Mixed Opinions on Painting Vintage Furniture

    Photo: frenchfinds.co.uk/flickrThere is a movement currently afoot to rescue vintage furniture. Old wooden dressers, vanities, chairs and the like are being bought at garage sales or retrieved from roadsides – in some cases, even pulled out of dumpsters – in an effort to keep usable items from ending up in landfills and burn piles. Because many of these pieces are understandably somewhat the worse for wear or just plain outdated, their harvesters often use paint to make them more appealing to our early 21st century tastes. Other folks argue that painting wood furniture destroys the value or the integrity of the furniture. Still others recommend paint only in special circumstances. Let’s take an in depth look at the deciding factors.


    By definition, antique furniture dates back a century or more. Although there is some ambiguity about the increasingly popular term “vintage,” it is generally accepted to mean an item which has been on the planet for over five decades. Many would-be furniture revivers use that 50-year mark as a cut-off point, and will not paint anything older (although they may possibly sand and stain). Once a wooden piece has been painted, it can never be fully restored to its original condition.


    By the time a piece ends up at the thrift shop or in the trash, it has often been through some tough times. Stains, veneer that is seriously peeling or missing altogether, puppy bites or marks from water or chemicals may have affected furniture so badly that the only viable course of action seems to be to repair and paint. However, a minor ding or a scratch or two fall into a different category, which can be called “handsome signs of a venerable old age.” Of course, there is always the possibility that a previous owner already painted the table or chest, in which case preserving the finish is a moot point. One caution in this latter case from professional painters in New York, center for many upscale antique dealers: pre-1978 paint may contain lead, which is hazardous to human health. Proceed with caution and follow government safety guidelines.

    Material and Make

    Some rescued furniture is outstanding for its lovely wood, such as bird’s eye maple, or gorgeous pattern – Art Deco waterfall, for example. Or it may be hiding the mark of a certain esteemed maker on its underside or on a drawer. Any of these will tend to indicate a more valuable piece, which the finder should be wary of painting. On the other hand, items mass produced from inexpensive wood like pine or even particleboard have limited intrinsic value. Check with an appraiser if you're wondering whether you may have a true antique on your hands.


    Many vintage furniture fans claim that it is better to adapt a piece to a contemporary style that will be used and enjoyed in today’s homes rather than leaving it neglected in an attic or storeroom. If that involves paint, so be it, goes their opinion. Some go so far as to say that it’s up to the owner of a piece to make an individual decision about how it is to be treated. Those with differing opinions say that quality furniture is the inheritance of future generations and that what is considered outdated and unfashionable now may be treasured tomorrow.

    Environmental Impact

    Rescuing and reusing elderly furniture is, in general, a greener practice than buying new, reducing the demand for virgin lumber or for inexpensive wood products made with toxic ingredients. However, if you do decide to paint or otherwise refinish, the process should be carried out in an environmentally responsible manner. Choose eco-friendly strippers, primers and polish, as well as paint with low or no harmful VOCs.

    Laura Firszt writes for networx.com.

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