What to look for in a piece of furniture you’re going to paint?

Furniture blog post pinterest

I’ve been painting furniture for couple of years now, and there are some things that I’ve picked up through my experience that I’d like to share with you.  There is a lot of furniture available to paint.  Beautiful pieces.  I have decided that there are also some to just walk away from.  Since secondhand furniture is so plentiful, and you can get pieces for such a low cost (at least where I live), I have decided that some pieces are just not worth the time to restore.

There are four things that I’d like to discuss with you.

1.  What type of furniture I will walk away from?

2.  What type of furniture I will paint?

3.  Characteristics I look for in furniture pieces to paint.

4.  What type of paint and hardware to use for different styles of furniture?

Let me begin by listing pieces that I will personally, and I learned this through experience, walk away from.

What types of furniture I will walk away from?

1. Laminate furniture

With a plethora of actual wood furniture available, painting laminate furniture just does not seem to make sense to me.  Laminate is not wood.  It is a man-made product that is printed to look like it has wood grain, and often pressed onto particle board.  Laminate furniture is, by nature, built more poorly and is not as heavy-duty as wood furniture.  For this reason, I would walk away.

I have not always, and I quickly realized my mistake.  I bought a dresser that I liked because of it’s clean lines.  I quickly learned after I got home that it was not going to be easy to paint.  It is possible, however, it was difficult because of how glossy the surface was.  I sanded it, and primed it, but the primer I normally use for furniture wasn’t adhering.  I honestly considered walking away from it, but bought some oil-based primer and that did the trick.

Another problem with laminate furniture is that it will bubble if it gets wet.  This happened to the dresser I was painting.  It was in the garage waiting to be sold, when I noticed a big bubble on the side of the dresser.  Somehow, it must have gotten wet or maybe it was the dampness of our garage.  Either way, this piece of furniture frustrated me to no end.  For this reason, I try to steer clear of laminate furniture.

If you want to find out if a piece of furniture is laminate or wood, run your fingernail across it.  You can feel the plasticy-ness (I think I made up a word) of it.  Find a piece that you can tell is wood, you can feel the difference.  I always run my fingernail across pieces of furniture, if they are super smooth with no wood grain, I walk away.

2.  Ugly Furniture

I think when I say that, you might have an idea of what I am talking about.  There are many, many pieces of furniture that are gorgeous when they are painted.  But… there are some that should just be left alone, in my opinion.

There are also some styles of furniture, that I think just look better stained than painted.  One of these styles is waterfall pieces.  I feel the roundedness of it does not lend itself towards painting.  I’m not saying that it can never look good painted, and what someone likes is very personal, but I am not a fan.  If you’re not sure what waterfall style furniture is, I’ve included a picture below.  It is closely related to the art deco style, and the top of it is usually rounded over to the front of the piece of furniture.


Waterfall dresser via http://bestfurnitureidea.co/view/waterfall-furniture-history/

Ok, now that I’ve insulted furniture.  Let me continue on to tell you what type of furniture I would paint.

What types of furniture I will paint?

1. Solid wood

I would go crazy for a solid wood piece of furniture.  Hands down, this is the best you can get.  If you find a solid wood piece of furniture, you like the style, and the price is good, snatch that up.  You have a quality piece of furniture.  The best part about this is, you can always sand it down and repaint, or refinish it, over and over.  The wood is not going anywhere.

2. Wood-veneered

I will also paint a piece of wood-veneered furniture.  Truthfully, if you’re like me and normally paying between $30-$100 for a piece of furniture to paint, it is often going to be wood-veneered.  These are still very beautiful pieces of furniture, and can be sanded and painted.  If they are older pieces, the wood-veneer is often chipped or missing in some spots.  If you still have the piece that has come off, or if the veneer has not broken off, but it is loose, you can use wood glue to put it back on.  Glue it, clamp it if you can, or put a heavy book with a paint can on top of it, and your problem is fixed.

