FULL DISCLOSURE: I paint furniture for a living. I manufacture and sell paint for furniture for a living. I have many hours of education in painting furniture. I believe craftsmen and artists deserve a fair, living wage for their work. I love the original (unpainted) finish of many pieces of furniture. I also love when a painted finish highlights some of the exceptional detail found on some styles of older furniture.
A few weeks ago I had the idea that I would try to tackle the question of “How much is vintage painted furniture worth?” in a blog post. I sat down to start my blog post and realized I needed to do some research. Boy, was that an understatement. I had to do a LOT of research. And, just like the rest of life, there is no single correct answer.
I decided I had to break the blog post down into several blog posts. The first part is a tutorial on how to determine the quality of a piece of furniture, whether it is new or old. There is a cheat-sheet you can download at the end.
I realized I had not been furniture shopping for new furniture in many years. It is probably more like a couple of decades, aside from a new sofa. For my mind to get completely wrapped around the concept of the true value of painted vintage or antique furniture I had to have something to compare it to, which, of course, would be new furniture. We all know that worth/value do not have the same meaning as price/cost. I hope by the end of this blog series it is easier for all of us to spot the good buys and avoid spending money on shoddy furniture, no matter its age.
There are many things to consider when buying furniture. The first thing to think about is how the piece will be used. Is it going to be placed in a formal entryway that is rarely used or is it going to be the dresser for your child that you want for them to use until they leave your home? The overall quality of the former is not as important as it is in the latter example. While you may want the entryway piece to have a higher décor style than a utilitarian piece, the dresser will be used much more often so it should be the superior quality.
One Sunday I set out on a recon mission—a trip down to the greater Phoenix area, where there is a large concentration of retail stores. I was able to hit an independent furniture store, a store that specializes in some of the higher end brands of furniture, Restoration Hardware®, Pottery Barn®, West Elm®, Crate and Barrel®, Arhaus® and Anthropologie®. It also was a good chance for me to review what colors were showing up for 2017 in home décor items.
Do you have an idea of what a new dresser costs these days? I really didn’t. A quick look at Pottery Barn on-line shows a basic four-drawer chest for $650. to $2000. for a 6 drawer extra wide dresser. The chest is available in a painted or stained finish and the dresser, only a stained finish. It is harder to find actual prices for new pieces of some of the top end brands on-line, brands like Thomasville®, Stickley®, Henredon® and Drexel Heritage®. What I found in the stores was pieces running from around $1500 for a chest on their low end to $5000.00 for a high-quality wide dresser. What amazed me was the quality (or lack of) of some of the pieces being sold today. It is not good, in my opinion. It was not until I checked the quality of the Stickley and Henredon that I found quality similar to that of the vintage pieces I seek out to re-love with paint.
At Pottery Barn, I found a bedside table for $349.00. It comes in three finishes; black, antique white and mahogany stain. The on-line description says it is made of mindi hardwood, pine and poplar and has a dovetailed drawer. I would rate this a medium quality piece.
I really liked this small chest by Lexington. The in-store ‘special price’ was $1679.00 and I found it on-line $1529.10 to $2399.00. I am a little suspect of this piece, as I could find no information of what kind of wood it was manufactured from.
At Arhaus, I found a buffet I really loved! It was different from everything else I was seeing that day. Sadly, I am not sure what happened to the pictures I snapped of it that day. There are other pieces in the same collection. The collection is made to order (I believe the salesperson said in Italy) and takes a few months to arrive. According to the Arhaus website, mortise-and-tenon construction is used and it is made from tulipwood. The regular price is $8099.00, although the day I am writing this, it is on sale for $5949.00.
This Stickley gray dresser is was the first dresser I found on my recon-shopping trip that I felt was similar in quality to the vintage pieces that I seek out to paint. There is a 10% up charge for the painted finish. Before taxes, it will cost you just under $5,000.00 dollars to take it home. It is a true classic design, crafted from cherry and should last for many generations.
I went onto Craigslist (Richmond, VA) to see if I could find a similar styled vintage dresser. I found a Dixie Sheraton bow front mahogany dresser that appears to be in very good condition. Having worked with Dixie® vintage pieces in the past, I would expect the quality to be similar to that of the new Stickley dresser. The seller wants $275.00 for his dresser. I believe that is a very reasonable price. This vintage dresser has many years of life left in it as well.
Just as there is today, there was a huge variance in the quality of vintage furniture. By the 1930’s lower quality furniture began to make an appearance. Veneerite and borax furniture hit the marketplace as well as tri-layered veneers on the front and tops of case pieces. Dust covers between drawers were often not used and the bottoms and sides were made out of very thin, cheap, weak wood varieties. Depression-era furniture is often quite decorative looking but can be very poor quality.
Some of the cost-cutting measures continue today. While expected in lower and moderately priced furniture, it is also found in some of the better-known retail furniture sellers. It became very evident to me that just because a piece of furniture was from a high-end store or manufactured by an respected furniture brand, complete with high price that store, brand nor price insured superior quality.
There are some specific details to look for in higher quality furniture. These details apply to antique, vintage and modern furniture. General construction should include kiln-dried wood, dovetail or mortise and tenon joints; reinforcing corner blocks; solid wood frame made from same (or similar quality) wood species as the veneer; any plywood should be nine-ply or greater. Drawers and drawer area construction should have dust covers (sometimes called dust liners/panels) between drawers, as they add structural integrity; center drawer guides with metal or wood rail; drawer bottoms that float in a groove are preferred as they allow for expansion and contraction due to humidity changes; if plywood is used for drawer bottoms, sides or backs it should be tri-ply or greater. The exterior wood should not be soft nor scratch easily; hand carved, solid wood applied trim rather than stamped wood or molded composition; and hand painted decorations rather than decals or prints.
Some of the indicators of lower quality furniture are thin plywood, particleboard, pressboard or fiberboard, knots or cracks in wood or the use of rubber wood, gum or poplar wood as the “solid” woods. Avoid construction techniques using staples, nails or visible glue or wood-on-wood sliding. The weight of a piece does not always indicate quality; pressboard is very heavy and will make a piece feel sturdier than it actually is. (Pressboard liked to break and chip off in chunks.) If a furniture piece seems too heavy for its size it is probably made from pressboard.
This is an example of some lower quality production techniques on a Thomasville desk. I would date it from the 1970’s. I have to say I am a bit confused by this piece. They used good construction details on most of the piece. There are drawer panels, the solid wood back of the drawers are dovetailed to the solid wood sides of the drawer. However, the drawer fronts are made from pressboard and the drawer sides are stapled (and I presume) glued to the front of drawer. It is an example of how even with a brand name that you must pay attention to the details.
This lovely Thomasville vanity reveals the quality one should look for in pieces they plan to keep a case piece for decades. The vanity dates to the 1940’s. It has exceptional construction techniques and is solid wood. Having already withstood seventy-five years of life it was freshened up recently by Charlie Ann Massey of Girl in Blue Designs in Atlanta, GA. She has it listed at $545.00, a great price for a quality furniture piece.
I have created a checklist that you can tuck away for use when furniture shopping. It should help you discern if they lovely piece you are looking at is worth the price they are asking. You can download it here.
Next week I will share with you tips to look for when buying painted furniture.
Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, West Elm, Crate and Barrel, Arhaus and Anthropologie, Thomasville, Dixie, Drexel Heritage, Henredon, Stickley are all registered trademarks of their owners and have no association with CeCe Caldwell’s Paints. They have not approved or endorsed this post.