The Step-By-Step Guide to Painting Over Stained Wood

Refresh a deck or tired piece of furniture with these painting tips

Kristin Luna
Written by Kristin Luna
Updated April 4, 2022
Woman painting over stained wood plank in garage
Photo: eclipse_images / E+ / Getty Images


Only DIY if you know what you're doing.

Time to complete

4 hours

Variable. For painting over a stained deck, allot up to 16 hours of work. For a common piece of furniture, four hours is reasonable

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What you'll need:


  • Power washer
  • Ear plugs
  • Dust mask
  • Tack cloth
  • Rubber gloves
  • Sandpaper
  • Chemical stripper
  • Oil-based primer
  • Acrylic paint
  • Two-gallon buckets
  • Paintbrushes
  • Weenie roller and frames
  • Tarps
  • Ladder

There are many reasons you might want to paint over stained wood, but the most important one is the long-term protection of the underlying material. If the stain and varnish protectant system has been neglected over the years, it’s likely that you’ll need to start from scratch anyway, so why not go back over it with the classic primer and paint system? It’s a done deal if you do paint over stained wood, so be sure that you’re committed to the painted look before tackling the following steps.

Prepping to Paint Over Stained Wood

The first thing that you’ll need to do before painting over stained wood is remove as much of the old varnish as possible. Stain systems rely on the protective seal that varnish provides, which is often the main failure point of decks and lap siding as they age without ongoing preventive maintenance. 

Your paint job over the wood surface will only be as good as the underlying material, so if the varnish has started to flake, powder, or bubble up off the wood, you’ll need to make the effort to remove as much as possible before painting over the stain, which will seal in what’s left. If you’re unsure of your capabilities to properly prep the service, hiring a local handyman isn’t a bad idea for ensuring the job gets done correctly.

If the varnish adheres to the wood in such a way that removal is an impossible task, creating enough “tooth” on the varnish with sandpaper and/or a power washer will be enough to enable primer and paint on top. If you use a power washer, be sure to let the wood cure out to be dry enough for primer and paint after you’ve injected water into it. If the job is a big one, you might consider bringing in a professional pressure washing service near you to handle this step for you.

7 Steps to Paint Over Stained Wood

Painting over stained wood? Starting from properly cleaning your deck or piece of furniture to applying the topcoat, here are the steps you need to follow.

  1. Remove Loose Varnish

    Taking a putty knife or paint scraper to the surface, gently remove any wood stain or varnish that immediately flakes or peels off from the wood. Be careful to not damage the wood. Concentrate on the big pieces, and don’t work too hard on this step—you just need to get the loose stuff.

  2. Sand Entire Surface Area

    Starting with 50- or 80-grit sandpaper, do a first pass of sanding across every square inch of the wood surface, again looking to remove loose varnish that breaks away fairly easily. On the second pass, use between 100- and 150-grit sandpaper to burnish the edges of old varnish and bare wood. 

    The goal for the sanding step is to create a smooth transition between raw wood and the old finish by breaking down the barrier between them. In most cases, you’ll have some old varnish that stays in place, which is okay, but if you can get all of it off you’ll be in better shape during the finishing process.

  3. Clean with a Vacuum or Power Washer

    At this point, you’ll have created a lot of dust and detritus as you work down toward the raw wood beneath the stain and varnish. To keep your hard work in a pristine state in preparation for the final touches, you’ll want to vacuum up all small particles in this step. To take it to the next level, use a tack cloth to zap up every bit of microscopic powder.

  4. Let Wood Cure

    If you’ve used a power washer to remove some of the finish, you’ll need to have at least two weeks of dry air to be sure you’ve let the wood dry out before moving to the priming step. Close injection of water into porous wood can easily take an entire season of dry weather to cure, so use pressure washers with this in mind. Everything will fail in a couple of years if you are too aggressive with powerful machines like these.

  5. Prime Wood with a Quality Oil Primer

    A hand applying oil on a wooden table
    Photo: Supersmario / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

    There are two things oil primer provides that a water-born product does not: penetration and durability. While it’s messy and not necessarily the most environmentally friendly material to use, if handled correctly you can minimize both situations. You’ll want to wear gloves—and if you’re working in an enclosed space, use a respirator—but this liquid is your best chance to create an environment that is conducive to covering up old stain with paint. 

    Proper disposal of the waste product from clean up, commonly done by letting it dry out or delivering to a local recycling company, is imperative. Thoroughly paint the surface with the primer to ensure a quality basecoat that will last more than a few years.

  6. Clean up Defects and Caulk Seams

    Once the primer is dried, you’ll go back over your work with a keen eye on imperfections and visually unappealing cracks or seams. If you’re particularly picky, sand everything once more, vacuum, and go back over everything with caulking or wood filler. This is your last chance to make the final finish perfect.

  7. Paint with a Top Coat of Your Choice

    The best part of painting anything is the final topcoat of paint. Keeping a clean environment while you work, methodically brush or roll the surface so that you have a uniform coating. Depending on which color you’ve chosen, it might take a couple coats to get the right look. If the paint isn’t covering without a lot of work, plan on two coats to minimize the work of one layer of paint.

DIY Painting Over Stained Wood vs. Hiring a Pro

The additional tools and materials needed for a DIY wood painting job like a power washer and chemical strippers make this a project suited for a local professional painter. Preparing the surface for paint requires attention to detail that can easily muck up the project if not done properly. 

The work involved to remove a bad paint job is immense and can more than triple the cost to make it right after the fact. If you do opt for the DIY route in painting over stained wood, pay particular attention to the preparation side of the equation. The top coat is the fun and easy part; it’s all the steps before that are the difference between a professional end product and one clearly done by a novice. 

Additional Questions About Painting Stained Wood

If you’re still debating painting over stained wood, here are a few more things to consider.

Do I need to use a special paint to paint over stained wood? 

Since you’ll be going back over an oil-based paint (stain or varnish), you do need to have the proper material on hand for good adhesion. Using an oil primer is critical to ensuring that the longevity of your work stands the test of time. Any type of paint (oil or latex paint) may be applied on top of an oil primer after it has cured. 

How can I tell if I can paint stained wood? 

To evaluate whether the old wood stain and varnish can be painted, take a close look at the entire surface to check for rot, mold, or moisture intrusion. Repair any damage with a good wood filler and scrape or sand any loose material until you’ve got a uniform surface. 

If you don’t want to follow a two-step priming and painting process and instead would like to keep the varnished wood look but your old coating has failed, it’s possible to go back over the stained wood with a solid stain product, which is a blend of color pigments and varnish. 

Solid stain applies like paint, is typically oil-based, and will hide many imperfections, particularly with two coats. With colors ranging from deep purple, blues, red, and shades of tan and white, solid stain is one method to reduce the amount of work required to recover stained wood, but the look isn’t for everyone. Preparation steps are the same for solid stain applications as for paint products. 

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