If there are pieces that are missing that aren’t too large, or if you’ve glued it back on and there are empty spots, use some wood filler to fill all the gaps.  Apply the wood filler, wait for it to dry, and then sand it off.  I did that in many places to this curved footboard set.  It was so beautiful, fixing some gaps where there was missing veneer was well worth it.  (Yes, this bedroom set is in my kitchen.)

Curved footboard bedroom set_1

If the veneer is missing in a large portion of the furniture, you can remove it and paint the wood underneath, or replace the veneer.  I have seen people recently removing it, especially since they are going to paint the piece of furniture.  The veneer was added to get the look of higher quality wood, without paying the price for a solid sheet of that wood.  Therefore, in older pieces of furniture the wood underneath is often actual wood, it is just a lower grade wood.  If you are going to paint the piece, you may be able to get away with just painting the lower grade wood.  Especially when the look that many people are going for in older pieces of  furniture is aged or distressed.  Below I’ve linked a blog posts with some tips on how to remove the wood veneer.  I have a feeling if you google “Removing wood veneer” you’ll get a ton of info.

Click this link to learn how to remove Wood Veneer 

Now that you know the type of furniture, let me tell you some characteristics I look for in a piece of furniture.

Characteristics I look for in furniture pieces to paint.

1. Style

The style of the furniture is HUGE!  Don’t make the mistake I have and just buy a piece of furniture because the cost is low and it’s wood.  Really take the time to think what you want the piece for, and is it the style you want.  I have bought a few pieces of furniture because it was cheap and wood, but I was later kicking myself.

If you’d like to paint a piece of furniture, look through Pinterest, they have so many photos of painted furniture.  I’ll link my Painted Dresser Pinterest Board below.  I have over 500 photos of painted dressers pinned.  I also have Pinterest boards for Painted hutches, tables, desks, decor, beds, and storage furniture, so once you get to my Pinterest page you can check those out.

My painted dresser Pinterest Board

Find a dresser you like, and then scour Craigslist, garage sales, thrift stores for a piece that has similar lines.  If you want it to look modern, don’t buy a piece that has a lot of frill.  If you want a shabby chic piece, don’t buy a midcentury modern dresser and distress it.  Find a piece that fits the style you want, and add to it’s beauty.  To me, there is nothing worse than a beautiful piece of furniture that has been given a paint treatment that does not fit it’s  original style.  I will talk more about this later.

Now, one thing that I have done to achieve the style I want, and I have seen other bloggers do, is removing or adding features from a piece of furniture to get the style they want.  Below I’ve shown you a before and after picture of an Ethan Allen hutch that I painted.  I thought the spindles dated the piece and did not gel with the look I was going for, so I got out my jig saw and removed them.  I also reworked the scalloped edge on the top of the dresser to simplify the design.


Before and after of a painted Ethan Allen Hutch

I have also seen people add appliques to a door or drawer to add some vintage flair, or use a jig saw to cut the scallops off the bottom of a dresser because they wanted it to have cleaner lines.  I think these things are all perfectly acceptable ways to achieve the look you’re wanting.  It’s your piece of furniture!  I’d say do with it what you will.  (Everyone may not agree with me here.)

2. Working drawers

This again is HUGE!  I will no longer buy a dresser where the drawers are not workable, unless I really, really love the piece.  I have learned my lesson.  I feel it is not easy for a layperson to fix dresser drawers.  Now, it may not be as hard as I think, but I’m willing to tackle a lot, and I don’t feel confident adding new slides to a drawer.  I have a serpentine oak dresser that I painted which is in my garage right now (pictured below).  I LOVE it, but it is not usable.  The drawers are a mess.  If I didn’t love it, I would just scrap it.  I don’t know why I bought it.  I’m learning my lessons, that is for sure.  I plan on taking it this summer to someone to have the drawers fixed, but I’m sure that won’t be cheap.  In the future, I will be staying away from whopper-jawed drawers, and I recommend unless you are confident in fixing drawers, you do also.  They are a pretty vital piece of a dresser.

