Decoding Paint: Types of Furniture Paint, VOCs and Sheen

We each have our favourite types of furniture paint.  Once a refinisher has settled on a brand, it is hard to persuade them to try something else.  After all, why mess with a winning formula?

But could you imagine going into a candy store and sticking to only one type of candy for the rest of your life? No variety and no exploration. Sounds dull to me!  

Table of Contents

What is in a name?

The sheen changes the look.

I want to take a moment before diving in, to state that writing this blog took me down a black hole of Paint Information.

Specifically, the terms used to classify or name a paint from a brand appear to be strictly marketing related.

Yes, that mineral paint has added minerals in it. And that milk paint does consist of casein and the enamel paint you love? Does have enamel.  But often these are added to an acrylic paint base.  

So, is the paint it’s base structure or the added elements?

There are a number of brands which are now adding to their label that the paint is acrylic based and I do like the transparency in the products. 

Acrylic Paints

Acrylic paints are created using an acrylic resin, which is essentially a plastic substance.  This is why acrylic paints are known for their durability.  They are water based, dry quicker than oil-based paints and when dry is considered water resistant.

By nature, acrylic paints are easy to work with and are considered beginner friendly. However, Acrylic paints tend to be more expensive than latex paint.

It appears that the majority of furniture paint on the market is now acrylic based paints. Of all the types of furniture paint, it’s defintely the fan favourite for furniture refinishers.

Examples of Acrylic paints

I have used Fusion Mineral Paint for years and have always referred to it as a mineral paint, until recently when I noticed on their website, they use the term acrylic.

Better yet, their newest jars of paint even include in small print “100% Acrylic Polymer Emulsion”.  

Similarly, Wise Owl One Hour Enamel has in small print on it’s cans that it’s an acrylic enamel.

Examples of acrylic types of furniture paints

All-In-One Paints

You will notice that a variety of acrylic furniture paints; Fusion Mineral Paint included, are listed as all-in-one paints, meaning they have a primer and topcoat included in the formula.

Depending on the project you are working on the built in primer and topcoat may be sufficient. However, for pieces to be painted white, highly tannin woods or strong-smelling pieces, I would always use an additional primer to ensure bleed through will not occur.

The built in topcoat is a similar situation. If you are selling the piece and it will be subject to high traffic, consider adding an additional topcoat for longer lasting durability.

Tip: Don’t skimp on your primer and topcoat to save a few dollars.  Your business reputation requires your pieces to be durable.

Gate leg table refinished with sunburst tape design. Completed with Wise Owl OHE paint
Close up of vintage end tables refinished with retro blue tape design using fusion mineral paint

Latex Paints

While acrylic and latex paints are both water based and can be often mistaken for each other, they are rather different.  Previously Latex was created from a base of rubber, but these days they are often resin based.

Latex tends to be softer in nature and is considered an indoor paint.  While it requires a little more drying time than acrylic paint but is still quicker than oil-based paints.  

Do not use latex outside, it is a softer paint and it should not be used on any high traffic pieces.   It will scratch!

Due to the water-based nature of the paint, they are easy to clean, using soap and water, readily available in most hardware stores and are cost effective. It’s cheaper then acrylic.

Examples of Latex Paint

Your typical wall paints are often latex based. These brands will often create a line which is also usable on wood.  I did struggle to find a furniture paint which is strictly latex based.  Due to the softer nature of the paint, it is often not recommended to be used on furniture which will get heavy use. 

If you are aware of a latex paint brand for furniture, drop a comment or send me an message.  I would love to test it out.

Thought: I have heard that you can purchase latex paint and with simple home ingredients, transform it into a chalk paint.  Perhaps I should give this a try?

Oil Paints

I will not dive into oil paint, strictly because I do not use it in any fashion nor am I aware of any refinisher whom still uses an oil paint.  While considered the most durable of paints, it also is the longest drying and least environmentally friendly.  The VOC levels require you to ensure good ventilation when working, as well as safety equipment; such as a respirator. 

Why bother with oil paint when you have so many durable water based furniture paints available?

Chalk Paints

Chalk paint is a decorative paint known for its matte, chalky appearance. It was probably the OG of furniture paints and is a good choice for creating a rustic, vintage, or farmhouse chic style.

Chalk paint is a fan favourite as it can be used on nearly anything with the right amount of prep work. It will even adhere to old paint, but if you want a smooth finish, ensure you take the time to prepare the surface adequately.

types of furniture paint; examples of chalk paint for furniture
small cabinet refinished with 3d cubed design in green, purple and pink.

Artistic Paint

Chalk paint is a quick drying paint. Probably only second to Milk Paint.  However, chalk paint has the unique ability to be rehydrated. By spritzing your piece with water, you can manipulate the paint. This stretches out your working time with paint.

This is why chalk paint is a go-to for refinishers who do blending and ombre effect techniques.  

