Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Painting Furniture

About once a year, I'll get a nasty comment from someone all worked up over the fact that I painted a wooden piece of furniture. It always makes me chuckle, these self proclaimed wood advocates, who feel it their personal mission to go out into the world and rescue furniture from the evil clutches of villains such as myself. Why does it make me chuckle? Well, because it shows they know very little about furniture, and antiques, and value. And at some point it's worth mentioning, what kind of person goes on a blog about painting furniture, to complain about painted furniture? Are they also going on Nascar blogs to complain about people driving too fast? Silliness.

For those who wonder. Here's the comment I received today:
"You painted over this beautiful wood?" Horrible."
And here's the piece of furniture in question:



What we're looking at is a tiger oak veneer sideboard. It probably dates to about 1920. When I picked it up at a tag sale two years ago it was in desperate need of attention. I fixed the runners on the drawers, sanded, stained, and sealed the top- and yes, painted the case. The veneer was chipped in several places and was beyond the point of salvation. If not painted, it would have remained sad and beat down. 

Veneer from the 20s is notoriously flimsy. I encounter this issue all the time. Sometimes I strip the veneer entirely to reveal the beautiful pine secondary wood, like I did with this console table- 

And sometimes, if the veneer is not in terrible shape but needs patching, I'll paint it. So yes, that piece of furniture had a nice figured veneer, but it was years of neglect and mis-use that brought it into my hands. I have exactly zero interest in refinishing pieces of furniture that are in perfect condition. And because I refinished that piece it went to a lovely house on a quiet street in Glastonbury, where I suspect the owners are still enjoying it, paint and all.

Don't forget that I do this as a hobby. In my daytime job I work for a high level antiques firm. I have a pretty good idea what's valuable, the age of pieces, and what's ok to paint. And that's the big question.

What is ok to paint and what's not ok to paint.

After about 1850 American entered into a phase that would change the structure of the nation both culturally and economically, the Industrial Revolution. In essence, everyone realized it was way more efficient and cheaper to produce material goods, including furniture, via mechanization and in large quantities, than it was to use the cottage industry of small craftsman run shops. Furniture after 1875 is almost always from a factory. The quality did decline, but more importantly for our discussion, the pieces were no longer unique. As antique dealers we judge furniture on three levels: Rarity, Quality, and Condition. Furniture made in a factory is not rare, and the quality is not comparable to the pieces made a generation earlier by master cabinetmakers.

Let's get back to the tiger oak veneer sideboard. I'd venture it was made in a large factory somewhere in the northeast. It was likely one of several hundred produced in that year, and probably sold by catalog. There are thousands upon thousands floating around the country, both painted, unpainted, in excellent condition, and rotting in a leaky shed. To argue that someone should not paint a mass-produced 20th century piece of furniture it about the same as saying, "Hey, I really like black coffee. You're putting cream in that black coffee? horrible."

Here's a couple more pieces that I painted. Just for good measure ;-)

If anyone wants to take the time to make a piece of furniture like these more appealing, so that it can be saved from banishment of a dark basement corner, by all means, paint it- or whatever else makes you happy. And for the wood-advocates out there, here's my honest advice- I get that your heart is in the right place, and you want to do something to preserve history. Mass produced furniture doesn't need your energy or advocacy. It's not endangered by any means. What does need your support is your local historical society. So go forth and put that passion to good use!

Tomorrow, I'll tell you what you shouldn't paint, and why.


  1. I still vastly prefer the unpainted piece of furniture than the bland looking piece you achieved, in spite of your explanation. I can see great beauty in that wood. The imperfections you mention have not come through in the photo at all. I guess though that you expect every commeter to say 'Oh wow, Love the piece, it's wonderful'.

    1. Oh Maddie, I'm so glad you saw the post. My goal is always to educate, and I trust this was a learning experience for you :-).

  2. Oh marvellous work done by you. I am really inspired by you. Thanks a lot for sharing this post.

  3. Well, painting is ver important part of a french furniture or any other furniture and it needs expertise so that the color and the shade comes with a glowing finish and give furniture an awesome look and here it has done wonderfully.