how to decide when/if to paint a piece

Marian ParsonsAll Things Home, Furniture Makeovers18 Comments

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…

  1. 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.
  2. If a piece works perfectly as-is for the room I’m using it in.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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…

  1. Everything else.  Just kidding!
  2. 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.
  3. If the finish is cloudy, lackluster, damaged, etc.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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!

how to decide when/if to paint a piece

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18 Comments on “how to decide when/if to paint a piece”

  1. The pieces you haven’t painted are gorgeous. The pieces you have painted are gorgeous. You make very good choices on painting or not painting.

  2. I have a dresser and a vanity that came to me from my grandmother. I like both pieces but neither are particularly valuable although they are well constructed and sturdy as was most furniture manufactured in the 30s. They both sport that awful dark finish that eventually goes gummy that was used to conceal the fact they are made from a variety of different hardwoods. They are a mishmash of styles that never looked particularly cohesive – but I like the relative sizes and proportions. I have divested myself of the mirrors – one hangs on the wall over the sink in my master bath and the other I took to the local reuse/recycle depot because I use the vanity as a desk.

    I wanted to paint them for a long time but could never decide on a colour. I finally made a choice when I last painted my bedroom and painted the dresser with your milk paint in Typewriter. I have loved, loved, loved it ever since. I didn’t distress the finish, it is a lovely soft and velvety black with a good coat of wax. The solid colour has made the design elements much more cohesive.

    The vanity is, I think, going to get a coat of Artissimo or possibly Boxwood (depends on some of the other design decisions I make for my office). I am in the process of modifying the main drawer to better accommodate my keyboard and mouse now that I am working from home more to have the keyboard at a better height and ergonomic for now sustained periods of use. I feel no guilt at cutting the front off the drawer and hinging it to drop down. It is either that and use the piece for the foreseeable future or get rid of it and buy a new desk. I don’t see the point in that when I like the vanity and have a sentimental attachment to it and can make it do what I need it to.

    All that is by way of saying that I agree with you Marian – you shouldn’t hesitate to paint a piece of furniture just because it is wood, or it is old. Unless it has some particular intrinsic value as is (and even that can be subjective if you like the piece and intend to keep it but it doesn’t work for you as is) then paint away if it makes you happy. And I say that as someone who used to have an antique shop. Your advice and attitude reflect exactly what I used to tell my customers when talking about the merits of a piece of furniture.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts on this process. We currently have in our basement about five pieces of old (not antique; think late 50s; early 60s and NOT mid-century!), heavy, dark, ugly dining room furniture that belonged to my spouse’s family. Since the person who gave us this furniture is still living, we cannot give it away nor can we alter it in any way because the giver would be horrified. She can’t understand that these pieces would be glorious if painted with MMS and lightened up; that some of her grandchildren would LOVE to have these pieces in their homes … but not as is. So, these pieces languish in the dark, unloved and unseen, except when we go to change the furnace filters.

    1. I hear your pain – and a pain it is when someone gives something away and yet still exerts a sense of ownership over it. I have a friend who is like that – she gives things away but unless you have paid her for them they are never really yours to do with as you please. It is never explicitly stated but the undercurrent is there.

      When my friend sold her cottage she had a piece of furniture there that we both particularly liked. She had actually picked it up off the side of the road and then painted it a lovely soft grey blue colour. She had no where to use it at home. I was willing to give up another piece that I had to make space for it and although it wasn’t necessary I offered her a nominal sum for it even though I had no plans to do anything with it. When I got it home the cool undertones of the grey looked awful against the warm undertones pale grey on my walls. Out came the paint and it looks fabulous dressed in a chartreuse green with new silver drop handle knobs.

      If you have had custody over the pieces for a long time I think that you have earned the prerogative to paint them. If there are any complaints you have a good argument that painting means the pieces will be seen and enjoyed for years to come rather than languishing in storage.

