Man, oh man, this is a biggie. I wish I had known more when I was starting out, but I think wanting to “save” old pieces is just part of the process. I still have a hard time turning away from dilapidated old vintage pieces. (They do have their place in the furniture flipping craze, for sure!)
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When I was first starting out, I painted all of my favorite old pieces (using Sherwin Williams sample paints and Plaster of Paris, and waxing with shoe wax…that will be another blog post on another day. (I sure did like to do things the hard way to try to save a buck).
Then I obsessed over the gorgeous pieces that I saw on Pinterest. My eye was always drawn to the vintage pieces. They were often real wood (beware of every Marketplace post made to man that is claiming to be real wood. Ashley, Broyhill and the like have not been “real wood” in the sense that people think that they are, for as long as I can remember). Nothing upsets me more (well, that’s probably an exaggeration), than agreeing to pick up a “solid wood” piece, and getting there to see a pressboard piece that has veneer.
I wanted to be a paint superstar like the artists that painted those Pinterest-worthy pieces! (That was before I knew that anyone could put anything on Pinterest, but I am still in awe!) One of my proudest moments was seeing someone post a picture of one of my pieces in a painting group, asking how to do that finish, and being able to say “that’s mine!”. When she told me “it’s all over Pinterest”, I thought I may have actually edged my way into the world of furniture artistry!
Anywho, here’s how my journey into the industry went, and I do believe it is a pretty common path:
After painting everything old that I owned (I didn’t realize that you could paint new furniture, too, until I was a decade into the process!), I started buying “real wood” pieces at garage sales, thrift stores, and on Marketplace.
I was cheap, to be honest, and I guess I did not think I was worthy of painting a good, solid, valuable piece. So, I bought junk. Lots and lots of junk. (Still do, sometimes.) I would look for dovetail drawers, and think that I had found a quality piece. Let me share this here and now…if the rest of the piece is not still sturdy, the dovetailed drawers mean nothing. That was a hard lesson to learn.
The dilapidated old pieces (cheap for a reason)
My price point was somewhere between $25-$60. You don’t often find quality pieces for that price. At least I didn’t. A couple of years ago, I thought I had hit the jackpot. I found a listing for a whole house full of vintage/antique furniture that had not been touched in decades. I was THRILLED! Turns out, the roof was missing off of portions of the old house, and the doors had been left open for who knows how long, and leaves, rodents and animals had been in there living with the furniture.
Instead of running, I went for the good price and the potential of hitting a gold mine. I paid $25-50 per piece and got a lot of pieces. Every single piece needed work. They were filthy. One bucket of white lightning per piece was not enough. The amount of time and effort that had to be put into each and every piece that came out of that find was astronomical. I had yet to recognize the true value of my time at that point. (I still have an overflowing trailer load of these pieces, and nowhere to put them, and ZERO desire to do all of that work.)
I had some fun, painted some cute pieces, then the excitement wore off, and I am stuck with a bunch of projects. If only I owned a warehouse to keep them in, and had a cleaning assistant, and a repair assistant, and a prep person…I would be knocking them out of the ballpark…lol. But, there’s me. And I do not like getting my hands dirty. Or spending hours upon hours repairing a piece before I can start the fun part of painting it. So, there ya go. I know that it is all part of the growth process, but if you take anything away from this post, let it be this…your time is valuable. Unless you enjoy repairing wobbly drawers, patching cracked veneer, and looking for expensive old replacement hardware, don’t start here.
These pieces are so labor-intensive, that they suck the joy and the profit out of the process. They are, however, still some of the coolest-looking pieces that you will ever do. Never say never again, because you can easily get sucked back into this category when you find “the one”.
Pros: The beauty and detail, along with the original craftsmanship of these old pieces are second to none. You will (after many, many hours of work) end up with a masterpiece. You will get to “Pinterest Worthy” status faster.
Cons: The repairs, while not often costly supply-wise, take up so much of your time. If you charge a labor fee (I do), it can really add up, and your piece that costs $25 has $200 worth of labor, plus supplies, that have to be factored into the actual cost of the piece when calculating your retail price.
More modern pieces (1970’s to present)
The next step is raising your budget a tad, and going for the $100-$150 pieces. I can’t tell you how proud I was to get to paint my first $100 armoire and then sell it for $399. Proud. I felt like a real artist like I deserved to get to paint nice things. (It wasn’t nice, or worth $100, but that’s another story.)
This is where I stayed for a long time, and still, hang out a lot. I find the decently priced, modern-day pieces, and hope that they don’t stink like a cigarette or a cat and that the veneer is not beyond repair. Sometimes there are dovetailed drawers, usually not, but the surfaces are smooth, and there is a good bit of decorative detail on them to embellish.
