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What’s This Grease Stain On My Painted Furniture? Dealing With Bleed Through

What is UP my friends and fellow busybees. So as a new furniture flipper, you’ll inevitably come across today’s topic at some point in your journey in painting furniture and you may not have ever encountered it prior– I certainly hadn’t– so I wanted to dedicate an episode to going over what it is, how it comes to be, and what you can do to address it and how to avoid it in the future. Some of you may know it already, but it’s called bleed through and it has, at different times, caused me to want to pull a hair or two out of my head in frustration, not gonna lie. Because I didn’t know what it was at the time! So hopefully if you haven’t come across it yet, today’s episode will help to make you well-equipped to handle it if and when you do.

So what exactly is bleed through? Like the title suggests, it essentially looks like a grease stain poking through your stain or paint finish. It can be in different shapes depending on the piece, so sometimes it will just look like smaller dots in a bit of a cluster and other times you’ll see streaks or a blob somewhere on your piece. And no matter how many coats of paint you put over it trying to cover it up, the darn thing will just keep pestering you and poking its way through– it’s super fun like that!

I can specifically remember one piece that I was working on in the first couple months of doing furniture makeovers– it was a small coffee table that had some detailing on the sides, so I had stained the top of the piece and was painting the base in white chalk paint. The shape of the piece leaned in the realm of a farmhouse feel to me, so I was doing some light distressing on the edges of the base where it would normally get some more wear and tear, like on the high points. But I remember painting the base and having it look great and then going to work on another piece while it dried and I came back a couple hours later and looked at it and I was like wait… I swear this section looked opaque before. But now there was a spot where I could see the original finish through the paint– so it looked like I hadn’t gotten as good of coverage in that spot, or maybe that the paint was too watered down to cover it properly. But again, I could have sworn that it was good before. So I added another coat to the whole piece, and again the same thing happened. Instead of assuming I was going insane, I decided to Google it and I discovered this whole bleed through situation. Since that piece was nearly complete and the thought of sanding it all back to properly prep it seemed like a bummer, I actually just ended up doing some more substantial distressing on the piece and distressed that area so it didn’t matter as much, but I always keep that piece in my mind when working with certain woods so that I don’t take the lazy girl way out (like I love to do in most areas of my life) because I would hate for that to happen to a piece that ends up in a client’s home.

More scientifically speaking, this bleed through is the wood tannins, or oils in the wood, poking through the finish you put on your furniture piece. It happens on solid wood furniture since wood is a natural material and in the wild, the tannins in wood are what protects it from getting attacked by insects or getting infected with a fungus or something similar. Since the different species of wood have so much variation in terms of the patterns of their grains and their colours and textures, this is why you don’t see the bleed through in a consistent size or shape… it just depends on what type of wood is underneath it.

There are certain woods that are more prone to bleed through due to this, so you can have a bit of presumed forewarning when you’re working on a piece if you can figure out what wood species you’re working with and thus determine whether you need to do the steps to avoid it, which we’ll talk about later in the episode. Some wood species that have higher concentrations of wood tannins are dark red woods like mahogany and cherry, as well as walnut and oak. Some woods, such as pine and cedar, are more knotty (so those circles you see in the wood that are typically darker than the rest of it) and they often have concentrations of tannins and sap and resins which can cause bleed through. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this but I see it all the time, my husband and I recently had a getaway at a hotel that’s an old mill and it’s been renovated but anywhere that they had painted their trim or bannisters or anything white, you could very clearly see the bleed through in the pine knots because there were little yellow circles all over.

And it is often on lighter colours that you see it most often, like whites and other lighter shades. This is because blacks and other super dark pigments do a better job at hiding it, so sometimes it will still be there but you won’t be able to see it as much until you look at the piece in a certain light or angle, or sometimes it will hold it from coming through at all. On the lighter colours, the tannins could look yellow like I mentioned in the pine, but they also can be pink which is commonly seen with cherry and mahogany, and I’ve also seen brown and more orange-y tones.

The most pesky thing about bleed through is that, although it can start to show up immediately once the finish has first dried on your piece, sometimes it can take hours, days, or even weeks to show up. Which means that, although a piece can look good as new and you stage, photograph, list and sell it to a client… they could get that piece home and then a couple weeks later start to notice that coming through. And they might even assume it was something they’ve done– did they spill something on it? Did the kids place a greasy croissant on it, when you specifically told them that it was off limits?!

So because of the dubious nature of this phenomenon, I recommend always assuming that your wood pieces could have this happen to them and prepping the piece accordingly to ensure we are curbing it before it happens! As an example of this, I’m sitting in my basement currently and as I write this, to my left we have a pole (not THAT kind of pole), but a pillar I guess in the middle of the room and it was painted before the previous owners moved out– in the summer of 2019!-- and just the other day I noticed that there’s bleed through peeking through from the knots in the wood underneath. Realistically it has probably been there for a few months or whatever and I never noticed it, but that goes to show you that even if you think you’re in the clear, YEARS later it could even start to show itself. Like I said, she’s a pesky bitch.

