Antiques Blog

You’re seriously going to paint your Antiques?

Yes, folks.  People are now painting their antiques at breakneck speed. White seems to be the color du jour, but already that look is tiring quickly.

While most Antiques lovers consider painting an antique a sacrilege, I’m a little less of a puritan than that. If that’s what you want, then go right ahead. But consider reading my blog carefully before lifting that paint brush!

Believe it or not, some antiques actually do look better when painted. I examine each piece on a case by case scenario before deciding to paint or not.

These are the factors I consider!

1.  How old is the antique?

If it’s 50 years old or less than it’s usually a good candidate for a lick of paint. However, a 100 yr old broken down French Antique Henri II piece could be painted.  And look quite wonderful too. These pieces are usually made of Oak, and oak takes paint nicely.

2. How valuable is the antique?

I wouldn’t paint any antique I paid a lot for. We have lots of pieces in our store that are cheap and cheerful and would look amazing with a coat of ‘antique french white’. In fact a cheap antique once painted can double in value if done right. You wouldn’t believe how many people come in and purchase an expensive antique and then announce they are painting the thing!  It happens way too much and I always suggest a less expensive alternative.

3. What is the design of the antique?

If the design of the antique is quite linear and is dependant on the veneering or inlays for the design than painting such a piece may disappoint. I have found that an antique with lots of carving is the best candidate for paint. The carving ‘pops’ when painted and looks sensational.  Like the antique Henri II piece I mentioned above.

Antique Buffet Hutch

An antique like this buffet hutch on the left, while it a shame to paint, would take a coat of paint quite nicely and change the appearance dramatically.  All the carving and detail would literally ‘pop’ off this antique!

We recently painted a lovely early 20th Century antique French Commode with simple lines but veneered with lots of exotic and rare woods. I wouldn’t have painted this antique for the world, but the client wanted it.  Because the design of the antique was simple the piece ended up looking less exciting than a highly carved antique. This was a mistake as far as I am concerned but the client was thrilled. And I was happy he was satisfied.

4. How interested are you in reselling or handing down the antique in later years.

You should know that once a good antique has been painted, that’s virtually the end of the line for the piece. That’s why I highly discourage anyone from doing anything to a higher end antique. So many lower priced alternatives are out there.

Once paint has been applied to the antique the original patina of the piece is obviously gone,  but even if you change your mind months or years later and decide to restore the finish you will never regain the original patina of the antique. You can NEVER restore an original patina that took years of oxidation to develop.

Consider the wood of the antique?

If the antique is a beautiful piece of Mahogany made furniture, paint it if you want, but consider this… will NEVER be able to change your mind and get the original finish back.  You could get something close, but it will cost hundreds maybe thousands of dollars to restore a mahogany finish that would please you.

Is the original finish shot?

If it’s a very old antique and the finish is completely gone, than a painted finish could do the trick. It’s going to need refinishing anyway, so painting may be a reasonable alternative.

We had a 19th Century French antique games table with a completely ruined finish.  Every square inch of the piece needed refinishing. It would have taken hours, and frankly, wasn’t really worth it. We painted it a matte black ( it was mahogany too ) and it sold within days. It was gorgeous!

However, this is a story that sickens!

We had a client who bought an absolutely gorgeous burled walnut veneered antique bookcase/china cabinet that she paid a lot for. The piece was an early English 20th Century high end piece with a patina to die for.  We almost choked when the client told us she was painting it white.  I suggested maybe select something else, but no, this client was insistent.  And so it went, this absolutely stunning antique China Cabinet, to the painters. That was sad.

I also had a client who was nuts about silver.  She silver leafed everything. She bought a beautiful 19th Century antique French Settee with it’s original walnut patina.  It was gorgeous and expensive with beautiful detail and carving.   She told me she was going to ‘silver leaf’ the thing and I shuddered with disbelief.

Hey I’m in the business of selling antique furniture, so if someone wants to silver leaf an antique period Louis XV piece than go right ahead.  It’s sacrilege in my opinion and I’d love to say I won’t sell you the piece.  But business is business and I wouldn’t be open for long if I started shoving my values down people’s throats. I ALWAYS recommend another alternative but if a client is insistent than what can I do.

Thankfully this client decided against painting the piece! I sighed a deep breath of relief when she told me she took my advice.  Good thing too…because three years later the lady had to resell her antique.  She got almost full value because she hadn’t touched the integrity of this fine 19th Century antique!

