Black Cherry Empire
He caught my eye in a local thrift shop, his rich exterior hidden beneath layers of dirt and dust, looking just a bit sad but still proud while showing off the best he could with his broken and missing knobs, wonky drawers, and gouged and missing veneer while puffing out his chest’s hidden top drawer. I visited him periodically for a month, waiting for his slowly-descending asking price to equal my willing-to-pay price, holding my breath and crossing my fingers until I spotted him once again…phew!!…sometimes squished between or holding up other cast-a-ways.
Well the day finally arrived when I could take him home – my handsome first Empire dresser! Now it was his turn to wait until I brainstormed how to redesign him. Light for spring? Dark and mysterious? How can I really make him standout like he deserves? As you can see, he first really needed some TLC as the finish had become dull, scratched, and uneven, especially on the sides and top.
I usually like to sand down and re-stain the horizontal surfaces, but there were so many gouges and splits (especially the very top surface – hard to see in this photo), so I chose to fill in the troubled spots with Elmer’s Wood Filler then sand smooth. I then stained the filled-in area since I decided to follow my initial gut instinct of painting him black, my first piece in such a bold color; I did not want any of the light-colored filler to show through. The drawers needed new blocks attached to the frame to keep them from sliding too far back on their tracks, and my very handy husband helped with that transformation. He has always been my installer for my window treatment clients, and together we have tackled many-a-sudden crises at job sites, so I am lucky to place full trust in his mad fix-it skills.
After a good sanding and tack-cloth massage, next was the fun part. Painting! I discovered milk paint last year and fell in love with its potential because of its ironically-unpredictable nature. It can be a bit tricky at times, but I think that is the challenge I love which keeps me going back for more, to discover new effects of its use. I use The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company’s authentic and 100% natural real milk paint and love its historic color palette. I knew I would be using it a lot and did not want to have to worry about suiting-up to prevent any fume inhalation. They are an American company which is important to me, out of Groton, Massachusetts, and began as a business in the mid-1970’s building reproduction furniture. Their 20-color historic palette can be mixed by the user for endless possibilities of light to color-saturated hues. Over new, raw, unfinished, or very old wood, milk paint will bury itself deep into the wood grain and never let go – no fading or chipping – that is why if you spot a very old piece of furniture that has been painted, most likely that first coat was finished with milk paint.
If a piece has any kind of previous finish on it, then milk paint can still be directly painted over it, but this is where the surprises, spontaneity, and anticipation happen – all at once! The milk paint will adhere differently to different previous finishes and will adhere to some and not so much to others. Not knowing the exact previous finish/topcoat on a given piece is where the unpredictability begins. Sometimes after the first coat or maybe the second, and sometimes not much at all, the milk-paint will lift off areas it doesn’t feel like adhering to, and all that can be done is to watch it happen, or better yet, leave it alone to work its magic while you go to your work pile and begin prepping another piece! When your anticipation gets the best of you, go take a peek! I love this stage when the furniture naturally distressed itself under the spell of the milk paint. The paint can be seen lifting off in tiny pieces in random areas, hanging on by a hair, and as soon as the entire piece is dry (usually in about an hour), a second coat is applied, painting gingerly over the lifted chips. Now when this coat is dry, it is time to break out a putty knife and very gently with very little pressure, drag the putty knife over the lifted areas, watch the chips rain down, and voila! A wonderful chippy finish has been naturally achieved all on its own with only a little help from me. Well that was a mini tutorial I didn’t plan on today, but I’m glad I shared it with you!
Now what happened with Mr. Empire you ask? Well, I took out the drawers and began painting the body in OFMP Co’s PitchBlack. First coat: hmmm…. no chipping at all except the teeniest spots in a couple of locations. Second coat: OK well this is where the unpredictability throws down a challenge into the mix. I expected, well more so was hoping, that the paint would chip in all the right places and let the rich red darkness of the wood show through everywhere. Nothing…..so I began to rethink my game plan. I placed the drawers back in and thought the beauty of the wood grain with a simple staining would look gorgeous in contrast to the black body. And so I gave all the drawer fronts and their big beautiful worn-smooth original wooden knobs a coat of Varathane’s black cherry wood stain, followed by a coat of Miss Mustard Seed’s hemp oil. Mr. Empire had one broken small knob missing on one of the small top drawers for which I could not find a correct-size replacement, so I replaced those with four deep black glass ones. They definitely dressed him up, sort of like glitzy cuff links with a black tux. Now usually I will wet-sand with hemp oil the new milk-painted finish, and the result is an incredibly butter-smooth feel. I did apply the hemp oil liberally, but this time simply rubbed in the oil and what do you know?? NOW is when he felt like giving up some of the milk paint, and as the coat buffed to a soft matt finish, some of the gorgeous reds of the original wood peeked through, the perfect under-stated complement to the now more showy drawers.
Still I wanted one more subtle surprise to this now more serious piece. I like to keep the drawer bottoms uncovered so the purchaser can decide for themselves if they would like to paper them, etc. However, drawer sides I often feel get overlooked in the refinishing department, and let’s face it – they certainly get a lot of potential viewing time if they are opened and closed every day. So I decided to paint them black to match the body, and then stencil them with a masculine design for the larger drawers and a more playful design for the upper smaller drawers. I will at times use milk paint to stencil, but this time I used an acrylic craft paint I had on-hand in burnt sienna to pick up the reds and auburns of the wood. Years ago, when working on a redesign of our bedroom, I knew that I wanted to use historic reproduction stencils, some of which I had seen in a friend’s antique home with which I had fallen in love. For this project, I used a Greek Key floor stencil because I wanted something bold and masculine to match the lines of Mr. Empire. For the two small upper drawers, I chose a wall stencil originally seen in the Spencer Eddy House in Edgecomb, Maine. And with that Mr. Empire was gleaming with a renewed personality!
Thank you for following along with this first Revolutionary Redesign shared with you! Looking forward to my first empire redesign finding a new home and fitting right in with whatever beautiful décor is your style!