These pieces don’t often need the number of repairs that the vintage pieces require, but they come with their own set of issues. First, they almost always have a factory finish. I’m not talking about laminate (now I have to add that in somewhere), but a thick, shiny, slick topcoat that prevents your paint from adhering or grabbing onto the surface. I don’t know how water manages to penetrate that finish, but 9 times out of 10, there is an inlaid veneer on the surface, and it is bubbled and lifting off of the particleboard underneath. These pieces are HEAVY, too! Way heavier than real wood.
With these finishes, comes extra work. Normally, the preparation (prep work) will be less on real wood, than on these high-gloss pieces. I am going to add laminate in here, too. Slick, shiny, and not much different than a cheap countertop, and while fingernail polish will somehow stay on this stuff forever, the paint will scratch right off. So, once again, the work is labor intensive, but at least it is not “came out of the barn” dirty.
You will, in most instances, need to scuff sand (lightly sand in the direction of the “wood” grain), and add a primer. There are 2 kinds of primers, adhesion and blocking. If your piece is real wood, and dark, like a mahogany or cherry, or has knots, like pine, you have a great potential of bleed-through, which is where old tannins, oils, sap, and stains are drawn from deep in the wood to the surface by the water in the paint. It doesn’t go away. It has to be blocked. I use B.O. S. S. (Blocks out stains and odors) from Dixie Belle, or Zinsser shellac-based primers on any pieces that the factory seal has been broken that may bleed.
The next primer is adhesion. If the surface is too slick, such as with laminate or that high gloss sealer, an adhesion primer is needed to grab onto that slick surface (I still scuff sand first), and provide a surface for your paint to adhere to. My favorite is Dixie Belle Slick Stick
You’re looking at the cost of another product, or two, plus labor, to get these ready to paint. Make sure to always check the corners and the bottoms of these pieces, as they have often been exposed to water from mopping or other sources, and the particleboard will swell underneath the veneer. This can be painted over, but the piece will never be as sturdy or new looking as it was before the damage. (You can replace legs, repair veneer, etc., but it will add to your time and expenses and must be taken into consideration.)
Pros: Often less work to get them prepped, a lot of decorative embellishments, and the end buyer often perceives them as quality if they recognize the name brand.
Cons: Easily damaged by water, and often have a slick surface that must be primed, sanded and cleaned before you can start painting.
I cannot believe that I didn’t come up with this one myself. I had a customer ship me some nightstands, directly off of Amazon. WHAT????? Yes, they have brand new Ashley and other name brand furniture on Amazon and it ships free with Prime. Game changer!!!
New furniture, at least the mass produced stuff that I’m talking about, is exactly the same as the last category, except that you will not have to deal with existing damage and smells. It will have the same laminate or factory finish, and the details are often resin or plastic, rather than wood, but it is already clean, the drawers work properly, and it is on trend, style-wise.
You do have to pay full retail price, though, and then justify the new selling price. Your labor, though, will be way down, and you won’t have to add that expense.
The new pieces are lighter weight, and easier to move around. That’s a big win for me, for sure.
Pros: Damage-free, in style, brand recognition. Less labor-intensive, so lower hours of labor to be added to expenses.
Cons: Need sanding and priming, higher initial cost. Still is not “real” wood.
As I transitioned from taking whatever cheap crumbs that I could find, to brand new pieces, I think that I found my real sweet spot in the more modern pieces that are often found on Marketplace. They are less expensive than at thrift stores, and I don’t have to run all over town looking for garage sales.
I wish that I could transition completely to new pieces, and I have even contacted a local furniture store asking for any damaged pieces at a discount. (Cheapo me again, still at it.) However, the quality of a true vintage piece, IF you can find it in good condition, is always going to be where my heart goes.
TIP: Whenever possible, just stain the tops, or leave them with the factory finish, and just paint the rest of the piece. I love this trend because the area that is often most likely to get scratched or have the paint damaged, is left to the tough finish that came with the piece. Dixie Belle’s No Pain Gel Stain is oil-based, and does not penetrate the surface, and can be used directly on top of the factory finish, to deepen or otherwise change the color. You can stain right over the factory finish, or sand it down, as I did here if there is damage to the surface.
1. Buy the best piece that you can afford, condition-wise.
2. Remember that your time is valuable, and if you are going to have to spend an extra 4-8 or more hours with prep work, the cost of the piece goes up. (I calculate my labor at $20 per hour.)
3. The older the piece, the higher the potential for it being real wood. Look for dove-tailed drawers, and look at the back of the piece, and the edges and the bottom for tell-tell signs of veneer lifting off of particle board.
4. Newer pieces can look great, with the right prep work. Remember to calculate your labor hours.
5. Enjoy the process!