I get this question a lot. The answer is yes. You can paint anything you want. Will it last, though? That all depends on whether it is done properly. Before I take this post any further, I want to add a disclosure: I am in no way claiming to be an expert! I am just a girl who likes to refinish furniture, and I have learned a thing or two from experience. This is how I paint laminate furniture. This method has worked for me, and it has withstood the abuse of my three children. There are many products and techniques out there. There will be others who do it differently. I am merely sharing my experience with you.
Now, let's get to it. Let's start by talking about what Laminate is. I don't love laminate. In fact, I try to avoid it, because I prefer solid wood furniture. I do work with it once in a while, and I do have one very well used laminate piece in my family room. It's a dresser turned TV console, and it is filled with toys. You better believe it gets used!
Laminate is made of printed sheets, often a wood-grain design, adhered to a durable core material. The surfaces resist scratches and stains, making them ideal for high-traffic areas, and it's cheap. It is often shiny, and it is very smooth. The exact reasons why laminate is/was appealing in the first place, are the same reasons it is hard to paint. There is no texture for the paint to stick to, and it is made to repel things, even paint.
Not every laminate finish is the same. With any piece of furniture you refinish, you may run into unique obstacles. This post is a general step by step of how I USUALLY paint laminate furniture. Sometimes, the process needs to be tweaked a bit if the piece is being difficult. If you run into a unique obstacle on your project, shoot me an email, or comment, and I'll do my best to help you out!
Step 1: Clean your piece thoroughly using a 50/50 mixture of vinegar and water. There are harsher chemicals you can use, but I have come to prefer natural, non-toxic methods. Vinegar will cut grease and oils, which will prevent your paint from sticking.
Step 2: Sand and repair. We are just talking about a light sanding to scuff up your finish, and give your piece some tooth. This will give your paint something to grab on to. (Note: Chalk paints claim that you do not need to sand. They are designed to adhere to anything. Many people do not sand. I ALWAYS err on the side of caution, and there is no such thing as too much prep. You will only regret the work you do not put in, if your new finish does not hold up.) If there is any major damage to your piece, you can repair it with wood filler or bondo, or something of that nature. I like to use a product called Texture, by Shabby Paints. As you can see on the photo above, we did some restructuring on this piece, to make it into a corner unit, with open shelving, and the spots on the top are repairs.
Step 3: Clean again. Make sure there is no left over dust. Again, dirt and grime will prevent your paint from sticking.
Step 4: Prime with some sort of Shellac based primer. Your choice. I often like to spray my piece with clear Shellac ( I prefer Zinsser Bullseye). It's easy, and it doesn't change the color if I want the original tone to show through after distressing. You may want to use a white m primer if you are painting light, or a grey primer if you are painting dark. As long as you prime. A shellac based primer will seal the piece from any bleed through, and also block it's ability to repel your paint. (Again, there are people who swear this is not necessary, and you may have success without, but I say better safe than sorry.) One other benefit of clear shellac, is that if you get a coat of paint on, and you find you are having bleed through, you can always spray another coat of shellac in between paint coats, and not have wasted the paint you already used.
Step 5: Paint. I prefer chalk paint, especially on laminate. As I noted before, it is designed to adhere to everything. It really does adhere better. When I say chalk paint, I mean any boutique brand you want to use, just not home made chalk paint, or any of the chalk dusts you mix with latex paint. I have not used any of those, so I do not recommend them. I have used, and would recommend Annie Sloan, Shabby Paints, Rethunk Junk Paints, and Fairy Chalkmother's paints. All of these are good. (Note: Mixing latex paint with chalk dust of any kind, is still latex paint, and must be prepped accordingly.)
Step 6: Distress, glaze, any special finish you want to do. (If you are doing some sort of a glaze, make sure you follow directions. Depending on the product, it may be meant to use after a coat of sealer and not before.)
Step 7: Seal. Always seal. Use whatever sealer you prefer. Some people love wax, some people love poly. I love my favorite sealer Vax, by Shabby Paints. You can do some research and decide what best meets your needs. Keep in mind that if you have painted a light color, like white, polyurethane will yellow over time. In this instance, you would want to use a water based polycrilic. The number of coats for me, depends on the piece itself, and the use it will get. Generally, on a tabletop, I use 3 coats of sealer. On legs, I may use one or two. I always use Vax, and my pieces have held up beautifully.
I hope this helps! Feel free to comment or email me with questions. Painting laminate is a great way to update a tired piece, that may otherwise be thrown away. Here is the after of my laminate dresser turned TV stand. The photos aren't great, but you can tell it was a dramatic transformation. People are always shocked when I tell them it was laminate!
This particular piece was painted all over with French Linen, by Annie Sloan, then I applied Java Gel Stain, by General Finishes to the top. I sealed the entire piece with Vax, by Shabby Paints, and antiqued it with Hazelnut Revax, by Shabby Paints. I used one coat of sealer on the whole thing, and three coats of sealer on the top. It is filled with toys, and it is abused daily, but it still looks great!