Can you paint over varnish?

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We generally apply varnish to the surface of wood to enhance its looks and provide protection. Varnish imparts a classic look to wood while protecting it from wear and tear, and the elements.

You need to follow certain procedures for applying varnish or lacquer, which we deal with in another of our posts.

You can find varnish applied to several wooden surfaces like flooring, doors, windows, furniture, and staircases. It brings out the features of the wood grain, enhancing the natural beauty of the wood.

Why would you want to paint over varnish?

Brush on wooden background, Board half painted

If varnished wood looks so good, you may wonder why you would want to paint over it. The fact of the matter is that after a point, it is possible to get bored of the look and want to change the appearance of the wood.

For instance, with due respect to old-fashioned and retro looks, you would perhaps want to change it to a more contemporary appearance. You could use pastel shades or white or off-white to create a new look. But here’s the catch – certain shades would only be possible by painting the wood.

Can you paint over varnished wood?

Is it possible to paint over varnished wood? Yes, you can. In this post, we discuss the procedure of how to paint over varnished wood.

It is important to use suitable paint – the best type in this scenario is water-based acrylic paint. In case you use oil-based paint, then you need to use an oil-based primer as well. If the job is only touching up, you don’t need to remove the existing varnish. But if it covers a larger area, then you can get the best results by totally removing the varnish.

How to Paint Over Varnished Wood

When you have to apply paint over previously varnished wood, you need to follow a few simple steps. If you follow these steps, you can give varnished wood a refreshing makeover. Here are the steps to follow:

Step 1: Filling the Surface

Young carpenter in work clothes using scraper and wood filler i

You need to eliminate imperfections like scratches, dents, dips, and other irregularities. If you don’t deal with these imperfections, your paint may flake, peel off or blister prematurely. You must fill these imperfections with wood filler.

Pay special attention to larger cracks or areas where large chunks are missing or where there is rotten wood. Once you have applied the wood filler, you now need to allow time for your filler to dry.

Step 2: Cleaning the Surface

Sunnyside 64216 TSP Tri-Sodium Phosphate All Purpose Cleaner, 1-Pound
TSP Tri-Sodium Phosphate All-Purpose Cleaner (Amazon)


Once you complete your filling and patching work, you need to clean the wood.

Clean the wood by using a household sprayer bottle and wiping it with a lint-free cloth.

Ensure that you remove all sticky, greasy spots and make sure that there is no residue left on the surface. Using trisodium phosphate (TSP) is a good remedy for removing very stubborn stains or grease. Be sure to read the label and wear protective gear as TSP is toxic.

Try not to expose the varnished wood to water for extended periods, while varnish does offer some waterproofing, soaking the wood will delay your project as you’ll have to wait for it to totally dry. Finally, wipe the surface with a dry cloth and allow it to dry.

Step 3: Sanding the Surface

Womens hands sanding the wood floor before painting.

Now, comes the sandpaper stage. Sanding is an acquired skill and if you have been doing it for some years, it should be easy for you to execute this stage of the work. Use medium to fine-grit sandpaper to strip the wood of the varnish.

By sanding the wood, you create a roughness that helps the paint to get a better grip on the surface. You can use contoured sanding grips to deal with curved surfaces. Ensure that the room that you work in a well-ventilated so that doesn’t accumulate too much dust from the sanding operation. Also, use a face mask or respirator.

You should sand along the direction of the wood grain and take care not to sand the surface down to the bare wood. If you expose too much of the bare wood, you will have a difficult time painting it later on.

Alternatively, if the surface of the wood is in relatively good condition, you can apply paint without following the above procedures.

You can use a deglosser that can be sprayed or applied to the job to remove the varnish. Deglosser is often called “liquid sandpaper.” Once done, you can clean the dust off the surface of the wood in preparation for applying the primer.

SUNNYSIDE CORPORATION 72232 1-Quart Gloss Remover
Gloss Remover (Amazon)

Step 3: Applying Primer


After the surface of the wood is prepped, it is now ready for the first coat of primer. You may not need to apply primer if the surfaces are clean. In such a case you would skip this stage and apply paint directly.

Apply a light coating of primer and allow it to dry. Once dry, lightly sand the primer surface and add another coating and apply another coat. Once the second coat is applied, your wood is ready to receive its first coat of paint.

Step 4: Applying the Paint

painting wooden door in white color by brush

Use oil-based paint for the best results to provide a vibrant and colorful appearance. You will have to wait a rather long time for your paint to dry. It takes about eight hours for the first coat to dry against the four hours for acrylic paint.

Once you apply the final coat, wait for at least 24 hours before you do anything with the wood. On drying, your wood surface should look like an entirely new surface.


Applying finish to wood is a highly skilled activity and everyone may not be able to do a good job. It takes a lot of time and patience combined with experience to execute a satisfying job.

Painting over varnish is even more tricky and can make the wood look worse if you don’t play your cards right. That is why we have provided the information in this post. Using this information, you can take any varnished wooden items and apply paint to them.

By knowing how to apply paint on varnish makes your woodworking skills all the better and you can make some great-looking projects because of your expert finish-application skills.

Applying a suitable finish is extremely critical to be able to restore old furniture and other wooden items. It is an important aspect of woodworking and you can gain great respect in your woodworking community.