the great debate | to paint or not to paint

Marian ParsonsDecorating, Furniture Makeovers, Tips and Tricks64 Comments

Right off the bat, let me say that I don’t ever mind my readers sharing their opinions here.  Unless someone is being downright nasty on a personal level, which is rare, it doesn’t bother me if someone disagrees with a decorating decision I make or they don’t like something I made, bought, etc.  If ever I do feel ruffled, I figure that I probably wouldn’t like every single decorating decision they make, either, and that makes me smile.  We’re all different and that’s okay.

I’ve grown a relatively thick skin over the years and sometimes even find the constructive critiques to be very helpful and thought provoking.  Sometimes they change my mind and sometimes they make me even more certain of my decision.

All of the varying opinions shared on my newly acquired art cabinet made me think about the process of deciding if a piece should be painted.  Well, maybe not that it should be painted, but the process I use to decide where I want to paint it or not.

As a general rule, I look for pieces that could at least benefit from painting.  They have watermarks, deep scratches, a dull finish, etc.  But, I do buy some pieces that could go either way as well as ones that I would never want to paint.

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It is totally subjective, though, and you might put different pieces in different categories than I would.

I put this art cabinet in the second category.  It could go either way.  Those of you who love it as is, I agree with you!  It’s a very cool piece and I love all of the dents, dings, and quirks.

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And, if someone wanted to leave it unpainted, I wouldn’t disagree with them.  It’s very cool as is.

But, I have a vision for it and I can see in my mind’s eye that I will like it better painted.

So, I thought I would share how I arrive at the decision to paint a piece that could go either way.  I’m actually e-mailed pictures of pieces quite often, asking for my opinion on whether or not it should be painted.  I have learned over the years that usually people don’t ask the question unless they want to paint the piece and they just need someone to tell them to go for it.

I usually give my opinion, but encourage them to follow their gut and be 100% sure they want to paint the piece.

Here are some things I do to help decide if I’m waffling over something I own…

No. 1

I look for inspiration pieces that have a similar feel to mine to see if I like them painted.

This piece belonging to Liz Marie of Liz Marie Blog was one of the pieces that helped me decide to paint my art cabinet…

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…and this one came to mind as well…

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photo via

And I’ve always loved this one I spotted in a magazine…

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Having a visual helps me with imaging how my piece will look painted.  I love all three of those pieces, so I feel more confident that I will love my art cabinet painted as well.

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No. 2

I “try things on” the piece.

Again, it’s nice to get a visual, so I’ll lay out paint swatches, hold up different hardware options.

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As soon as I tried on this hardware from my stash, I knew I wanted something similar for this cabinet.  The wooden knobs and label slots were great, but I think rows of apothecary-style pulls would take it to the next level.

 I found some that I liked from this seller on Etsy…

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No 3. 

I wait.

Sometimes it can take me months, even years, to make the decision to paint a piece.  Yes, paint can always be stripped or sanded off, but I would rather not go through that process if I can avoid it.  And I can easily avoid it.  So, I wait until I’m confident and I might continue to hit 1 & 2 to help me make up my mind.

There’s no need to rush into painting something I’m not sure about.

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I feel like going through these steps helps me make better decisions about how to finish a furniture piece.  Or, at least, if I’m making a bad decision I’m doing it with confidence!

It may seem like I take a brush to everything, but I’m much more strategic and intentional than that and I hope sharing this with you will help you make some of your own furniture painting (or not painting) decisions…

the great debate | to paint or not to paint

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64 Comments on “the great debate | to paint or not to paint”

  1. I would definitely paint it! Now what color might take awhile for me to decide. I think I’d go with a gray. Those drawer pulls are great – although, they might be a bit too ornate for the style of the cabinet. I’d go with a similar shape, but simpler.

  2. I just left a comment on the prior post about the cabinet, if you can stand another opinion:-)
    Yes to new, or old but different, hardware. It will look great, whatever you do, and whenever you put your stamp on it.

  3. Marian, I love your cabinet. I have an old apothecary cabinet that my mom bought while we lived in England. I was wondering, I have an old dresser that I need knobs for and can’t seem to find any online or locally in stores. Do you happen to have any suggestions? It is a wooden knob, about 3 inches in diameter.