Serpentine oak dresser


Serpentine Oak Dresser with broken drawers

Now, when I say broken drawers, I don’t mean drawers that are just old.  If you buy a vintage piece of furniture, chances are, the drawers will be less than ideal.  One thing that will help a ton is to get some furniture wax and wax them up.  First sand the drawers on the sides and the bottom, and the dresser on the inside with an extra fine grit sandpaper (220), then wax the sides of the drawers, the inside of the dresser, and the wood slides underneath the drawers and that helps tremendously.  I do have pieces of furniture where they drawers are less than ideal, but these are old pieces of furniture that were not manufactured with metal slides, so they are going to function differently.

3. Dovetail joints

Dovetail joints are a good solid way to construct furniture.  Instead of using nails or screws to put together a drawer, there are notches cut in the edges and these are glued together.  A dovetail joint is very strong, and often denotes good construction in a piece of furniture.  If I see drawers that have dovetailed joints, I feel a little more comfortable that it will be a well constructed piece of furniture that I am buying.

dovetail joint

Dovetail joint

Ok, now we have narrowed down my preferences for furniture pieces.  Let’s now talk about the paint and hardware that is used for a piece of furniture.

What type of paint and hardware to use for different styles of furniture?

1. Paint

Now, I’m going to be totally honest here, and you can disregard my opinion if you’d like, but I think it’s important to match the type of paint you use to the personality of the piece of furniture you are painting.  I, personally, do not like a modern piece of furniture painted with chalk or milk paint.  I love furniture painted with chalk and milk paint, but I think it needs to be used on pieces of furniture that would naturally have that finish.  So pieces of furniture that have an antique or vintage feeling to them.  I can not tell you how many times I walk into consignment furniture stores or booths and I see pieces of furniture with a chalky/distressed finish which clashes with the furniture it is painted on.  This is hard to explain, but if you look at your furniture piece and it doesn’t have a vintage bone in it’s body, don’t distress it, and if you’re going to paint it with chalk paint, wax it well.  Especially a mid-century modern piece.  I think they look beautiful painted, but not with a chalky finish.

If you are not going to use chalk or milk paint, I would recommend using an acrylic latex paint.  Acrylic latex is more durable and sticks to surfaces better than regular latex paint, which you would use for your wall.  I am in the process of writing a thorough blog post about paint selections for furniture.  I will link that here when it is done.

Below is a link to my Furniture Tutorial Pinterest Board.  It has many great tutorials with furniture painting techniques.  How to distress furniture, glaze furniture, use chalk paint, apply wax, get an aged finish on a new piece of wood, etc.  If you want more information about painting techniques, you might want to check this out.

Click on this link to open my Furniture Tutorials Pinterest Board

2. Hardware

To keep or replace hardware, that is the question.  I have often replaced the hardware because I think replacing it can really spruce up the furniture, but if the hardware is in good shape and maintains the vintage character of your piece than keep it.  I have kept the hardware for both vintage dressers I’ve painted.  They kept the character of the dresser intact, and they saved me money.  In the pictures below there is a white, mid-century modern dresser that I painted.  I did replace that hardware.  It was super retro, super mid-century modern.  I saved all the hardware because I think someone, someday might want it, but I wanted to give the piece a nice, clean look, so I changed it out for simple, clean-lined, chrome pulls.

Again though, if you are replacing the hardware, keep with the style of the furniture.  If it is a modern piece of furniture, don’t put frilly vintage pulls on it.  Sometimes this can be pulled off, but not too often.  I’m going to tell you something that I really dislike, but again this is personal, and I’ve seen it done well.  I do not like when the hardware is painted.  I like hardware to be some type of metal finish, especially when the furniture is painted.  To me, the hardware is the jewelry of the furniture, and I like it to stand out.

Here are some pictures of other furniture pieces I have painted.  I’m sure I have many more lessons to learn, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Well, I have now inundated you with information, but I hope that something in here might have helped someone!  Thanks for stopping by!


One response to “What to look for in a piece of furniture you’re going to paint?

  1. Pingback: How to get the vintage farmhouse look? Think Fixer Upper! | Simply made by rebecca·

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