Dear reader, let's have a little chat, you and I. We can sit down, grab a glass (or three) of wine, and hash this out, hopefully once and for all.
From time to time a piece of furniture I refinish will cause some folks to get all sorts of worked up and angry. The vitriol that gets spewed my direction, my goodness you'd think I was clubbing baby seals for a living. To be fair this soap box level rant isn't really directed at you who read this blog, because if you're reading this blog you probably like painted furniture, but someone close to you, I bet they can be a real ass when it comes to painting furniture. You know the type. They get all indignant and huffy "But that was MAHOGANY!!" etc. etc..
I'm well aware that plenty of other guys and gals in my line of work face the same resistance. On social media I delete the nastier more profane comments, and try to address the ones that lean towards harmlessly bewildered. In person when I hear such comments I just don my icy frozen grin, the fake eyes glazed one that I learned while working retail in college.
Believe it or not, I didn't start as a gruesome furniture abuser. I am an antiques dealer in my heart and soul, and readily labeled as such by the tattoo I wear proudly across my lower back. I love antiques. I love antiques more than you. Do you have an 'antiques' tattoo? No? My point exactly. I've been collecting antiques since I was about nine. Cowbells, trade signs, weathervanes, works on paper, oil landscapes, antique textiles, and always furniture. Antiques Roadshow was THE EVENT every monday night when I was a kid, and I had a hot hot crush on the Keno brothers. After studying history in college I worked for a mid size museum, and then spent four of the happiest years of my life working with one of the very best antiques firms in the world, Nathan Liverant and Son. They specialized in antique furniture, which is to say real antique furniture.
Now, what do I mean by real antique furniture? Well the fact of the matter is, the stuff I show you, if it's antique at all, it's hardly antique (100 years or older), and certainly not the sort of thing worthy of any antique show, anywhere. Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful furniture, dandy and pretty to boot, but it has no real value beyond being pretty and useful to hold your socks. No, Liverant Antiques handled the good stuff, 18th and early 19th century furniture made by fine craftsman in small shops, masterpieces, symphonies of wood, planed and turned, chamfered and dovetailed, and held together with genius and a bit of hide glue. Not surprisingly, these pieces drew handsome sums, many tens of thousands, and sometimes many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Zip over to my inventory page and note that the most expensive piece is well under $500. Let's delve a bit deeper into how this relates to the paint or no paint issue.
1. These are not fine, rare, or important antiques. Look, I won't toot my horn much, but please trust that I am not a layman off the street. I can tell the difference between a valuable antique and a decorative vintage piece from 50 yards, blindfolded, and after two martinis. Ok, that's a bit of a hyperbole, I can hardly stand after two martinis. BUT if I just happen to come across a valuable antique, do you really think I'm going to paint it and sell it for under five hundred dollars?! Hell no, I'm selling that sucker, as is, and paying off my student loans!!
2. These vintage objects are not rare. I know, I know, your grandmother owned a piece just like this china hutch/dining table/blanket chest and that means it's really super old and thusly a precious piece of American history. Buuuuuuut it's not. I work pretty exclusively on 20th century pieces, most of which were mass produced in any number of furniture factories. There are thousands and thousands of each of these pieces out there, to the degree that I've worked on several identical examples of early 20th century furniture. And for each one I paint, please rest assured there are legions remaining in pristine unpainted condition, I guess for future generations to study? Is that why it matters so much?
3. What I paint needs work. I try really really super hard to only paint furniture that has little value in its current state, I have even at times turned away free furniture because it was in perfect condition. And really guys, that sucks. It costs me money to abide by that rule, and I'm not exactly rolling in it over here. Also, when I take on those broken sad pieces of furniture, I do a whole lot of stuff other than just smack a paint brush against them. I'm fixing all kinds of structural problems as well, to give this furniture a life it would otherwise never again have.
4. Which leads me to my next point. What happens if I don't paint this furniture. At my slim margin, because I'm price competitive to Target furniture for goodness sake, I'm buying this stuff for under $50 almost always. You know why all this spectacular vintage solid wood furniture is so cheap? Because no one wants it. The market's not exactly hot for dark wood at the moment. If I don't buy it, it goes to a curb or to the mildewy basement until it's so far beyond repair it gets burned. It goes to that rowdy college student's dorm. It doesn't survive, in any state. So yes, perhaps I'm the lesser of two evils, but I'll be damned if I watch good furniture die a slow death rather than reinventing it and selling it to a family who will treasure it for many years.
5. What I hear most often is "You've ruined it!!!". Hey, whoa, I did not light the piece of furniture on fire, or take a hacksaw to it, nor did I let cats to repeatedly pee on it, or allow it to become infested with cockroaches... both of which I've seen, and let me tell you, those two pieces got burned straight away! But I digress, paint is a reversible process. Paint can be removed. I remove paint all the time because I often need a fresh surface before I re-apply. So in twenty years, if we've all decided we hate paint and I was the devil incarnate, well that piece of furniture can be stripped and stained, no harm, no foul.
6. Finally, and at my sassiest, who the hell do you think you are?! Are you the Wood Defense League? The Scouts of Wood Preservation? Calm your roll, like seriously, cool it, you look silly. Most of the work I do is custom for a client, who already owns that piece of furniture and wants it painted. Passionate as you may be about walnut (?!?), it ain't none of your business. This stuff is not endangered. It is not rare. It is not being ruined. It doesn't require your anger, or your advocacy. And my God, there are so many good causes that do. Take that energy and go help an arts program, a historical society, a library, a hungry cat. Because at the end of the day, I swear to you, this 1930s sideboard I bought at the goodwill should be the very least of your worries.