One of the questions I am asked frequently is how to decide when and if to paint a piece of furniture. This is a question that comes up again and again, especially when I show a makeover of an old, wooden dresser that involves paint.
Before we get into how I make a decision about what to paint, let me say that I love natural wood pieces just as much as I love painted pieces. There is a place for both in a home and, surprisingly enough, my unpainted pieces outweigh my painted pieces. I paint a lot of furniture because, for years, it’s been a key part of my business. Painted furniture was a large part of my decorative painting business in the early days and it ended up being my favorite part, so it became “my thing”. As my business evolved and I launched my own paint line, it was only natural to paint a lot of pieces to show the products and make tutorials.
Plus, I just like painting and furniture is a great canvas!
I think there are pieces that are obvious to paint…ones that have major cosmetic damage, pieces that are dated, or those wearing a less-than-great finishing job. People typically don’t question painting those, so we’ll skip over the obvious and talk about the ones that give people heartburn…
Those are the old, solid wood pieces.
The interesting thing to me is that wood-lovers get up-in-arms about any old wood piece, but I would argue that they are not all the same. There is vintage and there is an antique. There is old and there is really old. There is mass-produced and handmade. There is original and there is refinished or repainted. There are different types of wood and varying quality of craftsmanship. There are originals and reproductions.
Let’s start with what I won’t paint…
- If an antique piece is wearing an original finish with a beautiful patina, then I won’t paint it. Normally. There have been a few times when I have painted a piece that fits in this category, but it’s typically because it either didn’t sell unpainted or I needed a piece for a project, to launch a new color, etc. and that particular one was the one I found.
- If a piece works perfectly as-is for the room I’m using it in.
- If painting it will truly devalue the piece. That is typically only the case with very old, high-quality pieces that are wearing an original finish.
- If I’m unsure I will like it better painted. Sometimes I just can’t picture a piece painted or painted in a different color, so I wait until I can picture it.
- If I just don’t have the heart to. There are some pieces, like scrub pine, that I just can’t paint. It’s just because I love them as is and I would rather not paint them. Everyone is going to have different I-don’t-have-the-heart-to-paint-it pieces based on their preferences, though.
- If Jeff really doesn’t want me to paint it. That is very, very rare, but there have been a couple of times he asks me not to paint something. I bring this up, because I know it’s a common thing. One spouse wants to paint it and the other is ready to tape themselves to the piece in protest. If that’s the case, don’t paint. Compromise on painting another piece (they can’t all be off limits!) It’s not about having permission, but about being respectful to each other.
What I will paint…
- Everything else. Just kidding!
- If a piece is a reproduction (like French Provincial, Empire, Queen Anne, etc.) There have been reproductions made of classic furniture styles in many different decades and I’m okay with painting them.
- If the finish is cloudy, lackluster, damaged, etc.
- If paint will bring out character and detail in a piece. Sometimes carvings can blend into the rest of the wood. There is something about paint and finishing, especially distressing and/or antiquing, that makes them a feature.
- If the wood is dated, not my style, or the wrong color. Sometimes old finishes can be very yellow or orange. The wood underneath is beautiful, but the finish is bringing out the wrong tones.
- If the piece has been stripped, painted, or refinished in the past. If it’s a really old piece that’s already been refinished a few times, you’re not going to devalue it by painting it again. You’re just adding another layer of history to the piece. It would be pretty amusing if furniture could talk… “And then, I was stripped in the 1980s and smothered in polyurethane, before I was sanded down and whitewashed to look Shabby Chic in the 2000s, and then I was wearing this blue chippy milk paint in 2017…” In my mind, pieces that have been stripped and painted with the ebb and flow of trends is a good piece of furniture. It’s sturdy, classic, loved, and worth keeping and updating as desired.
- If the piece just isn’t working or I don’t like it as-is. Sometimes a wood piece, even a beautiful one, can be the wrong thing for the space, but everything else about it is right. It’s the right size, shape, and function, but the dark wood looks like a black hole in a mostly white room or it looks grungy in a new home. If a piece isn’t loved as is and I imagine it painted, then I’ll paint it.
In the end, when people ask me if they should or shouldn’t paint a piece, I ask them what they want to do. Typically, they are asking because they want to paint it and just feel like they can’t or shouldn’t for some reason. It’s old, it’s a family piece, they’ll mess it up, their Aunt Maude would hate it, and so on… The piece is in your home and it’s yours. Unless someone is paying storage fees for you to keep a piece of furniture for them, then it should be okay for you to paint (unless there was a clear agreement ahead of time.)
And, if you’re not sure about painting a piece, then wait. There is no rush and, trust me, it’s a lot easier to paint a piece than to un-paint a piece! Take your time, especially with antiques and heirloom pieces. Live with it, think about it, and don’t paint it until you’re 100% sure you’re ready for a change.
I hope that helps if you’re currently debating painting a piece!