How to (NOT) Paint Furniture: A Cautionary Tale

I know that design and lifestyle blogs are for featuring pretty things, and easy DIYs, and nice, finished images of aspirational rooms, but today, I continue my (apparent) series from Monday on vintage regrets and mistakes. I found this bed (now nicely finished and in my son’s room) for $25. Yes, the wood was damaged in places but I’ve read enough internet to know that “Painting is an easy and cheap way to refresh old furniture!” And now I’m here to tell you that anyone who tells you this is BUILDING A HOUSE OF LIES.

Ahem. I found this full-size bed at our local Habitat for Humanity Re-Store (with rails included, lesson learned from the twin Jenny Lind bed featured Monday). I mean, it was cheap at $25, and buying things because they’re cheap and I’m inherently overconfident in my ability to make things prettier meant that OF COURSE I snapped it up. Without looking too closely. In the store, it looked strong. Solid mahogany. It looked cute, with it’s little acorn finials, but had damage like the below. “I’ll just paint it! That’s going to be easy!” I thought.

Sigh. I don’t know why I still convince myself painting furniture will be easy (yes I do, I’m a cheapskate who puts on rose-colored glasses when I see a low number). Yet, I’ve painted enough furniture to know it is HARD. Plus, paint and supplies ain’t cheap.   Your average gallon of quality paint is at least $40. For this bed, I ended up spending $150. On PAINT (and primer). I already had the brushes, buckets, sander, sanding pads, etc. but still, the supplies I used up were probably $50. Oh, I also had to purchase bunkie board rails for $68 because I didn’t want the bed sitting high up on a box spring (given that it’s for a toddler). So a $25 bed turns into a $300 bed.

Now, none of my other vintage furniture painting experiences have been this bad, but none have been easy, and ultimately, none have been that cheap or as perfect as I’d like. This is because (turns out) I’m not a professional or even that great of a painter. However, the others came out okay because I followed the simple steps of: sand, prime, paint, don’t cut corners. Here there were other issues at play, which I’m sharing so you don’t make my same mistakes.

The first sign of trouble for this bed was when I assembled it at home (lesson: assemble even cheapie vintage stuff on site BEFORE buying). One of the rails had a distinct slant to it, and it became clear that the wood on the headboard where it holds the rail had broken and been (poorly) repaired at some point to sit much higher than the footboard rail. So, I had to repair that. This wasn’t pricey (just some huge 30 cent bolts and drilling), but it took a ton of time to make sure it was bolted in well and level. Like five hours of time. This bed is for my four year old, so yeah, I wanted something built like a brick house.

Another sign of trouble was when I went to simply wipe the thing down with a damp cloth. This bed has to be 60 years old, yet my white rag came up RED. People, that is one aggressive mahogany stain. If this happens to you, stop at this point. You can get an idea of how crazy red it was here:

So I sanded it, adding more time and cost, and forcing me to wear my Darth Vader-like respirator to avoid fumes (side benefits of preventing you from inhaling toxic dust and fumes, leaving crazy marks on your face for like four hours, and scaring the bejezus out of Amazon delivery people):

Finally, primer-time. I primed it with some super-adhesive primer I’d had success with in the past and had on hand (Stix, literally the ONLY thing that worked to make paint stick to our interior walls – what happened next is not your fault, Stix! I still love you and am grateful for you every time I look at my walls).

Well, the next day I went out to put on the first layer of paint, and … yeah, the red mahogany stain was outright leaking through. Like oily red stuff coming out. I don’t have photos of this due to a combination of freaking out and intense shame, which made me not take any. Again, if this happens to you, stop at this point, because I didn’t. Back to the hardware store, bought Kilz stain-killing primer, and did yet ANOTHER coat of primer. Better, but still not enough, so a second coat went on. After a week of drying (and HOURS of priming), the mahogany stain was finally not seeping or showing through.

Paint time! Well, by this time my son had chosen the color he wanted, which was a dark green. Here’s how miserable the first coat looked:

Sigh. Tint your primer, people, if you’re using a dark color. Because I didn’t. Also, don’t be lazy and use a roller, like I did (I later had to sand again to get rid of the roller marks). Also, don’t think you can paint a piece this large in a dark color with just one measly gallon – I used every bit of two gallons. Literally 25 hours of work later, the bed was finally done.

I mean, it’s okay? It has the nice features of sitting really low, being my son’s favorite color (for that week, anyway, he recently told me that his favorite color has changed to “rainbow,” so I’m pretty sure he’s a GENIUS), and I guess costing less than the average solid wood bed. But the whole process was such misery. And I still wish I’d painted it fire engine red to brighten up his dark-ish room, but I totally caved to my son’s adorable pleading for dark green (I mean, he’s cute and all, and a maybe-genius, but he’s not that great at design – for example, he told me we should paint our house “zebra” and that I should only buy furniture that is “good for jumping”).

At one point I was whining about the whole process and my husband was like “Isn’t messing with furniture your hobby? Shouldn’t hobbies be FUN?” Man has a point. Normally, messing with furniture is great fun for me. But sometimes, you have to know when to be patient and wait for the better thing to come along (which it has, by the way, I recently scored a super-cool bed on Craigslist that needs zero work and only cost me $50, to be featured here when I get my act together), and most, most, MOST of all, in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, now when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

I should have run, people, I should have run.