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The Difference between Laminate and Wood Veneer Furniture {and how to PAINT them!}

My dahhh-lings. We don’t claim to be professionals, but we’ve been around the block with furniture transformations, and are happy to share our knowledge (good and bad) with our readers. We get a truckload of emails asking for DIY advice, and while we may not respond as promptly as we’d like (or always have the answers)… we respond to EVERY EMAIL.

Sawdust and Embryos

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One of the most common questions we get is this:

What’s the difference between laminate and wood veneer? And can I paint it?

You ask, we deliver:

Learn about the difference between veneer and laminate furniture... and how to paint them! {Sawdust and Embryos}

Let’s start with the definitions of each… because they’re totally different things.

Definitions!

Wood Veneer:

  • A thin layer of hardwood (usually thinner than 1/8/inch) that is bonded to a less expensive surface below (often a cheaper wood, particle board, or MDF).

IMG_6038

This allows the manufacturer to create a beautiful piece for less than it would cost for a solid wood piece. Often, if the veneer is in good shape, you can’t even tell that it’s not solid.

This photo is to demonstrate how thin the layer of wood is.

The difference between veneer and laminate {Sawdust and Embryos}

Laminate:

  • A man-made product (usually plastic) that is actually ‘printed’ to look like it has woodgrain. It allows manufacturers to create furniture, cabinets, and flooring for less money. You canNOT stain laminate. It’s not wood!

Laminate {Sawdust and Embryos}

Source

How to paint:

Wood Veneer:

  • If the veneer is in good condition and isn’t chipping… you can sand, prime, and paint like you would any piece of furniture. If the veneer is damaged or has chipped off in some places, but isn’t loose and flaky… you can either fill it with wood-putty and sand it smooth, OR you can embrace the character and prime and paint right over it.

BUT! If the veneer is chippy and loose to an extreme, and the damage is widespread… it’s really best to replace it with a new slab of wood like we did with Dawn’s woodgrain butterfly dresser. Do you see how loose and irreparable this veneer is?

IMG_0090

Another option is to chip off the veneer with a putty knife, like we did on this buffet.

Removing damaged wood veneer {Sawdust and Embryos}

With a little elbow grease, the veneer came off (one splinter at a time), and then there was a lot of sanding involved to cut down that chunky adhesive. But in some cases this would be less work than actually replacing the wood. It may also help to soak the wood with a wet towel for awhile to loosen up the adhesive.

NOTE: Because wood veneer is actually real wood (and often has a beautiful woodgrain), you CAN stain and varnish it! However, be careful if you’re using an electric or belt sander, because often the veneer is so thin that aggressive sanding will wear though the veneer quickly. Also, because it’s real wood, it’s important to sand in the same direction as the woodgrain.

Laminate:

  • I have GREAT NEWS (no we’re not pregnant… why does your mind automatically go there?) You can sand, prime and paint laminate as if it were a solid wood piece of furniture! It’s easy to skip the sanding step, because sanding is a drag… but it’s especially important with laminate. Because it’s often somewhat glossy-looking, and important to sand it down until the finish is very dull before priming. We recommend using 120 grit sandpaper for this. And, unlike real wood, it’s unnecessary to sand with the ‘grain’.

Sanding Furniture to prepare for PAINTING! {by Sawdust and Embryos}

While the finish will be just as durable as if it were applied onto wood, laminate furniture by nature, is built more poorly and isn’t as heavy-duty as a solid wood piece. But next time you’re at the thrift store or a garage sale and you spy a laminate piece… IT CAN (and should) TOTALLY BE PAINTED!

Best news you heard all day right? That and it’s FRIDAY!

Learn about the difference between veneer and laminate furniture... and how to paint them! {Sawdust and Embryos}

Questions? Comments? Have you had any luck removing veneer using a different method?Are you doing any furniture-updating of your own this long holiday weekend?

Be sure to check out our furniture transformations, and other tutorials!

AND, here are a few of our favorite room transformations in our own home (click on each pic below).
Living Room {Sawdust and Embryos} Bathroom {Sawdust and Embryos}
Kitchen {Sawdust and Embryos} IMG_2343
Nursery {Sawdust and Embryos} curtain and final
Twins' Room {Sawdust and Embryos} Master Bedroom {Sawdust and Embryos}

 

If you’re new(ish) to our blog, or just want to take a gander at all the updates we’ve done to our house (including before pics), click here! To read about our battle with infertility and how we conqueredclick here! Our girls are our biggest accomplishment, and the ultimate DIY.

