Have some coffee ready, this could be a while
You might be wondering if I’m about to slam or validate your own viewpoints on the aesthetics of furniture. Rest assured, I’m not going to do either. This is merely my own opinion, which you can and should take with a grain of salt. The point of this post is twofold: first, I hope I can help to dispel the myth that ALL painted furniture is a new fad and an abomination. Second, my hope is to help persuade DIY-ers to THINK and do some homework before they start wielding a paintbrush. There won’t be any sources or references listed in my post; everything here is gathered from my own independent reading, things I’ve learned at museums, things I’ve learned at antique markets, and from just being generally fascinated by the historical aspects of darn near everything! I will post a list of suggested reading at the end in case any aspect of my spiel sparks your interest ;)
(and just so you know, I’ve never been a “my way or no way” kind of person. I’m a total Polyanna).
Recently, on blogs or social media sites belonging to people who recycle old furniture as a business, I’ve seen commenters react negatively (publicly) to painted furniture of any kind–as if these folks are all flighty, novice DIY-ers who don’t know when to leave a good thing alone (and, worth noting, the gender of the commenters vary, but the person being criticized seems to be a self-made, self-employed woman. Every time). It seems the blogger will, in many cases, ignore the comment altogether–while others defend themselves by listing their years of experience, art background, apprenticeship with a famous furniture maker, their invention of the paintbrush….to a complete stranger. On the internet. Each defense includes a version of “I would never paint a piece unless the damage to the finish was so severe that I could not salvage it.” So I’ve come to the first part of this discussion: why it really is okay to (sometimes) paint furniture.
If you grew up in the United States before, say, the year 2000, your idea of furniture is probably that it is constructed of solid wood, veneer over wood, or particleboard that’s often laminated to look like wood. The basic woods/colors are oak, maple, cherry, walnut and mahogany. A turquoise bed? Are you nuts? And if you were born during the colonial revival period (about 1976-1986) your bedroom furniture was probably dark with no decorative carvings and the ugliest brass drawer pulls ever. If I say “Ethan Allen stepback hutch” you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. If it wasn’t in your dining room, it was in your best friend’s dining room.
So, many of us grew up thinking that wood must be presented in it’s natural state. And in many cases, we should still feel this way, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Many of these professional furniture rehabbers online today are using chalk paint or milk paint to breathe life back into under-appreciated, weather-beaten pieces. Chalk paint is fairly new to the US–by way of British designer Annie Sloan*, who’d been using and manufacturing chalk paint for almost two decades before we caught on. Chalk paint’s popularity skyrocketed for a handful of reasons: the finish is gorgeous, it’s very easy to work with and distress, it sticks to pretty much any surface with no prep work, colors mix very easily, it has little to no VOCs and is safe enough to use indoors, it is easily sealed with wax and requires little to no maintenance. It is my favorite floor paint–way more durable than the porch and floor varieties I’ve used from big box hardware stores :(. Since ASCP came to the US market, there have been new manufacturers popping up but I have to admit that I prefer the AS color palette. Some paints lines produce crayola-like colors, Annie Sloan’s colors closely match, or are reminiscent of European hues that date as far back as the 17th century. You see, people did paint their furniture before the dawn of HGTV. Just google “Rococco” or “Gustavian” and you’ll see what I mean. I’m partial to Swedish (incl. Gustavian) interiors, which are predominantly airy, neutral variations of grey and blue, with some additions of ochre reds and yellows. Here’s a couple of examples from a Google image search–gorgeous, huh?
On the other side of the pond, colonial Americans were painting their furniture and houses, too. One thing I learned when researching historic paint colors for my house (a 1845 federal colonial) was that painted finishes were a sign of wealth and prosperity. The earliest colonial homes (pre-19th century) were often sided with natural wood clapboard. Only the wealthiest families could afford enough paint to cover the exteriors as well as the interiors of their houses. The color palette was mostly limited to easily accessible earth pigments, which is why you’ll see a lot of dark reds, brownish greens and deep, mustard yellows. Over time, blues, brighter greens and other exotic pigments started to creep in. If you check out early, primitive antiques at auctions or in museums, you’ll see quite a lot of painted furniture–mostly in these earthy color palettes. We all know latex paint did not exist in the 18th and 19th centuries–paints were mainly mineral-based and, quite frankly, made of ingredients people could purchase cheaply and for multiple purposes. This is where the use of milk paint starts to come in.
