Modifying old furniture because: Your ancestors will forgive you

Feb 04 2016
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As you might imagine I watch a lot of DIY television around here (shocking, I know) and it also gives us a bit of comic relief from time to time. The other day they were salvaging an ancient, old (gorgeous) Victorian in Virginia and going on and on and on about this enormous, solid wood, hand carved bed that had been left in the house.

Don’t get me wrong, I was literally as excited about it as they were, however, I can’t help but suspect that the old owners of that bed are laughing at us right now. I can just hear old great great great aunt Isabella chuckling in her grave, “Oh that heavy old thing!?

The only reason we kept it was because it was built in the house so we couldn’t get it out!” And then her husband (great great great uncle Bob) pops in his two cents, “There I was, all laid out by the mortician and they puzzled over a big groove I had in my shin! A dent! I tell you you could have fit a roll of nickles in it!”

Isabella is really cackling now, “You hit your shin on that damned old bed every day for a decade.” His response is what you would expect, “I never hated a man or beast or anything in my life except that old bed. Hated it I tell you!”

Its ok to modify old furniture to make it work for you, your ancestor's will forgive you!

So the new owners might just get to hit their shins on it like poor great great great uncle Bob for several decades because it’s ancient and incredible and was passed down to them from some relative without the note attached that it was an atrocity.

So, this blog post is about the times when it is okay to change a piece of old furniture (Gasp! Even paint it!) so it can work better in your life. If it is not your furniture (say, its your husband’s or your wife’s) and you need to ask their opinion I would give them an ultimatum, either you can change it so it works for your family or it goes somewhere else (which might be the yard…).

I also hear from readers who say their mom or cousin or family member or whoever would never forgive them if they changed it – Ok, then I say give it to one of them. It is not your job to haul the old furniture of your ancestors around. The worst thing this stuff could become is a burden to you and it will if all it does is collect dust so you can hit your shin on it every day.

Great great great aunt Isabella would not want it to be a burden to you or, if she was the type of woman that would, you need to move on – life is too short to live with dysfunctional old furniture.

Its ok to modify old furniture to make it work for you, your ancestor's will forgive you!

So, when is it ok to change old furniture? It is always ok. However, you can do quite a bit of “damage” so make sure you know at least what you’re destroying before you take a sander to it. (To break the rules we should at least know them first!)

Finishes like the type on some Ethan Allen furniture is a nightmare to live with but a good part of the reason the stuff is so expensive. Are you willing to ruin that finish and greatly reduce its worth? These are questions you should most definitely be educated enough to ask.

(Would I personally ruin the finish on a piece of Ethan Allen furniture to make it work in my life? You’re damned right I would! Or else I would clean it up and sell it – I will not live with impractical furniture and neither should you!)

Its ok to modify old furniture to make it work for you, your ancestor's will forgive you!

A note about Ethan Allen furniture: The stuff I was living with was was enormous, chunky and you couldn’t even look at it without marring the finish. It was also much heavier then it ever should have been for the quality of the wood that was used. It was not furniture I would ever bother trying to sand down, in fact, I’m not even sure the wood used was thick enough to sand down and refinish into something more durable. This seems to be very common in extraordinary hyped and, therefore, expensive furniture. I would sell it but if I HAD to keep it (which I can’t imagine what universe that would happen in) I would sand the hell out of it and paint it and really enjoy doing it!

Its ok to modify old furniture to make it work for you, your ancestor's will forgive you!

When would I not paint? Oooh and we come to the really big deal question. When do we paint and when do we not paint? You’ll notice I don’t often paint unless it’s things like trim, doors, cabinets etc. Stuff that is very commonly painted. Here is how it is with me – if its good, solid wood, I refinish, if it’s not, I paint it. Pretty simple but I’m not exactly a wild child and, don’t get me wrong, I have drooled over many many lovely paint jobs on pinterest but I am a wood lover at heart. 100 year old solid oak? I just can’t paint it… But you can! I give you permission if you need it! Paint away!

Its ok to modify old furniture to make it work for you, your ancestor's will forgive you!

And now, you’re thinking, “But what about all that pine bead board in your house? If you’re such a hard core wood lover why didn’t you just stain or poly that?” Ok, I have a confession to make, I HATE knotty pine. Hate is a strong word, I’m aware, but I just plain hate it. It comes from the fact that I live in northern Minnesota and every house I have ever lived in, or restaurant I’ve ever eaten in, or just about every home that I’ve ever been in, is clad (somewhere) in tongue and groove knotty pine that has been finished in nothing but polyurethane. I am a living example of too much knotty pine in my life and I cannot, will not, am not capable of living with that horrible honey yellowy color ever in my life again.

Its ok to modify old furniture to make it work for you, your ancestor's will forgive you!

What about trim in old houses? We’re talking about Nicole Curtis of Rehab Addict kind of endless, glorious wood everywhere kind of trim. Well… Yeah I’m not exactly all in when it comes to Nicole’s side of the court. Would it hurt to paint all of that one of a kind solid oak that is everywhere? Yeah… but you need to live there and it needs to work for you. I find houses covered in wood like that to be dark and ridiculous (but also beautiful) so I would probably refinish it and sell the house. If I couldn’t sell I would probably paint, yup, you heard me, I would paint a lot of it white. Dark houses can be really depressing. I’m sorry, Nicole, I’m a selfish human being but painted trim is a far better alternative to tearing the house down, am I right?

So, the moral is, do what you need to do so you can live with it and love it! Great great great aunt Isabella will understand!

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  1. February 5, 2016 at 1:51 am

    That was great. Thank you so much, I needed a good laugh today. And I totally agree. I love wood and wood furniture, but the most important thing is that you love your own house and your own stuff. Make it yours.

    • February 5, 2016 at 3:11 pm

      lol thanks! Its so true, we need to love what we have regardless on whether we paint it or not! 🙂

  2. SHEILA F.
    February 9, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    I found your blog thanks to Kristi at You have made me LOL! I have pieces from my family tha I KNOW they hated! As I was drooling over the 1900 metal bed and the wash stand in my Grandmother-in-laws shed….. She was like “Why do you want that junk?” Lol, I think I am going to like you!

    • February 9, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      lol! Oh for sure! One of my favorite dressers that I found out on the old screened in porch… well, it was out there for a reason: because my grandparents thought it was junk! To each his own I guess! 🙂 Thanks for coming by!

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