Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Easy Shabby Chic - How To Create Your Own Painted Furniture

Painted furniture never goes out of fashion. Not only does it look great, it's also a wonderful means of recycling old pieces that have become unused and unloved.

The practice of painting can be traced back to vintage continental furniture. France in particular has a strong heritage and can probably claim to be the seed of all modern day 'shabby chic'. Provencal furniture is especially bold, with colours often being bright, vibrant and exciting, reflecting the light and colours of Provence itself.

Painting your unwanted furniture is a great way to create a French style room on a budget. British tastes often call for a more subdued palette, with antique whites and creams dominant. It's up to you to decide how daring (or not) you want to be when it comes to colour and finish.

 Vibrant Painted French Buffet et Deux Corps

The key to creating beautiful and lasting painted furniture lies in three things:
1. Preparation
2. Materials
3. Finish

You will need:
A piece of furniture to paint
Sand paper
Masking tape
Furniture wax or clear varnish

Choosing What To Paint: 
You can, of course, paint anything you chose. The golden rule for us is - never paint a perfect antique piece. Different styles and periods of furniture have a tendency to go in and out of fashion. What is unloved now could have a revival in years to come and be worth a small fortune. Dark Victorian furniture was seriously out of fashion five years ago but now pieces in prime condition are excelling at auction once again. The thing to remember is that painting furniture will not all always add value and it could, in some cases, be a grave mistake!

We have always chosen pieces that are structurally sound, but which have minor surface damage, for instance water marks, deep scratches, old worm holes or similar. All of these things can be masked by paint, improving on imperfections and giving the piece a new lease of life and a chance to be loved again.

Painted Edwardian Sideboard

Preparation is key. The paint needs a clean but roughish surface to cling too. Wash any surface and if possible remove any handles or similar that may get in the way. If you have an electric sander, great, but if not it can easily be done by hand. Remember that the idea is to make a rough surface for the paint to cling to (i.e. removing shiny varnishes and other finishes that may repel the paint). You don't need to sand every little bit perfectly, just enough to create a rough finish. Make sure you brush or hoover the piece afterwards to get rid of any dusty residue, as this can discolour the paint. 

To protect mirrors or any part of the piece you don't want paint - use masking tape. This easily peels off and doesn't leave a residue, unlike other types of tape.  

Before and After of a vintage French Bed 

The type of paint you use is very important in determining the type of finish you want. For a clean, smooth, matt finish standard emulsion paint is absolutely fine. It is very hard wearing and there is a great range of colours. It's perfect, if applied thickly, for creating a rustic, Provencal finish. It is also the cheapest option. However, if you want a more glossy finish or want to add a dark wax later, emulsion isn't suitable. 

In recent years there has been a surge in branded heritage style paints which are ideally suited to painting furniture. Options include Farrow & Ball, Fired Earth and Craig & Rose. These paints can be quite expensive, but they are worth it, as you have a beautiful choice of colours and the quality of the paint means that it goes a long way and is lasting.

On average you'll need to do 2-3 coats on each piece. Some painted furniture sellers will insist that you need a primer, but this isn't really the case. If you prepare the surface well enough and use a good quality paint, primer is unnecessary. It can sometimes create an "over painted" appearance, which can ruin the overall finish.

In fact, the first coat of paint acts like a primer. If you use a light colour, such as cream or beige, you may find that on darker furniture you need three coats rather than two. We find that darker colours require less coats and often two is plenty.

Detail from a painted French Buffet

The variety of finishes to choose from is endless. Many sellers lightly distress their furniture, this helps to create an authentic "aged" look, which is more in keeping with the age of the piece. Often undistressed pieces will look brand new, which can jar if they are antique in style.

Distressing can be done simply with a piece of medium grade sand paper. For an authentic aged look rub along areas that would naturally receive wear, such as legs, drawers and angles.

Some people like a highly distressed finish and this, if done well, can be very dramatic. If you decide to go for a heavy distress, be careful, as going too far can result in the item looking exhausted and damaged!

Many of the paints today don't need sealing with varnish, as they already create a hard wearing finish. However, if you want a high gloss finish or are painting an item that will receive a lot of surface wear, for example a dressing table top, then clear varnish can be applied over the paint.

An alternative to varnish is wax. For most painted furniture sellers, this is the finish of choice. It creates a lovely smooth finish with a slight shine and its application helps to highlight the wood in the distressed areas. You can buy good quality clear wax from any DIY store, but be careful to read the label as some makes include paint remover which will remove the painted finish rather than help retain it.

Detail From a French Painted Bed distressed with a black wax finish

French Painted Buffet with a dark wax finish

If you're feeling brave you can go for a dark or coloured wax finish. This alters the colour of the paint and can help to bring out detail on carved pieces. The finish is usually quite rustic and very continental in style. But, as with distress, be careful - too much black wax can make a piece look dirty. Use the wax sparingly, and always wipe off immediately. If you use too much, apply clear wax to help remove the excess. Done well, painted pieces with a dark wax can look stunning. 

The Author

Ali Stokes is the owner of the UK based online boutique Dazzle Vintage Furniture. The website specialises in selling authentic French furniture and accessories which have been imported from France. 


  1. Wonderful page! Thanks a lot for sharing such informative post.

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  2. One thing that I might add is to keep the colors simple. Most people tend to go for outlandish crazy designs when it comes to restoring their antique furniture. Keep it simple if you wish to retain the authenticity of the artifacts.

    antique furniture

  3. I totally agree with the post. If we can bring a great look for old furniture by painting it, I think, then it's really amazing and of course it's not easy sometime to paint any existing old furniture, you gotta be careful with all valuable steps to paint any old furniture. I am so glad to see the picture of white dresser because I personally love white color and that's why I prefer white painted furniture for my place

  4. Thanks a lot for sharing such informative post. Great collection of vintage furniture. I think there is no need to paint any antique piece. I love the (Large Louis Style Armoire & Painted Edwardian Sideboard)..... Find out more here

  5. Thanks for the very nice post. All the furniture images are really beautiful. Personally I like the most is painted French Buffet.

  6. We love the french designs and inspiring ideas of this article. Thank you for sharing!

    La Maison Chic Team
    French Furniture Specialists.

  7. Love what you have done with the furniture on your page! Not brave enough to try myself would you know of anyone or a company that could paint my louis style tall commode and writing desk?



    1. Hi Anne, if you contact me via our website and give me your email address I would be happy to discuss painting your items with you:

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