Prep Like a Pro: How to Clean Furniture Before Painting

Sarah Stahl
Sarah Stahl
Passion for transforming tired, old furniture into bold works of art. Sharing my learning with you.

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There is no step more important than the cleaning step in the entire furniture refinishing process.  It can single handily make or break your project!  It can never be skipped. So, let’s dive together into the first step of refinishing furniture; how to clean furniture before painting.

So, let’s explore together how you can make that project a success.

Table of Contents

Why it's important to Clean Furniture before Painting.

Dirty piece of furniture prior to cleaning for painting

When it comes to prepping furniture, the cleaning and sanding steps tend to get tossed around together. While, each step is important, the actual order in which you do these steps is key! I always recommend that cleaning your furniture piece first. It should always be step number ONE!

What happens if you sand before you clean your piece?

Let’s consider what happens when you sand furniture.  It’s essentially grinding the surface with an abrasive. In which you are moving from a rougher to finer grit throughout the process.  This is what causes the surface of the wood to feel smoother as you go up levels in grit.

Now, if you haven’t cleaned the surface prior of dirt, grim and old finishes, you are essentially grinding it into the wood grain itself.  Your surface may look clean, but you will have deposited grime and old finish directly into the wood pores and grain.  Paint struggles to adhere to a dirty surface.  

I know what you are thinking now.  Why don’t you just clean it now after sanding.  But the effort required to get the grime out of the wood grain and pores will be next to impossible.

Simply clean first and then sand and you will avoid this issue.

A Clean Surface will create better paint adhesion.

You would think that painting furniture is as simple as…. Well painting furniture! 

Unfortunately, it isn’t.  Paint requires a clean surface to adhere to. As paint dries it essentially forms a film over what it has been applied to.  It needs to bond to that surface and if that fails, it will flake and peel off.

The first way to ensure proper bonding between your piece and the applied paint, is to ensure no dirt, grim, wax, or other old finishes are between the paint and the surface of your wood.

The second way to ensure a proper bond between paint and your piece is to use primer. 

scrubbing surface to clean furniture prior to painting

Ensure your environment is clean.

By taking the time to clean your piece thoroughly, you are also removing any dust build up from entering your workspace.  Dust is a furniture refinishers enemy.  It can ruin the finish on your topcoat, it can cause your paint to fail and flake. And it’s frankly bad to breath in. 

 So, get rid of that grime and get out the cleaning tools.

Tools for Effective Cleaning

Every refinisher has their cleaning tools that they swear by. 

What works for one, will not work for the other.  It’s the same in our homes.  We all have different cleaning techniques and styles.  It doesn’t mean that any which one is better than the other.  They are just different.

My recommendation is, read through this blog and test out the listed supplies and cleaners for yourself. 

Find what works well for you, within your budget.

Various cleaners for cleaning furniture prior to painting

Cleaning Supplies Checklist

The right tools for the project.

While some items on the list may seem self-explanatory, let’s investigate them in further details.

A Bucket

This does not need to be fancy.  Just a bucket to hold freshwater in.  A lighter coloured bucket does mean that you will notice sooner how dirty the water is getting.  Furthermore, it should be sizable, that you do not need to constantly get fresh water.

A bucket and Lint Free Cloths for cleaning furniture prior to painting

Rags or Cloths (preferably lint free)

You can choose to buy cleaning cloths or simply repurpose that kid’s shirt with a hole in it. Either way, your only guideline here is to make sure that the cleaning cloth is lint free.  You want to avoid having to clean your item of lint and pieces of cloth that have gotten stuck during the cleaning process.

Lint Free Rags for cleaning prior to painting

Sponges

Who knew there was so many sponges to choose from!  There are plastic abrasive ones, cellulous sponges, a combination of cellulose and abrasive, wire sponges etc.  The list is endless.

I personally use a combination of cellulose and abrasive sponge.  It’s cheap and readily available in my grocery store.  I can also get multiple uses out of it. 

TIP: I would only recommend that you stay away from wire sponges.  If metal and water are applied to bare wood, you can risk oxidization on your wood.  This is where tiny black spots can appear on your wood surface caused by the reaction between metal and water.  

Sponges useful for cleaning furniture prior to painting.

Bristled scrub brushes

Again, you can get scrub brushes in a variety of sizes and shapes.  I use the small brushes designed to clean your fingernails after working in the garden. 

It has scrubbing power but remains soft enough that it will not gouge the wood I am cleaning.

Bristles Scrub Brushes for Cleaning Furniture Prior to Painting

Toothbrush

Yes, you read that right. 

I added a toothbrush here, as one of my key cleaning tools.  The toothbrush can get in all those tight corners and remove any grime built up.  It also remains soft enough that you do not need to worry about causing damage to the wood.

