You may have noticed that the brands of chalk-style paint vary as much as their prices. Generally speaking, there are two main differences: Some chalk-style paints actually contain chalk and others do not. Instead, those paints contain an acrylic base but still offer a matte and chalky finish. So which do you choose? In part, that depends on your project and the look you're going for. Traditional chalk-style paint, that actually contains chalk, tends to have a heavier body and therefore a heavier finish. So if you're going for a European-style finish, which includes intentional brush strokes, the heavier the body of the paint, the better. The acrylic versions tend to be lighter and offer a smoother finish. Both clean up with soap and water.
These paints also can vary greatly in price and availability. Some are available at your local big box and crafts stores and some are only available in specialty shops. Where you choose to shop can certainly depend on your budget, but keep in mind that by shopping at a specialty shop you'll likely also have access to someone who can answer all of your questions and assist you with tips on completing your project successfully. They may even offer classes. The best reason to use a chalk-style paint is that they are specially designed for painting furniture.
Most chalk-style paints boast the ability to skip any sanding prior to painting, which saves a ton of time. But should you? The answer: it depends. Does the piece you're painting already have a flaky finish? If yes, then you should definitely sand away any loose paint prior to painting. Remember to check for lead paint if you're working on an old piece prior to sanding.
Does the piece you'd like to paint have a super-shiny finish? If so, you should really consider going over the surface with a fine sanding block to give the surface some tooth, something for the paint to stick to, just as an insurance policy. If you're not feeling the idea of rubbing down a giant piece of furniture with sandpaper, at least do a small and inconspicuous test spot, let dry completely, and then try to scratch away the paint with your fingernail. If it adheres, you should be good to go.
But never, never skip the cleaning. Regardless of whether you decide to skip the sanding, the same cannot be said about skipping the cleaning. No matter how good the paint is, it won't stick to leftover sticker residue or pancake syrup.
Chalk-style paints can be applied in the same ways as traditional paint -- with a natural bristle brush, a roller, or a sprayer. This also depends on the kind of finish you're going for, like smooth or textured. A natural bristle brush can give you either a smooth finish or a textured one depending on the paint and the painting method. Even the heaviest paint is versatile enough to offer you a smooth finish on one project while offering you textured finish on another, all depending on what you're going for.
A roller or sprayer will offer the smoothest of finishes. Chalk-style paint will need to be thinned with water according to your sprayer's manufacturer instructions. If you're going for full coverage, you'll likely only require two coats. If you're going for more of a transparent look, or if the piece you're working on is already close to the paint in color, you might only require one coat, as these paints are generally highly pigmented.
Here's the trick to making the chalk-style paint you choose as versatile as your needs require. If you're going for the heavy, textured, European-style look, then you'll apply both the first and second coats at full strength straight from the can.
If you're going for a smoother look, even if you're using a heavier-bodied paint, just apply a little water to your second coat. You can do this by decanting the required amount of paint into a separate container and adding a tad of water to it, mixing well. Err on the side of caution when adding water and only add a little at a time until you achieve the desired result. The water should allow your paint to glide on yet still offer good coverage. You'll know there's enough water if your second coat glides on smoothly and still covers well.
If you notice "drag marks" on your second coat, meaning as you apply the second coat your brush seems to pull up the first, allow your first coat to dry a little longer before continuing. Another trick for a smoother finish, with any paint, is to sand lightly between coats or after the final coat dries but just before applying the top coat.
All chalk-style paints will require a topcoat. Any topcoat option will work: acrylic or poly liquids, oils, or waxes. Just be sure your freshly painted piece is free of lint or other debris prior to applying a topcoat. Probably the most popular topcoat for a chalk-style paint is a wax. In general, these waxes are soft and can come in various colors from brown, dark brown, gray, white, and clear. These colored waxes allow you to alter the color of your paint to achieve a certain look. Some waxes also can be liquid or hard waxes. Waxes can be applied with a wax brush or soft cloth. But since waxes dry as hard as any topcoat option, any unwanted residue should be removed before it dries. Once the wax has dried it can be buffed with a lint-free cloth or buffer for a slightly shinier finish. Possibly the most important tip: Don't be afraid, it's only paint! Check out these Ultimate Guide to Painting videos for more pro tips and tricks.