Thanks for reading! Let’s stay in touch!

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15177393048168103837 Sandi

    Awesome info….Thanks

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06270816739949378635 Sharon

    Thanks for this post. I purchased a nifty little side table at an estate sale that has a great style but has a laminate top. Because the laminate still looks new, I was thinking I would have to paint the wood portion and leave the laminate. Good to know I have the option of painting the whole piece! Your blog is one of my favorites….keep keeping us posted!!

  • http://www.interiorsbykenz.com/ Kenz @ Interiors by Kenz

    Solid information. And, you are definitely an expert. I wouldn’t consider going to anyone ELSE with furniture painting questions.

  • Renee

    Great explanation! Thank you for making that so clear. And Kenz @ Interiors by Kenz is right. You are experts!

  • alg

    Love this tutorial — people never believe me when I tell them that you can paint laminate! From now on, I’ll refer them to your link.
    Your projects are great — Keep ‘em comin’! :)

  • http://www.bowsbymaude.com/ maude

    I know this is a tall order, but if one day you could do a tutorial about how to repair laminate furniture (chips, dents etc) that would be fabulous. I know with veneer you can use wood putty, but laminate is a bit trickier:)
    Maude

    • DC

      I too would like to know how to repair chipped laminate. I have a very well made laminate topped table but through 20 years we’ve destroyed the top with nicks dings and even some areas pulling apart. I’ve actually begun applying wood putty and sanding smooth but I’d like to know if that’s the best way to handle this job? The benches and table base are extremely well built and HEAVY SOLID WOOD, I’d hate to dismiss the table top or try finding someone to build another, which really isn’t a bad choice but who wants to pay for something if they don’t have to?!

      • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Nick

        DC,

        If it is a painted piece or will be painted then I would say you are OK to use filler or Bondo wood putty.

        If it isn’t painted and you want it to closely resemble the existing wood you will need to replace sections of veneer. You can accomplish this by cutting out a section of veneer using a razor blade and a square. Then glue a piece of wood/veneer similar to grain and color, sand, and feather in your stain. and lastly poly or lacquer.

        Another option would be to replace all the veneer. It would allow it to be uniform.

        I hope this helps. Please send pictures when you are complete.

  • http://stellarglobal.com/ Furniture manufacturers

    I think the things you covered through the post are quiet impressive, good job and great efforts. I found it very interesting and enjoyed reading all of it…keep it up, lovely job.. Furniture manufacturers

  • https://me.yahoo.com/a/DRVs238A1YnHu3G8YsAs9Nk5R1ohChqxqZeX Carol

    Thank you for giving the information. Our furniture agent too used the same technique while laminating our furniture.
    outdoor daybeds miami

  • http://www.furnituregeeks.co.uk/ kianleach

    Hello
    Thanks for this great information ..this information really very helpful to me….

  • Marty heron

    Hello there, I am refinishing an old table top and after sanding off the old stain the veneer has been worn down in quite a few areas revealing spots of particle board.
    How can I repair these spots so I can stain it?
    Will a darker stain effectively cover these spots so it’s consistent ?
    Thanks for your help

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Nick

      One of the difficulties of veneer is sanding. I rarely sand veneer with anything less than 220 grit. Unfortunately we have both learned this lesson through trial. If you stain it the particle board will show because it will not absorb the stain evenly with the rest of the veneer. So you can either choose to call it rustic and live with it or replace that portion if the veneer. I attached a link for you to better understand the process of replacing small portions of veneer.

      Good Luck

      ~ Nick

      http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/home/how-to-repair-wooden-furniture-veneer1.htm

  • Mishal Alrefaiy

    Thanks for the info. I found it very helpful.
    I have one question here.. As an expert which one you think is more durable and practical? Veneer or Laminate?

