How do you hand paint wooden vintage furniture?

How do you hand paint wooden vintage furniture?

How I restore vintage furniture for Homeward Studio

Before setting up Homeward Studio, I worked as a specialist paint finisher and gilder in London, working on private residential spaces and learning how to hand paint furniture. For almost 20 years I experimented with techniques and really developed my repertoire of projects. 

One of my favourite parts of Homeward Studio is when we find and restore original vintage furniture and home accessories. We breathe new life into well made, good quality items from the past.

The process begins at local auctions, antiques fairs and markets buying from small, independent sellers from the UK and the rest of Europe. We take our treasures back to the studio where they are carefully and sympathetically restored.

We then lovingly restore the vintage pieces by using traditional hand painting skills. 

In the early days of settling into Leek and setting up Homeward Studio, I still had a few customers down in London that I had ongoing decorating projects with. I would work on all the samples in my studio in Leek before heading back down to work in my customers’ homes.

I’ve rounded up a few of these different projects and techniques to explain how it’s done.

How do you hand paint wooden vintage furniture?

How should you hand paint a wardrobe?

This was one of my last projects in London before moving up to Staffordshire. I was painting some newly built-in fitted wardrobes in the children’s bedrooms of a beautiful family home in Holland Park. It really sparked some inspiration to create some of my own hand painted furniture designs to sell at Homeward in the future.

I used the room’s existing wallpaper and fabrics to inspire the paint finishes and picked up on the lines in the shapes of this Designers Guild wallpaper and mimicked the lines in paint. I pulled a rubber wood graining comb through a coloured glaze over a tinted base paint. This was fairly easy to do on the door panels, which were a manageable size and space to keep a straight line. On the larger areas, easier said than done!

I remember this as one of the most physically challenging jobs I ever did! The wardrobes were floor-to-ceiling, which meant me starting at the top of a ladder. I had to slowly inch myself down, step by step, whilst maintaining a straight line. I couldn’t pull the comb away from the glazed surface as this would cause a break in the pattern and look like a fault. 

To finish, the wardrobe door mouldings were picked out with a hand-mixed colour that I’d colour matched by eye from the wallpaper. The other set of wardrobes in the boy’s room were kept more simple. The mouldings were picked out in a colour to match the curtain fabric.

All small details but ones that make all the difference to personalising a home and adding layers and interest.

How I started hand-painting vintage furniture for Homeward Studio products

After I’d finished this particular customer project, I knew I wanted to explore the combing technique some more in the studio. I’d saved a World of Interiors article from ages ago where it had been used to great decorative effect on furniture in a Scandinavian bedroom. It used dark blues and green glazes combed in quite intricate and clever designs.

How do you hand paint vintage furniture using the combing technique?

  • Experiment first

I found a few pieces of suitably simple and plain vintage furniture to try out my ideas and began experimenting with different ways to create patterns in a glaze using the rubber comb.

  • Prepare your surface

It’s boring I know but prep is essential to getting good results, especially when doing decorative glaze work like this. A smooth flat surface is needed, which can be a bit tricky on an old beaten-up piece of vintage furniture. Lots of stripping and removing of previous paint and varnishes before sanding, filling, sanding again, priming and base coats were applied to these pieces. 

How should you prepare vintage furniture before painting? 

  • Remove all the paint

Start by removing all loose paint and varnish with a scraper and/or a rough 80 grit sandpaper.

  • Sand

Continue to sand all over, perhaps grading it down to a 120 grit so you don’t have scratch marks to contend with.

What you plan to do with the piece of furniture will determine how far you go with paint removal. A simple repaint and presuming you don’t mind a bit of character, lumps and bumps, is a bit different. You can get away with an all over sand, a good clean up and a dust down, perhaps with a few spot fills here and there before priming and painting.

A smoother surface is required for specialist finishes like glaze work, gilding, or finer painting techniques like coach lining. Scroll down for the following examples from the Homeward Studio painted furniture archive.

You may decide therefore to strip all the old paint off right back to the wood, which is possible with sandpaper and lots of elbow grease. Alternatively you could use an eco-friendly paint stripper.

  • Prime

Depending on what you’re planning, a rule of thumb for old pieces of furniture would be to use a good water-based stain blocking primer. Or you can use an undercoat if you’re doing an all-over paint job before applying 2-3 layers of your finishing top coats.

Following these relatively simple steps gives you a good sound surface to begin your masterpiece. 

How I restored this vintage hall wardrobe with a combed glaze

I liked the size, shape and simplicity of this little Edwardian hall robe. Made from solid wood, it was well made. Also, importantly for me, had little embellishment other than a couple of simple details to the panels on the front. This left me with nice, uninterrupted, smooth, flat areas that were perfect for painting.

specialist paint finishes, creative hand painted furniture

I wanted to try the combed glaze technique again – a decorative patterned combed glaze but on a piece of vintage furniture I’d found and wanted to sell in the shop at Homeward.

