How I gained an appreciation of painted furniture

mid nineties at the church.
lots of painted furniture

Some people are brought into an appreciation of antique painted furniture by encouragement from a relative or friend who is  a collector.  Some come to it through self-discovery and research.  Some, perhaps most, don’t come to it at all.   It depends on how you’re wired.   Early antique painted furniture is relatively rare and so you don’t even see it all that often, so many people do not know it even exists.

corner washstand in original butter yellow paint over blueberry stain from Thamesville, Ont.

In my case,  I was brought up in a house with several antiques inherited from my mother’s family.  I had a great uncle in Chatham who made furniture so we had a few of his pieces.  All either cherry or walnut and all in original varnish.  I enjoyed going with my mother and uncle to antique shops and  auctions, and occasionally they would buy something.  Although these were mostly of the decorating or serving dish variety.  My father didn’t seem to care much about the furnishings as long as he had a comfortable chair to sit in and was happy to leave it up to my mother.  It wasn’t all about antiques. If we needed a new couch or bed,  my parents would buy a new item.  If they needed a chest of drawers they would go for an antique, but they were practical people.  Antique beds are 5 1/2 feet long for heaven’s sake, and antique settees are almost universally uncomfortable. I think the reasoning was, if the seat is uncomfortable the guest will leave sooner, and of course nobody was stretching out trying to be comfortable watching t.v.

early chest in red stain with remnant of white overpaint

As a teenager I enjoyed the social scene of the rural auction.  My tastes ran more towards an appreciation of old advertising, and household objects, but I also had an interest in older hand made furniture.  Most of the furniture that I would encounter in those days was either in dark varnish, or faux painted to make a cheaper wood such as maple, look like oak, or overpainted with thick oil paint, most often white or similar trim colour that they had laying around.  I’d say an overwhelming percentage was like this, like 80 percent.  But occasionally I would see a piece (usually older) in a bright painted colour, darkened, thinned, and untouched over the years.  I instinctively gravitated toward these pieces.  I didn’t know anything about patina,  but I knew they excited me. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that the dealers in the crowd would be right onto these pieces and they would draw big money.  I didn’t stand a chance of owning one with my budget.

Then when in the early eighties we started to make a living by selling antiques, with a truck and a strong back I began buying lots of antique furniture at local auctions.   At the time, the biggest part of the market was for stripped furniture in light wood.  You could buy a chest with several coats of paint, strip it down to the wood and refinish it, and make a good buck for your trouble.  I didn’t mind doing this in ninety nine percent of the cases, but every once in a while I would get a piece which as you stripped it down, would reveal a beautiful colour under all the other layers.  Instinctively I would try to save this paint.

a Quebec blanket box in blueberry paint with remnant of white over-paint

We used a relatively gentle water-based stripper called PVR, that if your timing was right, would “pop” one layer at a time.  It took a bit longer but you had more control and the fumes were not as bad. Well, still bad but I always worked with a big exhaust fan which is why I still have a few brain cells left.  I can tell you stories of others, but they are sad, and that’s another day.  In any case, some of this older furniture, the ones with the beautiful original colours were painted in milk paint.  In the days before oil paint.  These paints would stay put fairly well stuck to the surface, and if your timing was right you could take all the top layers off to reveal this original paint, and you could stop there and just wash it down with a little Murphy’s oil soap and it would look good.  Then later I learned about dry scrapping.  I bought myself a good Lee Valley scrapping knife and learned how to control the pressure and retain the concentration to take the top layers off without effecting the original surface.  it is a very satisfying feeling when you get this right, and you sit back and admire the finished piece brought back to it’s original glory.  Of course, on the rare occasions you will come across a piece that has never been touched, or abused, and is perfectly wonderful the way it is, and with knowledge you realize how precious these pieces really are.

sideboard with mustard paint over dark stain

Over the years I have developed an appreciation for the ge3nerally finer made, formal “brown” furniture that many love for their city homes, but I have developed a passion for the early country pieces in beautiful colour.   Once you have this love of painted furniture there is no turning back.  It’s like being in love.

Good pieces are not all that easy to come across but they are worth the search.  Go to a good Tim Potter auction, or the Cabin Fever show coming up February  3rd and 4th in Kingston, Ontario, or the Bowmanville show on Good Friday and you’ll see some.  You might even take something home with you. You’d be wise to.  It will enrich your life.

early chest with original, untouched blue and white paint.

