently add foreign objects into my paint jar.  It also limits the chances that my brush will push the dried paint on the edge of the jar into the paint itself.

Brush Strokes - Applying your Paint

When applying your paint, you want to work quickly and not overwork the paint.

  1. Pick up paint with your brush and brush across the surface.
  2. Work with the wood grain and work in a single direction
  3. Brush the paint out thin. Multiple thin layers are better than 1 thick layer of paint.
  4. Once you have covered an area, do not go back over it. Once drying has started, you risk leaving brush marks.
Paint Brush picking up watered down paint from a jar
Applying paint to a board.

Sanding Between Coats

For the smoothest finish, sanding is your best friend.  If you hate sanding, you better close shop now because there is nothing else in furniture refinishing which you will do more.

Let’s check out just how much sanding you will need to do.

  1. You will want to sand well before you prime your piece. This is the main sanding stage and requires you to work your way up in sandpaper grit to smooth out your surface.
  2. After your first coat of primer, you will want to sand again. This stage can be done with a high grit sandpaper such as 180 or 240 grit.
  3. After each additional coat of primer, you will need to sand again. I personally continue with 180 and finish the last coat of primer with 240 grit.
  4. After your first coat of paint, you will want to sand. At this stage I trade in my sandpaper for finishing pads.  I love 3m’s finishing pads.  They come in grey for between coats and green for final coat.  Just lightly run these pads over the surface to remove any brush strokes or debris that may have gotten into your paint.
  5. Clean your piece after sanding.  
  6. After each additional coat of paint, you will want to sand with the 3M finishing pads again.
  7. After your first coat of topcoat, you will want to sand. At this stage I use only the Green 3M pad for the final coat.

 

After each time that you sand, you will need to clean your piece again.  Taking this time will increase your chances of achieving that buttery smooth finish.

3M Finishing pads are great for sanding between coats of paint
Clean your piece after sanding, here with a tack cloth to pick up all debris and dust

Practice makes perfect

The more you practice achieving that smooth finish, the better your chances are.  In our family we have a saying “Leren is Proberen” which translates into learning is trying.  The only way you will get that smooth finish you dream of, is by practicing for it. If you don’t succeed at first, keep working at it.

Frequently Asked Questions

You could opt to use a roller for all large, flat surfaces.  Unfortunately, most furniture will contain ornate edging and other details.  These will need to be done with a paint brush or sprayed.

I would personally say Milk Paint.  Unfortunately, milk paint has a bad rap for being farmhouse chic or flaky.  However, when prepped correctly, milk paint bonds to your wood. When finished with hemp oil, you will achieve a silky, smooth finish. 

However, milk paint does look different to your typical acrylic paints, which form a film over the surface of your wood. 

For more information on milk paint check out:

Yes, by sanding!  You will need to sand the piece smooth and then add another layer of paint.  Should you see brush strokes appear at any point in your process, you need to take the time to stop and sand.  This is the only way to fully eliminate the brush strokes.

Final Thoughts

Paint which isn't smoothed out and leaves streaks which will dry as visible brush strokes
Thick paint, not brushed out will leave brush strokes
close up of smooth Paint without brush marks
You can see wood grain but no brush marks

Those modern, smooth pieces you want to create, can be achieved with a brush.  It will only take you time, practice, and a heck of a lot of sanding!

My only recommendation… don’t get trapped in perfectionism.  You are after all hand painting a piece. There may be some marks which will occur even to the best refinishers.  Don’t sweat the odd blemish if it doesn’t detract from the piece.

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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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