Learn which types of craft paints you should use for your next crafty project. Using the right kind of paint can mean the difference between a craft win and craft fail!
When I was in middle school, someone gave me a book all about painting faux finishes for craft projects. This was sometime, *cough cough*, in the 90’s so it has things like sponge painting and combing finishes.
Around this time I got bitten by the furniture painting bug and so, you guys, this book was like the best thing EVER. I read it cover to cover sooooo many times. Blogs and the internet didn’t really exist yet so this book was IT.
Have I mentioned that I have extremely patient and supportive parents who actually let me paint my furniture?
Anyway, I’ve been using paint on craft projects for a long long time and at this point I’ve tried pretty much everything, so today I wanted to share with you how to paint anything.
What Types of Craft Paints ARE There?
- Acrylic Craft Paint – Acrylic craft paint is water-based, multipurpose and permanent. I consider it the workhorse of craft paints and will use it in almost any situation from cardboard to plastic to metal. You can even use it on fabric if you add a textile medium. It sticks well, covers well, cleans up easily and dries quickly to a smooth finish.
- Fabric Paint – The key to fabric paint is good coverage while remaining soft and flexible once dry. Some will just air dry and other brands require you to press them with an iron to “set” the paint. They even make “dimensional” fabric paint which is similar to what you probably called “puffy paint” as a kid. As mentioned you can also add textile medium to regular acrylic craft paints but it just won’t be quite as flexible when it’s dry.
- Watercolor paint – Watercolor paint is a translucent coverage water-based paint which most people use for painting on paper, specifically watercolor paper, which is thicker and designed to absorb the excess water without warping. However, I’ve tried it, and if you work quickly you can also use watercolor paint as a translucent wash on other semi-porous surfaces like paper mache or even craft wood!
There are tons of brands of watercolor paints but I prefer a liquid watercolor like this one.
- Tempera Paint / Poster Paint – The great things about these paints are that they are usually washable and easy to clean up which make them great for kids crafts. They’re most often used on poster board, paper or other cardboard surfaces.
- Chalky Finish Paint – Chalky finish paint is known by some brands as “chalk paint” and is just what it sounds like, a matte paint with a chalky finish. The hallmark of chalky finish paint is that it sticks really really well to almost all surfaces without peeling or cracking. Chalky finish paint is excellent for painting furniture and although most brands will tell you that you can apply it without sanding first, I ALWAYS recommend a light sanding, better safe than sorry! Most often, chalky finish paint is sealed with a wax finish which can be clear or antiqued.
- Chalkboard Paint – Not to be confused with chalky finish paint, chalkboard paint actually turn your surface into a chalkboard that you can draw on. The key to using chalkboard paint (which can be applied with a brush or as a spray paint) is to have your starting surface be as smooth as possible! Also, don’t forget to “season” your new chalkboard surface by rubbing the side of a piece of chalk all over it and rubbing it in with a cloth, or else your first chalk drawings could become permanent. You can use chalkboard paint on almost any surface from wood to drywall to metal and even glass!
I have tried both spray and liquid versions of this chalkboard paint and they worked great. I love this line of chalkboard paint for smaller projects because it comes in a whole bunch of great colors!
- Milk Paint – Milk paint contains milk (casein) and lime, is non-toxic, and has a chalky finish similar to chalky finish paint. It usually comes as a powder that you mix with water yourself. If you do not add a “bonding agent” to milk paint it will self-distress over time (i.e. it will get chippy and worn) though many people love this about it, especially for furniture projects!
Many people love this kind of milk paint!
- Spray Paint – Spray paint, like you’d buy at the hardware store or home improvement store, has the significant advantage of being easy to apply. You can quickly cover large surfaces and get into crevices. Spray paint, however, gives off a lot of fumes and must be applied in a well-ventilated outdoor area and only within certain temperature ranges (which makes it hard to use in our Chicago winters). Spray paint comes in tons of different colors, metallics, crackle, even glitter, and in every finish from matte to glossy. It even comes in different formulations including paint specially formulated for metals and plastics. It’s a great choice for bigger projects but can be difficult to get a super smooth surface with.