So my advice about painting Antiques.  I wouldn’t unless it’s something you feel would look better painted.  If you need advice in this area contact us first for a final evaluation. We will definitely help stave off a mistake you may regret down the road!

Happy 2012 to all!

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32 thoughts on “You’re seriously going to paint your Antiques?

  1. Excellent advice.

    I’m considering painting an 1880’s carved bed and matching low chest with high mirror. It was refinished 25 years ago before I bought it. The sellers found it in a barn, so it was in perfect condition — no nicks whatsoever. I paid what I thought was a very reasonable $650 for it back then.

    My adult kids don’t care about antiques, and I’d like a bit of a change in my last 20 or 30 years of life.

    I always thought it was a mortal sin to paint any antique, but now, I figure, WHO CARES? But I would never, ever, paint an antique worth thousands of dollars, that had a great patina, or had decorative wood designs. I have one hall tree/bench with its original finish, and I would never dream of painting it — or even any other antique that I own.

    I also want to paint my hardwood white…in the same room with the white antique bedroom furniture…because, really, who cares?

    • Hi Rosemary,
      Nice to hear from you.
      I think what you’re doing sounds great. Very up to date and interesting.
      Try doing a bit of aging of the piece so it doesn’t get that ‘plastic new look’
      You can get that look from just researching the internet. In fact, I may do a blog on that too.
      White hardwood floors are beautiful, but be sure to get advice on doing them.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for this great article. My mother used to cry whenever a tree was cut down (and she was married to a developer, go figure). I cry when I think of covering beautiful wood with paint. And yet… I’ve struggled over whether certain pieces wouldn’t be better painted. Your guidelines are just what I needed to feel ok about certain “exceptions” to the rule.


  3. I just bought a side by side secretary curio cabinet at a thrift store for $30. It is oak and in great condition, just need to replace the back and fix a shelf. It has two mirrors and a shelf on top, and a curved glass door cabinet. Has a drop down secretary and 3 drawers with skeleton key locks. It was dated to the early 1900s but very simple design. I believe Amish… Nothing ornate, everything flat and straight.

    Would it ruin it to paint it white? My house is full of white furniture we have built or redone over the years. This piece stands out being oak, but I have no plans of selling because I love it. I just would feel guilty if it would mean ruining it. Any advice would be so appreciated!

    • Hello Lauren,
      I doubt that a $30 curio cabinet is any special. Go ahead and paint it with my blessings. It will give you the look everyone’s after these days, white on white.

    • A little contrast should look rather nice, but if it bothers you paint it by all means. A $30 thrift store purchase is not devalued by painting. So sorry it took almost 2 years to answer.

  4. Hi Mark, I recently purchased a broken Japey Fares clock and a friend was kind enough to fix it for me. He decided to spray paint it gold.. I have to say it looks lovely,..but I am cringing. Is the value of my 1800’s clock ruined?

    • Yes I’m sorry to say the clock’s resale value would be ruined if not in its original condition. If you like the way it looks keep it and enjoy it. A lesson for next time.

  5. I have been soul searching on this subject so thank you. I like some vintage pieces painted sure they even look better, However I am in a paint furniture group on Facebook and only a few genuine 18th century (early) have gone up for the chopping block to the chants of “TEAL then distress add gold feet!!!” I think I am on the borderline of being booted from the group for like 2 comments “Do not paint” wait for the buyer who will give you double at least for what you will get after all the work of painting.

    • Hi Mimi,
      If they are indeed 18th Century that would date them to the mid 1700’s. That would be criminal to paint a piece that old. I suggest painting anything that’s at least 100 years old or less. Mid 20th Century furniture takes painting very well and looks better usually. However I’ve made the mistake twice by painting a piece. Clients saw the original piece and came in to buy them and I lost the sale because they were painted. These two peices still still sit unsold in the store.

  6. Hi Mark, So happy to find you here! We have an antique very tall est
    1850’s original stained pine kitchen hutch. It has 2 lower doors with hand carved decorative leg accents nailed with square nails. Upper hutch has 2 glass doors with cross mullions. Interior was painted years ago but I’m sure that was done later. It smells horribly of smoke…inherited from my MIL. We need advice if OK to repaint the interior to rid the smoke smell please. Thanks! Mary

    • Yes, many people repaint the interiors of furniture. I would suggest KILZ first as that’s used to kill mold and other smells.

