You're going to paint that?

by Leigh Elmore

A festive pink paint job brings this vintage vanity at The Dusted Attic in Kansas Ciy back to life. (photos by Leigh Elmore)

If you spend enough time around dealers of antique and vintage furniture you'll soon learn there is a great divide between the "purists" who would do nothing to alter the patina on an old piece and the "repurposers" who would be happy to slap a coat of colorful paint on it and sell it on eBay.

And if you've shopped at any antique mall or vintage shop in the last decade, it's obvious that there is plenty of room for both schools of thought.

"Painted furniture has moved beyond being merely a trend," said Chris Hall, who with her husband, Brent, have operated Pete and Repeat Repurposed, currently located in Kansas City's West Bottoms antiques and vintage district. "If it's a trend, then it really has legs, a lot of secondary energy. I'd really describe it as a lifestyle anymore," she said.

Blue table and chairs at The Dusted Attic.

As Fred Taylor, Discover Vintage America's antique furniture columnist points out in the related article, at the very bottom line the value of an antique is in the eye of the beholder. Taylor notes that the taboo against altering an antique's finish is overstated, and that there are a number of ways to restore the original finish without de-valuing the antique. Taylor notes that the purpose of owning any piece of furniture, old or new, is to use it either in its traditional role or for a more contemporary purpose.

And certainly getting good use out of any antique or vintage item should be considered a success, traditionalist or repurposer alike.

Rocking chair at The Dusted Attic.

Dealers everywhere are learning that the market for mass-produced furniture from the early-to mid-20th century has virtually collapsed and the merchandise is filling up barns and storerooms from coast to coast.

Shabby chic look on a painted table.

For 20 years or more the shabby chic "movement" has popularized the re-use of common items from yesteryear, and allowed homeowners to embrace a certain "distressed" look on furniture, that surely gives it the look of being old if not actually in fact.

Paint choice is important in painting furniture. Traditional enamels tend to chip with repeated use; so vintage enthusiasts have turned to a whole plethora of milk- and chalk-based paints that have entered the market in recent years.

Chalklet's Paint demonstration on a dresser at The Dusted Attic.

Carol Suthers of Parkville, MO, has created a line of chalk-based paint for use exclusively for painting furniture. Called Chalklet Paint, it is a creamy thick paint that has a chalky feel when dry.

"After it dries you sand it lightly and it will have a smooth look and feel. You simply apply paste wax, which will give your piece a warm shine." Suthers maintains a Facebook page on Chalklet Paint projects.

Taking a common sense approach to painting should alleviate any backlash from wood purists who might be aghast at your painting project. For example, if it is a "real" antique, aged 100 years or more, and made of solid wood, you probably want to think twice about painting it, especially if it's a family heirloom. If you're feeling guilty about altering Grandma's dining room buffet, step away and consider a more traditional refinishing method by stripping and re-staining it back to its original beauty.

But if it's a fairly cheap factory made item with veneered surfaces, break out the brushes, something colorful is coming your way.

End table became a canine condo, found at Aberdeen West.


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

Enjoy your treasures by actually using them

by Fred Taylor

Two of the more common comments I hear about antiques, especially with regard to furniture, are along the lines of "I don't want to do anything to destroy the value" and "I like antiques but you can't use them on a regular basis, or they will wear out." As Col. Potter of the TV show "M.A.S.H." would say, "Horse-hockey!"

This Late Classicism sleigh bed, circa 1850, gets used every day as does the 1930s Art Moderne chest of drawers and the 1900 Empire Revival nightstand.

Of course you don't want to do anything to "destroy the value" but is it really "valuable" in the monetary/market sense or is it just old, unusual and not being produced like that anymore?
If you attend antique furniture auctions on a regular basis you begin to get a little better understanding of the value ascribed to most of what is represented as "antique" these days.