And before we get to how to avoid or deal with bleed through, I just want to say: if this is all new information to you, whether you’re just starting out flipping furniture or whether you’ve been doing it for awhile now but you didn’t fully know what all this was… don’t worry about it. We can get in our own heads and start questioning work that we’ve done wondering if it was good enough quality, regretting decisions we’ve made, or feeling ill equipped. If that’s the case, take a deep breath in and exhale those worries away. All I want you to worry about is your work moving forward– because now that we’ve learned, we will adapt moving forward. That’s all we can do.

And if you had been thinking about trying out your own first furniture makeover but are now getting a bit freaked out or worried that you won’t be able to accomplish it because there’s things like this you need to think about and be aware of and you’re wondering if there’s anything else that you ought to know about but haven’t learned about yet… again, don’t worry. We live and we learn, but if you are looking for a step-by-step manual to help walk you through your first furniture upcycling project, let me remind you that you can always grab my No BS Guide To Your First Furniture Makeover available on my website

It walks you through my framework step-by-step for completing your first furniture makeover, whether you want to paint, stain, or some combination of the two on your piece. It also comes with my First Furniture Makeover Supplies Checklist, which will make sure you’re set up for success when it comes time for you to sit down and finally tackle that piece of furniture I just know you’ve had sitting around in your garage for ages with the intention to flip, but you’ve been nervous to take that leap in case you screw it up. With this guide I will take your hand, pump your tires up and get you rolling through from start to finish on that beautiful furniture makeover I know you have in you! This is meant to be enjoyable and fun and a creative outlet, so let me take the guesswork and research time out and you can use my proven tried and true approach to furniture upcycling and my tips and tricks for getting it to turn out looking great and bringing your vision to life.

So now that we know exactly what these wood tannins are, what they look like and when they’re most likely to appear.. How do we avoid having them show up in the first place? The answer is proper prep work– the thing I always encourage people not to get lazy about and skimp out on. For a detailed break down on every step I recommend doing to ensure you are prepping your pieces effectively, be sure to check out Episode 7: Why Prep Is So Important & How To Do It Effectively because it goes into more detail than I will spend time on here today.

The main focus that will make the biggest difference to stop bleed through from happening during the prepping process is adding a layer to block those wood tannins from coming through before we even get to adding the paint or stain we want to use on the piece. This means adding a primer of some sort that specifically is made to block stains out– this could mean wood tannins or odours in the piece.

A commonly used primer for this is the Zinsser BIN shellac based primer– you can get it in a container or a spray can, depending on how you prefer to apply it. Although the spray can is definitely quicker and has easier clean up, it does have a strong scent so make sure you’re in a well-ventilated space when using it and wear your respirator to protect your lungs. Also make sure to wear gloves in case it gets on your hands because she sticksss. The downside to using the spray can formula is that, depending on the size of the piece you’re working on, this can get pricey if you need to use multiple cans to get a thorough enough coating on the piece. Like I mentioned, there is also a version that you can apply with a brush or a roller and it’s a really thin consistency so I do find that the container goes pretty far and it applies nicely.

Since the BIN primer is white, it’s also a helpful way to get your piece painted a lighter colour by giving you a light base to work off of. However, if you plan to distress your furniture piece after it’s painted, you likely won’t want to use a white primer underneath unless you want to distress to uncover white. If you’re hoping to see wood when you distress the edges, you can instead choose a clear shellac, which again you can get in a spray can. I’m actually not sure if you can get a liquid version just because I have never looked for it but I’m almost certain that it does exist. This basically creates an invisible clear barrier between the wood and the paint to keep those wood tannins at bay.

So that’s how you properly prep to avoid bleed through, but what if you find it on a piece you’re already working on and that’s why you clicked into this episode? I would recommend going the clear shellac spray route in that case because it will allow you to spot treat the bleed through (although that’s not to say that it couldn’t show up in the future in other spots on the piece, so be aware of that) and then just let it dry completely. Then you can scuff sand whatever finish it was that the tannins peeked through and either go in with a new coat of primer if needed or with the finish that you used previously. With that clear shellac barrier you hopefully and shouldn’t have any issues with that spot anymore!

And something you may not know about me… I love little motivational messages. They literally always get me fired up, and I keep a running list of ones that are especially catchy or speak to me in the Notes app on my phone. So I’m going to end every podcast episode with one of those that I have noted down over the years, in hopes that you leave our time here each week feeling inspired, motivated, and ready to take on whatever comes your way that week.

So this week’s Mel’s motivational message is: Disappointment ends the day you adopt a learning mindset.

Alright, that’s it for now, I appreciate your time, and I’ll catch you guys next week!

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