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Paint or Stain on Vintage Furniture

Paint or Stain on Vintage Furniture

Stain versus paint in vintage furniture.

It is without a doubt, one of the more heated debates in the vintage, antique, and handmade wood furniture communities today. Some experts will concede that there are times when doing this is appropriate and may even improve a piece. Others, antique restoration professionals, and antique experts will argue it is devastating and lowers the value.

Should you ever paint a vintage piece? Should you even purchase a painted piece? Is it better to stain a refinished antique or purchase a stained piece and skip the paint? Which one is better and why? Why do some choose to paint a vintage piece or leave it bare?

We explore this decades-long debate and the positives as well as the negatives of each side.

How Stain Works

What makes stain so important to wood, wood furniture and becomes such an important choice for expert carpenters and cabinetry makers? Before we get into how exactly stain works, let us look at why it is such an important aspect of the woodwork.

One of the first things a good stain can do is create a barrier and protection against water. Water damage is one of the most common and most expensive forms of damage to repair from wood as well as sun damage. Stain can protect against these as well as prevent rotting and deteriorating.

Stain for wood usually comes in three common forms: oil, resin, or alkyd that all act as binders which attach to pigments that lay on the surface of the wood. The stain begins to sink into the wood, protecting it deep into the layers. Stain usually changes the natural color of wood, while paint only coats the surface. The excess stain should be wiped away once the pigment has been absorbed into the binder. Extra stain occurs after the solvent in the stain has evaporated, and once staining is finished and has soaked into the wood, it is usual to follow the staining process with a protective coat to complete the task of coloring as well as protecting the wood project.

How Paint Works

Like a stain, there are three main components of paint. The pigment, vehicle, and the solvent. The pigment is that which gives paint its color, the vehicle is that which transports that pigment to the object we are painting, such as oils or acrylics.

Paint does not generally soak into the wood but remains on the surface. While it offers wood a protective surface it may be only temporary as once that surface wears away the wood is exposed once more. Few paints will stain or work their way into wood unless specially formulated, and some paints should never be used on wood as they can damage the wood itself.

Differences Between Stain and Paint

Although two very different substances that provide color and protection— it's essentially all stain and paint have in common. Staining and painting require two different sets of supplies, tools, and techniques while providing two very different looking styles on a finished piece of wood.

Most paint used on wood is a latex-based solid color. That means it completely sits on the surface and covers the wood but offers nothing further than that layer of coating. Of course, there is more versatility in paint color options.

Paint is much easier to remove and change, as it does not soak into the wood. Paint may dry much faster than stain as it only needs the top layer to dry.

Stain vs. Paint in Vintage Furniture. Which do You Choose?

There are several key factors to consider before deciding to choose stain over paint. As professionals in wood crafting, we at Laurel Crown chose to use the stain on our wood pieces for the ultimate in protection to keep your finely crafted heirloom furniture the safest it can be from the sun as well as moisture. However, if you already have a piece of vintage furniture at home—perhaps from a grandparent or found after searching for long months for the perfect addition—your choices are more versatile in what you wish to do.


When it comes to your heirloom vintage pieces, deciding whether to refinish it, use stain or use paint is often a deeply personal one. Whether your grandparents handed down the English coffee table that they painted themselves or you discovered a genuine Victorian round table in the most unexpected estate sale, how you feel about the piece will influence what you should do.

Would the original owner of the vintage piece be horrified at the paint being removed? Would they be horrified by the vintage piece being painted?

If you know that the original owner of the vintage piece would be horrified if you painted it, it stands to reason that you shouldn't paint it. The existing decor and how to match it are also considerations when it comes to style.


If you are staining your vintage furniture or painting it yourself, you must use the right stain and the right paint. Do you know the difference between a can of Rustoleum paint and furniture specific paint? Do you know which kinds of brushes and applicators work best, whether to sand first or prime?

If you are unsure, refinishing whether you choose to stain or paint most likely should not be followed through. There is a chance that you may do more damage to your vintage piece of furniture by trying to stain or paint it than leaving it intact as it is.


Do you know the value of the piece you are about to paint or refinish with stain? Painting a truly valuable vintage piece of furniture that you have considered selling at some point may severely lower the price of your vintage piece; especially if it is painted, not stained. If what you have might be very rare, you should have it appraised by a professional as soon as possible. You might have scored a vintage $20 table at a yard sale only to find out later it sells for upwards of $500 on auction sites.

So, stain vs. paint in vintage furniture. Which one should you pick? Ultimately this is a question that cannot be answered until you have considered both the personal value, knowledge about stain and paint, and value of the piece. Once these questions have been answered whether you choose stain or paint for your vintage furniture it will no doubt be the right choice for your individual needs.

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