Of course the definition of "antique" is a lot more flexible than it used to be – so much so that some people believe that if a piece of furniture was made before 1960 it's an antique. No accounting for taste and I certainly will not try to change anyone's mind about their perception of antiques. But the real test is in the market. Is anyone willing to pay an "antique" price for a commonly mass produced chair from 1960? How about 1950? Any takers at 1940? How about 1840?

Value is in what it means to you

The use of a Wooton desk as a china cabinet is a bit unusual but since the cabinet was already ruined by the hacker who gutted it, at least it was saved from the garbage dump by the repurpose.

The key point here is not just how old a piece is or isn't but does it have any value because of that age or in spite of it? If we are talking about an 18th century Windsor chair in pristine original finish then that is something to take note of because it does have value simply because of its age – and condition. Pristine 18th century Windsors are fairly rare and the market value of most of them reflects that.

But what about a mid-19th century Windsor? It is way over 100 years old so it must be valuable too, right? Not necessarily. By the mid 19th century most chairs, including Windsors, were factory made and were in fact "mass produced." Are they valuable?

This turn of the 20th century French vitrine provides a properly fancy place for crystal.

If you like them they are and there are some unique examples that are highly prized in the marketplace but most of them have no real intrinsic value just because they are that old.

Are they rare? Not so rare as ones from the 18th century. How about one from the 1930s? Even from this more recent era, it is still older than most of the population of the United States. Does it have value just because of that?

Probably not. It has value as a chair – not as a collector's item and not as a museum piece to be worshipped as a part of our past. Not to say that it shouldn't be respected but it should be respected by its continued use in its original function rather than as a hallowed icon.

This Victorian Moorish style oak rocker has been in daily use for over 100 years.

And since it is a functioning chair with relatively no collector's value, what value are you going to destroy if you do something to it? Since its value is as a chair are you going to do something to make it "not" a chair? If it needs a new coat of finish, go for it. That won't make it less of a chair.

This table made primarily of 18th century English components, along with the period Empire sideboard and the Regency chairs are used regularly for family gatherings.

If it needs refinishing go ahead and do it and do it using materials that suit your situation. And don't listen to that old naysayer who says you should never refinish an antique but if you do it should only be finished in shellac. He may (or may not) be right about that but he also may not know an antique from a collectible from a chair.

Besides, if you want to use that chair in the kitchen and you have three kids and a dog, shellac is just not the finish for you unless you have a lot of time for care and maintenance.
The general rule of thumb is that for 20th century furniture any properly done restoration will improve both the appearance and the current market value.

This 19th century Empire period sideboard, with no alterations except maintenance, still works nicely as a functioning part of a dining room.

Too often collectors get gun shy from all the advice they receive from so many "experts." After a period of trying to "do the right thing" by their older and antique furniture, they get tired of the aggravation and long for the ease of care associated with Formica® tables and brass and glass stands. That is not good for any of us in the antiques industry, whether we are buyers or sellers or both.

Don't over-complicate things

The same kind of attitude should hold sway in the area of repairs. If that Depression era chair is loose and needs to be re-glued, how long will you wait to find a craftsman who will take the time to repair it with hide glue so that it can be reversed at a later date?

Are you interested in reversing the fix? No. You are interested in getting it fixed and getting it back in use before it breaks apart and can't be fixed. And a Depression era chair probably wasn't assembled with hide glue anyway. Don't be shy about using modern glue and modern techniques to repair what amounts to a modern chair.

This 1920s era mahogany and birch Rococo RCA cabinet is a fine looking example of an early 20th century entertainment center.

If you take the approach that your older and antique furniture is there for your use and enjoyment and not solely there for the preservation of the past, you will be more inclined to use your "antiques" every day. You will enjoy them even more and will probably, in the long run, greatly prolong their useful life. Just make sure that you provide your treasures with care appropriate to the use such as regular cleaning and waxing, employing waterproof finishes on table tops and using modern upholstery materials and techniques to make your seating comfortable.
Use your antiques and take care of them and they will maintain their value in the process.

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