The Classic Wood Debate: Painted vs Natural

When the shabby-chic (and coastal shabby-chic if you’re near us) made it’s way into the top ranks of design world, it wasn't uncommon to see wood furniture with a glossy layer of paint. It also wasn’t uncommon to see that layer of paint deliberately scuffed around the edges to give pieces that “worn, repurposed, I found this at a flea market” kind of look. 

While that trend has calmed down a bit, it’s still hanging around. And there are certainly many benefits to painted wood: You can totally make-over an old existing piece in your home; you can hide imperfections and flaws in the old wood; you can take a very inexpensive yard sale or thrift store find and make it fit into your personal design scheme; you can tone down the design era features of a piece that makes it stand out of place in your home. A coat of paint and some new hardware will do wonders for a sad old dresser. This is no secret.

That being said, this trend has definitely created somewhat of a division among designers, furniture traders, and any appreciator of furniture and finishes. While most can make an exception either way, it’s not atypical to fall on one side of the debate:

Painted Wood vs Natural 

If you know me at all you could probably guess that I typically fall on the “natural” side of the argument. A "wood purist" some may call it. I have my own reasons for this, but part of it is just who I am, even outside of who I am as a designer. But I won’t get into all of that. 

I’m here to give you some very important things to think about if you have in your possession, or are considering purchasing a wood piece to add to your collection. Whatever side of the argument you may take, all I ask is that you consider these things before you see a piece and go “wouldn’t that look so much better in white?” Because trust me, friends, that trend is fading fast.

So here they are:

1. What do you know about the piece? 

Can you tell for sure that this $40 Craig’s List find is only worth the $40 you paid for it? Was it a road-side find? Or is it a family heirloom? I would encourage you to find out something about it. Ask a designer (like US, for example!) I have friends text me photos of furniture all the time and say “do you know what kind of chair this is?” or “what style is this?” or “are they asking too much for this bed?” And typically I can help. If I can’t, I turn them to a source that can. The point of all this is to say—don’t coat something in paint unless you are almost positive that it isn’t a historical design artifact or valuable antique. Because if it is, congratulations. You just killed the value. 

I found this bed leaning against a telephone pole at the end of a driveway off a pretty busy highway. It was $50. And it's probably one of the best deals I've ever come across. You know why? Because an antique wood spindle bed is highly sought after, and would probably be worth at least $300 in an antique store. That knowledge greatly influenced my decision not to paint it. Even if you would disagree, at least now you know about it! 

I found this bed leaning against a telephone pole at the end of a driveway off a pretty busy highway. It was $50. And it's probably one of the best deals I've ever come across. You know why? Because an antique wood spindle bed is highly sought after, and would probably be worth at least $300 in an antique store. That knowledge greatly influenced my decision not to paint it. Even if you would disagree, at least now you know about it! 

2. Does it mean anything to you or someone you love?

Did you inherit the piece from your mother, who inherited it from her mother? Or did you buy it on an overseas vacation many years ago? If it holds any sentimental value to you or someone close to you (dead or alive), I would encourage you to keep it’s original finish. Unless the person who gave it to you gives you the “ok” to paint it. Consider a piece’s history (whether it’s valuable or not) before you totally change it’s appearance, especially if you’re only changing it to fit a very temporary design theme in your home. 

On average, design trends last anywhere from 2 to 5 years. Most would argue closer to 2 years, but I’m being generous here, just because of how long burlap and chevron have dragged themselves around Hobby Lobby. That means, if you incorporate something “trendy” into your home, chances are you’ll be totally over it in 5 years. (Although that’s not to say some people’s homes don’t change for decades—there’s a reason shag carpet removal specialists are still in business). Chew on that before you semi-permanently alter something that has value to you or someone close to you.

3. Does the piece’s design style lend itself to paint or a natural finish? 

This may be perplexing to most unless you’ve had a design history class or have been self-immersed in design (I confess, I am a total design history nerd—the most disappointing part of my trip to Chicago last year was the fact that the architecture and design history wing of the Art Institute Museum was closed for remodel). But I’ll give you a simple example:

Antique French— not hard to find painted in original form. 

