Should I paint this antique secretary, or refinish it?

Barb Dieterle
by Barb Dieterle
This was my grandmothers pride and joy while she was alive. I love it also, but the finish has gotten old and scaly. I'm thinking about painting and antiquing it , but not sure if it would 1) look good, 2) what color would be best, 3) if it would decrease the value or integrity of the piece?
Any thoughts or ideas would be very appreciated.
Taken in daylight
  41 answers
  • Annpaige Harris Annpaige Harris on Mar 11, 2015
    My husband fusses at me about painting beautiful wood, so I would weigh the value of the piece, and then decide. I can totally see this in a cream color crackle finish.
    • Barb Dieterle Barb Dieterle on Mar 11, 2015
      I think that would look really pretty as well. Have you ever used chalk paint? I haven't, so wondering about that also?? Thanks so much for your input.:-)
  • Vonzella Crawley Vonzella Crawley on Mar 11, 2015
    • Barb Dieterle Barb Dieterle on Mar 11, 2015
      Thanks Vonzella, I'll have to think on it some more and see if I'm brave enough to tackle this project.
  • Barbara Barbara on Mar 11, 2015
    I would ask an antique dealer if you plan on ever selling it. Myself I prefer the rough look or maybe refinish it.
  • Carole Carole on Mar 11, 2015
    Isn't the value of the piece to you the fact that it belonged to your grandmother? Not the $$ value of it? After all you would never sell it would you? If you want to paint it and think you would love it more painted then go for it. My feeling is your grandmother would be happier knowing that it belonged in your house and you loved it rather than you kept it just for sentimental value and that it did not fit in. Make it your own and do with it what you will would be my advice. Unless you are thinking of selling it in which case get it valued and do just that.
  • Marty Avent Marty Avent on Mar 11, 2015
    I inherited my fathers writing desk and had it for years in the hall looking shabby because the veneer was coming off. I took the plunge painted the outside white and distressed it and polished the inside red leather writing top with shoe polish. it now takes pride of place in my reading nook and I love it even more. Go for it Barb!!!
    • J J on Mar 12, 2015
      @Marty Avent Would love to see a photo :)
  • Barbara Barbara on Mar 11, 2015
    My apologies, I did not read everything so I didn't know it was your grandmother's...I agree with the what is in your heart. I will leave this conversation.
  • Kari Nichelson Kari Nichelson on Mar 11, 2015
    I like it the way it is,but there are products to help preserve the old finish.But it is your piece of furniture now and you have to make the choice.I have some pieces that my Mom antiqued back in the 60s and 70s that she wishes she had left alone.Every thing goes in cycles and what's popular now may not be later.
    • Leigh Rowan Leigh Rowan on Mar 12, 2015
      @Kari Nichelson I agree, I had to strip everything my grandmother painted/antiqued.
  • Annpaige Harris Annpaige Harris on Mar 11, 2015
    No...I haven't used the chalk....and you should imagine how you think it would be the prettiest, and go with it!!
  • Shari Shari on Mar 11, 2015
    Oh man, I always cringe when somebody has an old piece of furniture and asks, "Should I paint this?" because the wood purists on this site get terribly upset and berate anyone who even thinks about painting a "valuable antique." Shows like the Antique Roadshow give the impression that every old piece of furniture is an "antique" and if anyone has an old piece of furniture they are automatically sitting on a goldmine. However, in reality, those *real* priceless antiques are incredibly far and few between. We all probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than actually inheriting or finding a TRULY valuable antique. Although very beautiful, your grandmother's secretary most likely has far more sentimental value than actual monetary value. Nevertheless, if you have any questions about what it's worth, I would urge you to have it appraised before you do anything to it because even refinishing could devalue the piece if it was valuable. Even though I'm not a furniture/antique expert and you didn't mention how old the piece is, I'm going to guess it's probably a mass produced piece (not hand-crafted) so it probably has not appreciated in value very much. I'm also going to go out on a limb and say that from what I can see, it doesn't look to be much more than 45 years old, which would probably fall into the *vintage* category, not antique. Here is my thinking on painting old pieces of furniture: 1. Wood is not sacred. 2. Painting wood furniture is not a sin. 3. Painting does not devalue furniture that has very little value to begin with. 4. Paint stripper and sandpaper work really well for removing paint from wood if one should change their mind and decide they no longer want it painted. 5. Our homes should be our sanctuary and we should only have things around us we really love. I would urge you to do whatever works for you and your home. If you want to paint it, go ahead and paint it!
  • Marion Nesbitt Marion Nesbitt on Mar 12, 2015
    I love the warmth and grain of wood. There is a recipe for eco furniture cleaner/conditioner which uses 3 parts veg oil and 1 part white vinegar. Have used it on some pieces where the finish has worn, etc. with great success. It is really weird but the blems such as worn off/chipped varnish almost disappear and the finish seems to even out. I'd do a treatment first.
  • Leigh Rowan Leigh Rowan on Mar 12, 2015
    @Barb Dieterle Try putting contact paper in the back of the upper section that compliments your taste. It will lighten the piece up. If you have older children that are going to inherit this piece, then ask them. If the piece isn't losing the veneer, I wouldn't touch it, my grandmother painted/antiqued several pieces that I have had to strip. Everything is a trend, what is new.... really isn't. It's been done before. If you do decide to paint it, talk to a woodworking professional to make sure you prep the service so if it is striped it won't damage the piece. Veneers are hard to strip because it will loosen the glues and you might just sentence this piece to be painted for ever if that is the case.
  • Cheryl King Cheryl King on Mar 12, 2015
    I know what an Antique dealer would probably tell you to bring it back to the original finish to get the most amount of money if you would ever want to sell it. But if you have no thought to ever sell it do with it whatever makes you happy. It will sell painted but probably just not as much in an antique shop. The piece is more antique than vintage. Hope this will help some.
  • Monique rios Monique rios on Mar 12, 2015
    I also like natural wood but I can see why you would want to lighten it. Why dont you use the cream you want but do it with an antiquing effect. Like the paint is warn off in spots it looks great and would lighten it up a bit.
  • Cyndi Shaffer Cyndi Shaffer on Mar 12, 2015
    Oh no, it is a beautiful piece that I would want to stay as a memory of Grandmother. It will really decrease the value to paint it!
  • Susanne cumber Susanne cumber on Mar 12, 2015
    No paint please!
  • Pgl Pgl on Mar 12, 2015
    Painting it will devalue the piece by 90%. There should be a makers stamp on it check under the drawers. This is a top of line piece you have definitely inherited a treasure. I would first use a standard cleaner [Muphy Old English ect ] are safe. Once cleaned you can decide. To lighten it up place treasured pieces in side use battery operated fairy lights to show off your pieces. Your taste will change over time but paint is permanent and very costly to remove. I learned this the hard way.
  • Pam Mariner Good Pam Mariner Good on Mar 12, 2015
    I would definitely check out any markings that indicate where/by whom/when it was made as pgl suggested, and check with some antique dealers before touching the piece. I wouldn't want to rush into painting or refinishing--any change you make to the surface will affect the value of the furniture.
  • Rebecca Simons Stanevich Rebecca Simons Stanevich on Mar 12, 2015
    I have to agree with Shari. In general, I love wood and see no reason to paint over something do naturally beautiful, BUT I have hated the mahogany dining room set I got from my grandmother since I got it. I like light woods This is dark and heavy. My China cabinet is very similar to your secretary. I would probably gotten rid of it years ago, but every time I open the China cabinet, it still smells just like it did at my grandmother's house. A friend found someone looking for a replacement set and asked if I was interested in selling mine. I went to an antique dealer and he told me I might be able to get$550 for the entire set.Yikes! I couldn't get one piece of good quality furniture for that price! So I decided to paint it. Cleaning it up brought out some gorgeous Burke wood that had been downplayed by the old varnish. Now, the paint highlights the beautiful wood, and I love it! Good luck with your decision.
  • Carol Carol on Mar 12, 2015
    I actually love this piece and would not paint it. I would try to put some lighting in the top section and remove all the books and add a few treasured glass and China pieces along with a few pictures. I think the books make this small desk look top heavy. If it still doesn't look right, try moving it to the guest room or hallway or just across the room. It is your piece of furniture, a and if it still doesn't work refinish it in a clear finish, or whitewash it. I generally don't like painted furniture, but I have seen some amazing transformations on this site. I do think it is probably turn of the centurary (1900-1920) but I would look for a manufacturers mark and get at least a verbal opinion as to its value.
  • Tobey McCool Tobey McCool on Mar 12, 2015
    Because it was your grandmothers I know you will most likely never sell it, so you should do what you want to the piece. If you think it is darky or dingy then a coat of chalkpaint would really add some life to the piece. And down the road chalk paint is easily removed should you decide to return it to the wood look. I have many pieces that I have painted and they look fabulous, and I have some pieces that the wood grain was so beautiful I had to leave it. and some I have painted parts of them and left some of the wood grain. It really is a personal preference, good luck with your decision.
  • Trudy Trudy on Mar 12, 2015
    Please don't paint it; that fad will be gone soon! It is gorgeous! Lot's of good suggestions above. Try the Murphy's Oil Soap (use a toothbrush in the crevices) then go over it with Old English lemon oil suggestion. If there are chips that look light you can touch them up with a stain marker. If you want to love it more personalize it with your own knick-knacks above instead of crowding it with books. I agree that lights will help too. I use those battery operated LED fairy lights, that will make it sparkle.
  • Elaine Simpson Elaine Simpson on Mar 12, 2015
    Don't paint it
  • Chris Sabol Chris Sabol on Mar 12, 2015
    I wouldn't paint it. It is beautiful as it is.
  • Deborah Deborah on Mar 12, 2015
    Do not paint it! Leave it alone. I totally agree with Cyndi Shaffer.
  • Melinda Lockwood Melinda Lockwood on Mar 12, 2015
    Please do not pain this! Refinish.
  • Geri Geri on Mar 13, 2015
    I have this same exact piece. My son found it in a dumpster. I stripped it and put a lt oil finish on it. everyone loves it.
    • See 1 previous
    • Joanne C. Wanciak Joanne C. Wanciak on Dec 13, 2016

