Here’s the thing….
Painting vintage furniture is a brilliant solution to an old piece that shows too much wear. You’re making a sustainable design choice which feels good, or if it’s a family heirloom, it keeps memories alive. It can be a less expensive solution to a new piece that most likely isn’t built as well. Almost anything can be saved with enough elbow grease.
I’ve been doing the DIY thing all of my life. Besides furniture, I’ve completely remodeled, flipped or built 6 homes. I’ve gained a fair bit of experience being hands on with loads of projects to save money. I’ve rewired, sheet rocked and mud/tapped an entire kitchen. I’ve painted 3 kitchens, tiled, sewed many sets of drapes, dabbled in upholstery, etc. I won’t bore you with more, but my point is I know the steps, stages and effort required to build or refresh items for the home.
I’ve filled these homes with both new and vintage furniture. I appreciate good design and craftsmanship, so depending upon the item and my budget, I’ll decide which way to go. I can obviously DIY it and I find nothing more fulfilling than a good before and after. I’ve learned a lot through mistakes and a few VERY good buys. Those experiences have taught me what to look for and what to avoid, especially when shopping online.
I’m sharing my top tips for all the buyers looking to acquire a refreshed vintage piece. Whether you purchase one of mine or not, there is good work out there for all budgets. Making smart purchases will help you love your piece for years to come.
Let’s get to it!
- Hinges: Most painters always remove the original hinges and clean them before re-installing them. In some cases, new hinges may be installed but often that is impossible due to incompatible replacement dimensions. Some may spray them with new metallic color and maybe even a lacquer protectorate to reduce the color scratching off. But not ALL of them do. I’ve seen some beautiful pieces that are good click bate that obviously were painted with the hinges/doors still on. So zoom in on the photos to see if the hinges have been painted over. Easy peasy.
- Hardware: The drawer & cabinet pulls are usually more obvious than hinges. All or just some, may be painted, polished or replaced. If you’re shopping in person for a painted dresser and you care a lot about original brass hardware, bring along a magnet. Nothing fancy, just any little fridge magnet will work. A magnet will stick to base metal, but it WILL NOT to brass. The screws and tiny parts that sometimes hold a handle to an escutcheon will have some base metal, so use your magnet on many sections of the pull or knob. Note: Most hinges (vs. knobs/pulls) are only brass plated, so the magnet will almost always stick. The hinges need to be stronger than brass in most cases. Brass is a soft metal.
If the hardware has been replaced, you can ask what the original looked like, if you’re curious. You could also offer to buy them separately. Sometimes a vintage piece is missing 1 or 2 that are very hard to find or very expensive because they are scarce. The more scare the hardware the less likely they will be to give it to you. It can be an additional margin consideration for a seller knowing they can also sell the hardware.
- Casters: If the piece is particularly large, assume it’s heavy, especially vintage pieces. Ask if they have casters on the bottom if the description doesn’t identify it. On large dressers that go directly to the ground, or buffets, bars – these are the ones to watch out for. If the maker doesn’t have the means to add casters, they are not hard to do yourself once you receive the piece.
- Maker Marks: If you’re a furniture geek like me and the maker mark isn’t obvious from the photos or description, ask if there is a mark. There are lots of painters out there using mineral or chalk paint on high end vintage pieces that actually deserve lacquer. Note: Lacquer can be matte, satin or high gloss. So if you’ve been assuming lacquer relates to sheen, you’re mistaken. Lacquer just lasts longer in most cases. I’ll unpack this in another blog post soon.
My point about the maker is the piece itself should match the finish in terms of longevity. Longevity speaks to the design itself and quality craftsmanship. You might be able to find a very solid high end piece that is in paint. When that wears over time, you should refinish it with lacquer, don’t just get rid of it. I’m technically not knocking these products, but unless they were waxed (yes on top of color) or done in a hard enamel, they will wear very quickly. Daily use in a kids’ room is very different than a guest room that isn’t used often, so use matters in choice too. Maybe put painted pieces where there is less use. Makers like Drexel, Thomasville, American of Martinsville, Dixie, Stanley will last a very long time with a great finish and good care.
- Orange Peel. There is an effect to look for on satin or high gloss finishes. “Orange peel” literally looks like the surface of an orange. It’s not like wall or ceiling texture, it’s much more subtle. It’s a common issue on the first sprayed coat of lacquer or enamel. It can be sanded back out, but you for sure don’t want it on the final coat. There are a lot of reasons orange peel happens. It could be the viscosity of the material that was sprayed, temperature or humidity in the air, wrong tip size or pressure on the spray gun. Even the best of them succumb to orange peel now and then. So, again look closely at the photos. Orange peel can be subtle. Below is an example that I did…ugh!
This is a completely finished piece right now that has a slight orange peel in the final coat. When I sprayed it I thought it was going to level out, but the temperature changed and it dryed into the finish. So I will sand it back down and re-spray it soon. If there was just one small section, I could fix it with wet sanding, but this has too much for my liking.
Let me add a bonus tip about high gloss. If you are looking to purchase a high gloss piece, you can bet it’s been aggressively prepped. High gloss has a lot of benefits. No matter the color it will reflect a lot of light in your space and the finish is especially durable. The process and materials for high gloss essentially mimic painting a car; bondo, wood filler, primer, 2-3 coats of base color, top coat and buffing. This can be true for some high gloss paint or lacquer too.
When deciding on a high gloss piece be aware that light colors generally hide imperfections, but mid to dark colors may emphasize them in certain light. The maker needs to take extra efforts depending upon the final color intention, type of piece and common lighting in it’s final intended location (bedroom vs. living). One last note related to color, white can be problematic, no matter which product is applied. White will make ever shadow from the seams or joints of a piece more visible. So if bright whites are your thing, select the piece carefully. White vintage pieces are stunning, but just know what you’re getting.
Refreshing vintage furniture for modern use is like a game of Chutes & Ladders. One choice leads to a new set of issues and challenges to resolve. The prior finish, structural integrity, wood grain, design longevity all impact the finish choice and labor involved. Most painters eventually specialize in a product they like to work with best. Then that dictates the type of furniture they choose to buy.
These 5 issues, plus a little high gloss bonus advice, are usually the most common that will make or break a consumer’s happiness with a purchase. There are a few more, but they need to be unpacked in separate blog posts. I’ll share my tips about the color white and other white-leaning colors. I also plan to expand my thinking on paint vs. lacquer. I think of them on a continuum. Various products can be mapped along that continuum to inform consumer consideration when buying product for a project or even a piece already refreshed.
Whether you’re a newbie, enthusiast, experienced DIY’r or just want to be a smart consumer, I hope this is helpful.