A Cover Up

by | Oct 1, 2013 | 27 comments

One of the make or break decisions of building any piece of furniture can be made right at the end, when you decide how you will finish it. It’s quite amazing how that simple decision can completely transform the look of your work so it really isn’t something you want to get wrong – especially if you’ve toiled over the build for a good length of time.

Amongst our comments to the tool chest video over on YouTube I was intrigued to see how our decision to use paint for the finish provoked quite a response – it came up numerous times and the balance was definitely tipped to say that the paint was a bad move. Many people would have preferred to see a stained finish to allow the wood to show through.
I felt a hint at a long seated rivalry on this ‘paint or not to paint’ subject and I’m sure that many a debate has already taken it’s course over the vast reaches of the internet. I’ve never found anything offensive about painted furniture myself although if Richard started covering over a nice bit of oak then I would definitely want to hit him (just lightly!)

Painting Pine

The one thing that paint can do better than any other finish is create uniformity, and it’s this ability which makes it the obvious choice for me on many projects. I’m sat at the moment next to a beautifully made cupboard; it has a raised panel door, a crisp hand cut moulding around the top, and the carcase is dovetailed with very narrow and elegant pins. I know (because I remember Richard building it) that this cupboard is made of all random odds and sods that were laying around at the time; some boards salvaged off an old pallet, a spare bit of beech for the door panel and hardwood offcuts for the moudling. Unfinished it looked a little sorrowful.
I understand when people feel that a coat of paint can take away the natural beauty of the wood, but then you must also consider cases such as this cupboard where it is the paint which creates the beauty. A couple of well applied coats and the whole piece becomes unified; it suddenly looks classic and yet the hint of the tool marks and evidence of it’s construction remain visible.

Of course the case of this cupboard is by no means the exception; for as long as furniture has been made it would be common for an odd mix of timbers to be used, especially within the poorer communities. It’s also accepted now that through history the majority of pine furniture was originally painted as this would be considered preferable to seeing the knots and other defects.
The decision today has to come down come down to taste and the specific situation.

Yes, it covers the grain. But paint can be a big positive for a piece in the way that it unifies and simplifies the surface so that the form itself can be better understood and appreciated.

Richard and I have never had a taste for stained pine but perhaps someone could twist my arm? Do you feel that paint is the enemy of wood or is it on your list of essential finishes?

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About Helen Fisher

About Helen Fisher

Helen seeks to explore ways to live with greater joy & sustainability for both ourselves & the planet. Concepts which have led to the launch of her second business We Are Carbon. As the producer of our videos, Helen brings a unique perspective & injects life to our education ensuring it is both a pleasure to watch & easy to follow & learn from. Learn More About Helen & The English Woodworker.


  1. Chris Schwarz


    I think it’s also important to note that wood grain has not always and universally been regarded as beautiful. In the United States, for example, trees and forests were once seen as the enemy to progress, agriculture and civilization.

    I love paint. And I love wood grain. It really depends on the project at hand.

    • Helen

      Thanks Chris, that’s another great perspective to take on things which I hadn’t really had in mind as I was writing.

  2. Paul Chapman

    In general, pine looks awful and the right choice of finish is paint. It transformed the look of your tool chest. And I love the colour of that green cupboard you have on the wall behind the bench. If you want a piece to look good, then the choice of colour is important. Both the grey and green you have used look good.

    • Helen

      Absolutely, whenever you use paint the biggest decision comes down to the choice of colour. Again this will always differ with personal taste and the particular situation.

  3. Rob Stoakley

    As ever Helen, it’s ‘horses for whatnots’ and all depends on the application and final use of the project, so Chris’s comment above is spot on the money.

    • Helen

      lol… round one to Paul 😉

  4. ScottV

    I think your reasoning is spot on Helen.

    Paint has its way for projects where the color or grain of the wood is not specifically chosen for its beauty. This often means a work of utility, which, in my opinion – is exactly how a pine tool chest should be.

    In my opinion, finely painted work can exhibit uniformity AND depth/luster to a surface.

    • Helen

      Thanks Scott, for utility pieces I find that the right paint can also age more attractively than many other finishes, staying pretty durable as well.

  5. Steve Jones

    Not a fan of stained pine, but I do like what several coats of amber shellac does to reasonably clear pine. BTW – love the blog and the videos. Now if you could just line up an American distributor for oval nails…. 🙂

    • Helen

      When we can get hold of really nice pine then I do love to allow it to darken quite naturally with age. Amber shellac sounds like a good choice for a lustre and some protection.

    • DenverGeorge

      Why would you want oval nails when good square cut nails are so readily available in the US ?

  6. Paul Dershem

    Sometimes paint is the most appropriate finish. As but one example, consider the variety of wood species used in a Windsor chair, and the milk paint that provides its traditional finish.

    With respect to the chest pictured above, with its coarse finish and clinched nails, paint seems entirely appropriate.

    • Helen

      Thanks Paul, Windsor chairs are a great example for a painted finish. Not only do the woods themselves differ but the form is so elegant and sculptural that a single colour all over helps to highlight this.

  7. LukaszmBudzynski


    I saw the toolbox at the EWS and found it very nice. Also the base of the Little John was in that (or similliar) color and I thought that also looked very fine. Just not every wood looks nice and pretty to the eye and what Helen stated is very important, that paint evens things out. Worth mentioning is, that one of the best creators of the past – the Shakers – were regularly painting their pieces.

    Kindest regards,

    • Helen

      Hi Lukasz, I’m pleased you liked our painted Little John! We did this as a one off for the show and painted only the base grey. Like with a nice large table, I think the painted base can help to emphasise and bring out the beauty of the clear wood on the top simply by contrasting with it.

