How to Paint Laminate Furniture the Right Way

Back when I was in law school, I bought several pieces of inexpensive, white laminate furniture with the plan to repaint them for my first solo apartment. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to paint laminate furniture, so my simple little DIY plans quickly turned into a big mess with the paint literally peeling off in sheets.

Now here I am, all these years later, looking to upgrade the style in my living room, and what do I decide to do? Buy some inexpensive, white furniture and add some paint. Somethings never change! Not only do I still like to save money any time I can, it’s usually easier for me to get the exact look I want by DIYing.

For my living room project, I chose six Billy Bookcases – the most basic of white laminate bookshelves. But to get the high-end, built-in look I wanted, I decided to paint the back panel of the bookshelves to match our dark gray wall color and to add Ikea Oxberg glass doors in front of the shelves.

Fortunately, this time around I’m a lot more knowledgeable, and I know how to paint Ikea laminate furniture the right way! Turns out it’s actually not hard at all as long as you don’t skip one very important step!

The Right Way To Paint Laminate Furniture
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This post is sponsored by my friends at Rust-Oleum, whose products make almost all of my DIY projects look better! This post also contains affiliate links. If you purchase something I recommend, you’ll pay the same price, but I may receive a small commission.

Always Prime Before Painting Laminate Furniture

The first thing you need to know is that, without proper preparation, paint won’t adhere to a laminate surface. Some paints will just bead up on the surface of the laminate. Other paints will go on with a splotchy, uneven finish and the first coat will begin peeling off as soon as you try to paint a second coat.

The good news is that painting over Ikea laminate furniture – or any laminate furniture – is as simple as a coat of right primer!

Side By Side Comparison Painting Laminate Furniture Without Primer And With Primer
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Choosing the Right Primer for Your Laminate Furniture Project

In order to choose the right primer for your furniture painting project, it’s important to also keep in the mind the kind of paint you’ll be applying over the primer.

Since I wanted the back panel of my bookshelves to match the wall color behind the furniture, I wanted to use the exact same latex paint that we used on the wall. Paired with the right primer, latex paint (which is water-based) is a great option for painting laminate furniture because it provides a durable, smooth finish.

Zinsser Primer for Laminate Furniture

When choosing primer for my laminate bookshelf project, I needed a primer that would stick to laminate and that would accept latex paint over it. I researched each of these three Zinsser primer options to determine which would be best for the job:

  • Zinsser BIN Primer – This primer is shallac based and sticks to all surfaces – including laminate furniture – without sanding. This primer goes on in smooth, thin coats. It drys very quickly, and it works with any top coat, including water-based latex paint.
  • Zinsser Bull’s Eye 1-2-3 Primer – This primer is great for lots of projects, and it is my first choice for most wall priming projects {as I talk about in this post}. However, like latex paint, 1-2-3 Primer is water-based, so it won’t adhere as well to laminate furniture without first sanding, and a longer cure time is also recommended when painting laminate.
  • Zinsser Cover-Stain Primer – This is an oil-based primer. Oil-based primers provide great adhesion. I’ve always been taught that, as a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t paint latex over oil-based paint or primer. However, this Cover-Stain Primer accepts both oil-based and water-based topcoats.

After researching these three primer options, I narrowed it down to the BIN and Cover-Stain Primers for my bookshelves, since both would provide good adhesion to the laminate surface. Further research indicated that the oil-based Cover-Stain primer is much thicker and might require some light-sanding before painting the top coat in order to get a really smooth finish.

The Best Primer for Laminate Furniture

Since I’m all about making projects as simple as possible, the shellac-based BIN Primer was the winner for my project. It provided the best combination of good adhesion, quick dry-time, and the ability to paint latex over it with no sanding needed.

Zinsser Bin Primer For Painting Ikea Laminate Furniture
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How to Paint Ikea Laminate Furniture in Two Easy Steps

Once you’ve picked the best primer for your project, painting Ikea laminate furniture is a simple two step process that can easily be completed in an afternoon!


STEP 1: How to Prime Laminate Furniture

For my bookshelf project, I used 1 quart of Zinsser BIN Primer to prime the back panel of 3 wide Ikea Billy Bookcases, 3 narrow Billy Bookcases, as well as 12 total Billy Bookcase height extension units.

We began by unboxing all of the bookshelves and separating the back panels from the other pieces. After unboxing and sorting the various pieces, we flattened several of the cardboard boxes to cover the floor and kitchen table instead of using a drop cloth.