    1. There’s a Facebook group I use for this situation called The Hardware Exchange that you might find helpful!

  4. Good morning! I love the second inspiration picture (I have it pinned on pinterest!). I was wondering…Does this piece have to many drawers for a landscape painting? I will be totally honest and tell you those are my favorites! Actually, I think I just really liked watching the tutorials on you painting them! Thanks for sharing the process with us!

  5. Marian, I haven’t seen any discussion about whether you are going to fix the broken drawers or not (maybe I missed that) but I think that paint, especially light colored paint, will emphasize the broken parts that are now not as prominent because of the original dinged wood finish. If that is your goal (emphasizing the flaws), then go for it, but if I were going to paint this piece, I would repair some of the major breaks first. Some of the painted inspiration pieces are rough but they are not broken. JMHO

  6. Love those apothecary pulls you picked out, I agree those will take it to the next level! I’ve got a beautiful, antique handmade hutch in my den that I’m on the fence about painting. I bought it with the full intention of painting it and even had the color picked out but when I got it home I started to waffle on my decision. So instead I set it up, filled it with ironstone, and am living with it for a while. I still go back and forth and it’s been at least 6 months! Lol. That said, I think painting your cabinet is the right choice given your inspiration pictures. What an awesome find. I love pieces that are handmade. : )

  7. It will look nice either way. The one thing I do think you should do, is to put the casters on it. It needs that lift. Wish i could have it. lol

  8. I’m so glad I don’t have to make a decision on that cabinet. It looks phenom both ways!

  9. Oh yeah! Those photos would definitely make me want to paint that piece – even though it is cool as it is, it is over the top wonderful painted!

  10. I think another consideration is where the piece will be used. Sometimes the warm wood tones are needed, sometimes they’re not.
    I would add big industrial casters – even if the cabinet will never get moved.

  11. I laughed when I read your post “to paint or not to paint”. I have some pieces of furniture that I can’t decide which way to go and I also look at pictures of similar pieces painted and try to picture them in the room and see if it fits my vision of what I want it to look like. Sometimes I live with a piece for months before I decide to go for it and paint it. I recently painted a very large, dark stained coffee table we got for free on Craigslist. It made the whole room feel lighter and brighter. I also painted a maple hutch with glass doors in the dark blue milk paint from your line. It is stunning. I waxed it with dark wax and put unlacquered brass pulls on it. It is my most favorite piece. Thank you for such wonderful inspiration.

  12. It is such a warm piece. It would benefit from some wax or restorer but I would leave it in it’s original charming state. Once painted… it’s gone.

  13. Oh Marian, that cabinet will look fabulous painted – and if you leave the top wood even better!

    When I am deciding whether to paint a cabinet, hutch, dresser, etc., one of the things that I always consider is if I already have a few painted pieces in that area or that room and then ponder if something in a natural wood might be a nice contrast.

    Definitely a super duper find! Charlotte ~ Vintage Inspired Cottage

  14. Yes paint it please! The new pulls will look great! If ever a piece screamed “PAINT ME!!!” It’s this one. Pretty up that old haggard girl!

  15. I would paint it black and sand some of the edges so that some of the original wood shows. Then again most of my “found” pieces are painted black. I find it unifies all the mismatched styles. Every once in awhile I paint a piece a different color to make it stand out. My next project is to paint and old oak dresser in your tricycle red. I love that piece you did. The dresser is in perfect condition and I had no plans to paint it UNTIL I saw the dresser you did. Thanks for the inspiration.

  16. I agree , I will like it better painted as well. The piece is not in that greatnif condition that it will benefit it to be painted .

    I like your inspiration pieces that helped you make up your mind.
    ?

  17. I really, really love this piece as is. I like how the variations of light against dark/dark against light varying from drawer to drawer. It has aged in such an interesting, unique way – I really think it would be a shame to paint over it. But, as you say – to each her own! I do like the examples you showed that serve as your inspiration.