- Glass Paint – If you want to paint on glass, and want it to stick well, you should definitely purchase glass paint. And be SURE to follow the instructions on the bottle to make sure the paint dries and cures correctly!
I like this brand of glass paint a lot, it has a translucent stained glass look!
- Enamel Paint – Enamel paints are often oil based (which means stinky, use ventilation) but dry into a super hard smooth surface. They’re good for a non-pourous surface like metal , glass or ceramic. Carefully follow the directions (which may include heating it in the oven). Just, please DO NOT try that Pinterest pin for the “Sharpie Mug” it’s not going to work. I promise.
This enamel ceramic paint has great reviews!
What are Paint Mediums?
Paint mediums are a liquid you can add to your paints to change them in some way. Some examples include textile medium, which turns acrylic craft paint into fabric paint, pouring medium which you add to craft paint to make it pour super smoothly, crackle medium, which you paint on under another layer of other paint to cause it to crackle, and matte medium which gives paint a matte finish
Mediums are great in that they allow you to use paint you may already have, or turn that PERFECT color of paint into the exact finish or texture you want! Just make sure you read the directions!
What to do Before you Start Painting Your Craft Projects…
- Sand. Yep, even if the bottle/can says you don’t need to. I promise, for every surface from plastic to wood, to metal, a light sanding to rough up the surface will only help. Sanding won’t hurt anything, but, oh boy, if you skip sanding, it can be SO painful and your paint could very well crack or even peel right off. Use a fine grit sandpaper and rough up the entire surface. Sand more if the surface starts off very smooth. The only surface you shouldn’t sand first is glass/ceramic. For obvious reasons.
- Clean. A clean surface will make your paint stick better. It will also make it more likely that you get a nice smooth finish with no dust/dirt/hair stuck in your paint.
- Dry. Make sure your project is totally 100% dry before you paint. That means if it’s wood and you got it wet when you cleaned it, you may need to wait a bit before you get started.
Tips & Tricks for Painting Craft Projects…
- Thin and even coats. Nothing good ever comes of thick coats of paint. Just don’t. Your first coat will probably look terrible. That’s ok.
- Let it DRY. Be patient. You might really really want to start on the next coat when your first coat is mostly dry. Don’t. If it’s not fully dry, it might peel and then you have to sand it all down and start over.
- Invest in a decent brush. Don’t use those disposable foam brushes for anything, they get air bubbles in your paint. And likewise don’t get the very cheapest paintbrush there is, you’ll end up picking loose bristles out of your project. Go for a decent mid-range paintbrush.
- Clean your paintbrushes. You know that Pinterest pin where someone wraps their paintbrush in plastic wrap and sticks it in the fridge or freezer so they don’t have to wash it? That just makes me cringe so badly. It might sort of work, but there’s going to be some dried up paint that you’ll just never get off, particularly down near the ferrule (metal part). I know it’s annoying but just wash your brushes thoroughly, you can even use a little mild dish soap, as you go. They’ll last soo much longer.
How to Paint Paper
I try not to paint regular paper if I can avoid it all all (with the exception of watercolor paint on watercolor paper). Instead I figure out other ways to add color like with markers or by cutting shapes out of colored paper or scrapbook paper to make a collage. Because, with the exception of paper mache surfaces, paper will get wavy and warp when you paint it. If you do want to paint paper, tape the edges of the paper down with drafting tape first to minimize warping.
If you want to paint thicker paper material, like poster board, you can use tempera paint or poster paint which covers well without being too wet. These paints usually have the added advantage of being washable. I also recently discovered these tempera paint STICKS and they are soooo awesome.
