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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Want Next Generation to Embrace Old Furniture? Try Paint

At every talk I give on downsizing, the subject of handing furniture off to grown kids comes up. And every time I deliver the bad news: The kids don’t want your stuff. Invariably, parents moan and adult children cheer.


“Don’t believe me?” I ask. “Just walk through any secondhand furniture store or visit Facebook Marketplace. They’re flooded with brown furniture no one wants.”


Today, however, I am sharing a happy exception: The Tale of the Mahogany Dresser.


Back in the 1950s, when my parents were newly married, they bought a mahogany bedroom set: a four-poster double bed, two nightstands, and a double dresser. Fifteen or so years later, when I was about five, they got a new bedroom set and I got the old one. (Big day!)


Several years later, they decided, without consulting me, that mahogany was out and that a fruitwood finish would look better. Piece by piece, the furniture disappeared into the garage along with my father, who spent many nights and weekends sanding off the old dark finish. One by one the pieces reappeared in my room as lighter versions of their former selves. 


Many years later when I finished school and moved to my first apartment, my parents gave me the bedroom set, all the furniture I owned. Eventually, I married and had children. When the oldest was out of a crib, the bedroom set became hers. When she got her first place, the bedroom set went along.


Not long after, she and her then boyfriend decided to give the set a lighter look and painted all the pieces white. That might have been a good idea if the result didn’t look as if they had

painted it themselves. The paint didn’t stick too well. It blistered and peeled in spots. I didn’t comment except to say how nice it looked. (I’m learning.) I was just glad they hadn’t ditched the well-made furniture and replaced it with inferior pieces made of MDF (Made to Deteriorate Fast) particle board.


Today, my daughter is married (not to the old boyfriend) and the white bedroom set furnishes her guest room. I sleep in my childhood bed when I visit. Last week, one of the pieces from the bedroom set underwent a third transformation. My son-in-law stripped the dresser’s poorly adhering white paint, sanded the piece down to bare wood, repainted it dark green (Benjamin Moore Deep Jungle), and updated the old vintage handles with modern brushed-gold knobs. It looks fantastic.

“We went shopping for dressers and found that a decent one costs almost $2,000,” my daughter said. “Then we looked at this one, and said, ‘Let’s just paint it.’” Total cost, including an electric sander, paint and knobs, was under $200.


The revitalized piece is a beautiful blend of old meets new, symbolic since the dresser is going in … the nursery. That’s right, for the baby boy they’re expecting in May. (I know, I buried the lead.)


So now, seventy-some years later, the mahogany-fruitwood-white-now-jungle-green dresser is waiting with its new gold knobs to store some very small clothes and to be part of the fourth generation. And someone I know is going to start saying: The kids don’t want your stuff — unless you repaint it.


“Painting wood furniture is a job anyone can do, and more should,” said Jerry White, owner of JW Painting, in Casselberry, Fla., who’s been in the painting business 25 years. The trick is to paint so it won’t look like you did it yourself.


Here’s how:

·      Know what you’re painting over. If your wood piece is stained or painted, and the paint is adhering well, lightly sand the surface to prepare it for painting. If it has varnish, use a deglosser to remove the coating, then sand. If your piece is painted, and the paint is not adhering well, you’ll need to use a paint stripper, a chemical that helps lift paint, then scrape the paint off and sand the surface down to bare wood. “It’s a lot of work, but you should not paint over paint that is lifting and peeling,” White said. If you want to re-stain the wood, not repaint, you will also have to sand it down to bare wood.

·      Sand well. One of the most common mistakes DIYers make when painting furniture is not sanding enough or at all. Once you’ve deglossed or stripped the paint, “profile the surface,” White said. That’s the term pros use to mean lightly sand the wood to give the new paint “something to bite on.” An electric palm sander will help.

·      Wipe it down. To create a clean, dust-free surface, wipe the piece all over with a tack rag dampened with mineral spirits. A regular rag moistened with water also works.

·      Prime it. Next coat the piece with a good oil-based primer. That will seal the surface and create an even base. If you don’t prime it, paint may not stick and may not look uniform, even after multiple coats, White said.

·      Fill the holes. If you’re replacing knobs or pulls, and if the new hardware doesn’t align with the existing holes, fill old holes and make new ones. Spackle is good for drywall, but it’s too soft for wood furniture. Use plastic wood or wood epoxy instead, then prime over filled spots.

·      Use the right paint. The best paint to use on wood furniture is urethane or oil-based, not latex. Urethane is White’s favorite because it dries harder, faster and doesn’t scratch.

·      Roll don’t brush. White likes to use a small, four-inch roller of either foam, microfiber, or mohair to apply paint. He then uses a bristle brush on edges and crevices.

·      Know when to call a pro. Although repainting furniture is a job most of us can handle, some jobs, like painting cabinets are better left to the pros. They can use commercial-grade sprayers that create better, longer-lasting coverage.


CAPTION 1: Part of the Family —This once mahogany dresser belonged to the author’s parents. Some years ago, the author’s daughter painted it white, and just recently transformed it again by painting it Deep Jungle Green. It’s now in a nursery waiting to welcome a fourth generation. Painting old furniture can help good pieces stay in families for generations.


CAPTION 2: From scratch — When repainting furniture, like this old dresser that had been painted once before but poorly, strip off the old paint and sand the piece to bare wood before priming and repainting.  Photos courtesy Adam Nielson.

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Feb 12

A good friend who is a real estate agent came visited the new home we purchased from her. When she came into the main bedroom and looked at the mahogany furniture, she kindly said, "this would look nice if it were painted white." "Nope", I responded, "this is my great, great grandparents' set that survived the San Francisco earthquake and fire. Not painting this in my lifetime but I can't control what others will do with it." I'm not against paint and if it saves a good quality piece of furniture from landfill, it's a good thing. As taste change and what's old becomes new again, I would carefully think before painting.


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