Final painted MDF piece

How do you make MDF look nice?

Can you make MDF look nice? MDF is a budget-friendly option but not very pretty. You need to know the right products to use to make it work.

However, a lick of paint and some decoration goes a long way to help make MDF look nice.

But there are a few things you need to think about when painting MDF. MDF isn’t solid wood and has to be treated right. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that it won’t last and will be a waste of time and effort.

This post includes gifted products and affiliate links so you can easily find the products I use myself and recommend to friends. If you purchase these products, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.

How do you make MDF look nice?

I got this chest for free on Freecycle.

It was really heavy due to the MDF and solid wood trim. So much so, that the rope handles didn’t completely convince me that they wouldn’t break at some point.

Here are 5 other places to find free furniture!

How do you make MDF look nice? The original piece.

It was a handmade gift for someone’s mum, based on a message written under the lid. So, it had a nice story behind it and clearly love had gone into making it.

But I suppose because it was big, heavy and not the prettiest, it was eventually given away.

Happy Birthday mum message

Should you sand MDF before painting?

Unless something is really dirty, you shouldn’t wash MDF. The best way to prep the surface is to roughly sand it and then remove the dust.

I used a new (to me) sandpaper called R.A.D pad by SurfPrep, in the fine grit. They’re similar to my usual sandpaper which also has a foam backing.

I find this style comfortable to use and it moulds well around different shapes, like the wooden trim.

Sanding MDF

Then I used a sticky tack cloth to wipe the dust off, for a smooth start.

The chest was in good condition but I still found a few spots to make the most of some wood filler. In particular, I filled in the small gaps between where the baseboards met. I also covered the small nail holes which attached the trim. It gave it a crisp, solid foundation to paint on.

Does MDF need to be primed?

As MDF is basically wood fibres glued together, water damage is a risk.

So priming has two purposes, to create a barrier between the MDF and the paint so that it doesn’t cause the wood fibres to swell and create bubbles. This needs to be a non-water based primer.

And secondly, primer is good for lower quality wooden surfaces. This is because they’re generally more absorbent. This means that it takes more paint to get good coverage.

Priming was important to stop the MDF from swelling and to avoid using more paint than necessary.

How do you make MDF look nice? The first coat of Deep Sea.

I wanted a rich colour for the chest and chose the dark navy, Deep Sea.

Here’s one of my most-pinned navy blue makeovers.

The MDF areas needed three coats and the solid wood trim needed just two coats.

I tend to paint with a combination of brush and roller. I did the trim with a synthetic brush and the large surface with a roller. Using both at the same time gives me the best smooth finish.

I also went back with a small detail brush to get into the tiny corners.

Painting the edges with a small detail brush

Should you seal MDF?

I seal all of my projects, even if they have a built-in top-coat in the paint. And it was particularly important for this project, to protect the MDF as much as possible.

I did two full applications of Dixie Belle’s Clear Coat in Satin. I chose Satin because I prefer the slightly matte look, but the glossier the sealer, generally the more protection it offers.

If you’re interested in the gloss top-coat, this is how it looks on these colourful tables.

This top-coat added a lovely sheen to the paint which worked well with my extra decorative elements.

Sealing with Clear Coat in Satin

Want to know 23 great DIY tools? Get the list!

Make MDF look nice

While I loved the colour of the chest, it was basically a big blue box. So, I decided to add some bling to make it more glamorous. I chose the stencil, Lotus Bloom. Which has a mix of floral and Princess Jasmine vibes.

I often use stencil spray but used Frog Tape only this time, which worked perfectly fine.

Although, I did forget my tape measure so if you watch the YouTube video you’ll see my back-to-basics method of finding the centre of the chest!

To complement the navy, I used Gemstone Mousse in Gold for the stencil colour. I was expecting the mousse to have an airy texture so was surprised to see that it was a thick liquid.

If you’re a fan of golden glamour, check out this popular green side table.

Using the Lotus Bloom stencil

As always, I used sponge dabbers with the bare minimum of paint on to dab the stencil into place.

Using a stencil with a repeating pattern, you might need several applications to cover a piece. Fortunately, as the layer of the mousse needed to be so minimal, so as not to bleed out of the edges of the stencil, it dried very quickly.

I was able to place the stencil on top of the end flower to match the pattern and continue adding the two extra flowers, almost straight away.

In addition to the stencil, I added these bronze corner protectors. I’ve been waiting to use these on a project for two years and this is the first piece they looked right on.

Because the bronze wasn’t a perfect match for the gold, I lightly painted over them. But I kept some of the original colour to add dimension.

Adding Gemstone Mousse to the corner protectors

Solid handles for the heavy MDF

The original rope handles did the job but no longer matched the more glamorous look that I was aiming for. I bought these cast iron handles in a set of two and they were reassuringly heavy themselves.

To attach them, I used my trusty Frog Tape to mark on the back where the screw holes would go. I then put the tape on the chest and used a spirit level to make sure that it was lined up correctly.

That meant that I could drill my holes over the pencil marks, knowing that the handles would be straight.

Tip on how to add handles straight

Unfortunately, the handles didn’t come with screws. So, I used my own screws but they were silver, rather than black.

To make sure they didn’t stand out I wanted to paint them black to match.

This was the first project that I’ve used Slick Stick on. Which is a product to use on shiny surfaces to help paint stick to it. I’ve since used it on a laminate dressing table and I’m sold, the product mattifies so well.

So after covering the screw heads with Slick Stick, I used my darkest black, Anchor, to paint over them. They now blend in perfectly.

So, does MDF look good painted?

I’ll let you be the judge. But I think the transformation is like night and day… Or maybe day and night.

The finished piece

So, can you paint MDF? Absolutely. You just have to think about your products.

Is it worth it? That depends on the quality that you start with. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say. But you can go a long way to making it a really pretty piece.

How do you make MDF look nice? Close up of the finished piece.

Thanks for taking the time to follow this project from start to finish.

I hope it gave you some ideas on how to keep more furniture out of landfill. Budget materials that are in good condition can still be pretty.

There are more behind the scenes in the YouTube video if you’d like to check that out too.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy these stencil projects

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Rachel started painting furniture in 2018. She created this site to share her favourite transformations and the many tips she has learned along the way.


  1. This is lovely! What a difference a little paint and a stencil make, right? So nice to have found your blog, Rachel! We would love you to link-up at Tuesday Turn About! We close tonight at midnight CST, and reopen on Tuesdays at 5pm CST! Hope to see you there each week!

  2. Great job on this Rachel! Your idea of using the mousse is so smart – I’m going to try that sometime! Thanks for sharing – pinned 😊

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