Top coating Chalk Paint

Chalk paint will require a topcoat to increase its durability. Waxes were probably designed with chalk paint in mind, as they will create a depth in colour and establish a smooth, silkier look to the otherwise chalky appearance.

However, if you opt to use a water based top coat, be careful! While chalk paint may feel dry to the touch, it could still bleed pigmentation into the water based coat. 

This occurred to me when I top coated a chalk paint piece and caused the pigmentation to colour the topcoat. This would not be bad if it was not a multi-coloured piece.  

Therefore, give chalk paint adequate curing time and test a small section first.

Chalk Paint Examples

Dixie Belle, Daydream Apothecary, and Annie Sloan Chalk Paint (the OG). 

Milk Paints

Milk paint is one of the oldest types of paints and is eco friendly as it is created from casein, the milk protein. It comes in powder form and requires mixing with water.  Versions which come pre-mixed are usually acrylic based. 

This paint bonds to the wood. This is different from other paint types which create a flexible film on top of the wood. This makes it a very durable and gives it a unique look. Also means that milk paint does not require Primer!  It is the only paint which you can consider skipping the priming step.

Furthermore, milk paint is probably the fastest drying paint on this list.  It is normally touch dry within 15 to 30 minutes. The second coat can be added once touch dry. 

Hemp oil is the choice of finish for milk paint.  It gives milk paint that silky-smooth finish which it is famous for.

Milk paint bonds with wood
bar cart refinished with milk paint

Milk Paint's Bad Rep

Milk paint has a bad rep as it is often associated with a chippy look; however, you can achieve a modern, smooth look with milk paint. It is all down to how you prep your piece. As milk paint bonds to the wood itself, anything in between it and the wood can cause it to chip. Chippy pieces are often the result of painting over the existing finish. If you take the time to remove the old, glossy finish, milk paint will adhere smoothly.  You can also increase your odds by adding a binder to your milk paint.

Milk Paint is definitely a paint to use for a farmhouse or distressed look. The unique look of milk paint gives a piece an authentically aged look.

But don’t limit milk paint to your cottage and farm house clients.  It can be used for a modern, sleek look and  I have used milk paint successfully with tape design. 

Much to my own surprise.

close up of milk paint chipping
table refinished with milk paint and tung oil

Milk Paint Examples:

Fusion Milk Paint, Old Fashion Milk Paint, Miss Mustard Seed Milk Paint,

types of furniture paint; Milk Paint Brands

What about mineral, mud, and clay paints?

We all have paints on our shelves which identify themselves as mineral, or mud, or clay or some other type of fancy dirt paint. These types of furniture paints are 99% of the time acrylic based paints.

That means they are water based, created with acrylic resins which is flexible allowing movement with the wood, and quick drying.  

Some brands will list in small print on their jars that they are acrylic paint or on the website. The only reason to not highlight the acrylic paint element is for marketing purposes.   

What are Eco-Friendly, Low VOC Paints?

We all want to work greener and provide safe pieces for our clients.  But how do we know if the paint we are using is helping us to achieve those goals?

VOC or Volatile Organic Compounds are the easiest way to check the safety factor of our paints.

VOCs are additives to the paints which support its drying abilities. When paint dries it releases the VOC within the paint.  This is that smell of paint drying, made popular by oil paints.  Oil based paints are notorious for having high VOC’s.  It’s the reason why I left oil paints off this list, despite being a durable, go to paint for generations. 

No VOC Label on Daydream Apothecary paint
Zero VOC Label Dixie Belle Chalk Paint

The Health Risks of High VOC Paints

With the improvements in water-based paints, I personally do not feel the need to start experimenting with high VOC paints, such as oil based paints.   

As VOC is released into the air, you may find yourself feeling dizzy and headachy.  Over long-term exposure, you can end up with serious health issues. Some VOCs are even considered carcinogens.  Therefore, understanding the VOC levels in the products you use, is important.

Furthermore, VOC can be additionally dangerous to children and pets.  As paints continue to release VOC’s even after initially drying, it is important to consider your clients and ensure that the piece they are bringing home is safe.

VOC label on Wise Owl One Hour Enamel Paint

What is considered safe levels of VOC?

Well, the numbers can differ depending on where you live, but The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends not exceeding a value of 0.3 mg/m³ (milligrams per cubic meter) for total VOCs in indoor air.

How can you determine how much VOC is in your paints?  Well, it is required by most countries to have the VOC listed on your can of paint.  

For example, Wise Owl One Hour Enamel paint in Charleston Green has 150 G/litre. 

The newest jars of Fusion Mineral Paint state, that “is a zero VOC water-based paint”.  

The same goes for Daydream Apothecary, with a “No VOC” label and Dixie Belle lists “Zero VOC”.

Low or No VOC

Flat or Matte paints tend to have lower VOC then Satin or glossy finishes.  

A low VOC flat/matte paint is considered less than 50 g/litre.