Preparing To Paint Ikea Billy Bookcase
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Use Cardboard Instead Of Drop Cloth
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Once we had all the back panels laid out, we were ready to start priming. We poured the Zinsser BIN Primer into a paint tray.

The Best Primer For Laminate Furniture
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The BIN Primer is very thin. We found that using a foam roller gave us a very smooth, even coat while also minimizing splattering. With two of us working together, it took us about 25 minutes to prime all of the bookshelf sections.

How To Prime Laminate Furniture
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This primer dries very quickly, so later that same afternoon, we were ready to start painting.

STEP 2: How to Paint Laminate Furniture

After allowing the primer to dry, we were ready to start applying the first coat of paint to these Billy Bookcase sections. We used the leftover latex paint from painting the dark gray walls in our living room.

How To Paint Ikea Laminate Furniture With Latex
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The latex paint went on very nicely, and we could immediately see that it was adhering well to the coat of BIN Primer. I always recommend applying two thin coats of paint, rather than one thick coat. This will give you the smoothest, most even finish.

How To Paint Ikea Laminate Furniture The Easy Way
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Once again, with both of us working together, it took less than half an hour for us to paint each of the bookshelf sections dark gray. A few hours later, we applied our second coat of paint to complete the job. You can see that, thanks to the base coat of primer, the paint looks great!

Painting Ikea Laminate Furniture
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Ikea Billy Bookcase Makeover

The following day, after allowing plenty of time for the latex paint to cure, we were ready to start assembling the Billy Bookcases. The painted back panels went in last.

Dark Back Panels On Ikea Billy Bookcases
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With the bookshelves fully assembled, you can see how the dark back panels, combined with the glass doors, elevate the style of these inexpensive Ikea bookcases and give them a more built-in look wrapping the corner of our living room.

Make Ikea Billy Bookcases Look Built-In
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I had a lot of fun filling the shelves with our books and lots of souvenirs from our travels.

Ikea Billy Bookcase Hack With Painted Back Panels
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I really love the contrast of the dark gray against the white! Adding a little paint to the back of the shelves is a simple Ikea Billy Bookcase hack with a big impact! Now that you know how easy it is to paint Ikea laminate furniture with the right primer, would you give this look a try?

Ikea Billy Bookcase Hack With Contrasting Paint
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Q: Do you need to sand laminate furniture before painting?

A: You’ll find some people who recommend that you sand laminate furniture before painting. The idea of sanding to scuff up the surface to give it a little bit of grit for the paint to stick to, but this won’t yield the best results.

Laminate finishes are very thin, and you can easily sand through to the engineered wood below. If you do sand, you need to do so lightly by hand – don’t use an electric sander. And even if you do sand lightly, you’ll still use primer in order to ensure the paint will adhere properly.

Using the Zinsser BIN Primer that I recommend above, you can paint laminate furniture without sanding, saving you the extra time and effort! Don’t create more work for yourself!

Q: Is there any way to paint laminate furniture without sanding or priming?

A: Like most rules, there’s always an exception, so YES, you can paint laminate furniture without sanding or priming IF you use the right kind of paint. You can skip the primer if you are painting laminate furniture with chalk paint. I’ve had good luck using Rust-Oleum Chalked on several furniture projects, and it comes in about 25 color options and has an ultra matte finish.

I opted not to use chalk paint on my bookshelf project, because I wanted to use the exact same color paint as our walls. But if you’re interested in trying chalk paint for your laminate furniture project, see how I used Rust-Oleum Chalked to turn a laminate printer stand into a stylish bar cart with no sanding or priming. I’ve also got tips for painting an Ikea dresser with chalk paint.

Q: Can you stain laminate furniture?

A: It’s important to understand the difference between laminate furniture and wood veneer. Laminate is a man-made, plastic-like finish. Laminate can NOT be stained. Wood veneer furniture, on the other hand, has a thin layer of real wood that is bonded to a less expensive surface (like MDF of particle board).

Because wood veneer does have a layer of real wood, it can be sanded and stained. However the veneer is usually very thin – often an 1/8th inch or less – be very careful not to sand too aggressively, and always sand with the grain of the wood.

Q: I’m painting something different. How do I know if I need to use primer?

A: This is a great question, and one I get asked a lot. Primer can make your paint projects easier and provide better finished results. Primers make painting easier by promoting topcoat adhesion, providing better coverage, blocking stains, blocking odors, and more. I wrote a post titled When and Why to Prime Before Painting that should tell you everything you need to know.

How To Paint Laminate Furniture And What Not To Do
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