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Decorative Painting on Wood

Martha Stewart Living, October 2000

Any plain or unfinished piece of wood furniture, such as a chest, end table, or coffee table, can benefit from decorative painting. Although there are definitive techniques, such as sponging, graining, and stenciling, you can also follow your whimsy when executing your design. Furniture expert Eli Rios, owner of ECR Antique Conservation and Restoration in New York City, likes to replicate early-19th-century decorative-painting methods on wooden furniture. Eli uses materials similar to the ones the early craftsmen used, including paints made from natural ingredients, such as milk, eggs, and vinegar. To adhere these paints properly, first stain the surface of the wood.

Tools and Materials
Medium- to fine-grade (140- to 180-grit) sandpaper
Power sander (optional)
Sticky tack cloth
Wood stain
Paint in two different colors
Hammer, chain, or other heavy tool (optional)
Piece of stiff cardboard

Decorative Painting on Wood How-To
1. Begin by sanding your piece of furniture. Use medium- to fine-grade (140- to 180-grit) sandpaper, and be sure to work with the grain. If your piece has a lot of surface area, you may want to use a power sander. Once finished, rub the entire piece with a piece of sticky tack cloth to gather all of the sanding debris.

2. Use a quality wood stain to stain the piece. Select a stain in a shade you like (look for water-based stains for easy cleanup). Apply it with a paintbrush, working with the grain, and let dry.

3. Paint the piece in the color you want the background to be. For a distressed look, paint sloppily, working in all different directions. Let dry overnight, sand again lightly, and rub with tack cloth. Apply a second coat of paint; let dry. For a rustic look, sand the piece again, especially along the edges, so that the paint appears weathered. You can also carefully knock the piece with a hammer, chain, or other heavy tool to create nicks and grooves in the wood.

4. Decorate the painted surface with a different color paint. (Eli and Martha paint a border around the top of the chest in one color, then add pretty patterns in other shades.) For decorative objects, such as half-moons or wavy lines, try using a piece of stiff cardboard as your paint applicator. (Martha dips the edge of a piece of cardboard in paint and sets it down repeatedly on one the chest's top corners to create a fanlike design.) Lift and set down the cardboard repeatedly to the right of the center, making lines of paint, then to the left. Use a careful, steady hand. Continue decorating your piece in any way you like.

5. Once dry, finish the piece with a coat of shellac.

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