You can see in the pictures that the areas were divided up, masked off, painted and then left to dry before tackling the next section. It was done quite spontaneously with the sections and patterns dictated by the space I had to work within and the size of the rubber comb I was using to make the marks.

How to make a coloured glaze for furniture paint

For this cupboard and side table, I wanted to  try a stronger contrasting base colour. I chose Little Greene’s  brilliant yellow of  ‘Mister David’ yellow using the Intelligent Eggshell Finish. Using a base paint with a slight sheen and a smooth slippery surface for the glaze. This is important for your glazes to sit on top rather than sink into the paint and dry too quickly.

Hand painted Mister David side table

This is how coloured glazes are made:

  • Add strong concentrated water-based stainers to a clear transparent, slow-drying scumble glaze and brush this on in a nice even coat.
  • Divide and mask off sections using a low tack specialist masking tape.
  • Work on small areas and wait for it to dry before moving on to filling in the other areas.

This small vintage side table was picked up at auction. I decided to keep the original circa 1930s orange/brown base paint and decided to be looser with squiggles and swirls rather than the straight lines and crosshatching.

How I hand painted decorative blanket chests

I found both of these blanket chests at antique fairs and they were ultimately chosen as they both had smooth flat surfaces that could be decoratively painted.

How I restored this gilded oak gramophone box

The other was an empty gramophone box that had two small doors either side of the central panel, which someone had screwed shut. I liked the shape of it, reminding me vaguely of a Chinese pagoda.

geometric pattern hand painted vintage blanket chest

This was a chance of pure experiment and spontaneity, but I wanted to have a go at making my own gesso, as I was interested in making a beautifully and perfectly smooth surface ready for gilding.

One of the chests was made slightly unusual with its bow topped lid, a bit like a treasure chest! I had fun trying to fit a geometric tumbling block pattern onto this using stencils. I rubbed the paint back slightly to soften its edges before varnishing it for protection.

Hand painted vintage gramaphone chest

What is gesso and how can I use it to hand paint my vintage furniture?

Gesso is traditionally a mix of an animal glue binder, chalk and white pigment. It is used as an absorbent primer to coat hard surfaces such as wood painting panels. It’s absorbent, which makes it work with all painting media, including water-based media, different types of tempera and oil paint.

Mixing and applying it is a skilled technique, as it is usually applied in ten or more extremely thin layers. It is a permanent substrate used on wood, masonite and other surfaces.

I actually lost my nerve trying to water gild on this flat surface so I opted to switch to oil gilding which I’m more experienced at. It was all quite time consuming, painting layer upon layer of gesso and sanding back and burnishing, but it was fun to do and a good learning curve.

I always think blue works so nicely with oak, so I chose a matt chalk paint in a lovely shade.

The bamboo-esque pattern, hand painted using coach lining brushes in a deep inky blue, was inspired by a vintage John Lines wallpaper pattern. It seemed to work so well with the style and shape of the box. It was a really satisfying, meditative thing to paint! I’m thrilled to say I delivered this to its new home, the most fantastic and huge Arts & Crafts villa between Bakewell and Sheffield. Full of really stunning almost museum-type pieces of original Arts & Crafts furniture, this was to sit amongst it and was to be used as a bedside table.

What inspires you to do your own hand painted furniture?

The beautiful fine furniture produced in the 18th century by Thomas Chippendale is something to behold. It’s not necessarily to my taste, but I admire the skills of craftsmen who worked on them. It is carved, gessoed, gilded and lacquered, polished and inlaid. All expertly crafted by teams of skilled painters, gilders, picture framers and cabinet makers.

Here’s a general overview of painted furniture inspiration taken from my Pinterest board.

But my heart lies with the joyful, seemingly uninhibited, painting style of decorative folk painted furniture throughout Eastern and Central Europe and Scandinavian countries.

It is the robust and richly coloured, often with unusual background patterns, mark making and bold colour combinations that I find quite exhilarating! Wedding boxes and armoire are a rich source of inspiration. There always seems to be some element that could spark an idea.

Another favourite is the hand painted furniture of the Bloomsbury Group’s Charleston house and garden in Sussex.

Scumbled faux wood graining really suits my aspirations of a free and easy style of woodgrain. I always avoided faux wood graining and marbling as a specialist decorator. I mistakenly thought that it should be as realistic as possible. These examples below are wonderful and another technique related to the combing techniques I’ve been getting to grips with.

I’d love to carry on with my experiments of painted furniture for Homeward Studio.  Please let me know if you’re interested in commissioning me to create one off-pieces based on traditional and historic painted furniture.

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