  • Dave

    Does the painting laminate hold true for cabinets that have been laminated? We just bought a house that has dreadfully styled cabinets but they are in MINT condition. Could be a real budget saver if we can effectively just repaint them. is a spray gun preferable to a paint brush? Let a pro painter do it? Here is a link to a pic of the cabinets http://photos3.zillow.com/p_f/ISx3p9qvucmyol1000000000.jpg

    • Beth

      Dave, if they’re in good condition… we say go for it! I would definitely make sure you sand them well and use a good oil base primer for ultimate durability since cabinets get a lot of wear and tear. But that would hold true for wood cabinets too. It’ll be a big project, but I bet you’ll love the results! Be sure to send us pictures when you’re done!!

  • http://www.weeklycraft.com Joya Junge

    Thanks for the info! I am painting a bathroom vanity in my new house. All was well when I painted the wood veneer, but things turned sour when I *attempted* to paint the side of the vanity. Turns out it is laminate! Pftt.
    Yet, I like to turn lemons into lemonade…so I guess I am happy it was laminate because it enabled me to find your site. Thank you again for sharing your knowledge with me. :-)

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      You’re so sweet! Did you remedy your laminate situation?

  • Lis

    Is oil based paint the only type of paint that can be applied to laminate? I have a large old laminate wardrobe that I would love to do something with as it is very useful, but, I hate the idea of using oil base paint. Can you suggest any other type of paint? I live a lone so the wardrobe will not be getting a lot of heavy duty wear and tear.
    Thank you so much,
    Lis

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      Lis, water based paint should be fine, especially if the piece isn’t going to get a lot of wear and tear. I would be sure to sand really we’ll before applying primer though. Good luck! Send pics when your done!!

  • mukesh shah

    good information.thanks

  • elias

    thank you.. and ofcos the great news is i confirm you sound pregnant… hehe.. pregnant with wisdom

  • http://Michealjohnar.cabanova.com/ Blair

    Yes! Finally something about home.

  • Annie

    Hi,

    I bought a great used round pedestal table with the intent of refinishing it. It weighed a ton and the guy I bought it from said it had originally cost $2000…..so Iassumed it was solid wood. Not the case, I began sanding off the original finish and relaized what I was seeing underneath was partical board or MDF. It’s only showing through the wood veneer on top in a couple places. I’m wondering if I can have the veneer replaced. I also began sanding the base of the table which is round hourglass like curves (as if it cam off a pottery wheel) and it seems that all of that may be MDF, no wood at all. Not sure what to do now. I love the the table and got it for a great price but it’s now half sanded and half not and I’m not sure if I will be able to restain the MDF. I’m not interested in a painted piece. Any adive would be a huge help. Thanks!

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Nick

      Annie,

      I am so sorry you are going through this. it is about the worst feeling ever when you sand through something.

      So, there are a couple of things you can do. Paint it (which you mentioned not being interested in), Try and stain it (the mdf will be darker and noticeable), or replace the veneer, this is actually not terribly hard and you can usually find veneer online or at a local hardware store.

      If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask.

  • jane

    Hi, I have painted an old coffee table, which looks great but i forgot to sand it down before i started, so after quite a few coats the paint is chipping off. Is there a way i can rescue this table without having to scrape all the paint work off. Many Thanks.

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      Unfortunately it sounds like your paint doesn’t have anything to grab onto since you didn’t sand. Did you seal it with polyurethane? That might help but likely won’t fix the problem long term. You may end up needing to strip the paint and start over. :(

  • Lara

    Hi I am rather confused and hoping you can help me. I have a gorgeous old antique dresser that has a shiny wood veneer on top with a hardwood underneath. I would like to paint it a darkish teal type of colour with a shabby chic effect. (I have photos of what I want when I googled it but don’t know how to attached it here!!) When it is completely painted, i wanted to sand the edges back to see the wood.
    But when I went to Bunnings today they said the only way I could get the paint to stick with a wood veneer, I would have use a primer as sanding wouldn’t be enough to keep it sticking. But then they said that the primers have white and colours, but when I sand it back to the wood, I don’t want any white to show through. I like being able to have a bit of washed look in areas. Sure I could buy a colour of the primer to be close to my acrylic, but I want to do more furniture for a hobby and maybe sell them with different colours and don’t want to have to get a primer as close to that colour each time! I have lots of colours in mind! I simply want one colour showing when I sand it back.

