78. random thoughts on painting wood (from a carpenter’s wife…)

I’ve been painting lots of wood lately. Doors, cabinets, woodwork… I love paint. I love color. But I also love wood.

Paint and color and wood can co-exist, but finding that perfect balance is difficult. Rooms with too much wood need color for drama; rooms with too much color scream out for wood to give rest to the eyes. It’s that perfect balance that makes us all sigh and sit down in comfort.

Mr. H.C., the carpenter, hates to paint wood. “When wood is painted, it’s painted,” he says. “And only a huge effort can get it back to its original state, and even then, it might not look good.” (For a very funny post on men and painting wood, read The Decorologist’s post, Why Men Fear Painting Wood)

When I was about fifteen, my mom and dad undertook the making over of the basement in our fifties ranch house. They were on a shoestring budget, but they wanted a room where their teenaged daughters could hang out with their friends. It was a gigantic room — just putting carpet on the floor, a dropped ceiling, a big comfy couch, and room dividers at the ends probably put them over-budget. So Mom was gathering furniture from every attic and garage that she could find. Two of her scores were pretty little washstands. She painted one late-sixties orange. As she was preparing to paint the other (late sixties chartreuse) I stepped in. In my fifteen-year-old wisdom I said, “Mom, why are you painting that pretty washstand? You should never paint wood furniture.”

She gathered together all her parental wisdom and said, “When you’re older, you’ll understand.”

In the infinite circle of life, twenty-five years after she painted it chartreuse, I inherited this charming little washstand. It was still chartreuse. I took it to the local stripper and told him I would pay him well if he could take that paint off for me. A few days later he called me back. “Was this painted in the late sixties?” he asked. “And then maybe antiqued?”

pretty washstand painted in nineties blue stenciled with nineties flowersIt absolutely was.

“Yeah,” he said. “That stuff just can’t be stripped off.”  He sanded the door and then gave up. His advice? “Just paint it. It’s only poplar.” So I painted it early-nineties blue and stenciled it with early-nineties flower stencils. And now, twenty years later, it is relegated to holding craft supplies in my upstairs craft room that is not open to the public.

So many pieces of beautiful old furniture ruined.

And so I learned — Don’t paint it, if it can never be reclaimed.

Truth be told, my mom paid her dues for painting all that wood furniture. (She also painted a carved wooden love seat and several oak pressed-back chairs orange, as well as two beautiful rattan easy chairs chartreuse!) When the trend for country furniture started in the late seventies, she and my dad were early adopters. (The first Country Living magazine was published in 1978  — probably a direct result of all that bad furniture painting and colors of the sixties and early seventies!) They bought beautiful old furniture at auctions and sales, stripped it, and refinished it with natural oil finishes. When she found this  primitive hutch in Uncle Judd’s basement, it was painted a lovely shade of pink and was storage for paint supplies  — a fitting tribute to what often happens to painted furniture…

primitive walnut hutch

Aunt Sara and Uncle Judd were astonished when my mom picked that particular pink piece of furniture. Mom dragged it home (it comes apart in two pieces) and she and Dad lovingly restored it. Mr. H.C. thinks it is walnut. It is a bit quirky, but I love the fact that it is a one-of-a-kind antique, passed down through family, that many hands have touched it, restored it, made it their own. I love the circle that life is.

I understand wanting to make a piece of furniture, or a house, your own — individualizing it. That’s what we are doing with Apple Hill Cottage, after all. DIY is good. But what happens when the DIY goes bad? Let’s face it, that little washstand  I painted and stenciled? I didn’t do such a good job of it. AND fashions change. The turquoise of today will be tomorrow’s outdated color. The white cabinets of today will be dated in ten years.

This is the classic pressed-back chair, and very similar to the one I painted glossy forest green...

This is the classic pressed-back chair, and very similar to the one I painted glossy forest green…

Recently I read a post about “reviving an antique Windsor chair” by painting it blue. I laughed to myself. I did that once. I painted a lovely oak pressed-back chair glossy forest green; BUT I only painted it because it had already been painted orange. (Yes, by my mom — it sat right next to that orange washstand in our basement.) And it was never going back to its beautiful oak original beginnings.

