To Paint It or Not To Paint It: Should You (or Shouldn't You) Paint Wood Furniture.


Like many decorators, I love, love, love painted furniture.  Unless it's truly beautiful, either because of spectacular graining or a wonderful time-won patina, wood usually leaves me cold. There is a reason it's called "brown furniture,"  and I do feel a sea of brown furniture is oppressive.  And, of course, a big part of my work is painting other people's brown furniture.  I'm still in awe of how the right paint color and right technique can transform things from dreary to fabulous. 

Interior Design-Valorie Hart  Photo by Sara Essex Bradley

I painted this chest for Valorie's client.  Full story on project at The Visual Vamp.

But here's the deal;  there are no absolutes in good design.  Most bloggers and published designers know the power of a good sound bite, and declarations like "Every room needs a touch of red"  and "Never use dust ruffles"  make good copy, but in reality, every room is an individual case study and what works or doesn't varies.  The same thing for painting furniture:  not everything piece of brown wood should be painted.  The desire to Paint! All! The! Wood! is just as much of a knee jerk reactions as "Painting wood is sacreliege."  The truth is that some wood (or more likely wood veneer) is in fact hideous and should be covered while some wood pieces are very handsome (and valuable) in their original state and should not be painted;  furthermore, most spaces look their very best with a mix of wood and painted pieces.

1.  Is it worth painting correctly?  I'm going to assume you're just not planning to slap on a couple of coats of spray paint, and would be going for a professional finish.  Here's the thing, painting a piece of furniture correctly (i.e. prepping the surface, including repairs), priming, sanding, painting with multiple coats, sanding, finishing, etc.,  requires quite a bit of work.  And if you don't have a stock of supplies already and have to purchase everything, the price of painting can add up quickly. The small gray chest in the opening photo required about $75 worth of supplies (among other things, the gold paint used on the detailing is incredibly expensive).  So before investing the time, effort and money to paint the furniture, ask yourself if it's sturdy, in good shape, serves your need.  Paint can do a lot to make things more beautiful, but it can't fix bad proportions and clunky carving.

Interior Design by Valorie Hart  Photo by Sara Essex Bradely
The large French chests above were prefect candidates for painting.  Expensive to replace, Mass produced and not special, but decent lines, perfect size, and well constructed and sturdy.  I painted them to blend with the new gray monochromatic color scheme .

2.  Could it be valuable?  Now, don't assume just because something is  old, it's an expensive antique.  Factories have been churning out crappy furniture since the Industrial Revolution, so even a piece can be an actual Victorian antique and still be mass produced crap.  However, painting a valuable piece can destroy much of that value.  If your uncertain over a piece's provenance, do some online research, check for manufacturer's marks and info, etc.

3.  Is a painted finish historically accurate for the piece?   Craftsman have been painting furniture since the days of ancient Egypt, so there is certainly a case to be made for painting old pieces and reproductions;  at the same time, there were furniture styles and periods when painting was rare, and painting a piece that was never meant to be painted can look awkward.  Some examples:  Painted furniture was very popular in 18th century France, so most Louis XV and Louis XVI styles look appropriate and great painted.  Same for the currently popular Swedish style.  Simple, primitive, country furniture was also commonly painted , so Windsor chairs, farm tables, and benches also usually look good painted.  On the other hand, Mid Century Modern furniture was rarely designed to be painted--in fact, the most popular items were designed in sympathy with current architectural ideals which were all about respecting materials.  Therefore, I always think most painted MCM pieces just look a little off.  If you have a MCM piece with a finish so damaged it's not fixable, I think the best option is to paint it a wood like color:  black, brown, warm grey.

Photo by Jacqueline Marque for Apartment Therapy
In this shot of my den, you see a painted table and  a MCM bookcase I would never paint.  The table was a perfect candidate:  the perfect size and height for a kind of center/tea table/ cocktail table, sturdy and well crafted from solid wood, but mass produced with a heavily water damaged finish.  The mid century piece has a perfectly intact finish, and I feel the wood tone is integral to its design integrity.

4.  Is it a family heirloom?  Now, this one gets touchy.  I dread having to work around big dreary wood pieces that can't be touched because it was Aunt Lucille's; however, I do understand the sentiment.  And I have also felt the regret for impulsively painting something in a trendy color (which of course I convinced my self was a new classic) and then wishing I hadn't.  Before painting a family piece, in addition to the above questions, ask yourself a few more:  1.  I am I the end of the line, or do I need to preserve this for other family members who might want it (in it's original condition) one day?   2.  Is my hatred for the finish long standing or is it just because I want a new look?  3.  Is my sentiment for the piece itself (i.e. looking at it reminds me of  family dinners on Sunday) or because of who it belonged too.  If you do decide to paint a family piece, my main piece of advice to try to pick a truly timeless color that you love and complements the piece, not just slap on gray chalk paint because Swedish style is in.

Anyway, I love painted furniture and get an undeniable rush from transforming a piece from dull dreary brown to fantastic.  However, after some time and experience, I've learned to not rush into a paint job without considering whether it's in the piece's or room's best interest to paint it.


Unknown said...

What about 'Is it worth hollowing out?' for all of those ancient TV and record player cabinets. Or 'Is it worth removing the back paneling from' for all of those larger cases when you have nice walls and don't really want to look at a display case backing?

Graham said...

Why does it call me Unknown? I'm not unknown. I am very known to people, myself for instance. -Graham

h. m. settoon said...

Very valid point, Graham. I've seen some very cool things, including bars made from old, non-working electronic cabinets. But it's a serious question to ask----I've spent lots of time trying to put lipstick on pigs only to realize that in the end it wasn't worth the effort.

Graham said...

I take in that case that you blame the pig and not the lipstick.

h. m. settoon said...

Depends on both the pig and the lipstick