If you are going to start a project then you need to know what you are working with (is it laminate vs veneer or straight wood) so the job gets done right and saves you a major headache down the road. Now I am no expert but I have refinished and been around various laminate and veneer pieces. Both of which I’ve messed up on and have since learned many lessons. So instead of letting you live and learn I am here to teach you where I went wrong and how to avoid them! Plus share with you my favorite ways to paint (or stain) them.
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Similarities Between Laminate and Veneer
Laminate vs veneer have many differences but they also have similarities. Both are overlays placed on top of the material used to build the piece of furniture. Typically, the furniture is built with cheap wood like MDF so the manufacturer can cut costs. Then they use a laminate or veneer overlay to make it look nicer. However, sometimes you can get lucky and have quality wood underneath too.
Laminate is synthetic and I always label it as “plastic-y”. I know very technical but any laminate I have been around feels or looks like plastic. It is very thin and often has a “plastic-y” shine to it which can make it difficult to paint over! Now, most furniture will have a shine/smooth finish and that is why you need to prep first. Coming soon is a post on the importance of prep work, sign up here and I will send you an email when it is published!
If you have cracked veneer like in the above picture then you will need to fill that area and lightly sand to smooth it out so you can paint over it and have a smooth surface!
You need to remove the shine and smooth texture to allow the paint to grab on and stay. In my research, there is a lot of conflicting views on whether to sand laminate or not. For me, I decided that if there is so much conflicting information on the idea to sand then I am going to be safe and avoid that route. Sanding down a filler is not going to damage your whole project so don’t worry in those areas. Especially since sanding is often recommended; although not necessary (see how you can paint without sanding in two very simple steps). Seeing people debate the idea of sanding laminate because of material; made me decide to go against sanding.
Primers for Laminate
There are great ways to bypass sanding if needed which works for laminate as well. You can use a deglosser if you want to. However, when I paint laminate I opt for a great primer. I recommend Zinsser 1-2-3, Zinsser B-I-N, or KILZ Adhesion.
Zinsser 1-2-3 is my go-to primer and I have painted many things with it including a laminate dresser, my kitchen table, and my front door! This primer is water-based, budget-friendly, good for both interior and exterior use, has a low odor, and dries to the touch in about 30-40 minutes.
Zinsser B-I-N is shellac-based; not water or oil-based but shellac. It works very differently than water or oil-based products so be sure and read the instructions thoroughly including cleanup! This stuff works great for tannin bleed-through if that is ever an issue for you. It will block out odors and stains and sticks to almost anything without sanding plus it dries to the touch in 20 minutes.
KILZ Adhesion is a water-based primer that can be used inside or outside. You can use any based paint over the top of it and bonds really well to hard, glossy surfaces. This one is also pricier than the other options but serves its purpose!
After you have primed your laminate piece then you can go ahead and start painting it! For all the details on painting laminate, I would love for you to check out this post that is all about painting laminate without sanding. Unfortunately since laminate is not wood you can not stain it. If you have seen techniques where people use stain as a paint or glaze type effect then you are safe to use it here too.
Unlike laminate, veneer is made out of a VERY thin piece of wood. Like so thin that you can easily sand straight through it or break it. These are the two biggest issues when it comes to working with veneer so be aware.
If you have cracked veneer but none of it is missing then apply wood glue underneath using a syringe or similar, press it down, and fill the crack with wood filler after the glue has dried.
If the veneer is damaged and missing a small piece use Bondo or wood filler to smooth out that missing area. Bondo or wood filler areas will need to be painted. Even though it says “stainable” I do not agree. However, you can use gel stain but you will lose the wood grain look where the bondo has been applied.
Severely damaged veneer will need to be removed. It is not the simplest of tasks so make sure the wood underneath will be worth the effort or you plan on buying new veneer to replace it. To remove it you will need a putty knife to wiggle underneath and pry it off. A hammer can come in handy here too just be careful not to gouge the wood underneath in the process. If it is still being stubborn then use a form of heat to loosen up the glue. Many use a heat gun (a hairdryer can work in a pinch), a wrung-out towel with HOT water, or in desperate times use an iron on a high heat plus steam setting. Place a towel down first and apply the iron for 30ish seconds.
Stain or Paint Veneer
Veneer is made from wood making sanding an option. Just be very careful because you can easily sand straight through it and expose the other wood. If you want to stain it then you will need to sand it to get down to the bare wood. You can even strip veneer just like other wood but again be careful since it is so thin. I have a post on stripping and refinishing wood furniture if you would like to read more about that process. For the chance, you do sand through it and MDF is underneath then use Bondo or an oil-based primer (do not use water-based) and sand it out with high grit sandpaper till you have a smooth surface and then paint as normal. You can also degloss or prime wood veneer with the same primers mentioned above and paint right over the top!
Laminate vs Veneer
Now that you know the difference between laminate and veneer and how to properly interact with them I bet your refinishing projects won’t feel as overwhelming. Looking back on my own projects my main frustrations came from a lack of knowledge of laminate vs veneer and just winging it. One project I sanded straight through the veneer and was so confused about what was going on. I went ahead like nothing was wrong and stained the piece…MDF and all…it isn’t my prettiest work (so bad, so soo BAD) but to live and learn and make much better choices.
What about you? What is a project you worked on without a clue what you were doing and now know better?