ToothBrush for cleaning hard to reach places on furniture

Gloves (heavy duty ones!)

Pretty self-explanatory.  While some cleaners may be mild on skin, others may not.  Furthermore, you are working with a dirty piece of furniture.  Gosh knows what is on it. 

Protect your skin! After all it is your largest organ.

Gloves, A Necessity for Cleaning furniture prior to painting

Your preferred cleaner of choice

Everyone will have an opinion on what cleaner to use.  I list common cleaners further down, as well as pros and cons for each.  Consider the project you are working on, as well as the type of finish on it.  This will help you to determine what cleaner to use.

White spirts or Mineral Spirits (for wax build up)

When you have a project with obvious wax build up, you may want to clean it fully off before cleaning the wood with your preferred cleaner.  White Spirits can melt wax away, quicker than most cleaners.  How to use White spirts, please see below White Spirits under choosing your cleaner for furniture before painting. 

White spirits or mineral spirits is a must have for cleaning furniture prior to painting

A Vacuum

To get all those cobwebs!

close up of a festool vacuum that works in combination with festool rotex 90

Choosing your Cleaner

The list of cleaners and their pro’s and con’s is overwhelming and endless!

Some may work better on a previously waxed piece to remove that build up, while others may work better to simply remove dirt from raw wood.  If you plan on keeping some or all the old finish, you will need to be choosier with what cleaner you opt to use.  Many cleaners will dull or cause a white haze to occur on an old finish.

Various cleaners for cleaning furniture prior to painting

All Purpose Cleaners

These are your basic, all-purpose cleaners which can be used across a variety of surfaces.  While they can be great at removing dirt and grime, the residue they leave can be hard to remove.

PROS
  • Versatile – can be used for multiple purposes around your home.
  • Effective at Cutting Through Grim and Grease
  • Widely Available
  • User Friendly – easy to use and often pleasant smelling.
CONS
  • Residue – may leave a residue behind which can affect paint adhesion.
  • Compatibility- not every all-purpose cleaner is suitable for all types of furniture finishes.

Examples of All-Purpose Cleaners

Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner

Simple Green is a known all-purpose cleaner that works on a variety of surfaces. It’s known for its effectiveness in cutting through grease and grime. I would spot test it on your wooden project before diving in.

Cleaning Soda is a great choice for cleaning furniture prior to painting

Washing (cleaning) Soda or Sodium Carbonate.

Do not confuse cleaning soda with baking soda (known as bicarbonate of soda; like I originally did!). Cleaning soda is a stronger cleaner and is used for a variety of purposes. Stain remover, water softener, cuts through grease and grime and deodorizes. It’s readily available in your grocery store for a low price compared to many other cleaners.

TSP (Trisodium Phosphate) cleaner

TSP is a name you may have seen pop up in furniture refinishing already.  It is a popular, heavy-duty cleaner known for tackling tough, built-up grime, including waxes. Trisodium phosphate has been used as a cleaning solution for years. It’s a very strong cleaner for surfaces which will be painted; however, TPS is not environmentally safe.

It’s a chemical which is already banned in most household cleaners, because of the effects it has on water supplies. As TPS falls out of popularity, a few brands have renamed their cleaners to draw attention away from the key ingredient (Trisodium Phosphate).

PROS
  • Powerful Cleaner – TSP will cut through dirt and wax build up.
CONS
  • Strength and Safety – This is a strong cleaner! Proper safety equipment is needed.  In addition to gloves, wear safety goggles and your respirator.
  • Environmental Concerns – TPS contains phosphates that can be harmful to aquatic ecosystems. It’s already banned in several products.
  • Residue – may leave a residue behind which can affect paint adhesion. You must thoroughly rinse after usage.
  • Compatibility- it may affect the current finish on the furniture.

Example of TSP Cleaner

Not all TSP cleaners are clearly listed as Trisodium Phosphate, but the ingredient will always be listed though.  Due to the environmental concerns of Trisodium Phosphate, it should be used sparingly, for the toughest dirt.  

Trisodium Phosphate is used for cleaning furniture prior to painting.

Vinegar and Water Solution

Vinegar and water can be used as a mild cleaner.  It’s considered budget friendly and ecofriendly option to cleaning.  

Vinegar on wood does have a bad rap however, as it can cause finishes to become dull and cloudy.  I would not use vinegar to clean wood that you do not plan on removing the finish and refinishing the piece.

Cleaning Vinegar is an environmental safe product for cleaning furniture prior to painting
PROS
  • Eco Friendly Cleaning Solution
  • Readily available – get it from your grocery store.
  • Leaves little to no residue
CONS
  • Limited Effectiveness on tough stains and wax build up.
  • Compatibility – vinegar may affect the old finish and cause a haze or dull it.

