Welcome to the second part of my blog series about buying furniture. In part one, I discussed how to tell if a piece of furniture is of good quality or not. In the future post I will get back around to my original focus of how much painted furniture is worth. Today, I am going to share with you what to look for when buying painted furniture.
I recently went to Phoenix and visited some vintage and antique stores. Phoenix is the fourth largest city in the US and has many such stores to choose from. Like many other areas, there are several once a month vintage and home décor markets that are are open for a few days each month. Every month prior to the opening the merchandise is refreshed and all the new and refurbished finds are artfully displayed. It just so happened that my trip was timed to be able to attend one of these occasional markets. They are fun to shop but can be overwhelming if you don’t approach them with nerves of steel. The one I went to always has a waiting line to get in prior to opening. The displays reach upward and go toward the ceiling. There is masterful staging and imaginative design. I find these markets are the fastest to bring the newest design styles to the marketplace. One of my goals on this trip was to see what other people are doing in the arena of painted furniture. My knowing what is trending in and what seems to be fading out of popularity is an important part of my job.
I was a bit surprised during my trip. Unfortunately, it was not surprised in a good way. If you are reading this, you know my life is painted furniture. We manufacture paint for furniture, I have been painting furniture for forty plus years and I teach people to paint furniture.
I am just going to come out and say this: there are some really poorly painted pieces of furniture out there. I saw bad paint jobs at all of the places I went during that trip. I am not talking about paint jobs that were not my personal style; I am speaking of poorly applied and finished jobs. Many of the pieces were what my husband calls “20-20” paint jobs. He uses this term when referring to the paint jobs on cars. When you see a car painted that looks good from a distance (20’ away) when you are in a moving vehicle (going 20 MPH) but when you get up close to it, the flaws and poor quality become very apparent.
I know what I strive for in my own work but I was curious to what other professional furniture painters decree as quality work. I reached out to a handful of painters that I trust completely, that have varying styles, and come from different parts of the country. It did not surprise me when they all responded with very similar considerations.
The one thing that each one of them mentioned was an even paint job. Carla Massey of Carla Massey Designs, located in New York, put it like this “Does the final paint job look well applied, INTENTIONAL, and even toned?” That is six women agreeing on a single point!
There are times when the painter, for artistic reasons, does have a finish that may have variation in it, but it should always look like it is intentional and well applied. Carla added that if you there are “seemingly unintentional blotches where the paint is darker in certain areas than others? This shows a lack of practice/skill”.
I am going to rank this the single most important thing to look for in a piece of painted furniture. When painting with dark colors, uneven paint application is easily visible. This is called lapping: the appearance of a darker/denser color or higher sheen where two layers overlap during paint application1. (Lapping is a specific type of ‘flashing’, which will be discussed later.) This MCM piece by Carla exhibits an even, uniform paint application.
The second most cited criteria were lack of brush strokes. If you can see and feel the ridges left by the brush, it is not a top-quality paint job. A professional painter knows how to avoid brush strokes.
By using the proper type of brush, high quality paint and paint application method a painter can achieve a smooth surface. Brush strokes are different from the texture and layering that is often incorporated by furniture artist to enhance the piece.
Warning: Long section ahead! Hang in there with me please.
The third most often standard mentioned was ‘the feel’. If you close you eyes and run your hand over the piece does it glide effortlessly over a smooth surface? It should! Donna of Doozie’s Corner in Texas said. “I run my hand across the top and see if it has a silky smooth finish.” You should not feel the tackiness of over-applied wax, the stickiness of a liquid finish that was put on too quickly and did not dry thoroughly (and never will), an uneven surface, or bumps, glumps, globs and balls of paint. I am amazed at the number of painters who are selling their work that do not finish sand. It takes less than ten minutes to give the largest piece of furniture a once over, by hand, with a finish-sanding pad or paper.
There are some furniture paints that do not require the use of a sealing coat according to their manufacturer’s directions. I have bought and used several of those brands and even after finish-sanding, they did not produce what I consider a professional finish. They were not smooth to the touch. Remember when women used to wear hosiery? It was pretty easy to tell by look and feel the difference in a pair of quality hose versus the grocery store brand. That is how I see the difference in a piece of furniture that has a finish coat and has been finish sanded.
Last week I was working on a large china cabinet. Now, I am obsessive enough with the finished feel of a piece of furniture that I was finish-sanding the interior shelves that went behind the solid, lower cabinet doors. No one would ever see them unless they opened the lower cabinet door and most people are not going to ‘pet’ the shelves to make sure they are smooth. I believe the little details set a good painter apart from a great painter. BigBoss was supervising my work while tending to other important duties such as organizing a dirt track race for his Hot Wheels®. I had him come feel the shelf I was about to start and compare it to the one that I had just finished. I asked him which one was smoother. He tried both and then went back to the finish-sanded one and started rubbing it again. He said “I could rub this one all day”. That kid knows the way into my heart! If an “I-will-be-six-on-April-13th” year old can tell the difference, so can everyone else.
