Restoring Painted Finishes

MPF Conservation is a full-service company specializing in conservation, restoration and preservation of furnishings of upholstered and non-upholstered objects, textiles and interior architectural elements in the Western United States; this page discusses paint finishes on (mostly) wooden objects.

This page is not a discussion of Fine Art / Murals, however, those interested in painted finishes should visit our page discussing murals and infill on fine art.

Painted finishes are most often oil-based paints, though sometimes “jappan” or japan finish is referred to as a painted finish, but is really a Lacquer.

Below are links to the pages where the objects shown are discussed.

In some cases, clients have already chemically stripped a piece. Above, an owner removed the original finish in order to refinish the piece, as in the Circus Ball above, or the Mason Monterey Chests of Drawers below. Thankfully this is not usually the case, as it is good for us to see the layers under an existing finish. This can offer clues as to the original finish, as we discuss below.

Above, the Mason Monterey Drop Front Desk had been hand-stripped by a family member, however, not completely, and our client remembered it well. With her help and the ghosted outline of the floral decorations, along with our expertise in Mason Monterey, we were able to reasonably reproduce what it might have been — when it was new.

In the case of the Mason Monterey A-Frame Chairs, above, they were stripped during a flood at the Oregon Caves National Monument.

Mason Monterey Chests of Drawers circa 1935 had sat in the family garage and years upon years of exhaust had covered it with a greasy soot. Still, the bones were there, and again, our client had a sentimental connection to the piece as a boy! We carefully cleaned the piece, and discerned it to be “Straw Yellow.” We were able to bring much of the Straw Yellow color back to life. In later years the cowboy on a horse pattern looked almost like a decal, but it was a painted element. We infilled the colors as we discerned them, and then top-coated the cleaned chest with the Smokey Maple glaze. The long center is a test is to see how the glaze will look over the infilled colors.

Damage is a leading cause of a painted finish visiting the studio, as in the Second Empire Etruscan Revival Polychrome Cane Chairs above.

Before treatment, left and bottom. After treatment, right and below.
Note the sloppy placement of the decorative nails, below;
this is not our work, we did no upholstery work on these chairs.

Two Italian Polychrome Chairs in the French Directoire Style circa 1790

Directoire style is a transition between Louis XVI and Empire styles.

Pest infestation causes tremendous damage, both in the structure and the finish. These two Directoire style polychrome armchairs had hundreds of pest holes, but thankfully they did not cause structural damage.

However, MPFC dealt with the many pest holes prior to performing infill on the painted finish. This was tedious work using a syringe.


  • Hundreds of pest holes were filled with a museum approved consolidant.
  • Damaged painted finish was infilled.

Before treatment, below.

Note: MPFC did NOT reupholster the leather, and the last upholsterer was sloppy and embedded the decorative nails into this extremely old and rare frame in many places, shown below.

Sometimes only the chipped areas need infill to protect them, as a painted finish is protection from the ravages of pest infestations. This Boston Painted Fan Back Windsor circa 1760 still had its historic paint intact; it was cleaned and top coated with a tree resin varnish to secure the paint, then lightly abraded with wax and steel wool to remove the sheen. Kate only infilled chipped corners.

Damage and a fabric cover-up led to infilling and correcting a mistake
on the Italian Polychrome Corner Cupboard circa 1750!

Before treatment, left, and after treatment, right.

Our client fell in love with the Italian corner cabinet on a trip to New Orleans. The corner unit consisted of two parts, the legs and table “base” and the top shelving unit. Once back in Oregon, the restoration needed was extensive, both structural and cosmetic. After the structural damage was treated, MPFC turned to the finish.

Someone had upholstered the interior shelves during the early twentieth century in a silk taffeta moire which was rotten and sagging, shown above and below during removal.

Once the fabric was excavated, a yellow vine-pattern paper circa late nineteenth century was revealed, below center. The vintage paper was cheerful and evocative of country kitchens but was damaged to a point where it could not be saved. This too was removed. After a discussion with our client, we chose to paint the interior of the cabinet in a slightly lighter pale yellow to the exterior, and topcoat it in a smokey maple glaze which felt compatible and appeared as if it belonged to the Italian cabinet’s age.

We also performed minimal infill on the exterior of the polychrome cabinet.

Follow us on the MPF Conservation Blog to be informed of our documentation of this project when posted.

Not all painted finishes happen on wood!

Historic Washington State banner, above.

Reproduction Banner of the Historic Washington State Banner

Washington State is named after George Washington, our first president. The historic silk painted banner, an homage to Rembrandt Peale’s (1778–1860) portraits, has graced the Governor’s Reception Hall in the Legislative Building for a century, shown top left above.

The original banner was commissioned for the Capital by the Washington State Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

The historic banner needed conservation, and while currently in storage will eventually be displayed elsewhere in a protected environment. Paint cracking and degradation of silk foundations and losses on decorative embellishments (see below) can be seen in the top row details above.

In the second image above, one of my practice images, General George Washington, aka “George” looks a bit youthful and baby-faced, but he transformed as I worked on him. Below, the left is the first entire mock-up, and right, the final banner.

Kate practiced creating several images on paper first, partly because we could not keep the historic banner indefinitely. She then moved to oil paint on small 36″x36″ pieces of silk until she was ready to begin the portrait on the large sheets of material.

She created three, each a little different. Studying many images of “George” which were painted while he was alive was an assistance, and of course, the historic banner was quite different from many of the images where the general and later, president, actually sat for his portrait!

Below is a page on the process, including the extremely difficult job of finding emerald green silk (who knew):

From time to time, people want to play with older pieces and apply a painted finish, especially when the aesthetic and/or the monetary value of the piece has been destroyed by previously unskilled restorers. Sometimes we will oblige them, such as the sofa above. If we do decide to paint it for them (it has to meet our criteria) we apply an appropriate barrier (for the finish below) so that painted pigments do not bury down into a historic finish. This allows for reversibility in the future. See barriers under Traditional Varnishes.

Sometimes we advise them not to compromise a good piece by playing with it; and yes, we, have been known to choose nto to.treat a piece in that manner.

Above, items Kate has played with for our own use. A large cabinet late Empire had been terribly ruined by refinishers. Kate had some fun with it, using the modern varnish finish as a barrier and painting on top with Gamblin’s gold and teal paints. In the image right above, Kate painted a dancing woman who is losing her top on a chair that has no historic value, and now it is quite a lively conversation piece!

For discussion on other types of finishes, visit the pages below: