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How To Be A Decorator:
Principles Of Decoration
Painting Points
Wallpaper Points
Wall Points
Floor Points
Colonial Living Rooms
Veneered Paneling
The English Room
Spanish-Italian Living Rooms
The Living Room Without A Mantel
Living Room Points
Dining Rooms
Dining Rooms Points
Combination Living Room - Dining Room
Living Room - Dining Room Points
Halls, Sun Rooms And Porches
Points For Halls, Sun Rooms And Porches
Colonial And Modern Bedrooms
Bedroom Points
Colorful, Comfortable Nurseries
Nursery Points
New Fashions In Draperies
How To Make Curtains And Draperies
Drapery Points
Slip Covers
Slip Cover Points
How To Make Slip Covers
How To Paint Furniture
Finishes For Natural Wood Furniture

How To Paint Furniture

Methods of Painting, Glazing and Decorating

Within the last twenty years there has been a marked revival of interest in color and its use in our homes. We no longer are limited to dark woodwork or Colonial ivory-we use maize, apple-green, pale peach or any other tone which matches the walls. The curtains are gay, for more and more women are appreciating the decorative value of chintzes and cretonnes. And painted furniture has become a definite note in almost every house. Perhaps there is only one chair, a table, a desk or a chest in the livingroom, but its bright note of definite color is a charming part of the entire color scheme. For the informal dining-room, one odd painted piece is interesting and for the breakfast-room all the furniture may be painted. There is nothing prettier for a bedroom than painted furniture with a dainty decoration in harmonizing colors which ties it up with the bright curtains at the windows. The sun-room would scarcely be complete without some brightly painted pieces, for willow, reed and iron can be painted as well as wood.

Colors for Painted Furniture

Not so long ago the only colors considered suitable for painted furniture were white or ivory and French gray. Charming though these colors are, they lack character and serve only as a background. With the introduction into this country of Austrian peasant furniture and fabrics, the interest in other colors expanded, and the Italian and Spanish influence has affected it tremendously. With all these colorful importations at hand, it is not strange that our manufacturers have quickly responded and presented us with an unlimited assortment of painted furniture. They have also felt another need, that of the people who want well-designed and carefully made pieces which they themselves can paint. The result is that it is quite possible to purchase many different types and styles in the raw wood. And the colors now include clear blue, blue-green, apple-green, reseda, canary yellow, parchment, Chinese red, mulberry, almost anything you want. Black painted furniture with cleverly designed and brilliantly colored decorations is exceedingly smart.

These delightfully painted pieces not only fit into an amazing number of rooms, but in many instances they are the most potent factor in brightening up an otherwise dull and dingy room. By using paint with discrimination and forethought you can remake a room, bringing together odd pieces of furniture which would otherwise be discordant.

How to Prepare the Furniture

Whether new or old, furniture which is to receive a painted finish must be smooth, clean and dry. When purchased in the unfinished state-"in the white," as it is called-it is apt to show rough places here and there, and the first step in preparing it for painting is to smooth such places with mediumcoarse steel wool, or No. 1 sandpaper. Then go over the entire surface with No. O or No. 00 sandpaper, rubbing first across, and then with the grain of the wood. For a flat surface, fold the piece of paper around a block of wood of a convenient size to be grasped by the hand, as pictured in the drawing on this page. The sanding will form a fine dust which must be carefully wiped off with a piece of cheesecloth.

If the wood shows any knots or sappy places, these should be given a coat or two of white shellac to bind the pitch and prevent it from discoloring the finish by working through to the surface. Furniture made of yellow pine contains so much pitch that it requires coating a11 over with shellac. Fortunately, this wood is seldom found in furniture. Birch is the finest wood for painting, owing to its fine, even grain, with whitewood, gumwood, or white pine as second choice. As a matter of fact, with any kind of wood, you can get satisfactory results if sufficient care is taken in preparing the surface. If for any reason an open-grained wood, such as oak or mahogany, is to be enameled, the pores must first be filled with a transparent paste filler in order to produce a perfectly smooth, even foundation on which to lay the paint.

Applying the Filler

The filler as it comes in the can is a thick paste which much be thinned to the consistency of heavy cream in order to spread evenly and thus enter the pores of the wood. This thinning is usually done with benzine, but the instructions printed on the label of the can should be followed, as different brands of filler vary in composition. A flat stick roughly whittled into the form of a paddle or spatula is the best implement for stirring.