It’s hard to find a nice French piece without some paint or gilding (gold paint) on it somewhere. But even in this instance, it’s best to refer to point #1 before you decide turquoise would suit the piece better than cream. If it’s a valuable antique, better reconsider.

Mid Century Modern/ Danish — almost always natural finish. 

You’ll recognize this style by it’s soft curves, clean lines, and slightly tapered cylindrical legs. It’s big right now. And most times, not only is it not painted, it’s also most times not stained. Walnut was a popular choice for such styles, and walnut’s natural hue is perfect with just an enhancing sealer for protection. Seldom will someone seek out a painted mid century or danish piece. 

If you find an inexpensive piece that’s made to imitate the stylings of a certain design style, you’re safer to paint. But like I said. Always remember point #1!

4. Is it solid wood? Well-made? 

Sounds like a no-brainer, but few people consider this when deciding whether to paint a piece. Here’s an example: my husband has this big old chunky wood dresser from the 80s/90s that he so kindly contributed to our collection when we got married. It’s by no means attractive. But it’s solid, heavy oak, so I’ve always been hesitant to paint it, even though paint would probably help it out. (And, let’s be honest, it’s also a lot of work to paint a wood piece.) I’ve always kept the top of it covered with a silk table runner to add in some color/protection. But you know what I discovered when we were moving?? The top is laminate! It’s not real wood! Totally fake. And the drawers are butt-jointed together. So while it may look nice and weigh a million pounds, it’s really not all that nice. 

My point in all this is—if the piece is going to last you a really long time, chances are you’ll outgrow the “painted” phase at some point in the piece’s lifetime. So ask yourself "am I ok getting rid of this piece if I decide I don't like it in 5 years?" 

Side note here: solid wood and dovetail joints on drawers are a good indication that something was made with good craftsmanship.

 

5. Would it look better re-finished? 

Let’s say we can both agree the furniture has seen better days. There’s scratches, maybe a toddler took a crayon to it or practiced drumming on it with a remote control. Something definitely needs to be done.

OR, it’s got great bones and details, but the wood finish doesn’t go with your other pieces. 

A great example and article on refinishing wood from The Brick House

A great example and article on refinishing wood from The Brick House

If you’re going to go through all the work of painting it, consider a re-stain instead. There are so many different stain colors out there. You can even stain a piece gray these days, giving it that shabby-chic look without covering it in paint. Take a photo or a drawer in to your local paint store and ask them what kind of wood you’re dealing with, and what stains would work best. Some stores have boards that show you what each stain will look like on different species of wood. 

6. Last, but certainly NOT Least—Do you know what you’re doing?

Well, do you? Have you painted wood before? Are you planning on skipping all the sanding because it’s a pain in the butt? Or because someone told you there's a product out there that eliminates the sanding step? Do you think you can tackle the project with 2-3 cans of spray paint? Think again, my friend.

If you aren’t confident in your ability to do a good job, don’t begin your rookie furniture painting job on a nice solid piece of furniture. I’ve used nothing but a can of spray paint on a table before. And I pulled that $15 piece of particle board table from someone’s free yard trash. Sooo, not that big of a deal. But if it’s an investment piece, if you’re going to be using it every day, eating all your meals from it, storing your dishes in it (i.e. cabinets) etc, then talk to a professional before you get started.

OR, since you’re certainly not the first person to paint furniture, find a good DIY. Popular DIY bloggers over at Young House Love have a great blog entry (with video!) of when they refinished their kitchen cabinets. It’s a very intensive process. I highly recommend you watch it before you tell yourself “hey, I can just paint that—no biggie.” 

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I’m not totally against painting furniture. My dining chairs are painted, I have two chairs and a side table that came painted (one is a french antique—bonus points if you were paying attention above and know why that’s important to know). And I have plans to paint at least one more piece of furniture in our house. It has it’s place in every home. But so does natural wood! 

Consider the balance in your own home. If you’ve been searching for a new piece of furniture, think about whether you want it to be painted or natural. Think about the other finishes in the room. 

And if you need help deciding, drop us a line! We’re happy to help answer your design dilemmas. You may even have your question featured on our Design SOS series on the blog! 

Until next time!