June 2, 2017
Buying antiques can be risky. There are clever reproductions of almost every vintage item available, original, authentic pieces may be damaged beyond repair or have hidden problems.
Problems are myriad; musty smells, unidentified odors or….yuck! dead animal smells, wobbly and weak joints, pieces are repaired or refinished in such a way that the original value is destroyed. Valuable pieces are painted and those of lesser value are restored. There is no way to tell if you are getting an authentic vintage item or a knock-off without doing research and buying from reputable dealers.
Even after years of buying furniture I get suckered now and then. My last purchase proved to be a bit (understatement) of a problem. I had been looking for a vintage commode for about a year to use as a nightstand. I was using a singer sewing machine, complete with machine and working treadle for several years. I loved it. I beat my bestie in a race to nab it. But it didn’t function quite as well as I liked for its intended purpose. I didn’t want to get rid of it but had to face the fact that if I wanted something else, the sewing machine had to go. So I sold it to a friend who loves it and uses it as her nightstand…. and I made space for a new piece.
I finally found a vintage commode at a decent price in my favorite local shop. I know some of the dealers, am friends with one, and at least know others by face. I didn’t know this particular vendor but I felt safe buying there. (you already suspect something, right?) I looked at that commode several times, I did the smell test, pulled out the drawers and took big whiffs. It passed. The drawers worked fine. The cabinet door opened and closed, it needed a new magnetic catch, but that’s an easy fix. Bonus, it had casters! Y’all know I love casters! And it had some yummy hardware.
So I bought it, paid for it and put a sold sign on it. Mr B
enthusiastically agreed to go with me to pick it up. In the meantime the women at the shop unloaded it and it was empty and ready for me by the time we got there. Mind you, I had never moved it. It had been loaded with small items for sale and even the drawers were full, so I never pulled it out to see how sturdy it was. Big mistake. As it turns out….HUGE mistake.
It wobbled. I looked at Mr B. He was looking at me. The shop owner was darting her eyes around looking everywhere except at either of us. “Um…it wobbles,” I announced. Duh. One of the other dealers came to observe and said; “You can fix that with a bit of wood glue and some clamping.” Mr B rolled his eyes. I asked if he could stabilize it. “Maybe. Won’t know until we get it home.” Since I’d already paid for it,
we Mr B loaded it in the car and we went home. By this time I was having a severe attack of buyers remorse. What if it couldn’t be fixed?
Mr B worked on it for a WEEK! Glued and clamped, removed the top, put it back on, glued and clamped that and replaced the stripped screws where someone else had attempted to fix it. It still wobbled like a drunk on Main Street. Added a new back and screwed that on. Still wobbled, just not completely drunk, more like tipsy. I asked if he could take it all apart and rebuild it. He stared at me for 3, maybe 4 seconds and then said; “I think it’s as good as it’s gonna get.” Translation: “I love you, but ain’t no way I’m gonna do that.” Sigh.
So I shrugged and proceeded to the fun part, paint. Yep, painted it. Before you start sending me hate mail about painting vintage pieces and destroying their value, let me just say this: “Some pieces are enhanced by painting.” Some aren’t really all that valuable, no matter how old. And some, like this old girl just aren’t built well or have already been refinished by someone else. Painting it doesn’t devalue it at all. And I have a vision for the bedroom and it includes painted furniture.
Someone had obviously refinished it. With shiny, glossy poly. Don’t do this. Vintage and/or antiques shouldn’t be shiny. Unless you’re into mid century lacquer finishes or oriental furniture. Otherwise, gloss is not a good look. If you want to add a soft authentic sheen, go for furniture wax and buff. It’s a lovely finish. For furniture that will see hard use, like table tops and dressers, opt for a matte finish. Don’t do shiny. Ever.
While inspecting this old girl I fell in love with the graining on the sides. It looked like oak. I was tempted to refinish it and leave it natural. But the top…… it had open grain, ditto for the top drawer, not the tight grain of oak that I love. Those sides tho. And even the back in its raw wood state! Oh, if she had been like that all over, this post would be a lot different. This was a commode obviously pieced together with whatever wood was on hand. Like many pieces were in the early days of america when fine furniture was hard to come by. I felt no guilt in painting this. None. OK, I got a bit of a pang when I looked at the sides. In the back of my mind I thought, “hmmmm….if I hate it painted, I’ll just strip it.” (I should close the door to the back of my mind.)
Out came my “go-to” color, Valspar “Honey Vanilla” in flat latex. I like this color because it plays nice with other creams and ivories. I favor warm ivory tones or creamy whites. The stark whites or cool whites don’t appeal to me, they work better with modern or contemporary style and I’m in love with the vintage american farmhouse furniture. I like the warmth of age and this color gives the illusion of a white that has aged with use and time.
I cleaned the entire piece with a 50/50 vinegar and water solution to remove dirt and oil and then lightly sanded the top with 200 grit sandpaper to give it some tooth. Wiped it down again with the vinegar solution, let it dry and it was ready. Application was easy. I just used a brush. I did two coats, letting each coat dry over night. I kept the old brass pulls in their original state, I love them. I’m not crazy about the run-of-the-mill replacement porcelain knobs that came with it. I’ll be changing those out for brass as soon as I find some that play nice with the original pulls. For now, the knobs are functional.
I’ve not been distressing my pieces as much lately, preferring to let them get dinged up on their own. I used a paint scraper along some of the edges to remove a bit of paint here and there, but not much. I debated waxing the top or doing matte poly. In the end I did matte poly. This is going to get some use. I pile books on it. Magazines. My reading glasses. Sometimes a drink. But now I’m not liking it so much. It’s too shiny. So in the near future, I’ll take it back outside, sand the poly off, repaint the top and then wax it. Because I love doing things over and over. (This may not be true.)
“You need to make decisions and stick with them,” said someone to me…. Once. After living with me for many years, I no longer get that advice. It’s pointless. I second guess myself. Sometimes I even third guess. Or I’ll love something for awhile and wake up one morning and I don’t love it anymore. But that’s the beauty of paint. It can be removed, re-applied. Changed. The power of paint to make ugly beautiful is amazing. It’s cheap. It’s usually a quick fix. I’m pretty happy with the new look.
Moral: Inspect your prospective piece carefully. Ask to move it to see if it’s stable, do the smell test. Open and close drawers. Look inside. Decide if you have the skill to repair loose joints, rotted sides, or rebuild. And if you are buying something to paint, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you don’t like it, don’t force yourself to live with it. “IT’S JUST PAINT” is a mantra of decorators for a reason. It’s true, it’s just paint. Or in this case, poly. So keep trying until you get it right. My little commode might benefit from multiple layers of paint, it might even become sturdier….. you know…. “held to together with spit and baling wire?” Maybe it should be, “held together with love and paint.” Why not? It’s as good an idea as any other, and who wants to sleep next to something held together with spit? eeuuuw, gross.
Create your sanctuary, one room at a time. Create the home you see in your heart, no matter where you live.