When the filler is sufficiently reduced and stirred to a uniform consistency, apply liberally over the entire surface of the piece of furniture, using a flat bristle brush about two inches wide. As soon as the filler starts to set, which is indicated by its becoming dull or "flat" in places, wipe off with a handful of soft, old rags, rubbing first across, and then with the grain. The surface of the wood should be thoroughly cleaned off, as the filler is required only to close up the pores or grain. After forty-eight hours, the furniture will be ready for the first or priming coat of paint, as described below.

Using Paint and Enamel

Enamel is employed only for the finishing coats, for two reasons, first, it is much more expensive than flat paintwhich answers just as well for the under coats-and, secondly, enamel is semi-transparent and requires a solidly opaque foundation in order to produce an even color effect.

It is advisable to have the flat paint match the enamel as closely as possible in order that scratches on the furniture may not show a different color, thus rendering them conspicuous. If the ready-mixed flat and enamel paint cannot be matched precisely, either can be modified by the addition of oil colors.

The first step in getting the paint ready to apply is to shake the can vigorously, frequently turning it end for end. Then remove the cover (or cut out the top with a can opener in case there is no cover) and pour off into another receptacle any liquid which has risen to the top. Next, stir the paint thoroughly from the bottom with a wooden paddle or strip of shingle, gradually returning the liquid that was removed, until it is of a uniform consistency throughout.

Before beginning to paint, it will be advisable to spread newspapers beneath the furniture, letting them project two feet or more on all sides, and to hold the can of paint in the left hand or set it on a box or stool. An open can of paint standing on the floor is almost certain to be upset. The safest dress for the painter of either sex consists of overalls and a jumper.

The Priming Coat

For the first or priming coat on previously unfinished wood, turn into an empty can what seems to be a sufficient quantity of paint, and thin with about ten percent of pure spirits of turpentine. Apply to the furniture with a soft, flat bristle brush, using a two-and-one-half inch size for broad, flat surfaces such as chair seats or table tops, and a brush from one to two inches wide for the narrow portions.

Follow with a second and third coat of paint applied just as it comes from the can unless the paint should chance to be too thick to spread well. In that case it may he thinned slightly with turpentine, though not so much as for the priming coat, which should be the thinnest of all coats.

Brush each coat out as thinly and evenly as possible. When thickly applied, paint will not dry properly. Allow from twenty-four to thirty-six hours between coats, according to the rapidity with which they dry, and smooth each lightly with No. 00 sandpaper to remove brush marks, wiping off the dust thus formed.

The Finishing Coats

Provided the foundation coats match it well in color a single coat of enamel may be used for finishing, but two are better. Enamel is applied just as it comes from the can, without thinning, and should be flowed on with a full brush. Streaks and brush marks must be avoided as much as possible. On broad, flat surfaces, brush first with the grain of the wood, then across the grain in order to spread the paint evenly, and finish by brushing once more with the grain, using light strokes to smooth the surface. Remember that enamel sets more quickly than does ordinary paint, and it is necessary therefore to work rapidly. The correct angle at which to hold the brush is illustrated in the drawing on the opposite page.

Forty-eight hours should be allowed for drying the first coat of enamel, and the surface may be lightly smoothed with No. 00 sandpaper before the finishing coat is applied. This coat is not sanded, but if gloss enamel has been used, and a dull effect is desired, a hand-rubbed finish can be produced with oil and pumice, the method of application being as follows:

For a Rubbed Finish

The implements required are a rubbing felt, a rubbing cork or oblong block of wood, a small scrub brush such as is used for scrubbing vegetables, a bottle of rubbing oil (purchasable at any paint shop) or sewing machine oil, and a saucer of finely powdered pumice which also is procurable at the paint dealer's.

Remember that it is the pumice which dulls the finish, the oil acting merely as a lubricant to keep the pumice from scratching. It therefore is essential that plenty of oil be used, and renewed as often as necessary.

For flat surfaces, fold the rubbing felt over the face of the cork or block, and moisten well with oil. Sprinkle both oil and pumice over the wood surface, and starting in one corner, rub back and forth in a straight line with a light but firm pressure. Six or seven strokes in a place will usually suffice to dull the glossy finish. If possible to reach, it is better to cover the entire length at one stroke. For rounded surfaces, the felt may be held in the palm of the hand omitting the cork or block, and for carvings and moldings the scrub brush is excellent, first moistening the bristles well with oil, and then dipping them in the pumice. Even a heavy woolen cloth folded around a skewer may be used.