White Spirits or Mineral Spirits

Same product, different names.  The name you will find White Spirits under will depend on where you are located.  

This product should be in ever Furniture Refinisher’s tool kit.  It’s an essential ingredient to cut through wax build up and a long-time favourite of woodworkers in their shops. 

PROS
  • Effectively removes tough stains.
  • Able to cut through and remove wax build up.
  • Dries leaving minimal residue behind
  • Quick drying time
CONS
  • The Stench!
  • Flammable – work with caution and store correctly, away from open flames.
  • Health concerns – ensure you use correct safety equipment (gloves, glasses, and respirator) and work in a well-ventilated space.
  • Environmental concerns – White Spirits are petroleum-based and therefore it is not an environmentally friendly product

When using White Spirits, you will want to opt for steel wool.  This is the only cleaner I would use steel wool with as no water is involved in this stage. 

You apply the white spirits to the piece and scrub with your steel wool.  As the wax builds up in your wool, replace it for a clean piece.  Repeat until you no longer remove wax, and the piece looks dewaxed.

When you finish with white spirits, I would consider still cleaning the piece with a mild cleaner like dish soap and water to ensure any traces of the spirits is cleaned.

White spirits or mineral spirits is a must have for cleaning furniture prior to painting

Reminder: Never use steel wool in combination with water on wood.  It can cause oxidization on your wood which shows up as black spots or steaks.

Dish soap and Water

We all have available dish soap in our kitchens and this liquid can be a helpful tool in your furniture refinishing business.  For those items which do not have tough stains or wax build up on them, this is a perfect cleaning solution.  

Affordable, readily available, and soft on your hands!  Just ensure that you remove all soap residue as it could cause your paint to fail.

Dish soap is a gentle cleaner for furniture
PROS
  • Readily available – pick it up with your groceries.
  • Degreaser – pick a strong degreaser option.
  • Safe for regular use
CONS
  • Not as affective on tough stains
  • May not cut through wax as easily.
  • Will require multiple uses.
  • Residue – ensure you fully wash after with water

Paint and/or general Degreasers

Finally, your paint and/or general degreasers.  It is possible now at every hardware store to purchase a cleaner that is designed to prepare paint and other surfaces for painting. 

Each works differently than the other, so it is important to read the instructions.

PROS
  • Specifically designed for preparing surfaces (painted, wood or even others) for painting
  • Degreasing abilities.
  • Readily available at your hardware stores.
CONS
  • Price – often more expensive as it is a specialized product.
  • Compatibility – could affect an old finish.
  • Residue – Ensure you follow instructions and rinse when/where necessary

Examples of Paint and/or general Degreasers

Krud-Kutter 

Is listed as a concentrated degreaser and is a favourite of furniture refinishers.  If you know where I can get it in the Netherlands, drop a note in the comments. 

Krud-Kutter is from Rust-oleum and the next cleaner on my degreaser list is also a Rust-oleum product. 

Universol

This is a popular degreaser for paint which is readily available in the Netherlands. Get it at your local Gamma. Furthermore, it’s also a Rust-oleum product.  

I’ve given it a try and found it works fine for previously varnished pieces.  I have not yet tested it on waxed pieces. 

How to Cleaning Furniture before Painting – Step by Step

Now, you should have your cleaner chosen for your project and have assembled the rest of your cleaning supplies.  So, is it time to start cleaning?  Not just yet!

Removing a hinge before cleaning for painting furniture

Prepare your piece for Cleaning

To ensure you provide a deep clean to your piece, you need to prepare.  You should remove anything which may get in the way of the cleaning process.  Specifically, any stickers, tack paper or old felt that needs to be removed. Your piece should also have all its hardware removed.  This includes hinges, handles, knobs etc.  You will want to label all hardware that you remove so that you can ensure that it is returned to the right place when you are finished.

Vacuum a piece to remove dust

Remove Dust and Cobwebs

This is where your vacuum will come in handy.  Vacuum all dust and dirt which is lose on your piece.  You will want to remove any drawers to clean in the body of the piece, as well as behind and underneath.  Ensure you enlist help with flipping your piece upside down.

Clean a wood surface with a scrub brush

Cleaner and Scrub Brush

Follow the instructions on your cleaner of choice.  Apply to your piece and use a scrub brush or slightly abrasive sponge to clean the surface.  You will want to ensure that you reach every nook and cranny of your item.  The toothbrush will help in the tight corners. If your cleaner is applied with water, do not soak your piece!  It is wood or veneer on substrate.  Either way, water is not it’s friend!  Now I hear you saying, “Sarah! How do we clean with water without getting the piece too wet?!”. Ensure you dry any pooling water immediately, your surface can be wet, but it should not be soaked.  Don’t allow the water to sit and when you finish, dry the piece. Reminder: if you opted for white spirits, follow the instructions listed under the white spirits category.