Satin and Gloss will have higher VOC by nature. Therefore, a low VOC glossy finish is considered at 100g/litre or less.  

A No VOC product is considered when there is 5g or less per litre.

For more information on VOC check out Green Seal.

VOC Label Fusion Mineral Paint

Paint Sheens

In addition to the types of furniture paint affecting the look of your project, the sheen of the paint will also affect it.   

Sheen refers to how much shine the paint or topcoat will have once its fully dried.  By changing the sheen on a piece of furniture, you can dramatically change the overall look.  Some periods of furniture were even known for the sheen which was used.  Such as Art Deco was known for the glossy look of wood, vs the mid-century modern style which often was more matte.

From Matte to Glossy

From matte to gloss, each sheen has its own pros and cons. The finish you choose can affect the look of your piece. Let’s explore the 5 different sheens and see which is right for your project.

Flat or Matte

Has a lack of any shine! Matte finishes are great for hiding imperfections such as dents and scratches. This is due to the light not reflecting off the surface as much as it would on a glossy finish.  Matte finishes are more difficult to clean, however. 

deep green dressior in art deco style
Drawers are top coated with an Ultra Flat

Eggshell

Some paint brands offer an eggshell finish, which is between a matte and satin finish.  It has the slightest low shine to it but is more washable than a matte paint. Think of an actual eggshell.  There is just the hint of shine.

Satin

This is the classic middle-of-the-road option and a favourite of mine for drink cabinets. Satin has a sheen or glow and is easier to clean than a matte finish. It’s a popular choice for pieces of furniture which will get some use, but it can show imperfections in the paint or wood.

mid-century modern sideboard
Satin Top coat

Semi-Gloss

More shine means more durability. Semi-gloss is easy to clean and stands up well to wear, making it a solid choice for furniture that will see a lot of action.

Gloss

Gloss finishes are the most durable and are easy to clean but will show every imperfection on the painted or wooden surface. Best used for pieces that are in excellent condition or for which you have taken the time to fill and sand every dent and scratch.

curved, art deco style cocktail bar
Wood top coated with gloss

Sheen Changes the Look

The type of sheen which you choose for your paint or topcoat can change the final look of your project.  Bright colours will look far more vibrant in a glossier finish, while a matte finish creates a muted and warm look. 

Playing with the sheens in your pieces can adjust the look and feel of the whole project.  Consider the look you are wanting to achieve or the feel of your client’s room before settling on a final sheen.

TIP: The sheen level can be different from brand to brand.  

Frequently Asked Questions

I recommend using a self-levelling acrylic based paint, such as Fusion Mineral paint.  This will help you achieve a smooth finish while you are learning how to minimize brush strokes. 

I am also a strong believer in milk paint being one of the easiest paints to use.  However, it does require that you take the time to do adequate prep work on your piece and to have removed all glossy old finish or risk having the paint chip.

I never recommend painting over an existing finish.  Paint and glossy finishes are a recipe for disaster.  At a minimum you should clean your piece thoroughly and complete a scuff sand to remove the shine of the previous finish.

If you insist on skipping these necessary steps, consider using chalk paint.  The adhesion abilities of chalk paint are probably the best out of the list of 4 types of paint for furniture.

Chalk paint and milk paint can create the distressed, farmhouse with the most success. Distressing paint can be done in several ways, but it is essentially causing wear on the edges and throughout the paint.  This can be achieved with each of the paints mentioned by sanding or using bees wax before painting.

Chalk paint works the best for blending.  Despite the quick drying times, you can spritz water on chalk paint and rehydrate it.  This permits you more time to finish your blending work.

Unfortunately, you should remove the paint that is not adhering.  No actions can be taken now to make it adhere.  Once you remove the paint you need to ensure that you take all the necessary prep steps, cleaning, sanding and priming.  These steps are the holy trinity of paint preparation.  Together they guarantee that your paint will adhere. 

A lack of adherence from your paint is usually caused by dirt or the previous finish. Wax is especially detrimental for your paint.

You should stay within the same family of paints.  Specifically, an acrylic paint with an acrylic paint or milk paint with milk paint.  You should also stay within the same brand as the paint formulas can differ from one company to another.  And while you may be once successful with mixing two different brands, the next time the components may not blend well or even fail when put onto a piece of furniture.

Final Thoughts

When you first start refinishing furniture, you can get quickly overwhelmed by the number and types of furniture paint on the market. Don’t fall immediately into the marketing traps and the paint pushers.  

Consider what it is that you wish to achieve with the item you are refinishing. 

Is it blending and/or distressing?  You will want to consider chalk paint for its artistic qualities. 

Are you looking for durability? Then consider an acrylic based paint. 

What about a cheaper alternative for a piece which will strictly decorative? Latex paint may be for you. 

No matter which type of paint is your go to, consider taking the time to experiment with other brands and types of furniture paint.

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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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