All those rungs? All that carving? All that glossy paint? I repeat:  Don’t paint it, if it can never be reclaimed.

…Which translates into the following rules suggestions for painting wood:

  • Do not paint any family heirlooms.
  • Do not paint anything that might be valuable the way it is.
  • Do not paint anything that has carving or curves or moulding that would be hard to sand back to its original condition.
  • Do not spend any more than $35 on any piece of furniture you are planning to paint. (Well, maybe $50 if you live in a city…)
  • Try to find pine furniture (or poplar) for painting. Or better yet, find something that has already been painted.
  • Paint only furniture that you are willing to refinish or throw away, when your mind (or the fashion) changes.

And our minds change frequently, don’t they?

With all that said, I’m looking for a few cheap dining room chairs to paint….

This lovely painted pressed back chair is from the Irish Lady’s Blog. If you live in Texas, you could drop by her shop and purchase this pretty chair. It looks lots better than the one I painted glossy green (but that’s because glossy forest green is currently out of fashion…)

Emerald green, however, was Pantone‘s color of the year this year. And Tricia at the Domestic Fringe just posted this DIY painted desk. She found the desk set out for the garbage — in which case, it is totally OK to paint. Especially when you can do this to the top:


To find directions on how to do something like this to the top of YOUR old desk, see the post on DIY: Trash to Treasure desk renovation..

I have an ugly wood desk in my not-open-to-the-public craft room upstairs. I would love to have that flower top on it… And I could paint the bottom a pretty, rust-colored orange… oh, wait. I can’t paint it orange! It belongs to Mr. H.C., the carpenter who hates to paint wood. But I do have a washstand that could stand to be painted…Maybe orange, huh, Mom?

48. Not Just Spray Paint: a DIY Oil Rubbed Bronze Finish

The look of oil-rubbed bronze finish on metal is sleek and rustic at the same time; it isn’t black, it isn’t brown. It’s comfortable. All the hardware in the cottage kitchen is a variation of it except the Expensive Kitchen Faucet. (You can read about that here.) We bought the faucet in brushed stainless, mostly because the counter top and sink are going to be soapstone, and we didn’t think a dark faucet would look good on dark soapstone. My decorator sister agreed. She thinks the oil-rubbed bronze finish will date your house in a few years — “Oh, that is SO oughties…” Well, I might give her that — I just hope I’m not around long enough to know. And I’m still thinking of oil-rubbed bronze fixtures in the bathroom…

Brass push plate and handleBut last week Mr. H. C. brought home this wonderful handle for the kitchen door that goes down to the basement. (This is the door that will soon be Blooming Grove Green.) The handle was bright brass with a matching pull plate; a lovely simple design, but absolutely wrong color.

IMG_1300Now, I have spray painted oil-rubbed bronze finish on metal with the best of DIY-ers. I’ve done our cabinet hinges and screws, and I’ve done the light fixtures in the kitchen, and a curtain rod, switchplates, towel holders, door hinges…  But a door handle? That will be used every day? Mr. H. C. said, “So have you ever looked up how to get a real ORB finish? You know, Authentic?”

Apart from electrolyzing or electroplating metal, which I don’t think I am ready for, the best idea I found was from House of Antique Hardware. They sell a brass and bronze aging solution that takes unlaquered brass and gives it a dark old-looking finish much like the oil-rubbed bronze. We ordered a big bottle for around $25. I think we could have gotten away with a small bottle, but I don’t ever want to run out of this stuff!

Instructions specifically say that it only works on unlacquered metal, and I was pretty sure that this door handle was lacquered. It was really shiny. And smooth. So I soaked both the handle and the pull plate in lacquer thinner for about 15 minutes each; then I rubbed them carefully with the finest grade steel wool I could find.

I put on my safety glasses and my gloves – this is a nasty chemical mixture of acids, folks – and found a large plastic container. The instructions say that glass is also acceptable, but don’t use metal – you don’t want the acids to react in the wrong way with your container. Pour enough of the chemical solution in the container to cover the hardware. I did the handle first.

