The Basics on Painting Antique Furniture

A woman painting an antique chair white.

Antiques are beloved for their ageless character and style. The antithesis to bulk ready-made designs, these old specimens usually stand the test of time in our hearts, but may succumb to a bit of wear and tear over the years. A fresh coat of paint can help bring them new life again, but not every antique will benefit. Here are some tips on when and how to bring an old gem back to life with paint.

Do Your Due Diligence

Find out important information about the item’s age, make, design and wood type before painting. There is a difference between antique and vintage; “antique” refers to items that are at least 100 years old, whereas “vintage” is representative of a particular era. Neither necessitate high value, which is why you should check manufacturer information and see whether the piece is of notable design or a valuable type of craftsmanship. To paint over a designer antique would be an atrocity—and a decrease in value.

Prep for Paint

A woman sanding down an antique tabletop.

Some chalk paints are strong enough binders that you don’t need to sand or prime before use, even on veneers; however, you’ll still want to clean it to remove any dirt and dust. Use wood soap because it's specifically made for cleaning wood surfaces. Prep for latex or oil paint by lightly sanding surfaces and repairing any cracks that don't add to the charm of the item—this is, of course, up to your discretion, but some fixes will garner better results.

Painting Styles

Shabby chic is a popular style that uses chalk paint to give the authentic look of aged surfaces. This trendy technique may look good, but it's not the only way to increase the inherent value of an antique. A high-end latex or oil paint can bring about stunning results when properly done, as well. Use a rolling foam brush on broad surfaces to prevent streaks and a smaller foam brush on any intricate details to keep paint from loading in the nook and crannies, causing drips and loss of detail. For all kinds of paint, be patient when applying and count on doing two coats.


A woman painting an antique chair.

Lightly graze areas with sandpaper or a rag after using a chalk or milk paint to get a faux distressed look, creating depth and interesting glimpses at the wood grain underneath. A clear coat will help protect all types of paint, but not every piece needs to be "shiny." Get creative with different areas; for example, a clear-coated wood top left unpainted on a dresser will contrast nicely against a matte painted body. Don't be afraid to use multiple colors for different sections, either.

Clean Hardware

Knobs and handles are valuable parts of the antique that shouldn't be replaced if possible. Dirty looking relics can be brought back to life with a simple lemon, salt, and warm water polish. Use spray paint if you decide to change their appearance and if you must replace the hardware, do your best to find something from the same period the antique was made in.

An authentic piece of antique furniture can be made beautiful again with a coat of paint, but choose your styles wisely. Ask yourself, "Will the paint job last the test of time, or is it just a popular look everyone is going for?" If you think a beautiful color will bring out the beauty hidden underneath an aged piece of furniture, do your research and then follow your heart.