How to Paint Cardboard
Corrugated cardboard holds paint the best, the corrugation keeps it from warping which can be a problem with all paper based surfaces. Even so, it’s best to stick to a lower moisture paint like acrylic craft paint. It’s also best to use thin coats of that craft paint, this keeps warping to a minimum as well. Corrugated cardboard takes acrylic craft paint particularly well and I’ve made tons of craft projects with that method, like this and this!
How to Paint Wood
For a long time, the advice that I saw was to paint wood furniture projects with regular old latex house paint from the home improvement store. I personally never had great results that way and had peeling. I know tons of bloggers use this method but it’s just not my favorite.
I actually, for a long time, just used acrylic craft paint on furniture and it works great. It sticks well, it comes in tons of colors, it’s affordable (you will need a few of those little bottles for one piece of furniture, but that’s still cheaper than latex paint). I still recommend this method and acrylic craft paint is ALWAYS what I will choose for smaller wood projects like little decorative items, wooden beads or craft wood.
However, if I was going to choose my favorite method for painting larger wood projects, I’d choose chalky finish paint. It really has come so far, works so well and comes in so many colors. And I actually really love the more matte finish (or very light satin finish if you add wax).
The key to painting wood, of course, is always making sure your surface is properly prepared as discussed above: sand, clean, & dry!
How to Paint Plastic
If you are painting a smaller plastic item then I would use a good multi-surface acrylic craft paint. It should stick to most plastic unless it’s super glossy.
For larger plastic projects (like for example, re-painting a child’s toy play house) choose a spray paint specially formulated for plastic surfaces. This will give you the best durability and last the longest.
How to Paint Styrofoam
Whatever you do, do NOT use spray paint on styrofoam. It will dissolve and eat away at the foam. Ask me how I know… If you have to paint styrofoam, go for acrylic craft paint or chalky finish paint.
How to Paint Metal
If you’re painting metal that already has a painted surface, especially if it’s glossy, rough it up with some sandpaper. Then for smaller metal projects, while you can use a good multi-surface acrylic craft paint, for maximum durability, choose an enamel paint.
For larger metal projects, for example, re-painting a metal bar cart, choose a spray paint specifically formulated for metal surfaces.
How to Paint Glass
The best way to get a translucent finish on glass is to choose a glass paint and carefully follow the instructions. You can also paint glass with chalky finish paint like this which works especially well for distressed finishes. It will be opaque but it’s great if you’re going for a distressed farmhouse vibe.
How to Paint Ceramics
For glazed ceramic surfaces like a tile or a mug, get yourself some good enamel ceramic paint and follow its instructions, especially if it requires time in the oven to dry and cure. Do not, I repeat, do not, use Sharpies.
How to Paint Air Dry Clay
Acrylic craft paint works great on air dry clay just make sure the clay is 100% fully dry or it may peel!
How to Paint Polymer Clay
How to Seal Your Painted Surfaces
While some types of craft paints including acrylic craft paint, watercolor paint, enamel paint and fabric paint don’t require sealing, others, like chalky finish paint, do. The reasons you might want to seal a painted craft project include protection from scratches, chipping and adding waterproofing. Some types of paint sealants include:
- Clear acrylic spray sealer – easy application and cleanup, comes in matte, satin and glossy finishes. Great for general craft projects.
- Clear spray polyurethane – a plastic based sealer that’s easy to apply and great at protecting a surface, but can slightly yellow over time. This is a great choice for furniture projects if you choose a waterproof or indoor/outdoor formula
- Mod Podge – Mod Podge comes in about 900 different formulations nowadays including one that’s diswasher safe (that would work on ceramic or glass projects, for example). My favorite is the matte finish. It’s great for adding protection and shine but I have found it shows brush strokes and, with the exception of the previously mentioned dishwasher formula, is not waterproof so not suitable for something like a coaster. Mod Podge is perfect for paper and cardboard based crafts.
- Wax – waxes are usually used to finish chalky finish paint and milk paint projects. They provide some protection and a nice soft, warm finish but can be a bit of work to apply since they have to be buffed.
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