  18. The cabinet is amazing. There are some drawers that I think that need painting for sure, and some that just are beautiful as is. So, on a whole…..paint, and most definitely go with the new hardware. You lucky lady, I wish it were mine.

  19. What great advice. I have a lot of wood pieces in my home and only two end tables that are painted. I recently re-acquired my grand mother’s china cabinet (my mother had thrown it out when I was a little girl and a neighbour snatched it up). I now live in another city and was amazed when I was contacted and asked if I wanted it. Well I have since sanded and waxed the cabinet but was thinking of painting it. I will follow your advice and look for other painted pieces that look similar and make a decision. Again, thank you for the advice.

  20. Love the cabinet with all the drawers. I just finished painting an armoire that I’m using in my new kitchen as a pantry. It was beautiful in the dark wood finish but overwhelmed the room. I really love it with its new finish. It fits the room now. I like the pulls you found on Etsy better than the brass ones. I think they fit the piece better. The brass ornate ones will look wonderful on another great find.

  21. I have faced the same dilemma with some of my card cabinets. I have not painted the wooden ones but I have painted the metal ones. I think you should paint yours since the wood has different shades of wood. I love the pulls! I, too, take forever to decide whether to
    paint but so far after I paint a piece or a room I always think “why didn’t I do this sooner!” I can’t wait to see what you decide??

  22. Do what makes you happy, of course!! But, good grief it’s orange!!! You are not an orange kind of girl!! I’m sure it will be wonderful when you get finished with it!

  23. I definitely would paint it. Lucketts green with a dark wax would be awesome. Love both of the new samples for pulls. The green color would be a terrific background for them!

  24. I’m obsessed with the gold mirror in the first picture! I have one just like it and have been debating whether to paint it or not. I have it in my “antique room” and well, I’m just not that big a fan of GOLD anymore and have debated painting it – BUT, I love the way the gold mirror looks in that picture! Some readers might need to reminded that it says “Leave a Comment” – not an “opinion” – LOL!

  25. I can’t wait to see it painted. I knew it was destined to be as in my mind I had the photos of the pictures you shared. I have them pinned on one of my boards as well. I love they way you take these beat up old pieces and make them your own and I am sure in your space a lighter color will just pop. I agree, whether or not to paint should be determined on how you are going to use it and I love the ornate new pulls you shared. Since I detest painting furniture, bores me to tears, I have to live vicariously through your blog. 🙂

  26. Now that I see the samples of similar painted pieces my idea is to paint it.. The cupped hardware tht you had in your stash will put it over the top. Just my opinion, of course.

  27. I love the ornate pulls it certainly does take it out of some guy’s garage. I think you should consider that it will be used to store your art supplies and if you paint it don’t go with white unless you are comfortable having the paints and pastels “antique” it or distress it for you over time. The inspiration pics are gorgeous but no art supplies in those drawers I’d venture

  28. LOVE the art cabinet and can’t wait to see what you do with it!

    If only I had a studio…

  29. Okay… yesterday I said do not paint it! After seeing the pictures I have changed my mind! I now think you should paint it white! I love the pictures so much! I too wait to decide if to paint or not. It is easier to wait than to re do it later!
    Blessings

  30. I overall am a “purist”. I love the warmth of real wood. I usually leave everything natural, but…if the pieces are messed up in any way, then I definitely paint it! Also, if it isn’t “old” enough, then I think it modernizes the piece to paint it. I have my parent’s 50’s furniture, and can’t wait to paint each piece! But on the other hand, I have my grandparent’s dining table and hutch, and they will never be painted! Love what you do!

  31. I like the idea of the more ornate pulls on such a plain piece… the unexpected is what makes your style so endearing, Marian.

  32. I didn’t really read every comment as I love the idea of you painting the piece you bought the hmmm special pulls for off etsy. But you know that style of wood with those waves? Now this shows how one is influenced but can’t recall WHO had that style furniture and WHY I did not like it. I was not very old. But maybe well truthfully I loved all my great aunts so why do I want to hide those swirls???on that wood??? So I guess never judge a person’s choice to paint ? Even if they can’t remember why they don’t like its swirls for as long as that person can remember!!!