Milk paint, in its purest form, is a mixture of milk and lime. Dried pigments are added for color. Like chalk paint, it is water based, free of petrochemicals and extremely durable. I’ve read that milk paint, in some form or another, is the oldest form of decorative paint–dating as far back as the ancient Egyptian empires. The casein in milk acts as a sort of bond that makes the paint “stick”. It also makes the paint spoil quickly, which is why you can only purchase real milk paint in powdered form and are advised to only mix in small batches and keep unused paint in a sealed container for no more than a few days.
When I think “milk paint” I think of old New England barns stacked with dusty, crusty antique farm tables and dry sinks. There’s definitely more of a learning curve with milk paint, since your pigments may not mix exactly the same every time, meaning subtle (and I mean subtle) color variations and areas that appear chalkier than others. The best and worst thing about milk paint is the flaking. Flaking is good when you’re going for that time-worn, chipped look. Not knowing if and where the paint is going to say “nuh uh” and reject the surface of a piece of furniture is, to many, more than half the fun. If it’s not the look you’re going for, most milk paint manufacturers sell a bonding agent that will help you get an even, matte finish a la chalk paint.
Both milk and chalk paint have an advantage that I refer to as “historical integrity” meaning one can justifiably restore an antique with either medium while respecting the design and craftsmanship from a historical perspective. You just cannot do this with latex or acrylic paint. I won’t go into depth about latex, because, yuck. It’s plastic. It smells bad. It shows brush streaks. It’s impossible to distress without first waxing or prepping the surface. It gets scratched pretty easily because, as I mentioned, it’s plastic and just floats on the surface of wood. Milk and chalk paint bond with the surfaces they’re applied to. Some folks mix anything from plaster, baking soda or calcium carbonate powder into latex and call it “chalk paint”. It ain’t the real thing.
But I digress. I wanted to show you a few examples of milk-painted pieces. It is not easy to find photos of antiques with their original painted finish. By far, everything online is a recent paint job. And quite frankly, some are done so well it’s almost impossible to tell which is the true antique. See if you can guess.
The first little green cabinet is a real 19th century antique sold at an auction house.
The dark blue chest of drawers is recently painted,and one of my favorite pieces of all I’ve seen online. It was refinished by Silver Pennies.
The third piece? Also an original finish piece from an auction house.
The robin egg blue stepback? It’s authentically old, but the original source is long gone. See what I did there? Trying to trick you with some turquoise ;)
The last piece? Recently done by Chic California
Of course, it might have been easy to spot the newbies given the staging of the photos, but I tried. And finally, I’m getting to the point of my “paint” discussion. I’ve done my amateur best to provide evidence that painted furniture is not a new fad–quite the contrary. I could be wrong, but I see it staying around for a while. If you are a furniture restorer and have long ago familiarized yourself with the styles and materials of both antique pieces and the paint you use on them, then my hat’s off to you. If you favor historically “respectful” paint mediums and colors to trendy brights and chevron patterns–you are indeed a gem, and your work is timeless. On the flip side–if you’re not a rehabber or are not knowledgeable in furniture restoration, but you are of the mind that paint+wood=NO ALL THE TIME, maybe don’t vilify all craftspeople, or argue that their passion (and in some cases, career) is destructive, or uninformed at best? Have casual DIY-ers ruined antiques in mindblowingly horrific ways? Sure they have, and we’ll get to that. But I hope I’ve helped convince you that there are some people out there who know what they’re doing–and that what they’re doing is not ruining but rather enhancing something that might otherwise not see daylight. Honestly, is an antique better appreciated with a fresh coat of milk paint that makes it the focal piece of a bedroom or dining area; or is it better off stored in the attic and forgotten?
