Painting Antique Furniture or Is all Wood Good?

To paint or not to paint – that is the question. Is painting antique furniture okay? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We’ve all seen the episodes of The Antiques Roadshow where the valuation comes back on a piece that was cleaned and refinished only to find that the cleaning/refinishing reduced the potential value by 50% or more. It’s enough to instill fear into the most hearty refinisher! But, when is it okay? I would argue, more often than not, no worries.

First, let’s discuss the difference between “antique” and “vintage”.

  • Antique – over 100 years old (as of this writing, prior to 1922)
  • Vintage – between 20 – 99 years old (as of this writing 1923-2002). Vintage also generally connotes cultural significance such as “Mid-Century Modern” pieces or those made by well-known makers such as Stickley or Knoll.

 

Federal style dining room Cape Cod Christmas family heirlooms painting antique furniture
Mom and Dad’s dining room styled for Christmas by Linda Merrill | Photo by Michael J. Lee

So, for example, when I sold my parents fine quality 1950’s era traditional mahogany dining room set, it was old furniture, but not culturally significant like a Mid-Century modern set might be. So, it might have been termed “vintage” but really, it was just older furniture of no cultural significance. Even had it been from a legacy furniture maker such as Henredon or Kindel it wouldn’t be “appreciating” in value. At the estate sale, we originally put a price of $750.00 on the set. A gentleman came back twice waiting to see if we’d discount it and by the end of the two-day estate sale, I was happy to receive $150.00 for the set and see it go to someone who really wanted it (and I didn’t have to pay to have it removed and likely trashed). My guess is, he painted it (which would have made my dad roll over).

Nook Cottage Linda Merrill design antique desk bedroom chair watermarked painting antique furniture
Linda Merrill’s Nook Cottage | Photo by Michael J. Lee

Speaking of my Dad (whom I miss dearly!) – he found this old desk at a barn sale somewhere when I was in elementary school and refinished it to match my bedroom set. It was possibly over 100 years old at the time (certainly is now!) but it wasn’t a fine antique so refinishing and painting was a great upgrade. I don’t recall what it looked like prior to him painting it. It will always have a place of pride in my home.

I’ve posted about this project before. My Hingham, MA clients had this ginormous Harden Furniture modular cherry wall unit. Very expensive, classic. Probably just around 20 years old at the time I was working for them. But, it’s dated looking. Highly functional, but dated. Even though it was a great quality piece, it would never become a fine antique with age. Painting was like giving it the breath of life – adding years of use. It would have otherwise either been sent to a landfill, or sold for pennies to someone who would repaint it.

Linda Merrill Decorative Surroundings Hingham Sitting Room and Home Office 2

 

This is what folks from The Antiques Roadshow have to say about painting antique furniture:

 

Linda Merrill A carved antique french sofa with guilded wood, biedermeier chair painting furniture
Styling by Linda Merrill | Photo by Michael J. Lee

Several years ago I produced a decoration magazine called ::Surroundings:: and this image above was the cover for one of the issues. I created this editorial vignette in the showroom of my friends who owned Trianon Antiques in the Boston Design Center. Featured is French settle with gilded frame and in the foreground is a Biedermeier chair. Part of the determination of whether painting antique furniture is okay is to consider if it will make the item look better. Of course, this can be subjective. But to my view – the settee frame could be repainted and not necessarily re-guilded without harming the aesthetic value of the piece.  But in the case of the Biedermeier chair, the burled wood and finish are part of the overall historical aesthetic value of this style of furniture and it would be a crime to cover that up. It would ruin any monetary value because it ruins the aesthetic value.

Repainting antique furniture

This L and J.G. Stickley Arts and Crafts Bench is for sale at 1st Dibs for $4,800.00. I would say that this should not be repainted even though it’s not hugely expensive and not overly likely to go up in value. But the intrinsic nature of the stained wood is part and parcel of the style, plus it’s attributed to one of the Stickley brothers.

Mission oak settee repainting antique furniture

That said, if you had this piece lying around and wanted to update it, I wouldn’t think it would be the end of the world to paint it. It is antique as it’s likely just around 100 years old, but the leather has been replaced and is faux and it’s not from Stickley or other known furniture maker.

Vintage mahogany credenza late 20th century repainting antique furniture

This is a beautiful looking piece of furniture. Great for storage with a lovely flame mahogany veneer on the door fronts. If you looked quick and saw it’s for sale on 1st Dibs, you might think this is a fine antique. But it’s actually late 20th Century and only selling for $1,450.00. This is a candidate for a new paint job if the existing finish isn’t to your liking, but the shape and storage are.

Early 19th Century Duncan Phyfe sideboard

 

And what of this beauty? If you were to consider repainting this antique furniture – you’d be committing a crime against decorative history – plus you’d lose all value. This is an early 19th Century sideboard attributed to Duncan Phyfe and is listed on 1st Dibs for $22,500.00.

So, the upshot is, if you’re thinking about painting antique furniture, consider the age, maker and historical context of the item. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s a fine quality piece worthy of protection. Even newer pieces that may have been expensive may no longer have much value due to changing trends in style. But fine antiques, especially if they are attributable to a specific maker and are the epitome of their particular style (such as Stickley or Phyfe) need to be preserved as they are.

 

Painting Antique Furniture Pin

xoxo Linda

6 thoughts on “Painting Antique Furniture or Is all Wood Good?”

  1. Absolutely agree! What a great post on a hot topic. Not ALL wood needs to remain stained and you’ve outlined the guidelines so clearly for determining when and when not to paint! Brava!

    Reply
  2. Standing O on this one, Linda!
    I have so much respect for fine antiques – and your explanation of what makes them so – but I am totally okay with painting or refinishing any other piece of furniture to suit the needs and taste of the person who owns it.

    Reply

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