      Years ago I inherited a beautiful antique Secretary. I had good advice thank goodness. I used a bar of ivory soap ,working a small section at a time. wring out an old wash cloth rub it on the soap. Then clean a small area. Wring out a clean cloth in

      warm water to rinse The soap off . make sure to get the soap off . The old cruddy finish rolled off Looking like brown worms. But once done I could not believe how beautiful the wood grain looked. After 40 years it is still a beauty and I have been offered a lot of money by several dealers who heard about it. Do not wet your

      furniture wring the rag out real good and change it when it gets dirty. I advise you to try this on a side Doing one small spot until you see how good it looks. Before you start turn your phone off Lol

  • Roberta Taylor Roberta Taylor on Mar 13, 2015
    Please don't paint it! Apart from the fact that it will lose monetary value, the paint will make it 'unnatural'. I think painted wood furniture looks fake, irreal. Don't paint, restore.
  • Tar997110 Tar997110 on Mar 13, 2015
    Please re-finish it, painting it would be awful, get something like sandpaper, they make one now tbat looks rubber but you sand with it and it doesn't hurt your wood, then get you some finish a wipe it down good, didn't know if we could advertise on here or not but I have the perfect solution, just let me know and I will tell you the brand. Thats a beautiful piece!!!!
    • Barb Dieterle Barb Dieterle on Mar 13, 2015
      @Taralena Hi Taralena, I agree with you, I would like to refinish it but not sure about doing that. If you have any advice for me I would really appreciate it. Thank-You!
  • Kayo Frazier Kayo Frazier on Mar 13, 2015
    I would find an antiques dealer willing to come to your home to check it out, then find out if it's the real deal or a reproduction. Once you find out for sure...Ask how much it will decrease in value if you paint it & go from there.
  • Betty Fannin Betty Fannin on Mar 14, 2015
    Please Please refinish it
  • Tar997110 Tar997110 on Mar 18, 2015
    Ok here is what I would do 1. Get Sandblaster by 3M,if you have any places you need to buff out, this is the perfect profuct. 2. Buy RESTORE-A-FINISH by HOWARD, use very sparingly because it don't take much and that will look brand new!!!! Let me know how it turns out please, its a beautiful piece :)
  • Barb Dieterle Barb Dieterle on Mar 18, 2015
    ThanksTaralena, I will check out those products and see if they will work for me. I'll let you know how it turns out.
    • Tar997110 Tar997110 on Mar 20, 2015
      Your very wcome, I think it will turn out great. Remember, just go to and you get to pick which color you want, I love it because if you wanted to change the color, just loom at all ther beautiful colors you can make, let me know how it it tooks when your done!
  • Mlb1409268 Mlb1409268 on Mar 23, 2015
    If you refinish it, you will lose the beautiful patina that has developed. Try using 'Restore-A-Finish' in the proper color first, and see what you think. I love your piece. It's beautiful! Oh, one thing you could do to lighten things up is to cover a piece of cardboard with a light colored wallpaper or fabric to fit behind the shelves (that way it's not permanent)
  • Gail Gail on Nov 21, 2016
    I have antique twin beds that had that hard scale finish on it. I really liked it but it was actually in my mother's house. She had it refinished. It looked very pretty at first until every little thing it seemed that touched it scratched it. Now it's in my house and I'm ready to chalk paint it or something because it scratches so easily. It was protected before.
  • Ginny Ginny on Dec 24, 2016

