How to paint bookshelves

Written by karen nehama
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How to paint bookshelves
Bookshelf painting project. (bookshelf image by Goran Bogicevic from

You can paint bookshelves made out of metal or wood to give new life to an old bookshelf or help a plain bookshelf become a standout with a creative paint scheme. It is important, however, to prepare the bookshelves properly before painting them in order to achieve optimum results. If you do a good job prepping the bookshelves, the paint job will look better, and you will be happier with the results. Painting bookshelves is labour-intensive and it requires patience to follow the steps needed to complete the project.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Clean cloth
  • Putty knife
  • Painter's tape
  • Wood putty
  • Screwdriver
  • Fine-grit sandpaper
  • Sanding block
  • Water-based primer
  • 2- or 3-inch-bristle brush
  • Foam brushes
  • Paint
  • Polyurethane

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  1. 1

    Wipe bookshelves clean with a work cloth, removing anything stuck to the shelves, like gum or labels, with the help of a putty knife. Fill in small holes or flaws on wood shelves with wood putty using a putty knife.

    How to paint bookshelves
    Use a putty knife. (putty knife image by Jim Mills from
  2. 2

    Tighten screws to ensure the bookshelf is sturdy and in good repair because working on a wobbly bookshelf will make the painting task more difficult. Unscrew, or place painter's tape over, decorative hardware.

  3. 3

    Sand every surface of the bookshelf, regardless of the material it is made of. You can paint unpainted wood, laminated wood, painted wood, and even metal successfully if you sand the surface first. Use fine-grit sandpaper on the bookshelves, sliding strips of sandpaper in a sawing motion between hard-to-reach places.

  4. 4

    Use a sanding block, if desired, to make sanding less strenuous. Place a wide section of sandpaper onto a specially made rubber block that rubs sandpaper over surfaces to be painted. If the job is really large, use a sanding disk attached to a drill or another electric-powered tool created for sanding. Dust off the sanded bookshelves with a work cloth.

  5. 5

    Apply primer if the bookshelves are metal, are made of a laminated wood, or have been previously painted. Coat all visible areas using a 2- or 3-inch bristle or foam brush.

  1. 1

    Apply paint to bookshelves that are primed or that don't absorb paint when tested, using a high-grade foam paintbrush or a bristled paintbrush that guarantees to leave no brush marks.

    How to paint bookshelves
    A good-quality paintbrush is vital. (gold and silver paint image by Andrew Brown from
  2. 2

    Avoid paint drips by not overloading the paintbrush with paint. Do not let paint run, or allow visible paint drips to dry while painting, or you will have to re-sand the area to smooth out the paint after it dries, and then repaint it.

  3. 3

    For dark colours or if desired, coat the bookshelves with a second layer of paint once the first coat has dried.

  4. 4

    Add a protective barrier of polyurethane when you have completed the paint job. Choose matt, satin, semigloss, or a gloss finish of polyurethane, depending on your preference. After the top coat has dried, reattach all hardware.

Tips and warnings

  • Test the absorbency of the wood using the paint you have selected by painting a 1-square-foot area on the back of the bookshelf, or someplace inconspicuous. If the paint does not absorb into the wood, you can paint the bookshelves without a primer.
  • Use primer that is low-odour and water-based.
  • Use paint that is labelled as durable because shelves take a lot of friction when items are removed or replaced.
  • Use a speciality paint for unique finishes like a crackle finish, or apply a stain over the final paint coat for an antique, stained look.
  • View samples of polyurethane finishes at a home improvement centre or paint store if you are unsure what look you prefer.
  • Always sand and paint furniture in a well-ventilated area.
  • Always wear eye protection when sanding.

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