When the entire surface has been thus treated, wipe off the pumice with a clean piece of cheesecloth liberally wet with oil to prevent scratching, and, finally, remove the residue of oil by wiping off with a dry cloth sprinkled with cornstarch.

Rubbing down the enamel gives a beautiful finish, but the process is so tedious, especially when a number of pieces of furniture are to be done, that many persons prefer to use either a semi-gloss or a flat drying enamel. This gives an excellent finish but lacks the lustre of the hand-rubbing.

A Substitute for Enamel

A more laborious and more costly method, but one that gives an exceedingly beautiful and lasting finish, is to paint the furniture with colors ground in Japan varnish in place of the enamel. The foundation coats may be omitted as this paint has exceptional covering power. Add about five percent of linseed oil to the Japan color, and then just enough turpentine to make it flow freely. Take care to mix very thoroughly. Allow forty-eight hours between coats and, when the final one is dry, apply a coat of first quality rubbing varnish. Allow this to stand seventy-two hours longer, in accordance with directions for the particular brand employed, and then rub to a dull polish with oil and pumice in the same manner as directed for rubbed enamel.

Doing Over Old Furniture

The first thing to decide before doing over previously finished furniture is whether or not the old finish will have to be taken off. If the piece is in bad condition, with varnish roughened and crazed, or paint that is cracked and peeling, there is nothing else to do but get right down to the bare wood in order to provide a perfectly smooth surface for refinishing. The easiest method of dealing with this situation is to apply a chemical paint and varnish remover which can be purchased at any paint shop and at many hardware and department stores.

The "remover" is in liquid form and should be liberally applied with a cheap brush. After standing fifteen or twenty minutes. the old paint or varnish will be sufficiently softened so that it can be easily removed with a metal scraper like the one at the right of the row of brushes illustrated at the bottom of page 224. Hold scraper as shown in the drawing on page 201 with the handle toward your body and your hand on top of the metal blade, keeping it flat to the surface that is to be scraped. The motion in scraping is away from the body. Another form of scraper, without a handle, is held with both hands and drawn toward the operator, but this is a little more difficult for the amateur to use without digging into the wood.

When the surface has been scraped clean, sponge off with benzine or denatured alcohol-whichever is prescribed on the label of the brand of remover employed-and allow it to dry. Then smooth with sandpaper as described for new, unfinished furniture, folding the paper over a block of wood as when sanding flat surfaces.

Preparing Old Furniture

If the old furniture which you want to do over is in good condition, the varnish need not be removed. However, a shiny hard surface provides no anchorage for paint and the gloss must be destroyed. This can be done by sandpapering thoroughly, which involves hard and tedious work. Sponging with ammonia and water or lye and water is not so laborious and in most cases will have the desired effect. If the varnish has an especially high gloss, as seen on much of the golden oak furniture, it may prove more satisfactory to take it off with the chemical remover. If either ammonia or lye is used, be careful to rinse off the piece thoroughly with clear water.

Painted furniture on which the finish is in good condition, neither peeling nor cracking, requires very little preparation for repainting. Sponge with lukewarm suds of mild soap to remove greasy deposits from the atmosphere, rinse and wipe with soft cloths. Smooth lightly with No. 00 sandpaper, wipe off the resulting dust, and the piece is ready to be painted.

The Number of Coats Necessary

The number of coats to be applied will depend on the existing color of the furniture, and the new color desired. If a dark shade is to be changed to ivory or a delicate tint, more coats will be needed than when the opposite condition obtains. In no case, however, will it be necessary to apply the diluted priming coat recommended for new furniture. Where there is no very marked difference of tone, between the old and the new, one coat of flat paint, one of flat and enamel mixed, and a finishing coat of enamel will usually suffice, each of the first two being lightly sanded before the next is applied.

To Paint Wicker Furniture

Many people purchase wicker furniture in the unfinished state, use it a season that way and then paint it. Wicker, reed, willow and rattan can all be painted but it is seldom satisfactory to paint pieces made from South Sea Island grass or any other equally fine fiber for it absorbs all the paint and leaves a rough and unattractive surface.

The process for wicker furniture is the same, whether the pieces have previously been stained, painted or left natural.

Wash thoroughly with a solution of one rounded tablespoonful of washing soda thoroughly dissolved in a quart of warm water, using a small scrub-brush. Rinse and if possible, stand outdoors in the sun to dry. Paint as described for wood furniture, taking special care that the pigment does not accumulate in the crevices of the weave, as this will prevent drying.