  33. This piece has been created and used by someone who was dedicated to his craft. Each scuff and ding was made during the creative process. I would never change a thing about this piece. It is a piece of time gone by. the knobs…the slots for storage names…all a reminder of its creator. The past history will be gone forever. But it is yours and you need to loverify it as you see fit.

  34. I will be the first to admit I was one that said, ‘don’t paint it’. After reading this post and seeing your inspiration I have a change of heart. It will look just lovely painted!! Thank you for sharing your thought process.

  35. Couldn’t resist this one. Now that I am in my “early” 70s and an advid antiqurer forever. I can understand over the years the painting quandary. In the 70s we were stripping paint and wondering who would do that to “beautiful” wood? Later it was paint…then back again. I get it. Your painted pieces look so great. I say “paint it”.

  36. Marion – I always love what you do with pieces. Your latest acquisition would look great painted, or not if you keep it with your drawing table. I especially liked hearing your process for deciding.
    I had a mahogany veneer drop leaf side table that I ended up painting after 30 years with it, always sad that there was chipped veneer. Now I don’t focus on that anymore, but I’m not sure I love it, so I think it needs more. So, I will be patient and see what it says to me… 🙂

  37. Thanks for your tips on thinking through the painting issues. I will use those. You will come up with a fabulous cabinet, I am sure!

  38. This is my opinion only. I find it’s such an interesting notion that painting an old piece of wood furniture destroys either 1) its value, 2) its character, or 3) its inherent integrity. In all seriousness, I doubt most of the old wooden furniture, especially handmade items that are now wonky from years of use and abuse would crack a buck at Sotheby’s where antique furniture in pristine condition of great worth might sell.
    As I see it, this old worn piece of yours is a workhorse and not a fine investment for resale. It’s a piece someone made to use in a barn or garage….and not to be used for show in a manor house. Therefore, there ought to be no qualms about destroying it due to value. It’s mostly tired and destroyed already…poor thing. A new facelift with paint would probably be the best thing to bring it back to some life. And as I said…this is only my opinion…..and we all have one. Lol. Have fun!

  39. This piece has great personality. I like it the way it is, but I LOVE your plans for modification. The pieces you reference for inspiration are truly wonderful painted.
    I adore the pharmacy pulls you found. The opportunity to highlight them on this piece would be reason enough for me to paint.
    Can’t wait to see your finished piece. Thanks for sharing this post!

  40. As others have said, glad I don’t have to decide! I am curious about the age of this piece. The knobby pulls say “early ” to me. The top ornate Victorian pulls are an after thought. I think it’s much earlier than the Victorian/eastlake pulls you want to put on it. I probably wouldn’t do that because I love early furniture. But I am certain that whatever you do will be wonderful!

  41. And, at the end of the day, you are the one that has to be pleased when you put it into your home. Do what makes you happy. Life is too short to be over-invested in other peoples opinions.

  42. if you paint just about everything, it looks like you are only trying hard to advertise your product and make sales…if everything is painted, there is no contrast nor appreciation of original patina and the REAL history of a piece

  43. Thanks – this was really useful. I’ve got some antique wooden furniture in my bedroom that I’ve been debating about painting. Three of pieces were previously painted and stripped before I bought them. But one of them is an early Victorian dresser with wood inlays around the drawers. It’s from my husband’s family in England and it has never been painted. That’s the one I’ve really struggled with. I’m going to look for inspiration pieces as you suggest. Also some rooms that have a combination of painted and wood furniture.

  44. I had to smile when I read this post because I’ve been on the fence for the last 3 years about painting a china cabinet that once belonged to my grandfather that I inherited from my mother after she passed away. On the one hand, its original finish has sentimental value; on the other hand, I’d love to lighten up the dark cherry finish with a chalky finish (I even have one of your milk paint samples that I’ll be trying out!). I’m really not a dark cherry finish kind of girl, and I lean towards refinishing with chalk paint, but ohhh, it’ll be like saying goodbye to an old friend when I do!!

