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How to upcycle MDF furniture, Zazzy Home

How to upcycle MDF furniture

The idea of an upcycled piece can be a rewarding and fun project which you see come to life as you make your mark with paint, maybe some stencils, or whatever takes your fancy.

Upcycling is still relatively new, but its popularity has continued to soar as people look for new and exciting ways to give it a second life to unwanted furniture and objects. And MDF furniture is particularly suitable.

How to upcycle MDF furniture, Zazzy Home

It might not seem like you have much choice when painting MDF furniture because of its unappealing porous surface. However, painting MDF is possible, and there are a few steps you can follow to ensure the paint finishes precisely as you want it.

Before we go into how to paint your MDF furniture, let’s first consider whether it is better to refinish or strip the surface of the wood before you start.

Stripping Your Existing Surface

If you decide that stripping and sanding your existing surface will give the best results, then here are some pointers:

  1. Sand with 80-grit sandpaper, applying even pressure across your workpiece, following its grain pattern.
  2. Repeat this step with a 100-grit paper until all scratches from the previous stage have disappeared.
  3. Follow up with 220-grit sandpaper on both sides of your MDF to provide an even smoother surface.

While it might seem like a lot of additional work, the effort will be worth it because your finished paint job will last longer.

Refinishing Your Existing Surface

If you decide that stripping is too much hard work, then refinishing your existing surface should produce good results for you as well. It’s definitely a more straightforward option! You can use a water-based or oil-based primer before applying your first finish coat,

Once you have cleaned any dust off your piece with soapy water and left it to dry overnight, you are ready to begin painting.

All MDF furniture is likely to be very absorbent due to its porous surface, so applying three coats will give your piece the best protection and appearance. After each coat has dried thoroughly – roughly 24 hours – sand back any rough areas with fine-grit sandpaper and move on to the next coat until all three have been applied and left to dry overnight.

How To Paint MDF Furniture With Water-Based Paints

You can save yourself some time using water-based paint instead of oil-based because it won’t need thorough drying between coats. It’s also safer for use in homes where there are children or pets who might knock over open tins. In addition, water-based paints are easier to clean up, so you can use less time cleaning brushes and rollers after you have finished painting.

Applying the first two coats is pretty much the same as with oil-based paint – sand back any rough areas with fine-grit sandpaper, leave to dry, then use your second coat of paint until it has dried thoroughly. Then, apply your third and final coat once that too has dried thoroughly (24 hours).

How To Paint MDF Furniture With Spray Paints

If you want the quickest possible way of finishing your project, spray paints are what you should look for. Bear in mind, though; unless you invest in high-quality paint guns and compressor systems, it’s unlikely that you will get outstanding results. In addition, due to the porous surface of MDF, spray paint is likely to look rough and blotchy unless you do some careful masking in advance.



Difficult Areas To Paint

As mentioned previously, painting MDF furniture is difficult simply because it absorbs excess paint in a matter of minutes. If you want to avoid running or pooling in certain areas, use an old card as a shield right from the start.

Better still, if you can bear to wait for a couple of days until your project has thoroughly dried out (oil based paints take longer), then it might be easier to sand off any raised grain first with a fine-grit sandpaper. Any remaining stains will need more sanding, though, so it’s not an ideal solution.

How to paint MDF furniture without sandpapering first

If you have already stripped your existing finish or are planning to apply a water-based or oil based paint over the top of any existing stains, there is no need to sand your MDF before applying primer and undercoat. Primer binds better with wood than paint does anyway, so by skipping the sanding step, you are just saving yourself some time.

Apply two coats of primer if you plan to paint your new surface with water-based paints – 3 coats for oil-based paints – leaving each coat overnight to dry thoroughly before moving on.

Sand back rough areas between coats with fine-grit sandpaper (220) and leave to dry again before applying the next coat once you are finished.

How To Paint MDF Furniture With Stains

Another option is to use wood stains rather than paint – although this will take much more time to achieve a uniform appearance across your project.

Generally speaking, it’s only really worth staining unfinished MDF if you plan to cover it with wallpaper or fabric because otherwise, the stain will be pronounced through any layers applied over the top.

If this is your plan, firstly prepare your piece by checking for any rough areas that need sanding (220 grit), then apply either sealer (clear varnish) or primer (tinted), depending on which type of stain you choose.

Avoid applying any stains on a dry piece of MDF as the grain will tend to mark the surface rather than absorb it, meaning that your final finish will be blotchy. Instead, dampen your piece thoroughly with clean water, either wipe down or leave overnight (or both), then follow this stage by wiping down again to remove any excess moisture.

Apply stain directly from bottled or tinned wood stain using a paintbrush – for more detailed work; you can use an old toothbrush instead. Make sure that you apply it thoroughly and evenly right across your entire project; if you miss any areas, you won’t achieve a uniform appearance even if the rest of your project looks ok by itself. Once finished, allow at least 24hours for the stain to dry before applying your final coat of sealer or primer.

How To Paint MDF Furniture With Varnish

Of all the painting options available, varnishing will produce the best long-term results with MDF furniture – it is also likely to be the most expensive and time-consuming process.

A word of warning: you should always avoid using water based (acrylic) varnishes on MDF as this may cause cracks and peeling later down the line; gloss or semi-gloss oil based varnishes are a much better choice. Make sure that you sand down any raised grain first (220 grit) before applying two coats of primer (3 coats if you plan on staining afterward).

Before applying your first coat of varnish, make sure that you dampen the surface as described earlier (water or wipe down) to help even out any variations in absorption. When finished, leave between 4 and 8 hours before applying a second coat just like you did with the primer – allow another 48 hours for it to dry thoroughly before using.

If your MDF furniture is too large to work on comfortably, break it into smaller sections by removing drawers, doors, etc. Next up, remove loose paint flakes from the surface by vacuum cleaning or rubbing over with a wire brush – you can also use an old toothbrush for this job if necessary.

If your MDF furniture will be painted a slightly different shade – for example, gold onto black, you should first apply a base coat of the darker color before beginning. All you need to do now is follow the usual painting process explained above by applying two coats of primer and allowing about 48 hours to dry between each step.

How To Paint MDF Using Spray Painting

Working in a well-ventilated area, make sure that you wear your mask and goggles before starting this stage – it’s essential to do it correctly! Next, apply several thin layers of spray paint instead of one or two thick ones, allowing between 10 minutes drying time in-between coats. Once finished, leave overnight (best) or at least 6 hours before removing tape/masking off your MDF furniture.


MDF can be finished in many different ways to best suit your final project. For example, if you want a painted look for wood effect furniture, it’s as easy as applying two coats of primer and one clear coat over the top – just like you would with traditional wooden surfaces.

Wooden effect wall tiles are also available that can be applied using glue or double-sided tape; however, if you’re looking to achieve more of an authentic ‘stained’ finish, then direct application on the surface will probably give the best results instead.

Alternatively, consider painting first and re-staining afterward. If you’re willing to put in the extra time and effort, varnishing MDF furniture can produce fantastic results. However, it’s certainly not something that should be taken lightly. Do your research before starting any project – it will save you hours of wasted work later on.

I hope these tips have proved helpful for upcycling furniture made from MDF. Thanks for reading!

Author: Claire Claire is a blogger, writer, and designer with a passion for making the most out of any space. She's worked in interior design and maintenance for over a decade, and has learned how to make the most of even the smallest room. Claire shares her expertise, where she offers tips and tricks for creating beautiful, functional spaces on any budget. When she's not blogging or designing, Claire enjoys spending time with her family and friends.

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