The two worst assaults a col lector can make on the finish of an antique is stripping off the original paint or painting a piece that had never before been painted.
Collectors may in good conscience begin to repaint antiques that were stripped of their original paint and refinished with a modern varnish, Bruce E. Johnson wrote in an article in the current issue of Country Living. Unless the refinisher was extremely diligent, traces of old paint lodged in the pores and joints will provide clues about the original color.
It has often been claimed that country cabinetmakers painted their furniture to disguise the fact that it had been made from a variety of common woods--pine, maple and poplar.
It is more likely that the paint on a country cupboard, chair or bench reflects the personal preference of either the cabinetmaker or the original owner. Not everyone wanted a houseful of brown furniture.
At a time when neither bright fabrics nor lively wallpapers, electric lighting or large picture windows dominated a home, families depended on paint--including painted furniture--to add color.
Many early cabinetmakers were as proud of their personal finish formulas as they were of their dovetailed joints. Construction details, though important, often went unnoticed by the owner of the piece, and the durability of the joinery and the quality of the wood would not become evident for many years.
The cabinetmaker instead might well have been judged on such factors as the vibrancy and the color of his paint.
Craftsmen working in Shaker communities during the 19th Century created a quality of furniture noted for its practicality, impressive lines and absence of decoration.
But like their contemporaries, Shaker craftsmen believed that all wooden furniture needed to be stained or painted to protect the wood and make it easier to clean.
Stains and paints were made within the Shaker commune. Stains proved easier to make than paints, for the craftsmen could distill the dyes from local plants and trees. Walnut shells, for instance, could be boiled to create various shades of brown dyes.
Pigments for paints had to be purchased from "the world" and were used sparingly. Blue pigments were among the most costly and were reserved for the interior trim of meeting houses and the most important pieces of furniture.
There is no apparent pattern to which pieces of Shaker furniture were painted and which were stained. Colors include blue, yellow, red and green. The combination of two colors of paint on a single piece of furniture is rare.
If you have the good fortune to discover and purchase a piece of country or Shaker furniture with its original paint intact, do not touch up any missing paint. Only a trained restoration expert has the capabilities and material required to produce a perfect match.
If the piece is dirty or its colors are badly faded, you can carefully clean it using a soft cloth and a minimum amount of mild soap and water. Start cleaning in the least conspicuous place and be prepared to stop immediately if your rag begins to pick up some of the color of the paint.
Never apply a coat of varnish or shellac over an authentic painted finish, for the amber hue of the varnish or shellac will change the color of the paint. The safest way to both protect the paint and restore its sheen is with a quality furniture paste wax.