    Are there clear primers out there? Bunnings didn’t have any nor know about any available.

    Really sounds confusing, but I am hoping you can help me please!!!

    Thanks.

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      Hi Lara! Good question! Since you’re going for a shabby rugged look with the edges sanded down to the wood, I would just be sure to really rough up the wood thoroughly before applying paint since you’re skipping the priming step. And I would use a flat sheen paint or chalk paint as they will stick better. It should work fine for you!

  • grace

    Hi Beth, You are so helpful! Which vanity should I use in the bathroom? solid wood, veneer, MDF or others, so confused.

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      Solid wood will always be the best choice! It will last the longest by far!

  • Erika schnidrig

    With laminate, techically you cant “stain” it, but products like Miniwax Polyshades allow you to darken the wood exactly like a stain. Its a mix of polyurethane and stain, so you apply it over the top like a paint. The effect is beautiful. .

  • Sheila

    I have cheap builder grade cabinets that I think is veneer and cheap contact like paper on sides by window and on end of cabinets. . . I’m installing dark hardwood and want a white kitchen but afraid of cabinets and contact paper surfaces. Any suggestions?

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      Sheila, you can paint over veneer, as long as it’s in good shape and not chipping. As for the paper-like sides, I would just peel as much of it off as possible, and sand it smoother before painting. You just don’t want to have any loose pieces. Be sure to send pics when you’re done!!

  • Leah

    I was in too much of a hurry and purchased a 72 inch double vanity for our DIY master bathroom reno. I really hate the color; but like everything else about it. It says that it is birch veneer and wood. I want to paint it black. It’s new. Do I really have to sand prior to painting? Also, I’ve painted my ugly kitchen cabinets with Chalk paint. LOVE the look; but doesn’t stand up to wear and tear very much. I don’t want to go that route again even though it was so easy. I would love to just be able to spray paint the whole vanity with black paint after I use a high adhesive primer. Would that even work? Thank you so much.

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      Leah, does your vanity have a dull sheen on it now? Or is it glossy? If it seems even a little glossy, I would just lightly sand it with 220 sandpaper. I know sanding sounds sucky, but you don’t have to put your back into it or anything. Just lightly rub it down (like you’re washing it) with the sandpaper. This will cut down the gloss and give it more of a matte finish… and that will allow the primer to grab on a lot better. I think you’ll be glad you did.

  • Tim

    Nice post. And yet, my OCD is compelling me to share a minor error with your definition of laminate surfacing which, in fact, always contains plastic and is actually not always printed to look like wood grain. Formica for example comes in God-knows how many different patterns like marble, checker print, you name it.

    Another interesting fact: While All laminate contains plastic, the major component is actually paper with most laminates containing only about 30% plastic constituents.

  • Debbie Davis

    I have an old secretary type desk/dresser (three drawers and a pull down cabnet/desk at the top. I have had it since i was in 8th grade and i am 55 now. I always assumed it was wood. But I decided I wanted to darken it to match my other bedroom furniture and started to sand it a little by hand. To my surprise I dont think any part of this piece of furture is wood. Some places I may have sanded down a little too far. Im stuck and dont know what to do now. The very top of it is different. very glossy shiny .. help

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      Debbie, unfortunately we don’t have any experience with this type of situation. If it were us, we would put new veneer on top (you can buy rolls of wood veneer at your home improvement store). You might want to do some research about Polyshades and see what kind of experience other bloggers have with this. Minwax isn’t our favorite (we prefer Rustoleum stains) so we’re not familiar with the Polyshades. Best of luck!

  • Debbie Davis

    Also, could I use something like Miniwax Polyshades over the sanding that I have already done? Or am I going to have to paint it now? My other bedroom furniture is very dark wood and I just want it to look nice together. thanks.

  • am

    I think I have the latter, was set to prime and paint, then changed my mind, running out of time and need the room done by mid March. So I stripped the primer off, pain in the “boo-hind”, but that’s done now and of course it’s now peeling (thinner than paper peels) in certain areas and exposed the particleboard that’s underneath (btw these are cabinets, but not in a kitchen). Before I’d read this I’d started staining to cover the flaws, it appears to be going alright, assuming that stripping the primer, scraping, and scrubbing as roughed up the surface enough that the stain will take?? when you said you can’t stain it as it isn’t wood, what are the warning signs that what I’ve done so far is going to fail? Just finished staining some of it about ten minutes ago! Thank you for your time and all the information you both include on this sight, soooooo helpful!!!