That said…..I pretty adamantly support the idea of leaving unblemished wood–particularly highly decorative and expertly chosen veneers–in its natural state. I have a few particular pet peeves; namely, 19th century Empire chests and servers, and art deco “waterfall” dressers. Two very different styles. Both very easy to completely ruin with paint. If you search on Pinterest for painted furniture you will find a lot of Empire pieces. They look like this
Not all have “jelly roll” style legs, but this is a pretty average example. You’ll notice that many are covered in a decorative “crotch” or “flame” veneer. This is often mahogany but can be walnut, too. A lot of historians in the past have considered the Empire, or Federal style incredibly “blah” because of it’s lack of carvings and detail. I, however, have a soft spot for them <3 This style was common throughout the mid 19th century, with fancier pieces typically hailing from the south and midwest, while simpler more austere versions were found throughout New England. Here, let me show you the one I have:
Isn’t he devilishly handsome?? Still has all the original veneer, only refinished to a shine by his previous owner about 15 years ago. How would I know NOT to paint him? Besides the obvious fact that he’s totally gorgeous? Well, for one, I can pinpoint his age to sometime between 1820-1845 given the overall style, the hand-cut dovetail joints in all four corners of each drawer, the hand-planed wood and the hand-cut screws holding the knobs on. The first machine made screws can be dated back to 1846. The barley twist legs aren’t terribly common on Empires, and this decorative flair likely means he’s a southern gent.
That brief description I just gave? It honestly didn’t take very much research on my part. And if you come across any piece that you’re not exactly sure about, you really REALLY should do some homework before you pick up a brush. Whoever made this piece was an artist who loved what he did. It shows in the flawlessly matched crotch veneer and the pencil-thin decorative framing around each drawer. Oh, and it’s impossible for me to get the drawers out of order–each one is a slightly different size because someone made it with their own hands. We have to remember that even if we found a good deal at a yard sale or flea market, that doesn’t mean it’s a hunk o’ junk that would do well to have us bestow upon it a few thick layers of glowing white latex! Assembly-line furniture is still a relatively new concept, but pieces made without the help of machines are extremely hard to come by and we should treat them with care. Salvage what you can. And if some of the veneer is in good shape while other parts took a beating, consider leaving the good parts natural.
Recently, I did this with a burl walnut sideboard from the 30’s. Way too much veneer was chipped off in small pieces on the front and sides, but thankfully the gorgeous walnut panels were a-okay
The only thing I dislike about this new generation of furniture paint is that it’s so easy to use……..now, stay with me on this!……….and it employs an “anyone can do it” attitude as one of the major selling points. So, this is the art school geek talking here….but just because anyone can do it, doesn’t mean anyone should do it, you know?. This kind of falls in line with my frustration over people who look at modern art and declare “my kid could do that.” Because any creative field (whether it’s of the visual, aural or written variety) is often perceived as just a hobby (boo!) as opposed to a skill or trade, it’s easy to discredit someone’s profession without realizing it. In simplest terms, exclaiming “I can do that just as well” as an artist when you yourself are not an artist is really the same as going on WebMD and feeling that you’re just as capable as a cardiologist at diagnosing hypertension.
Sure, if you like what you like, then chances are you’re going to go with it even if you know, in your heart of hearts, that you’ll be sick of it in a year’s time. My best advice is, if you saw it on HGTV (a tall dresser with ombre drawers to look like Jessica Alba’s hair!) or in a Restoration Hardware catalog (yes! let’s decoupage aluminum foil to this sideboard and make it look like a mirror!), take a deep breath and let the feeling pass…. and leave that sublimely perfect Chippendale desk to someone who will appreciate its natural beauty for years to come and possibly pass it down as an heirloom. Please don’t do this:
The last two pieces I chose specifically as they are examples of that art deco Waterfall style I mentioned earlier. These can very easily go wrong because their lines and styling are of a very specific era–the roaring 20s. Primitive, chippy paint doesn’t belong here. Tiger maple veneer does belong here. Original Bakelite pulls (if you’ve still got them) belong here. Sometimes, a girl with a little know how gets its right. Like these two examples:
It looks like the drawers of the gray dresser were completely replaced, but my point in choosing these two is 1) neutral colors that will not go out of style (though one could argue that grey is a trend) and 2) the rehabber preserved as much of the natural wood finish as possible.
