December 8, 2011

Reader Questions

A while back, I got this email from a reader named Ruth.

"Hi Karen, 
I'm hoping you can help me.  I have been really enjoying being inspired by your blog and others (particularly Miss Mustard Seed) in the area of furniture and wood upcycling.  I was hoping to meet you before you moved as my parents live in Kaiapoi but I missed you unfortunately.  The reason I need your advice is that I find some of the finishing information from the States quite difficult to figure out.  I have decided that "poly" must be polyurethane but I'm not sure about all the glazes etc which are mentioned.  My main area of confusion is on how you "finish" painted furniture. 

Whenever I go into Mitre Ten or other places they are very confused about the idea of using poly or wax over paint.  My husband feels that if I have done 3 coats of acrylic paint on furniture it should be enough but I keep seeing people putting layers of poly on or waxing.  I'm confused! 

I have recently finished a chunky tray (photo attached) which was stained BRIGHT orange.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn't cover it so I went with it and painted over in white then distressed.  I painted on a French address and distressed that.  I quite like the result but I don't know how to "finish" it.  I feel like if I polyurethane it will lose the simple aged look.  But if I don't it won't be water resistant so may not last long?  I think I am out of my depth but not sure where to go to get answers as all the "shop experts" haven't really had a  lot of experience at doing mad things like this. 

My other question is over "glazing".  I keep seeing people mention antiquing or glazing their pieces after they have distressed them but all the products they mention are foreign here in NZ and I'm a bit confused as to how that works too.

Maybe you could do a "Finishing Down Under" post for those who need translations and product suggestions?

Thank you and all the best for settling in and finding a new market over there.

There are a heap of great questions in there, and I agree with Ruth that I think there are others down our end of the world that might benefit from my answers to her questions. 

First of all, here is the tray Ruth did.  Isn't it stunning!

I love how she turned a problem (she hated the orange paint on the tray) into a positive by painting over it then distressing so the orange peeped through.  A happy accident.  I have lots of those...all part of the fun of the process!

So, here is what I had to say to Ruth:
I understand your confusion over 'finishing' the furniture, and I was pretty confused at first too.  Your husband is quite right, 3 coats of acrylic paint in a semi-gloss finish will give a nice finish with no need for anything over the top of it.

I do use wax or poly (polyurethane) over some pieces, it depends what it is, and depends what paint and technique I have used.  I paint alot of pieces using water-based enamel in a semi gloss which is hard wearing and has a nice finish on its own without anything else on top.  Where I would use something on top in this case, is for the look rather than durability, say I wanted to 'glaze' something (ie. give it an 'antiqued' look.  For glaze, I make my own, using a water based poly (don't use spirit based, you could never wipe it off which is an important step in glazing).  I mix the poly with some brown water-based wood stain, and water it down a little, which stops it from drying to quickly (the water based poly dries really fast).  You could also use a test-pot in the poly to get the glaze  colour you want.  Once it is mixed, just paint it on and wipe it off, doing a little bit at a time.  If it dries too fast, or runs then dries, it will sand off easily using a sanding sponge. 
Semi gloss water based enamel with poly/wood stain glaze to finish
Some acrylic paint, I find, can be hard to distress nicely, it can be a bit 'plastic-y' and tend to come off in chunks.  Flat or low sheen paint, on the other hand, tends to distress very nicely and easily as it doesn't have that gloss factor.  The other bonus of painting furniture with low sheen is that it can be much cheaper, because you can just buy test pots in your choice of colour.  The British paints test pots can be  tinted to any 'brand' colour at Bunnings, and they are $6 each.  The 500ml size will do quite a few projects.  You do need to finish these with poly or wax though, as the finish won't look or feel right otherwise.  I prefer clear wax over poly if I am just using it for a top coat for protection without wanting to 'antique' it.  I use Liberon Black Bison Wax which is available at Resene in Addington or you can buy it online at the Liberon website.  If you want to 'antique' something using a darker wax rather than poly glaze, use a clear one first as the dark wax really 'grabs' flat paint and can be impossible to remove if you put too much on.  To apply the wax just use an old tea towel or cloth, wipe it on, leave it to dry then buff off with a clean cloth.
Low sheen acrylic, watered-down white paint, then brown wax
It really does come down to the look you want, and the particular item you are working on.  For example, I did some chairs with wicker backs on them, and I used poly glaze to antique them, as wax would never have been right for a couple of reasons - it would have been almost impossible to buff it nicely, and therefore I wouldn't want to lean back on a chair with chunks of wax in it!

Your tray is absolutely gorgeous, and I would use clear wax on it.  I have waxed trays and they hold up perfectly fine.  You can always re-wax them later in need.  A downside of waxing any piece, however, it that if you want to repaint it at a later stage, all that wax will need to come off first, or your paint won't stick.  

Other product info/tips:

Resene sells a 'Paint effects medium' that you mix colours into, then use as a glaze or colour wash.  As far as I can tell, it is a very expensive way of buying water-based poly :)

I recently bought a Porters 'French Wash' and don't much like it at all.  It is very runny and it could just be the colour I got, but it doesn't 'stick' into the grooves you want it to anywhere near as well as my poly/stain concoction.

For small projects that you want to finish with a clear poly coat, the Dulux spray poly is very good, and reasonably priced.  Again, I'd use only the low sheen one.  In fact, this would be another great option for your tray, Ruth.

I've always said this in my furniture makeover posts, but my primer of choice is Zinsser BIN.  Fantastic stuff that sticks to any shiny surface, even one with oil contamination.  It is sticky and messy to put on, but worth it for the great results it gives.  For small, fiddly projects the spray BIN is worth the $ too.

Hope that all helps Ruth, and others out there :)

xx Karen


  1. I'm so pleased I'm not the only one confused by all the 'finishing' that goes on! Thanks for sharing this info, will come in very handy once I finally decide on colours!

    Ruth, the tray is gorgeous, you did a lovely job!

  2. Thanks Karen for that fantastic reply. Very helpful inforemation indeed! I actually managed to find someone who knew what I was talking about in a small paintshop here in town so I did clear wax the tray and I was really pleased with the result. But I still haven't been able to figure out the glaze so that is really helpful. Thanks for liking my tray too.. my critics here at home (husband and daughter) just think it needs a coat fo paint! :)
    Thanks again!

  3. Great post. I will have to remember all of that next time I upcycle a piece of furniture

  4. It's really nice to have great post with great question which we always really think in our mind. Yeah, thinking to get white painted furniture by coloring my old existing furniture but hope to get good finishing for my place. Anyway, thanks for sharing and of course waiting to get answer of your question.