Earlier this winter, I moved with my boyfriend into a quirky one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. When we found it we couldn’t believe our luck. “It’s perfect,” we told our friends and family: “We’re moving in January, so we’ll have a couple of months in the winter to take on some DIY projects and really make it our own.” Among other DIYs, I decided to repaint a table, several peg rails, and a massive wooden wardrobe, ordered from Ikea, to serve as my closet.

Cut to one month later: I just finished the last of the painting two days ago, and I found myself painting in every spare moment—til midnight on work nights, in between loads of laundry, while dinner was in the oven. For weeks our apartment has been a perilous obstacle course, tented in drop cloths, with still-wet boards propped against the walls. I confessed my exasperation to my coworkers when things were bad. I’d read—and written—about how easy, cheap, and inexpensive it is to transform furniture with a quick coat of paint, and I felt like I’d been living a lie.

Happily, though, I’ve come around: My theory is that painting furniture is the kind of tedious, frustrating experience you completely forget about once you’re done and you have a transformed, bespoke new piece to admire. It’s true that the secret to success is in the prep work (and that the prep is boring, messy, and time-consuming). But I also learned several lessons I’d never heard before (even working at a design publication). Here are my takeaways.

An unfinished Ikea Ivar Cabinet, ready to be painted. See all of our favorite paintable Ikea essentials in Ikea Hack: DIY Furniture You Can Paint.
Above: An unfinished Ikea Ivar Cabinet, ready to be painted. See all of our favorite paintable Ikea essentials in Ikea Hack: DIY Furniture You Can Paint.

1. There will be dust.

There’s no way around it: sanding is a deeply unpleasant task. Take it from me, who spent several hours sanding my Ikea wardrobe, which came painted. I started by using my boyfriend’s random-orbit power sander, but it made too much noise (this was late at night) and sanded unevenly. So I went at it by hand. It’s hard work, you’ll work up a sweat, and the dust will get everywhere—we found a fine film of dust on a painting nearby, and it took days to get it out from under my nails.

But, if you’re painting something that’s already been finished or painted, sanding is essential. If you’re working inside, be sure to drape everything—everything—completely, wear a mask with a proper filter, vacuum often, and wipe your furniture with a tack cloth (not paper towels or a rag) so the dust doesn’t show up in the finished product.

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