Change your water and repeat step 3

You will need to repeat step 4 multiple times if your cleaner involves water.  Your water will get dirty, and you should frequently empty it and get clean water, as you go.

Rinse a piece with water is an important part of cleaning furniture

Rinse with Water

Once your piece is clean, you should always wipe it down with just water.  This is for all types of cleaners, even those that use water in the process.  You want to ensure that your piece is fully clean and contains no cleaner residue.  Any residue that remains can affect that adhesion of your paint.

Drying Time

Wipe any water remaining on your piece and allow the wood to dry fully.  Moisture trapped in the wood can also affect your paint drying times and adhesion.  So, I recommend that you start another project while you wait for your piece to dry fully.  Or perhaps call it a night and get that glass of wine that you’ve been thinking about.

Troubleshooting cleaning issues

Wood can absorb smells over time.  It’s a porous material. Unfortunately, it’s not always as easy as cleaning to remove the smell.  Smells can linger even after cleaning.  If you have a smell that will not leave, consider using shellac as your primer or over the wood.  Shellac works as an odour blocker.

You’ve let your piece dry and you now notice streaks across the surface?  Or perhaps it feels even squeaky. It’s most likely that there is cleaner residue remaining on your piece.  This can hinder your paint from adhering.  Therefore, you will need to remove it.

Use warm water and a cloth to rinse down your piece again and allow it to dry further.

Does your furniture piece has mold or mildew on it?  If so, you can try and save the piece from further destruction by killing the mold/mildew.

Start by combining vinegar and water in equal parts.  Apply it to the spots affected and allow it to sit for an hour. 

After an hour, wipe the mold away and go over the spot with a mild cleaner and water to remove any remains. 

If the mold/mildew remains, you can try a combination of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.  Scrub the surface of the wood with a bristled brush and the bleach/water mixture.  Be aware that bleach can lighten the wood surface and may affect any design plans you had for your piece.  

Allow the bleach mixture to sit for 10 to 15 minutes and then rinse off with warm water until all bleach is cleaned off the wood.

Ensure you take all safety precautions when cleaning mold.  Respirator, gloves, and goggles.

Wax removal is an absolute must before painting your piece.  Nothing will cause your paint to fail, faster than wax. Therefore, if you are sure your piece is waxed, consider taking the step to use white spirit and steel wool to remove the wax.  After which you should still clean the piece with a mild cleaner, fully.

Firstly, you should dry clean your antiques regularly with a dry cloth for dust.  If there is dirt that requires attention, use warm water on a cloth (not sopping wet) and clean the surface.

If you have a piece that requi9res more cleaning, consider using a mild cleaner, such as dish soap and warm water.  Always test your cleaning solution first on a spot which will not be noticed.  Such as the back of a leg or underside of your piece. The cleaner should not cause any white haze or dulls the finish.  If so, you can use it further. 

I have been successful with removing stickers and plastic tack paper from shelves and drawers with my heat gun.  Set your heat gun to a low temperature and heat the surface of the sticker or tack paper.  As the glue loosens you can slide your putty knife between the substrate and pull upwards slowly.

The glue will remain after you have removed the sticker or tack paper.  This can be removed with white spirits and steel wool. Or Rubbing Alcohol. It’s messy and stinky work.

I hear that Goo-be-Gone would work well. I have not tested this, as it is not available in my area.  

You want to ensure that your piece is fully dry.  I always permit my pieces the time to dry overnight at room temperature.  If your piece was soaked fully, you may want to even wait longer.  Your piece should be fully dry to the touch and the wood should not feel soft from water evaporating.

No, no, no! Never skip cleaning.  I will be the first to admit that I am not a fan of the cleaning step.  But this first step can make or break your project.  Not cleaning will have more consequences to your finished project, then not sanding, priming, or picking a cheap paint.  Ensure you take the time to prep your project for the next steps.  

Ready for next steps?

Check out these other Refinishing 101 Topics and elevate your refinishing skills.

Final Thoughts

Cleaning your furniture before painting is the key step to ensure that your refinishing project is successful. 

While some pieces may look clean, there could still be product on that vintage cabinet which will cause your paint to fail.  Take the necessary time to clean your piece.  Use the time cleaning to study your piece for any issues which may require repairs before you start painting.  

Let me know in the comments what your favourite cleaner is to use.  

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