Furniture painting advice from an expert faux-finisher

Joan Fieldstone

May 21, 2014

By: Joan Fieldstone, Home Improv Advocate

In: Interior Design

A few months ago I picked up a cute little mid-century cabinet/end table for $15 at a secondhand furniture store. The cabinet was in such good shape that I was aghast when a friend of mine suggested a coat of gray paint would take it from mid-century modern to uber-contemporary.

end table with cabinet

Why would I do that? I am wallowing with delight in all of my mid-century Danish modern furniture finds. Who would put paint on those sleek walnut and teak veneers? It would defeat the whole point, wouldn't it?

The years, however, have not been as kind to the 60-plus-year-old wall unit next to it. In its heyday this iconic piece could have graced Don Draper's penthouse.

Wall unit

Though incredibly practical with a built in secretary desk slash bar, cabinet, shelves, and room for my smallish, flat screen TV, it's a bit saggy, and the veneer is all dried out from lack of proper care during the decades before I bought it. Staying beautiful after 60 requires upkeep. Tell me about it.

veneer of wall unit

Unfortunately, I don't have the time nor the energy to lemon-oil this massive piece of furniture daily, and there is not much to be done about the warping. I just hate the thought of getting rid of it, because it fits the space perfectly and is so handy for containing a multitude of things that would otherwise be homeless.

So I actually was thinking of painting it. Gasp! But before I would unintentionally deal the poor thing its final death blow with my complete lack of furniture-painting knowledge, I decided to consult an expert. And I just happen to know one.

How to faux finish veneer furniture

Susan Bickford has painted furniture for 40-plus years, since she was in high school. She has had a thriving business faux finishing walls in Nashville and now also teaches the art of furniture painting when she isn't writing novels. Her recent venture, The Painted Dragonfly, located in The Tanner House in Nolensville, Tenn., features vintage, antique, and painted furniture.

The Painted Dragonfly
Photo to credit Susan Bickford

She and her partner, Lorna Soble, paint the furniture they sell and offer classes and workshops for do-it-yourselfers and would-be artisans. They also carry paint products from American Paint Company -- all-natural, zero percent VOC and made in the U.S. of A. For anyone who wants to try furniture painting at home, APC's unique clay/chalk/mineral base paint is, according to Susan, "easy to work with and very forgiving." The paints create a vintage, soft look, either with an antique brushstroke or smooth finish.

Why not just use latex paint? Unlike clay and mineral based paints, Susan explained, latex wall paint was designed to be mar- and stain-resistant. Its acrylic content makes latex paint difficult to sand. Clay and mineral-based paints, on the other hand, can be easily sanded perfectly smooth to create a very high-end look. That's what I want -- high-end. The question for me is, Can I turn my down-at-the-heels, once-upon-a-time-sophisticated, consignment shop wall unit into something other than funky and junky?

Susan and I bounced around a few ideas about possible colors and finishes. She seems to think I can pull it off. It's in front of a yellow-beige wall. The other paint colors on the various walls include a mossy green, cayenne red and a Caribbean blue. I have turquoise, teal or marine blue in mind as a base color with a silver glaze for this piece. Susan agreed that could make for a lovely finish and recommended adding American Paint Company's Pewter Mica to their Clear Glaze for the metallic effect.

She advised that I would first need to prime the veneer with an oil-based primer or use shellac. Clay/mineral-based paints are self-priming, but as a water-based product, they can seep beneath the veneer and cause the thin wood sheet to release and buckle, marring the look. It is important to use non-water-based products to create a barrier coat. After priming, I get to paint the color and sand it smooth -- which she said will create a lot of dust -- so I'll have to move the whole operation to the garage. After sanding, I would apply the metallic glaze a section at a time and wipe back with cheesecloth. She says that will create a shimmery "veil" of silver. Finally, a topcoat over the glaze will provide added protection.

Quite a project, and I'm not sure I've decided to take the risk and put my useful wall unit out of commission until I have time to complete it (not to mention losing the use of my garage for the duration). Maybe I'll try it on something a little smaller first -- see how it turns out.

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