  • Cathie

    Hi,

    I have recently bought a flat (eeek!) and I have a built in wardrobe with matching chest of drawers and bedside cabinet.This is great except they are covered in a pretty ugly, orangey laminate which is also coming at the sides. I peeled it off one of the drawers of the cabinet and it came off easily.
    I now want to paint what’s underneath – it’s super smooth and shiny – is that mdf? Is there a certain way to paint it or will it just look rubbish (worried about going for it with the massive wardrobe if i shouldn’t be peeling it off!!)?
    Thanks

  • http://visualmeringue.blogspot.ca elaine – visual meringue

    thanks for the great info – much appreciated. I was just checking out some dressers on Craigslist and this helps me spot some potential in otherwise ugly pieces ;)

  • k. howe

    I have an old desk that the top has what I assume is laminate. the surface has chipped off in many places and someone let water sit on it and now these spots have swelled into bumps. I really don’t want to replace the laminate, I would rather just paint the whole thing but is there something special I would have to do to the particle board underneath to have a smooth finish with paint? will just sanding do it?

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  • Janet

    I live in a 10 year old house that has white cabinets. I think that the doors of the cabinets have a veneer on them, not sure what it’s made of. It is beginning to peel/come loose on the corners of the cabinet doors.
    I was wondering if this could be taken off of the whole cabinet doors? I don’t think that the whole cabinet has the veneer, I think the rest is just painted white. Or am I incorrect in thinking that?
    If so, what can I expect underneath? Will it be wood that can be painted or stained?
    I would really like to get rid of the white cabinets, but don’t want to replace.
    Please advise if these types of cabinets can be transformed.

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      HI Janet! It’s hard to know about the veneer without seeing it. If it’s just a few corners here and there, I would just squeeze some wood glue in there and put a clamp on it to fix the veneer curling up. If you tear the veneer off the faces of all your cabinets, you might have a bigger project than what you bargained for. Sometimes it’s very difficult and chippy removing veneer, and you never know what surface you’re going to be left with once it’s removed. If you’re set on this idea, I would start on a cabinet door that’s in an inconspicuous place in your kitchen and carefully start pulling back the veneer to see how easily it comes off and what kind of surface is underneath. I think you’ll have less work for yourself if you just repair the damaged veneer corners and paint. Let me know what you decide, and be sure to send pictures!

  • julie

    I have a 1980”s oak table (laminate top) and 6 oak chairs.
    After I sand & paint, what can i put on top of the painted table.?
    We use it ALOT and wipe off the laminate constantly…
    Should I put a clear coat of varnish?

  • S. Duncan

    I have a laminate floor in my living room that the previous owner had installed. It is in perfect condition, but I hate the color. It is not a natural wood color, but rather it is light grey. “Driftwood”
    I would be happy with any other color as long as it is a natural wood color like maple, oak, cherry, pine, etc.
    Is it possible to stain it another color? If so, how should I proceed?
    Thanks so much!

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      Unfortunately, because it is laminate, you cannot stain it. The only option is painting. Laminate is basically PLASTIC that is printed to look like wood, so if you put stain on it, there would be no woodgrain for it to soak into. Does that make sense? There are lots of ideas for painting floors if you want to do a google search!

  • Richard Miller

    Just bought a nice oak dining room table that has bubbles in the veneer where the sun hit directly on the table. There are no obvious loose places. Your advice in refinishing to match the perfect leaf that was stored elsewhere.

  • Richard Miller

    please send notice to my email regarding your response.

  • http://www.etsy.com/shop/Section12Furniture James Smith

    I just bought a very heavy/sturdy dresser, I was told it was solid would but it is actually veneer I found after stripping some of the paint. I’ve never stained veneer before! Hoping I don’t end up sanding right through it!!! I posted some pictures of it. It is from the 1950’s. :)

    • http://www.sawdustandembryos.com/ Bethany @ Sawdust and Embryos

      Sounds like a fun project! I would definitely strip as much as you can before sanding. At least it’s not laminate! GOod luck!