    Leave the piece alone. Why are people so eager to paint old furniture that is in good shape. Do not refinish, paint or disturb in any way because in the end you'll be sorry. Wipe it off with a solution to remove layers of Pledge or other spray cleaning products and feed the wood with a solution that is healthy for the wood. Speak to a furniture refinisher in your area who can recommend products. The piece is gorgeous and is meant to stay as is. I have a similar claw-foot desk and when my neighbor died, his son offered me a secretary with the same claw-foot bottom and and upper bookcase. However, I could not accept it because I had nowhere to put it. I have regretted that I had to make the decision for 40 yrs. Your beautiful piece has more gingerbread on it.

  • Nancy Nancy on Jan 10, 2017

    I owned not one but two secretaries just like yours. My husband's two uncles married two sisters. before WWII. They both got the same style secretaries for their new homes next door to each other from the same furniture store after WWII. We inherited one in 1982 ( luckily in perfect condition-they had no children). The other secretary went through a divorce and lived out its life in a cramped bachelor's apartment on the sixth floor of an old disgusting inner city building. We also inherited that one in 1990 and had to fit it in a teeny servant's elevator to get it down from the sixth floor. (The regular elevator was broken). It had lots of scratches but no serious damage. His uncle used it for his dinner table. Since, I am an antique dealer, everyone expected me to take this one when he passed on. I restored the second secretay to be almost a perfect match as the first one. I used Citistrip and matched the mahogany finish with a Minwax stain. I recently gave the secretaries to two recently married nephews in my husband's families. Anything can be restored. Take your time, do your homework and persevere. Secretaries of this vintage depending on condition, type of wood and maker can go from as low as $100 to as high as $1200. They are prolific in my area so they usually sell in the $400-$600 range.

  • Nancy Nancy on Jan 10, 2017

    If your piece is slightly faded and has very little damage, Howard's Restore-A-Finish is fantastic. We sell it in the antique mall where I have my booth. Look at the photo of a corner bookcase I bought at an estate sale that was in a smoky, dirty home.

  • Melinda Lockwood Melinda Lockwood on Jan 11, 2017

    If you want to paint this piece, shellac it first and then paint it. By doing this, you will be able to remove the paint down the road and the shellac can easily be removed with denatured alcohol, leaving you the original piece.

  • Ginny Ginny on Jan 18, 2017

    Picture of the piece submitted by Nancy from Detroit looks like my mother-in-law's BR furniture which I had to sell which was "Waterfall" pattern. Where do you buy Howard's Restore-A-Finish -- Home Depot; Lowes? Furniture looks lovely.

  • Cara Gawerecki Cara Gawerecki on Jan 19, 2017

    Anything you do to an antique takes the value $$ away. But it is yours and memories are priceless. Do what makes you happy 😊

  • Hi Barb! Refinishing it is just as bad as painting it. Regularly rub it with lemon oil - other than that, leave it alone. Hope this helps!