  7. I just inherited my grandmothers Ethen Allen China Cabinet. It is about 60 years old and gorgeous. It would fit my decor better if I had it painted. But I don’t want to ruin an antique and family heirloom. Suggestions?

  8. I have a 1943 vintage 5 piece, Mt Airy Furniture set that I’ve been hanging onto for 20 years. It looks pretty sad, worn out, and faded. I was thinking about painting it, it’s 78 years old so not an antique yet, am I right? What are your thoughts please?

    • Its not an important set. The best type of candidate for a fresh coat of paint.
      Lots of great trends people are using in deep blues, blacks and whites.
      Hope that helps.

    • Never heard of Mr. Airy Furniture so it’s likely an unimportant piece. Google similar names on the web to be sure then go ahead and paint.

  9. I have a China cabinet that belonged to my great grandmother. It seems to be a typical 1900 look. No one in the family wants it or has room for it. I have recently redecorated to my taste, kind of a beach house feel. I would like to paint it to match the kitchen and use it as a “coffee station”. I have several China tea cups pieces and odd plates and bowls that came with it, I would display. Otherwise it is just sitting now looking for a place to be shown off. I kind of feel guilty painting it. I’m not sure my parents will appreciate it.

  10. We have had a Drexel Travis Court Federal Style bedoom set for over 30 years. I like the graceful curves of the furniture, but the finish is very worn. I’ve been thinking of painting all but the tops of the pieces and restaining the mahogany veneer of the tops.) What are your thoughts? If paint is the way to go, what do you think of a deep gray paint with brown/bronze undertones? Thanks for your advice.

    • Drexel is a good American company but not considered an antique. So if you want to paint it…go right ahead.

  11. I just found this article because I am considering painting an oak pedestal table and 6 chairs. This table was given to us by my husband’s grandmother and I would estimate it to be 80+ years of age. The table is round and has 2 leaves. The pedestal is quite ornate. The chairs are very basic, straight-backed. All pieces are in good shape (the pedestal lock needs to be repaired). Our tastes have changed over the years from country to more contemporary. We are refurnishing the great room/kitchen area (this is our everyday table) and I would like to lighten up this table and the chairs. My preference would be to paint it an antique white and leave the tabletop a darker oak color. I brought it to a local furniture refinisher who told me I should not paint these pieces. The dark oak finish just seems so old-fashioned and I want to lighten up this area.

    Is the refinisher correct in that I should not paint?

    • I would paint them. They don’t sound like anything too important. Of course, without photos I can’t tell.

  12. Hi Mark!
    I just purchased an old China cabinet that’s in great condition for $200. I love it!! It seems it was made by J L Witz Furn Corp (NO. 45- WAL) thst is stamped on back). Is this vintage or antique? Okay to paint? Will I ruin the value if I do? I want to keep the interior, ornate legs & door with original skeleton key in wood and paint the rest plus wallpaper the back of shelves and line the drawer. Does wal mean walnut? Did I overpay? Any advice is appreciated.

    • Hello.
      For 200 dollars you didn’t overpay
      Dont know who JL Witz furniture company is. Probably some Canadian or
      American producer in the early 1900.s

  13. I have an antique dresser probably from 1870-1900 based on the Knapp joinery of the drawers. The wood is not especially pretty but the piece does have nice carving detail. There are some white streaks on the back of the piece and sides of the drawers that indicate it had been painted in the past, but was refinished before I purchased it in the late 70’s. A couple of the drawer sides could use some glue. The drawers do not glide smoothly and the bottoms are in rough condition so I’ve covered them with paper all these years. There are some areas of damage on the top and sides of the dresser that need to be smoothed over with putty if I paint it. The inside of the piece would look like junk to most people. I generally think that painting antique furniture is a travesty, but have often thought this piece would look pretty with paint. I have now learned that the Knapp joinery was used for a limited number of years and now I am wondering if it is ok to paint it? As far as family value is concerned I know this piece would not be important to anyone but me. What do you think?

  14. Hey Mark, I just bought a small 19th century teak Chinese export table with a marble inlaid top. I fell in love with the scrollwork and bought it at an auction on a whim. I paid more than I should have spent – $500, including fees, and more than I ever have on a table. When I saw it, my immediate thought would be that I would want to paint it, but now I am second-guessing myself. It is in good condition, but since it was for the export trade, would it be that terrible to paint it? What are your thoughts? Thanks!

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