Here’s some more gorgeous pieces for inspiration:
Does this mean you can’t ever paint a piece of furniture until you’ve completed a 500-hour apprenticeship in a restoration shop? It wouldn’t hurt, but no ;). Remember, the first part of this post sings the praises of painted furniture. You may well be able to pull this off, but as with anything else, you need to practice. You need to study. You need to try out new types of paint on things that aren’t well-preserved antiques. You need to seriously consider colors. Don’t get me wrong, turquoise is my favorite color; has been for 30 years. Rarely, if ever, does an intense turquoise work on a piece of furniture. Rarely, if ever, does it stand the test of time. Unlike a wall, which you can just paint over, once you’ve painted bare wood, you can’t go back–not without a large expense to your wallet and your health if you decide to strip it yourself which will be extremely unpleasant. Honestly, the chemicals you would need to come in close contact with to remove a layer or more of paint–not to mention the mess–not worth it! And in all likelihood, it will damage the wood anyway, so always assume it’s a bigger project than you expect. The biggest mistake in furniture painting is not using your noodle and not knowing when to walk away. Seriously. :) Here’s a few (well, quite a few!) good things to remember:
- Read. Read. Read. And watch videos. Everyone has a different method and you can pick up some helpful “do’s and dont’s” well before you’re into your project. I learned to thin out dark wax with clear wax this way before I ruined my first chalk painted project.
- Try to find out as much as you can about that flea market find. Look into what colors would have been used during the time period in which it was built. Have a clear vision of what you want before you mix your paint.
- Ask yourself “Am I going to love this color in five years?” and be honest.
- If you’re new to painting furniture, start out with a piece that’s on the small siden, not antique, and pretty standard looking. That way you won’t feel too bad if you goof. Look for some of those icky colonial revival pieces. Really, you can only make those things look better. Blonde oak from the 80’s and 90’s? Paint the heck outta them! ;)
- Are there elements of flame mahogany veneer? Tiger or bird’s eye maple? Are they in good shape? If so, try leaving some parts of the piece natural. Once cleaned up with some Old English they look stunning when paired with any shade of paint. Way more eye-catching than solid paint coverage, imo and, tbh, to potential buyers if you’re planning to sell your work.
- If the top of the bureau/sideboard/chest isn’t wavy from water damage or badly gouged, sand it and restain it any color you want; paint just the body. Not only does this look good, but painting large, flat surfaces is hard for anyone to do well–between visible brush strokes to inconsistencies in color and sealing finishes (like dark wax–it’s a nightmare on flat panels). Believe me, you’ll be glad you did this later.
- Choose the best paint for the job. Honestly, if you want full coverage, I suggest chalk paint over milk paint plus bonding agent. The bonding agent is an extra expense and milk paint is a lot less user-friendly to first-timers. Chalk paint is instant gratification. That said, nothing will give you a truly authentic antique look the same way milk paint will. It’s worth the learning process.
- And, if you don’t love the process even a little, I promise it’s not going to get more fun as you take on larger or more complicated pieces. That green sideboard I did was a beast, but I loved every minute of its restoration–kind of like giving a bath to a stray , neglected dog and seeing its gratitude and self worth shine through :)
You are a real trooper if you plowed your way through all of this <3 I hope some of my babbling helped you on your way to restoring your vintage and not-so-vintage finds. My wishes for you–ALWAYS–have fun finding and rescuing your “strays.” And ALWAYS cultivate an “education” for yourself when it comes to the furniture you choose to give a second chance at life– because no one (not even the naysayers) can ever take that away from you!
*I’m in no way affiliated with Annie Sloan or her product line. My “endorsement” of her chalk paint only stems from my personal experience and satisfaction with its performance.
A list of further reading:
The Swedish Country House by Susanna Scherman
Early American Decorative Arts 1620-1860 by Rosemary Troy Krill
The Encyclopedia of Furniture by Joseph Aronson
Furniture of the Depression Era by Robert and Harriet Swedeberg
Colour Recipes for Painted Furniture and More by Annie Sloan
Chalk Painting from start to finish (5 videos) by Pretty Distressed–super easy to follow
How to use clear wax (video) by The Purple Painted Lady
Getting Started with Milk Paint (video) by Miss Mustard Seed
Distressing Milk Paint (video) by General Finishes
The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company (my favorite because the colors were tinted to resemble authentic antique pigments)
Miss Mustard Seed Milk Paint (probably the most popular MP out there, the colors , while not necessarily historical, are gorgeous, and her tutorials are helpful)
Homestead House Paint Co. (manufacturers of MMS and Fusion Mineral Paint. Based in Canada)
Annie Sloan Chalk Paint (find your local stockist online)
Renaissance Furniture Paint (comparable to ASCP, available on Amazon if you do not have an ASCP stockist nearby)