    I think I’d want to paint your art cabinet as well and especially like the idea of leaving the top as is and painting the bottom of it in white. I’ve done this with a few pieces at home and love the effect. Love the hardware you added, and I’m sure however you decide to finish it will look wonderful in your skillful hands!

    Mary

  45. I rarely feel like suggesting whether you should or shouldn’t paint a piece, but a funny thing happened when I read this post. For a moment I thought you wanted to paint the dresser with the gorgeous burled wood and leaf pulls. For the first time I wanted to scream NO!. Well I re-read carefully and since you haven’t painted it, you probably don’t intend to. I was just surprised by my visceral reaction to the thought you were going to paint that dresser and I now understand better why people feel so passionately about a piece. Having said that, if you are waiting to decide on painting that dresser, contact me 😉

  46. If it were mine I would paint it. It’s not an heirloom piece, it’s quite worn. The reference pieces you posted cements it for me. Whatever you decide will be the right thing. Thanks for allowing us to weigh in….

  47. I have been wavering about a few pieces. I like your decision process and will apply it. I will check my Pinterest boards for inspiration. Thanks for another informative post.

  48. Yes, I vote for painting it, too. The examples of similar pieces I found very attractive and more distinctive somehow than yours looks unpainted. And those drawer pulls are gorgeous. I can just imagine how much more personality it will have when you are done with it. I think a nice mid-tone grey color, maybe. I know you have something similar in your milk paint collection.

  49. Be still, my heart! I love cabinets with lots of drawers! I think painting would help unite the different colors of wood in that fab dresser. The first one with the burled wood is stunning!

    What great pieces.

  50. “If I make a bad decision, I do it with confidence”, LOL. That cracked me up.

    Part of the artistic process is having courage—even if it is unfounded courage…So, have at it…but if you are going to paint such a fabulous piece, make it count—I think white would be a cop-out. Just my two cents worth, Grins, Sandi

  51. I am always amazed at your vision – I see a wood piece (before) and think Oh that’s beautiful! and then when I see the after, I think Oh, that’s even more beautiful! (well, MOST of the time LOL) Most everything you do, I love – thanks for sharing it all with us!

  52. What looks up to date painted today, will be out of fashion in a little while. I try to take the long term view and know that once it’s painted, it’s usually lost value (financially and aesthetically) compared to the unpainted stat…… and i dread removing paint from a piece…… But we all do what we have to do and others don’t have to live with it.

    To change the hardware, IMO, would make it look more like today’s style, but take away much of the charm…….one might as well go out and buy a decent undamaged cabinet with matching hardware and be happy with that…. and pass on the old cabinet to someone whose tastes run in a different direction.

    All this pondering for your readers at a time when people are deliberately making wooden items look old….amusing , really!!!!!

  53. The joy in this process is finding a piece you love (or not) and making it your own- weather it’s changing hardware, painting, or leaving it as is…It becomes ‘yours’; your vision, your taste, your style!
    People have an opinion about everything, you are not going to please everyone, do what makes you happy.

  54. Although I love some painted furniture, I only want it painted if A) it was meant to be painted in the first place, or B) the surface is too damaged to leave unpainted, or C) it’s just a cheap piece with no history and who cares?

    The patina on that chest of drawers is incredible and it breaks my heart to think of you painting it. Even if the paint were later removed, the patina would be gone. I love the sense of time and history that comes with it. If you paint it, it becomes indistinguishable from the new-made-to-look-old pieces like the one I saw in a furniture store yesterday.

    I am going to admit my own hypocrisy and tell you that I heartily dislike old painted furniture that is “chippy.” I know it’s the thing today, but all I can think is that my grandmother would never have let a piece get so worn – she’d have slapped a new coat of pain on it! LOL. It really is all about personal preferences.

    Having said all that, I LOVE that hardware and I hope you find just the right piece to use it on!

  55. Its almost all exactly what I do…its a visual in your mind helped by photos and pinterest some I have already got on a board and it obviously didn’t know it was kept especially for this moment & purpose.
    It is always about one’s taste….but it has to be said some people have no idea and do genuinely need help…
    The hardest thing for people to do is placement & display….which always brings things together and makes one happy everytime you walk on set….your living abode

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