Ikea Billy Makeover: How to Give Your Bookcase a Fresh Look with Paint

There is much to love about the robust, affordable Billy bookcase from Ikea. It can be configured in many ways with a sleek design that fits most other home decors.

However, one of its main drawbacks is that it is usually only available in three simple colors: white, black, and light wood colors.

The question naturally arises for many who love the piece but need more versatility - How do I paint an Ikea Billy bookcase? We've researched the process to find the best method for you.

The Ikea Billy bookcase has a laminate exterior that is difficult to paint. The secret to painting successfully is first to apply a base primer coat designed for surface adhesion.

Once you have an even layer of primer, you can paint the bookshelf with your paint of choice. Since Billy is covered in a thin laminate veneer and not wood, the usual sanding method to prep for paint will not work. 

The Billy bookcase is very popular, and you would not be alone in wanting to paint it yourself. Read on to learn more about doing the best job possible and ending up with a beautiful custom Billy bookshelf.

A white room with painting on wall, bookcase and flowerpots with plants, How To Paint An Ikea Billy Bookcase

It's All About The Primer

The usual approach to repainting furniture is to sand down the external layer's finish and then either apply a primer or paint directly. This won't work for much of Ikea's furniture, including the Billy bookcase.

These bookcases have an exterior veneer layer made of plastics, and while they can be durable and stylish, they are not always ideal. Chips or dents can be unsightly and reveal the particleboard underneath. The laminate around the edges can begin to peel up or get loose, and the finishes never have the same appeal as a perfectly picked color.

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Brush with white paint on a wooden table and a jar with white paint

If you try to paint over the laminate veneer of the Billy, it will likely only stick in certain spots and leave a marbled mess of paint.

Since you can't sand down the laminate, you must create a clean base layer to paint on. Most everyone recommends a shellac-based sealing primer. There are so many benefits to using this type of primer on Ikea recoloring or DIY projects. The primer is designed to adhere to any surface and create a perfect seal.

You can find this primer here on Amazon.

The Zinnser B-I-N primer is the most common one to use for Ikea projects. It will fully cover any defects, scratches, and imperfections while blocking odors.

The primer will have no trouble adhering to any laminate or wood surface. From that original primer, you can paint over it like you would any small project.

You can use rollers for long stretches and brushes for details and corners. If you would like to do the cleanest job possible, you can disassemble the larger parts of the Billy, paint them, and then reassemble them into place.

Can you use chalk paint on laminate?

A tin of country grey Annie Sloan chalk paint on the vintage table next to the paintbrush

Chalk paint is a thick and opaque paint that adheres to almost any surface. You can successfully apply chalk paint to Ikea laminated furniture, but there are some things to keep in mind.

The chalk paint does a good job of adhering to itself, but it will still not have a great hold on the furniture. Chalk paint will rub or scratch off very easily from the Billy bookcase.

Especially if your bookcase gets a lot of use or is kept in a high-traffic area of the house, it is best to avoid using chalk paint on the Billy.

For other painting methods over furniture without much fuss, you can read our article, "How To Paint Furniture Without Sanding Or Priming [7 Steps]."

What kind of paint do you use on Ikea furniture?

Assembling ikea furniture

The most popular and affordable Ikea furniture will mostly use laminate on the exterior. As a result, it is best to follow the steps above and use a primer first. Once you have that down, you can apply any paint you see fit.

Other pieces of Ikea furniture have actual wood exteriors, and those require a different process.

In the case of wood exteriors, you would sand the outside, then either apply paint directly or a basic primer first and then paint. Every piece of furniture is different, and Ikea also carries some furniture that arrives with unfinished wood to paint it directly.

For some ideas on other Ikea bookcases to put your own DIY spin on, you can check out our article, "15 Ikea Bookshelves You Can Choose From."

What color white is Ikea furniture?

Furniture assembly parts and tools for self assembly furniture

You may be surprised to find out that most white furniture from Ikea is not pure white. If you were to take a sample book of paint colors next to your Billy or almost any other white furniture from Ikea, you would see that it more closely matches a very light beige tone.

This is done because stark white does not always look good within home lighting situations and doesn't match other furniture. The off-white or beige tones look more natural and fit better in most homes.

If you would like to color-match something exactly to your Ikea furniture, it would be best to take a small part before assembly and bring it to a hardware or paint store. Hundreds of very similar, off-white tones look the same in the store but do not match in person.

The difference in lighting and positioning can also make the color gap seem bigger. Some recommend an eggshell finish to match white Ikea paint best.

Can you stack Billy bookcases?

The Ikea Billy bookcases are not actually one product but a whole system. You can purchase a Billy in different heights, widths, and configurations. The Billy system is designed to accommodate adding new parts as needed. Because of this, you can easily stack them.

You can actually buy single shelf extenders from Ikea as well, and there are various doors available. With the ability to adjust your shelf heights, the system lets you customize your bookcase set up in any space.

A Simple Secret To Great Results

The simple secret to getting a great result when painting your Ikea Billy bookcase is to use a good adhesive shellac primer. This takes care of all the little problems that arise with repainting over laminate and provides a great base.

There may be other options that some people try, like chalk paint, but they have major drawbacks because they avoid that main problem.

The Billy bookcase system is very flexible and appealing because it can be made to fit in so many spaces. Don't let the basic colors available hold you back. Use these tips to get a great personalized result!


What kind of paint do you use for shelves?

Use an Alkyd (Oil-Based) Paint.

Many professional painters rely on alkyd paint for shelves and cabinets. Note that alkyd paints require mineral spirits for clean up (versus water for latex). They also take longer to dry. Avoid putting anything on an alkyd-coated shelf for at least a week.

Do you need to prime a shelf before painting?

You definitely need a primer for a new bookcase that's never been painted or varnished. Water-based primer works well on natural wood, but use a solvent-based primer for particleboard, because a water-based primer can cause the fibers to swell.

What is the best paint for wooden shelves?

Use alkyd-based oil paint on standard trim. Use traditional latex paint on ornate trim. For floors, use alkyd-based oil paint. Pick plant-oil-based paint on small knickknacks.

How do you paint bare wood shelves?

Step 1: Sand the surface.

Step 2: Seal the knots.

Step 3: Smooth the surface.

Step 4: Consider tinted primer.

Step 5: Choose the right base for your color.

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