Items for DIY oil rubbed bronze finishing

Everything is pictured here except the safety glasses and the chopstick that I used to push the pieces around in the solution. I had my safety glasses on when I took the photo. AWYSG!

With gloves on, wipe the handle carefully with a clean lint-free cloth. Fingerprints can keep the chemicals from doing their thing on the brass. Then put the handle in the solution and be amazed. It starts to darken almost immediately. You also need a tool of some sort to fish the hardware out of the chemical solution. (I used a chopstick.)

Brass ager solution

I jiggled the handle around a bit so it would darken evenly on all sides; the larger pull plate I actually turned over several times. Leave the piece in the solution until it is a little darker than you want; it lightens with the next step.

Door handel in Oil rubbed bronze

No spray paint here!

Take out your hardware and rinse in cold water. I just used the sink, but you could certainly put a container of cold water next to you and just dunk the hardware into it. The point is to stop the chemical reaction. The water lightens it a bit. When I had done both pieces, then I got out some mineral oil and rubbed it in. That evened up the color and made both pieces a bit darker again.

You can see the shine of the mineral oil in this photo. Now you must control yourself from rushing around trying to find everything you own that is brass or bronze and throwing it in the solution. Pour the solution back in the bottle; it can be reused. I’m certain I will get much use from this bottle; however, this solution does not work on all metals. The little decorative washers that you see in the second photo came out splotchy; I don’t know if they weren’t solid brass, if I didn’t clean them enough, or why. Anyway, I spray painted them, and they look just fine.

This elegant $15 DIY oil-rubbed bronze door handle makes me smile.

*I am amending this post a few weeks later. I tried another brass push plate very similar to the one in the photo, but purchased at a different time and place. I soaked it in lacquer thinner as well. But when I put it in the solution, it was very streaky. Not acceptable. So I rinsed it off, got out the steel wool and went to work. Under a good light, I could tell that the lacquer thinner just had not gotten all the lacquer off. I put in a good 15 minutes of elbow grease and steel wool. The second time I tried it, it came out lovely — just as good as the other one. So don’t be afraid to try it again, if it doesn’t work the first time.

And here it is finished on the  painted door:

green door to the basement

This is how lovely it still looks three years later — this door handle gets touched multiple times every day.

36. Befores and afters

We’ve been working nonstop here at the cottage, but sometimes, like life, the actual progress goes in fits and starts. Working on the windows is slow going; we are 3/4 of the way finished, and it seems we’ve been scraping/sanding/repairing/priming/painting them forever. And we’ve been working on the outside of the house (it is a Whole House after all, not just a kitchen…) to protect it from winter. So the BIG kitchen stuff — like walls and floors and doors — has been proceeding on hold. (I had to say that; it’s one of Mr. H.C.’s favorite sayings.) Hence this post is more for me than you. It’s to reassure me

    that work IS being done;
    that we ARE progressing;
    and that we WILL get to the end of this kitchen project.

To that end, here are some before and after pictures:


The front entrance Before — one of 5 pairs of sliding glass doors…(We’re down to 3!


The front entrance After — at the end of the weekend and the sun is setting, but it’s in place!

It took weeks, but those cabinets did get sanded, and their hardware put in place:


One of a whole pile of UGLY kitchen cabinets Before


…and the same cabinet After

Very few doors in the cottage are staying the same:

This was the old door going down to the pantry. This photo doesn’t show that it was actually sawed in half! A homemade Dutch door…

And this is the new door After. It cost $30 at the Restore in Washington. It is primed, but still awaiting the right color of green. (Then the yellow tape will come off as well.)

This cupboard was the one item in the kitchen that I could easily picture as beautiful before it was redone:


The built-in cupboard Before…

And my favorite, the cupboard After with its beautiful paint, new hardware, and new-old wooden top.

And if you squint your eyes just right, you can almost picture the kitchen as it will be someday:

I titled this photo Lovely Kitchen 2 B. (If you look closely, you’ll see the After result of the orange schoolhouse light in one of the earlier photos. We kept the pull chain, though)

Well, I don’t know about you, but after seeing these photos, I feel better! Onward…