Glazed Effects

Charming effects can be produced on both wood and wicker furniture by applying a coat of white shellac over the paint, and then rubbing in a smudge of a contrasting color. Ordinary oil paints in cans may be used, or Japan colors prepared. The paint must be brushed on liberally, and then wiped off again with handfuls of rags slightly moistened with turpentine. Cheesecloth is excellent for this. A deposit remains in the depths of grooves and carvings, or, in the case of wicker, in the crevices of the weave.

By means of glazing softened colors are obtained. A green glaze over blue gives a delightful blue-green, reseda green over gray is cool and pleasant especially in sun-rooms, and rose over cream is charming in a bedroom. Burnt umber and burnt sienna are the best colors to use for antiquing, an effect that improves many pieces which are too solid and clumsy looking if there is no variety in the color.

Deep ivory heavily glazed is pleasing and most tones of blue are improved by a light antiquing. As glazing tends to darken the colors be sure that your ground tone is clear and bright before you apply it, or the result will be muddy.


A variation of technique in glazing is achieved by using a brush instead of rags. Procure a long-bristled, two-inch varnish brush and after you have wiped off the glazing to the desired tone, tap the glaze with the ends of the bristle while it is still moist. Keep the brush at right angles to the surface, tap it rapidly, and wipe off the bristles from time to time with a clean rag. This will eliminate streaks that are left in wiping off the glaze. If you are not satisfied with your efforts, wipe off the glaze while it is still moist and start over again. Allow the glaze to dry completely before applying the binding coat of white shellac.

Sometimes the glint of gold is desired in places, and this can be done by taking a small amount of gold powder on a palette knife or paper and blowing it against the paint or glaze the last thing, while it is still moist, before it has begun to set.

Eggshell Gloss

If an eggshell gloss is desired, provide a clean shoe-brush, a saucer of light linseed oil, and a cheesecloth bag of fine ground pumice stone. Daub the oil on the piece to be dulled, shake the pumice over it, and brush with long strokes the long way of the top, panel, or drawer front. Then wipe off the, residue of the pumice and oil carefully with clean rags.

Painting Canvas Furniture

Sometimes dingy old canvas hammocks and chairs can be glorified by painting. Use a rich, dark olive green and thin sufficiently with gasoline to enabbe it to penetrate the pores of the fabric. The material being heavy, paint on both sides in order to produce an even color. When thoroughly dry, a row of two-inch orange squares can be stenciled around the top of the hammock, or a futuristic floral design applied to the chair back in the same manner. The frame of the chair can be enameled a gloss black. To complete the porch group, paint a Windsor chair with some of the same black enamel. A table cover and cushions for wicker chairs can be fashioned from black enamel cloth and stenciled in gay colors.

Decorative Effects

Decoration in some form is usually effective on painted furniture, owing to the agreeable color contrast which it affords. It should be simple and restrained, however, for an over-decorated piece is always objectionable and in poor taste. The simplest form of decoration is striping, but this is an art which it takes much practice and patience to acquire, and it will be wise in most cases to engage a carriage or sign painter to execute this portion of the work. A straight line can be managed, if the little finger of the hand holding the brush is allowed to slide along the edge of the chair seat or table top to serve as a guide; but turning corners, joining the ends of a stripe, or outlining fancy shaped slats in the backs of chairs will prove beyond the skill of most amateurs. In the turned posts and legs of chairs and other pieces of furniture, however, there often will be found little grooves which can easily be painted and which will satisfactorily take the place of most elaborate striping. Be careful not to overdo these ring stripings.

One of the most attractive finishes can be obtained by painting the interior of a desk or cupboard robin's-egg blue, and painting the outside oyster gray. Then paint the decorative motive on the gray, and antique glaze the entire piece. After the glaze is dry, apply the binding coat of shellac, and stripe the edges and beads with gold. The final effect will go with countless fabrics and present a unity of appeal that is really charming. Some of the smaller pieces, like chairs and candlestand, can be done entirely in blue and gold. Table tops, too, are sometimes painted a different color from the legs, and the color of the latter used to finish the edge, as jade green on black. The prevailing hue in a stencil decoration may be emphasized in this way.

Decorating Painted Furniture

Floral designs are especially popular because of the infinite variety they afford. Fruit decorations, too, are frequently chosen for furniture to be used in breakfast-rooms, or small, informal dining-rooms. The decorations as a rule are either painted free hand, or applied with the aid of a stencil. The first method of course demands artistic talent and training, but the second can be successfully practiced by any person with average deftness, patience and color sense.

