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Collecting Mania: Painted Furniture

Updated on May 28, 2010

The recognition of old paint's value is a recent development in the antiques world. For much of this century, most antiques collectors had assumed that the grain of any wood was always more pleasing to the eye than a coat of paint, regardless of its age or authenticity. Collectors stripped or sanded thousands of valuable antiques in an effort to erase every last trace of paint. Frequently, what lay beneath the thin layer of original paint was disappointing common pine or a mixture of durable yet nondescript boards of poplar, maple, and birch. Despite gallons of caustic chemicals and repeated scrubbings with wire-bristle brushes, the wood's paint-saturated pores generally remained tainted with the faint hue of paint.

It has often been claimed that country cabinetmakers painted their furniture to disguise the fact that it had been made from a variety of common woods. While it is true a craftsman may have selected soft pine for the seat of a chair, pliable hickory for the bowed back, and hard maple for the legs and spindles, these are not ugly woods, nor are they necessarily dissimilar in grain or tone. One need only inspect a varnished Windsor chair made of these three woods to realize that paint was not a necessity. It was an option.

It is more likely that the paint on a country cupboard, chair, or bench reflects the personal preference of either the cabinetmaker or the original owner. At a time when neither colorful fabrics nor lively wallpapers, electric lighting, or large picture windows brightened a home, families depended on paint - including painted furniture - to add color.

Formulas for stains, dyes, varnishes, and paints have always been closely guarded secrets. Early cabinetmakers might well have been judged on such factors as the vibrancy and the color of their paint, and were as proud of their personal finish formulas as they were of their dovetailed joints.

All paints consist of three basic components: the colored pigments, either natural or synthetic; the binder, which holds the pigments to the wood or metal; and the solvent, which thins the binder to a working consistency. Pigments can range from finely ground particles of earth to synthetic materials created by chemists in laboratories.

A lot of surviving painted finishes feature milk paint (sometimes called casein paint). Early cabinetmakers and finishers discovered that skimmed milk could serve as an inexpensive and readily available binder, which requires only water as a solvent. A basic formula might have called for skimmed milk, ground limestone, powdered clay, colored pigments, and water. The result was a durable, inexpensive paint that dried to a satin sheen with a light texture. To increase the durability of the dried milk paint and to enhance its color, experts recommend a finishing coat of either furniture paste wax or a clear water-based sealant.

The best way to learn to recognize an original painted finish is to study honest examples in a reputable antiques shop. Study, too, the pattern of wear exhibited by authentic pieces:

  • Paint will often be completely worn off the top edges of drawers and around knobs.
  • Tops and feet will be scratched and dented, with no signs of any attempt to touch up missing paint.
  • Because original paint has a firm foundation in the pores of the wood, it is more apt to wear off than flake off.
  • Later coats of paint applied over either a clear or painted finish are more apt to flake or pop off under stress.

Continued In Collecting Mania: Painted Furniture Part 2


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