I like the look of period painted furniture. I know a lot of folks scoff and roll their eyes when someone says they are going to paint a piece of furniture, feeling that the wood should be left alone to speak for itself. I can understand this sentiment. Cheap quality mass production of painted termite barf has given painted furniture a bad name. I certainly wouldn’t even think of putting paint over a nice piece of figured walnut or mahogany. However, like it or not, paint was a very, very common finish for period furniture. Some pieces were painted bright colors, while others were painted and grained to look like more expensive woods.
Look at it through the eyes of our ancestors: when you live in a world where just about everything is made out of wood and therefore some shade of brown, a brightly painted piece of furniture may be the only color you see in your modest little home. Only the wealthiest families would have had upholstered furniture and fabrics adorning the walls and windows of their estates. The more common middle/lower class homes were pretty bland. So paint was the solution to brown.
Paint is also a good finish for less expensive timbers. While I like the look of natural pine very much, I have a lot of it in my shop. Pretty much every appliance and fixture in my shop is made from some kind of conifer and finished natural or left unfinished. Other than my tool chest, there isn’t much color in there. So I decided I wanted my new cupboard to be painted. I went with a warm yellow ochre so as not to scream too loudly. However, while I do like painted finishes, I’m not all that fond of bland, lifeless, uniform color. I like to spice things up just a little.
Take the photo above of one of the cupboard doors for example. The color is nice. But it’s kind of uniform and lifeless. There isn’t much character to the finish. I think this is one of the reasons that many people have an aversion to painted furniture. When a piece of furniture is freshly painted, it looks freshly painted, almost like something you just put together from a box you trucked home from the Pottery Barn. My solution to this problem is to give the paint some character.
One of my favorite products for giving some age and life to a painted finish is a dark wax. I’m kind of fond of Briwax Dark Brown, for reasons I’ll discuss in a second, but just about any dark brown wax will work, even shoe polish. The dark wax imparts some age and grunge to the piece by getting trapped in any little areas of tearout, corners of door frames, scratches, and other places that dirt would naturally collect when a piece is used for years and years. The best part about this type of aging is that it’s a piece of cake to do, and doesn’t require beating your new furniture with chains and keys and all that nonsense (please don’t beat your furniture).
I work in small sections at a time with the Briwax because the solvent in this particular wax flashes off very quickly (work outside or next to an open window as the fumes aren’t exactly healthy for you). I apply the wax with 0000 steel wool, working in the direction of the grain wherever possible. Using the steel wool to apply the wax knocks off any little dust nibs trapped in the final coat of finish and gives the paint and wood a smooth, burnished look and feel that is just awesome. I apply the wax somewhat generously, because I want the excess to collect in the areas mentioned previously. After applying and rubbing the wax in with the first pad of steel wool, I’ll go over the dried wax with a clean pad of steel wool to remove buildup in areas where I over did it a bit and burnish things a little more.
Once the steel wool work has been completed, the aging is just about done. The final step is to use a soft cotton cloth to buff out the surface and get most of the gunk out of the corners and such. I don’t remove all of the buildup in the hard to reach areas, just what will easily come out. This simulates what would remain in these areas after years of regular cleaning and polishing of the piece. The beauty of the Briwax product is that it will redissolve itself if things aren’t exactly like you want. If an area is too heavy and already dry, just apply more wax and buff it off with a clean cloth. The new application will redissolve the dried wax and allow it to be worked around again. I work in small areas to try and avoid getting an inconsistent build, but this feature of the product has been very helpful many times when I’ve worked too large an area and couldn’t buff the heavy build out fast enough. Also, the wax can be cleaned off completely with plain old mineral spirits. So if you don’t like the look of the dark wax on your piece, it’s easy to strip it right off with a rag and some mineral spirits and go back to the unwaxed finish.
It took me about 10 minutes of work to do each one of the doors on the cupboard. The main case took awhile longer of course, but it’s cool to watch the piece age right under your fingers. If you decide to try this for yourself, and I do recommend you try it, wear gloves, as the pigment in the wax will stain your hands, make sure you have really good ventilation, or work outside, and have fun!