Don’t Paint Your Vintage Furniture Until You Read This!

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To paint or not to paint–that is the question! It’s trendy to take vintage pieces and paint them with chalk paint, but some people have accidentally destroyed valuable antiques in the process.

Here’s how to tell if you should paint, refinish, or just leave your vintage furniture find in peace.

How to Tell the Difference Between Good Stuff and Junk

You can find vintage wooden furniture pretty much everywhere–antique shops, thrift stores, garage sales, and even the occasional dumpster! Many people don’t appreciate older pieces, but their loss is our gain.

Often, these pieces have been through multiple owners over the decades. That means scratches, water rings, and other cosmetic damage. It might also mean someone in the past tried a DIY makeover, leaving you with multiple layers of paint and/or varnish that hides the item’s full potential.

Vintage Furniture Checklist

The first thing to consider is whether you like the overall style of the piece. Does it have good lines? Do you think it’ll be a good fit for your home? If the answer is yes, then go through this vintage furniture checklist to get a sense of its value and age:

Structural Damage: Check the legs of chairs, dressers, sideboards, etc. for major damage or wobbling. Those can be more difficult to repair, especially for chairs. A very rickety piece might not be worth the hassle.

Backing Material: Look at the back of a cupboard or dresser and see if it’s solid wood, plywood, or some kind of laminate or cardboard backing. Solid wood is best; plywood can be okay. Laminate, chipboard, or cardboard all indicate a modern piece that isn’t well made (or possibly a bad repair job.)

Joints and Fastenings: Pull out the drawers and check the joints. If you see dovetail joints (where the wood fits together like puzzle pieces in the corners), then the piece is likely older and more solidly built. You can also check out the nails, screws, and bolts that hold the piece together. They’ll give you a better sense of how old and well-made your furniture is.

Veneer: A lot of mass market furniture that was produced in the last century features a thin layer of more expensive wood over a solid wood base. Veneer makes a piece look like it’s made from solid flame maple or burled walnut, when actually there’s only a thin slice glued on top of a cheaper base (often pine or poplar).

The problem is that veneer has a tendency to peel and crack (especially if it gets wet, reducing the value and making it more difficult to finish. We’ll cover how to get rid of that pesky veneer in a future post!

Sentimental Value: Although you can’t put a dollar figure on it, sentimental value is a good reason not to paint a vintage piece. Over time, wooden furniture develops a patina that tells the story of the people who used it. There’s something really special about honoring a piece that’s been in your family for generations.

Do Your Homework

After you go through the checklist and have a good idea of whether you landed a quality piece, take one more minute to do a little research. See if you can find a maker’s mark anywhere, often found on the back of the piece or along the side/back of a drawer. If not, search the internet for any descriptions you can think of until you narrow it down.

For example, I picked up an unusual writing desk at a thrift store. It was in good shape, and after some Google-fu, I discovered that it was an antique “spinet” desk worth several hundred dollars. I’m definitely not going to paint it now!

The Only Time You Should Paint Vintage Furniture

Now that you’ve gone over the checklist and done your homework, you can make the decision whether to paint. If the piece has major cosmetic flaws–deep scratches, water damage, peeling veneer–then you can give it a new lease on life with some sandpaper and paint.

Likewise, commercially built furniture from the 40s to the 60s often has little resale value and can be safely painted.  Just make sure that you take every precaution before you accidentally ruin a valuable antique!