Can You Paint Over Polyurethane (Without Sanding?)

Are you tired of looking at that hideous piece of polyurethane furniture? Roll up your sleeves and paint it! Painting over polyurethane is a cheap DIY project that makes old furniture look brand new!

Polyurethane is a protective top coat applied to wood furniture, cabinets, and floors. To paint over it, you need to prepare the surface by sanding and priming it. Once the polyurethane layer is scuffed and removed, nearly any type of paint can be applied. A simple coat of paint can turn dated furniture into a stylish focal point of any room!

Don’t be intimidated by the number of materials you need to complete this project. You probably have most of them in your garage already. Take your time and move step-by-step. The final result will be beautiful!

What is Polyurethane

Polyurethane is plastic made from polymers and urethane. Liquid polyurethane is used as a top coat on acrylic, latex, and wood surfaces. Polyurethane hardens to create a protective barrier. It is available as water-based and oil-based solutions.

Oil-based polyurethane is heat resistant and recommended for use in kitchens. Water-based polyurethane will break down under heat but is popular for its fast dry time.

It doesn’t matter which type of polyurethane is on the piece you want to paint. The steps are the same for painting over water-based and oil-based polyurethane.


What Materials Do I Need to Paint Over Polyurethane?

Painting over polyurethane is easy if you follow a few simple steps. It is a great way to renovate an existing piece of furniture. You will need the following materials to paint over polyurethane:

  • Clean cloth/rags
  • Mineral spirits (mineral turpentine)
  • Wood filler
  • Protective face mask
  • Gloves
  • Protective eyewear
  • Fine-grade sandpaper (220 grit)
  • Liquid sandpaper
  • Synthetic paint brushes
  • Primer
  • Paint

How to Paint Over Polyurethane

It is tempting to skip over certain steps in the process to speed up your project. Don’t! The paint will not adhere directly to polyurethane. Taking the time to properly sand and prep before you begin painting will be the difference between a successful renovation and a DIY fail. 

Utilize Safety

Mineral spirits, liquid sandpaper, and oil-based primers and paints release toxic fumes. Read the recommended instructions on each material before you begin your project to make sure you have the proper protective gear.

Whenever you are standing, it is always a good idea to wear eye protection. You want to avoid direct contact with solvent chemicals. Wearing clothes will protect your skin and make clean-up a breeze!

Check for the proper disposal methods for all the materials you are using. Mineral spirits and oil-based primers and paints are flammable and toxic. 

Prepare and Clean the Surface

Before you start sanding, remove all hardware. If you are painting cabinets or furniture, this includes drawer pulls and hinges. Make sure to label all of the hardware and store it safely if you want to use it again. Remove any drawers completely. This will make the next steps easier.

Once the hardware is removed, clean off dirt, grime, and dust. You don’t need to get it perfectly clean since sanding will cause quite a mess. The goal is to remove any globs of stuck-on junk.

If your cabinets are clean, you can just use soap and water. If they are really old or dirty, clean them with mineral spirits. Mineral spirits will cut through old dirt, grime, and grease so that the paint has a better surface to stick to. 

Fix Any Surface Imperfections

If there are dents or dings in the piece you are painting, you will want to fill them. This is also the time to fill in any unwanted holes. For example, if you are changing the hardware and the knobs require a different hole pattern, fill in the old holes. 

If you are painting wood, you can use wood filler. Push wood filler directly into the hole or dent you want to fill. It is a good idea to apply extra wood filler as it will shrink as it dries. Allow the wood filler to dry completely before you begin sanding.

Sand the Wood

Sanding is the most important step in painting polyurethane. Sanding removes the slick surface so that paint won’t peel or crack. Start with fine-grit sandpaper, like 220-grit. Scuff up the polyurethane. You don’t need to remove all of it with the sandpaper, just rough up the top layer.

Next, take a rag and dip it into the liquid sandpaper. Rub the liquid sandpaper with medium pressure in small circular motions. Once the surface becomes matte (not shiny) the polyurethane has been completely removed.