Everyone also brought up the physical condition of the piece of furniture. Do the drawers open and close smoothly? Have veneer chips and other defects been repaired properly? Do doors close securely? Does it smell musty? Is the hardware painted over or have paint blotches on it? Did they leave clean crisp lines on the inside of the drawers and the back of the piece?
Is the hardware secure? If replaced, did they take the time to remove excess screw length from the interior? Were the old hardware holes properly filled? Was it cleaned, inside and out, before painting? Jill Wical of ReiMaJine, in Massachusetts shared with me coming across a piece of painted furniture for sale that still had a bee’s nest attached to the underside! As she mentioned, it “doesn’t always mean the paint job is bad, it just gives you an idea how detail oriented the seller is. And how important it is to them to sell a quality piece of furniture.” If they cut corners in prepping the piece, it makes one wonder what other corners they may have cut.
“To be an informed buyer of painted furniture, the first thing I’d look for would be the style + color combination. Does the paint color, whether bold or subtle, match the style / design of the furniture?” That quote is from Dionne Woods, The Turquoise Iris, in Oklahoma. To me, there are two styles of furniture that it is essential to respect the style when choosing the paint color: Art Deco (i.e. Waterfall) and Mid Century Modern. Choosing the wrong color of paint on those two eras of design stands out like a pig in a horse race. It takes experience, time and research to be produce a professional-quality product.
While with Waterfall and MCM pieces it is very easy to spot poor color choices, one should always be mindful of the color choice with other styles as well. I love seeing the bold use of color but not if it makes your piece appear haphazard. The Turquoise Iris is a furniture artist who often paints in a Bohemian style. She carefully selects pieces that can stand up to this vivid look.
Often the final design details make the difference. Just as important as color selection is the sheen of the sealing coat. Dionne advises, “a shiny top coat goes along with a clean modern look and a flat top coat is best with a distressed look”. Does the hardware style and color enhance or distract from the intended look.
Have you ever seen a piece of furniture that was given an updated look with the paint but they did not replace the original hardware and it looked dated in relation to the paint style? It all has to be cohesive: furniture style, paint color, and hardware. While we are discussing hardware, a pet peeve of mine is the use of cheaply made replacement hardware on a quality piece of furniture. The quality of your hardware should equal the quality of the furniture. I have a Pinterest board for Waterfall and Art Deco era furniture. I have saved some examples of pieces painted in colors that don’t work as well on these furniture styles. Can you spot them? Waterfall and Art Deco Pinterest Board
Another element they shared that they look for is the finish itself. Charlie, of Girl in Blue Designs, in Georgia put it like this, “I’d want to see that the entire piece has been properly sealed. ESPECIALLY the top”! It must be applied evenly and without haze. You should get down on eye level to examine the finish. If the finish looks hazy, milky, streaky or yellow it was not applied properly or the wrong type of product was used. Flashing causes haziness and milkiness. Flashing is uneven appearance of the paint or finishes’ gloss, sheen or luster, due to an uneven film thickness. It can be caused by lapping of the finish (or paint), temperature fluctuations during the drying cycle, moisture being trapped into or getting into a finish while drying. Over-brushing of a water-bourn finish can also cause flashing. Certain finish product classes are well known to yellow during curing.
If the technical skill of the painter is first-rate, you will not see poor distressing technique or the use of distressing to cover paint application mistakes. A pro knows how to manipulate paints and finishes to achieve the design style they are creating. An expert can make styles of painting such as rustic, textured and shabby chic look as if it occurred over time and inherently, not contrived and manufactured. They know how to prevent tannins, oils, dyes, nicotine and other type of bleed-through issues. Experienced painters can recognize low-quality paint. It does not distress smoothly; it tends to pill up, scrape off or chip off roughly. The artisan will use high quality paint and finishes; they will be willing to share with you the brands of the products they used. They will advise you on how to care for your furniture and what kind of maintenance (if any) is required.
I want to thank each of the artists that contributed to this post. Their help was greatly appreciated and their work is superb. Please take a moment to visit their sites:
My hope is that if you are a painted furniture buyer, you now have the knowledge to scrutinize the worth of a piece prior to buying it. Additionally, if you are a newer furniture painter, you now can perform a self-check to make sure your pieces convey quality and expertise to your potential buyers.
Soon, I will finally get around to my original concept of sharing ‘how much is painted furniture worth.”