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Collecting Mania: Painted Furniture Part 2

Updated on May 28, 2010

If you have the good fortune to purchase a piece of furniture with its original paint intact, don't fall prey to the temptation to touch up any missing paint. Only a trained restoration expert has the capabilities and material required to produce a perfect match.

If the piece is dirty or its colors are badly faded, you can carefully clean it using a soft cloth and a minimum amount of mild soap and water. Start cleaning in the least conspicuous place, and stop immediately if your rag begins to pick up some of the color of the paint. Never apply a coat of varnish or shellac over an authentic painted finish, for the amber hue of the finish will change the color of the paint. The safest way to protect the paint and to restore its sheen is with a quality furniture paste wax.

Today, antiques that are not "perfect" have become so widely accepted and admired that a growing number of people are either buying "distressed" new furniture or painting unfinished furniture to look old, original, and timeworn. Books and articles abound with instructions on false graining, stippling, sponging, speckling, and other simple special effects that can transform inexpensive new furniture into pieces that - from across the room, at least - appear to be more than 100 years old. One glance at the construction of the drawers, doors, underside, or interior of the case will immediately identify it as a late-20th-century reproduction.

More dangerous to collectors are intentional frauds. These may be old pieces that have been given a new paint job and then distressed and weathered to look like original paint, or new pieces constructed out of old painted wood, such as barn boards joined into a cupboard. To spot these imposters, look for unlikely patterns of wear - or for signs of age that are just a bit too perfect. These artificially aged pieces can have their charm, but don't be tricked into paying the price for a true antique painted finish.

Few pieces of country furniture are as straightforwardly practical as the wooden bench. Requiring for its construction only a few wooden boards, basic carpentry tools, and whatever spare paint may be stored in the shed, this staple of rural American life has been called into use for countless home-and-garden chores for centuries.

Shaker craftsmen almost always stained or painted wooden furniture, both to protect the wood and to make it easier to clean - a virtue the Shakers held in high regard. Stains and paints were made within the commune. Dyes for stains were easily distilled from local plants and trees. Pigments for paints, however, had to be purchased from "the world" and hence were used sparingly. Though Shaker craftsmen rarely combined paint colors on a single piece of furniture, they occasionally left a tabletop unpainted, preferring instead to stain and finish it in a more natural yellow or reddish-orange tone, to contrast with the painted base. The combination of a naturally finished top and a painted base has become a hallmark of Shaker design.

Because it is water based, milk paint is nonflammable, quick drying, odorless, nontoxic when dry, and environmentally safe. It's recommended for people with extreme chemical sensitivities and allergies.

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