If you don’t want to use liquid sandpaper, you can remove the polyurethane completely with regular sandpaper. This will require a lot of elbow grease so you might want to use an electric sander.

The goal is to have all of the polyurethane removed. Liquid sandpaper is the fastest and most effective way to remove polyurethane.

Apply the Primer

You want the primer you use to match the paint you are using. For example, if you are using oil-based paint, pick an oil-based primer. If you are using latex paint, pick a water-based primer. Apply the primer with a synthetic brush by following the grain of the wood.

Thin layers are best, so wipe any excess off your brush before you apply it. Allow the primer to dry overnight. If you can still see the grain of the wood coming through the primer after it is dried, apply a second coat.

Apply the Final Paint Coat

Once your final layer of primer has dried, it is time for paint! Again, use a synthetic brush and paint in the direction of the grain (the same direction you applied the primer). Use thin, even coats to get a smooth finish.

Depending on the type of paint you use, it can take anywhere from 6 hours to a full day to dry. If you need to apply multiple coats, use 220-grit sandpaper to scuff in between. This will help the paint stick even better!

Wait for your final layer of paint to dry before adding the hardware back on. If your piece of furniture has doors, hang them first before moving on to knobs and drawer pulls. You can revitalize the original hardware with spray paint.

Or if you want an entirely new look, replace the hardware with something that suits your style. Make sure to measure and pre-drill holes before you attach new hardware. You don’t want to ruin your freshly painted furniture with crooked door handles!

What Kinds of Materials Will Stick to Polyurethane?

Nearly any type of paint will stick to polyurethane if the surface is prepared properly! Liquid sandpaper will remove all of the original finish, so the paint will definitely stick to it.

Priming your piece is another way to get more flexibility about what will stick to polyurethane. Primer adheres well to paint. It also hides any stains on the wood. This reduces the need for lots of paint layers or the use of really thick paint formulas. 

What Type of Paint Should I Use

While any paint will stick to a polyurethane top coat that has been prepared properly, the best choices are oil-based paint, latex paint, and enamel paint. Before you decide on what type of paint to use, think about how much time you have, the ventilation in your paint area, and the final finish you want the pieces to have.

Oil-Based Paints

Oil-based paints are best known for their deep, shiny finish. It is very durable and resistant to cold temperatures. It will not contract as much as other paints when it is cold. This reduces the chance of peeling and cracking.

Oil-based paints dry slowly which gives you time to blend in brushstrokes and hide any imperfections. Expect to wait 24 hours between coats of oil-based paint. This can extend the time it takes to complete a project by several days. Oil-based paints also release toxic fumes that should not be breathed in so you will want to work in a well-ventilated area.

Latex Paint

Latex paint is much easier to use than oil-based paint. It dries very quickly which is ideal for most DIY projects. However, because it dries down fast, there is less time to fix imperfections like smudges and brushstrokes.

As a result, latex paint usually requires more layers than oil-based paint. While available in different finishes, latex paint dries much flatter than oil-based paints. Even if you purchase high-gloss latex paint, it will not be as shiny as oil-based.

Latex paint is environmentally friendly. It is water-based and is easily cleaned with dish soap. It is also the most affordable option out of all the paint choices.

Enamel Paint

Enamel paints are also oil-based but harden down more than standard oil-based paints. Once dry, the surface is nearly unbreakable. Enamel paints are also less likely to break down when exposed to the sun. Oil-based and latex paints can yellow over time when UV breaks down the paint. You don’t have this risk with enamel paints. 

Just like regular oil-based paints, enamel paints take a long time to dry and release toxic fumes. Enamel paint can also look dated depending on the color chosen. 


If you have an old piece of furniture that is covered with polyurethane, don’t get rid of it! Painting over polyurethane is an expensive way to revitalize outdated furniture.

It is also an affordable way to renovate a kitchen. Painting over polyurethane cabinets is much cheaper than buying and installing new cabinets. The process is simple and perfect for a home improvement DIYer!

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