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One thought on “How I gained an appreciation of painted furniture

  1. PAINT , pertaining mainly to furniture .
    The collecting of painted furniture , seems to me , is a bit of an evolution in the life of a collector . Often starting out with refinished furniture until that ” Phil Ross style ” epiphany takes hold and the wonderment begins . It can take something from ordinary to extraordinary . It can , literally , be the icing on the cake . It can be the art work on a blank canvas .
    Broadly defined – any finish on a wood surface . This includes , colour , stain , varnish or shellac . It would also include any combination of any or all of the above . eg , stained curly maple with varnish over top , Colour with varnish top etc …..
    Furniture ( country furniture especially ) , was painted for many reasons . It protected the wood , added interest to rather plain grained woods ( Pine , Bass wood , Maple ) . It decorated woods to mimic more expensive woods either not available or not affordable . In Ontario , more expensive furniture woods such as Mahogany or rosewood were not available since the travel was a problem from areas like Cuba and Central America . The East Coast of Canada and the USA had ship travel from more exotic locals and these more expensive and rare woods were much more available . In this part of the country , it was far more likely that our furniture was ” grain painted ” to simulate expensive woods . Local exotic woods were figured maple and burl , flamed birch ( more common in the east ) , figured cherry . Even these were mimiced in painted furniture , particularly the figured maples . Paint was applied in layers then combed , brushed or dappled to emulate the grain in curly maple , birds eye maple , oak etc . Some Grain painting can be representative of age , oak graining is popular with later turn of the century , yellow and brown , green and brown . yellow and brown was more popular in areas like Waterloo County , often overpainted early furniture had this yellow brown over and original colour .
    Solid colour paint . Most were formed from pigment , some found naturally like the ” Blueberry ” Phil Ross mentioned , reds , greens , yellows , brown . Pigments were mixed with a medium to make them liquid ( linseed oil , milk etc ) . I can well imagine how a chrome yellow cupboard would brighten up an early home without electric lighting ! Some colours can be a good indicater of age as well , deep dark blues in Ontario are more common in early furniture , as time went on , the blues lightened up . Reds changed hue over time as well , same with green .” Brown Furniture ” ( having a mild resurgence ) was the go to colour for a very long time . Most isnt paint at all but a colour added to shellac or varnish darkening over time .
    The real Coup De Gras in painted furniture is the dry , untouched , oxidized original colour . Often called ” The Bowmanville Dry Look ” ( after the furniture found at the Bowmanville Antique and Folk Art Show ) . More recently , the desirable colour and surface is an alligatored , textured surface . The dry colour and surface is from the untouched surface of the paint oxidizing over long periods of time , getting a rather dusty look to it . This is very difficult to copy/restore or fake . The alligatored finish is more common when paint/varnish is layered . Over time , these two layers react to each other with humidity , sunlight , temperature , shrinkage and seperation . Also can be caused by an oil base and water base reacting to each other . The top coat acting like oil on water revealing the lower coat giving it a very attractive effect . These alligatored effects can be reproduced with success , buyer beware .
    Original Paint , defined loosley as the first surface applied to a finished piece of furniture , whether it be colour , varnish or shellac , or , any combination . Untouched ( never monkeyed with or overpainted ) Original paint is the most desirable and most rare and difficult to find . Some colours are more desirable than others and often garner more money , blues , yellows etc ….. . Original paint may also be defined as “scraped to original paint ” or ” overpaint removed ” . This can be done with heat , chemical or mechanically removing successive coats to get back to the first coat . 99.9 % of the time , this leaves no surface , simply colour .
    Restored Paint , this can be anything from a complete repaint to a touch up . There is no deception here , is noted by the seller and can be done professionally at a price and at museum/collector quality . Not all furniture warrants spending the time and money on restoration . If something has everything else going for it , form , function , age , proportions and condition , it may be worth looking into . At a Vetted show , like Bowmanville , paint restoration is noted on the tag along with a description age and price . This is sometimes listed as Original Colour , not exactly the same as Original paint or first surface .
    Fake , these works are meant to decieve , often repainted a more desirable colour or surface added as an enhancement . Quite often the ” New” paint is waxed or polished making it difficult to tell when work has been done . The dry oxidized surface is very difficult to reproduce . Touch ups can be detected with a black light but total repaints cannot be easily spotted with the black light . New surface can sometimes be picked out with the use of a Loop . ( structure is more crystalized than blistered ) In some circles , touch ups or repaints are acceptable , buying rather into form . Faked paint is only fake when sold as original paint and really good work is an art form unto itself ………..It takes time and handling of many pieces to get the swing of things , study up , buy from someone you trust , go to reputable shows like Bowmanville and Cabin Fever and most importantly !!!! BUYER BEWARE !!

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