  4. Love the new idea if furniture could talk. I currently have my grandmothers chest of drawers, dresser and mirror. My mom got them when she and my dad were newlyweds and poor. She painted all of them a terrible, I thought, green “antiqued” gray. My brother and I each took one when we married (not to each other 😂) and have half heartedly stripped them. About five years ago I had them professionally refinished and they’re back to their gorgeous burled wood. It remains to be seen what our kids decide although who know if they’ll stay in the family!

  5. You answered questions many of us have. Basically, do what your heart tells you to do. I like your style.

  6. You’re right on with this advice. Some people can be so persnickety and feel it’s sacrilegious to paint any thing made of wood. We’ll never convince them. Your advice is the best step by step guide I’ve seen for this topic! Bravo!

  7. I think this is a good guide on what to paint. In my shop, I’ve used your paint and other milk paint because I think milk paint is an authentic method to use. I’ve used high gloss Fine Paints of Europe though, also. I usually paint if the veneer is missing after I use Swedish putty to fill in the missing veneer so the surface is level. I’ve had some incredible fine high end when original pieces in the shop that were sold to people who have never painted anything before and who want it painted. I cringe because America will never build its own furniture again and the wood is virgin American wood. And, I never paint 100+-year-old original milk painted furniture. I just can’t do it! But, then I consider mouse holes chewed into one these pieces to be extremely appealing! I’ve sold a lot of pie saves, cabinets and preserve cabinets with mouse holes, but I’m not sure the buyers really shared my enthusiasm for the real thing. You are right, once someone pays me for the piece they can do whatever they want with it. They own it. I’ve got my building up for sale after 18 years of being in business and I can’t wait to paint something new. I love milk paint and I see almost every other technique as a fad. Milk paint is a classic.

  8. I’ve never cared if the piece was old, valuable or not. I have always been one to actually use old pieces, not just display them. Their value lies in the joy they bring you, not in the value they would bring to a sale. Vintage pieces, and antique pieces are meant to be loved, used, and enjoyed. I always make sure it is a piece I want to paint by considering what I am using it for, and where the piece will go. In fact, Before I paint, I make sure I can use the piece in at least two different places. I’ve always thought you had a good eye, and love the pieces you choose to paint, and those you choose not to.

  9. This is a good post. I’ve painted quite a lot of furniture in the last 7 years. I got a bit of grief for it but I don’t think I have any regrets about what I’ve painted – okay, maybe one. Paint really does bring out the lines and details of a piece that were not noticeable before. I have one that needs to be stripped but it will be repainted once the gloppy paint is off of it. I have another that I know will darling with paint but I can’t seem to do it. It’s one my grandfather refinished in the 50s probably and I see him every time I try to take a brush to it. haha. The black piece above is stunning.

    1. Well, obviously this comment landed under the wrong post. Not sure exactly how that happened. I was reading the cow/calf painting post when I left the comment. 🤷🏻‍♀️

  10. Tłumacz kiepski, ale sens twoich porad jest JASNY i zgodny z moimi doświadczeniami AMATORKI- ODNAWIACZA MEBLI. Pozdrowienia ! TERESA

  11. I am currently battling this right now! I have 3 pieces from my grandmother’s flame mahogany bedroom set from 1948 (nightstand, dresser, mirror), which no one else in the family wanted when she passed away. They are in tough shape, with scratches, a bit of missing veneer, and the usual bumps and bruises from daily use. My mom has the other pieces in the set (vanity, chair, settee, queen headboard, tall chest) and they are in very good condition for being 70 years old! The pieces I have are much too dark and formal for my house, and given the poor quality, I am thinking of having them painted. But I would love to someday have the ones my mom has and those are much too beautiful to paint. (Similar quality pieces recently sold for over $3,000 each on ebay!) So do I split up the set (which is already split, haha) and paint a few pieces and keep the remaining stunning ones as is? Or just keep them all..? The struggle is real!!

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