For hand decoration only the outline of the design is traced on the furniture either with carbon paper or dusted on through a pounce. Few and far between are the people who can sketch a decorative motive free-hand on the furniture without some outline as a guide, and even then the effect is apt to be too informal. Decorative motives should be conventional in design, balanced in farm, and proportioned to the entire surface in such a way that they become a part of the furniture itself. The best sources for units of conventional designs are found in block prints and chintzes, wallpapers, laces, old china and even old samplers, with their delightfully stereotyped designs.

Applying the Design

Pounces can be made from designs on chintzes, cretonnes or other fabrics. Use a padded ironing board or other surface over which a soft cloth has been fastened. Place a piece of tough paper on the cloth and pin the fabric with the design over the paper. Now follow the outline of the design by pricking through the fabric and paper with countless pin pricks, closely spaced. This will give an outline on the paper through which chalk or charcoal powder can be dusted on to the furniture to serve as a guide in filling in the colors by hand.

Tracings can be made of themes from solid surfaces like china or other furniture, by using architects' tracing paper. Thereafter the outline can be transferred to the furniture with carbon paper or, if the theme is to be used many times, s pounce can be made from the tracing as described above.

When it comes to filling in the colors by hand, the skill and ability of the artist enters. The fabric or paper from which the design is taken may give suggestions and if one has a good color sense, even better things can be achieved. If your knowledge of handling oil colors is limited, then the simplest possible themes should be selected and used but sparingly. In developing a good color scheme, a preparatory panel is an excellent precaution. Work out the design on a piece of wood before applying it to the furniture and have turpentine and clean rags handy, so that mistakes can be washed out while the paint is still wet without injuring the body color. Occasionally, only knobs are decorated or a small garland is looped under each knob of the top drawer, and a smaller spray on the second, the succeeding drawers being left plain. In the same way, if a wreath, garland, or basket of flowers is applied to the head-board of a bed, something smaller and less elaborate should be used on the foot-board.

Many simple decorative designs are tremendously improved by antique glazing. The art of antique glazing can be developed by a little consistent effort on practice panels. This is done by means of a thick, muddy solution of linseed oil and burnt sienna or burnt umber smeared over the entire surface after the furniture is painted and decorated. This is quickly wiped off again with clean rags, leaving enough color to tone it down and giving high lights on exposed surfaces and edges and deeper tones in the cracks and corners. The best effects with antique glazing can be obtained when the body color is white, cream, ivory, gray or some other light tone. Using a lighter glaze pleasing effects can be produced on light blue, green, yellow and Chinese red. After the desired tone is reached, the piece must stand until it is completely dry. Then the glaze must be fixed with at least one or two coats of thin white shellac.

All decorative themes should be protected, after they are dry, with at least one coat of pure white shellac, no matter what the body color. Give this final coat to the entire piece. Wipe off any traces of the outline left from pounce or tracing after the decoration is dry and before applying the protecting coat of white shellac.

Painted furniture may appropriately be used in any and every room of the house, but not in every case to the exclusion of other types. In a bedroom, for example, small pieces of painted furniture could be used in conjunction with an old mahogany four-post bed; or in a breakfast or dining-room, a walnut or mahogany gate-leg table may harmoniously be combined with painted Windsor or slat-back chairs.

In the living-room, interesting contrast and variety may be gained through the introduction of a painted or lacquered cabinet, a pair of end tables, or one or two chairs, and the fewer the number of such pieces and the smaller in scale, the brighter may they be in color. A pair of little rush-seated side chairs in apple-green would be a delight in a living-room whose windows are hung with cretonne which combines this refreshing hue with mauve and straw color. Occasionally a room in which the endeavor to achieve restfulness has made it wearisome through the use of too many neutral hues, can be given just the needed fillip by a touch of orange, canary, or Chinese red in the form of a small book table, the lining of a writing desk, or an enameled wicker chair, plant stand, or bird cage.

After the painting is finished, the question arises of how to keep the furniture in the best possible condition. The method is simple. Use a waxed cheesecloth duster for the daily dusting, and at long intervals go over the surface with a cloth freshly moistened with liquid wax. The thin film of wax will not affect the color in the least, nor will it soil clothing as do oily polishes when they are not rubbed off with sufficient care, but will keep the surface clean and bright and protect it from changes due to atmospheric action.

( Originally Published 1930's )

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