  8. Mark Davies

    Hi Helen/ Richard

    Firstly Hi, I’ve followed your blogs and posts for a while now, but thus far never replied to any 🙂

    I think paint can work really well on wood, and again i think it’s all down to the use of what you are making, and if it works with the design, which does not always have to be purely aesthetically focused.

    A few years ago I made a tool box which I have used pretty much every day to carry around planes/ chisels etc. It was a pine toolbox, which I originally coated with a hard wax oil which I thought would make the grain stand out, as well as providing protection etc. The trouble is, as this tool box was being used every day, it started to look a bit grubby…. out the van, in the van, rain, sharpening compound, pencil marks etc. It ending up that my nice tool box with nice joints and all that started to look…well… crap!

    This is where a lick of paint really made a difference for me. Although I can’t stop the grubbyness marks, it somehow manages to work and keep a good appearance.

    I’m sure if you make a tool box to look at and admire, that’s going to store tools that are never used, then I’m sure a highly polished wood finish would be great, but the reality is tool boxes get used, and paint in this situation keeps them looking good, and keeps customers commenting “oooo, what I nice tool box ” 😉

    Sorry about going on a bit here, but yes, paint definitely has a place in woodworking 🙂

    P.S great site, great blog, and great videos!

    • Helen

      Thanks Mark, that’s a great example! I know what you mean about the grubbiness, a flat painted surface is certainly more forgiving when dirty than well polished wood, and it can take the knocks quite nicely.

  9. Kris

    I recently finished a summer stint working for a furniture maker, some of his customers would request paint finishes with wood, I see from a design point that it works and the furniture looked good. As a wood person I want to see the wood, yes pine is not really something I would spend hours moulding into my desire but we wouldn’t use pine to put hours of work into anyway, so paint can have it’s place but for me that place is in someone elses house.

    • Helen

      Hi Kris, that sounds like a great experience, I expect you learnt an awful lot over the summer in addition to your courses. For ourselves one of the hardest parts when building furniture is taking on board those tastes of the customer which can differ so much to your own!

  10. John

    And the choice of ‘Ship-side grey’ reminds me of days gone by! The Grey Funnel Line would be proud of you Richard. Rob beat me by a few hours! It’s what-nots for do-berries. Take no notice!

  11. DenverGeorge

    Over the past couple years I have come to greatly appreciate a painted finish, especially on nailed furniture. It just looks right. Of course, I wouldn’t use paint on quarter sawn oak. Now that would be sacrilege. I especially like milk paint. Your tool chest really got my juices flowing. I really like the rough finished look. I’m currently in process of building one for myself. I’m dressing the wood just with my cambered jack plane. I thing that’ll look great with milk paint. I’m using rose head clinch nails which are readily available from Tremont Nail on my side of the pond.

  12. Lynn Bradford

    I feel paint has its place, and seeing Mr. Shwartz commented, some of his painted tool chests looksharp painted. As for Richard’s chest, I would have thought the clenched nails would have stood out with a stain or oil. But, to each there own. Pine sometimes deserves a paint job to cover the knots, but then knotty pine with varnish adorned homes a plenty, at least back in my childhood days in the states.
    Great blog and videos. Keep up the good work!

  13. Devansmith

    They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I disagree. I say that beauty is in the eye of the creator. When a person creates something, they envision its beauty before it even begins. Their image is good and proper and beautiful. If they are a good craftsman, what they have made lives up to that dream. When others view that creation, they tend to see it through their own myopic perspective, and not that of the creator. They may like it, or not, but hopefully they have the good sense to appreciate that the creator likes it.

    I have had wooden toolboxes in the past, and appreciate their utilitarianism. I would never dream of putting a lacquered finish on such a knockabout item. It would be soon scarred by usage, and never be the same. Paint is easily re-done, and doesn’t look bad after the re-do. I can’t say the same for furniture grade lacquer. At least not with ease.

    I believe that pine is beautiful. There are, in the cooler regions of this (American) continent many pine lodges that are built with pine log beams, posts, trusses, etc, as well as pine paneling, replete with knots. These lodges are usually furnished with pine log furniture, which fits in like a hand-in-glove. If one of these beautiful lodges were to have its interior painted, I think it would be a crime.

    Again, beauty is in the eye of the …. creator!

  14. Mr Ronald Carl Dennis

    The ability to choose the appropriate tool for the task has always been the mark of a professional.

  15. Jonathan

    I personally like a painted finish. I have never paid to go “on a woodworking course” but would seriously consider doing so for a good finish-painting course….
    For me personally the overall proportions and form of a furniture piece are far more important than the grain and figure of the wood used to create it. A badly conceived form cannot be alleviated by any amount of fancy wood, splated this, quilted that, furniture has to be more than just a convenient way to display fancy or exotic wood….Mike Dunbar must have seemed like a lone voice when he recommended paint finishes for his chairs, but from my understanding of country/vernacular furniture, it was almost always painted. I guess the rich clients liked to be able to show everyone that they were able to afford imported walnut or mahogany, and wanted it polished to highlight the fact…
    I am mid way through refurbing my bench. It will have a bare pitch pine top surface, the rest painted with national trust fowler pink….I like the combo of painted/natural finish. I just finished a coffer chest, the frame painted with craig & rose saxe blue acrylic heritage acrylic, top shellacked and waxed
    cheers Jonathan

  16. John S

    The painted finish of the tool chest looks great, it’s entirely in keeping with the design and construction. I won’t be painting my Little John bench though!!


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