The second Welsh stick chair I ever built was made using both traditional methods and traditional materials. That meant elm for the seat, white oak for the legs and the arm bow, and ash for the spindles.
My plan was to color the chair with a brown stain that would visually tie these three species together. So after carefully preparing all my parts, making a few test boards using stains and hues that I was familiar with, I colored the chair one Saturday afternoon.
When the stain dried, the chair didn’t look like I had hoped. But I told myself to be patient;
a topcoat of clear finish can change the final appearance of a finishing job.
And I was right; the chair looked even worse with a topcoat.
Something about the stain color I chose, the wood I picked for the chair or my finishing technique made these three species together look like a visual jumble. The coloring was so inconsistent that my eye would jump around the chair, never sure what was important or where to look next.
So I pored over my books on chairmaking and then slept on the problem. By morning, I knew the answer: Paint the thing. Lots of early furniture was painted, especially Windsor-style chairs that used a variety of species in their construction.
But there was a problem here. A mental problem. Like most woodworkers, painting a piece of furniture was something of a last resort in my head. We woodworkers are supposed to celebrate the grain of the wood and finish it to enhance its swirls and swoops. A coat of paint on furniture is seen as evidence that something is amiss. Maybe we used inferior materials. Perhaps we chose our materials so poorly that the grain selection is ugly. Maybe our joinery is gappy. Or we are incapable of preparing a surface for a stain and topcoat. Or we simply cannot finish.
I hate stripping finish, so I decided to give the paint a try. I purchased a quart of dark Windsor green and some primer. I set to work covering up my misdeeds and pondering where I could stash this chair in my house so my woodworking friends would never see it.
After two coats, the chair looked radically different. Details that had been obscured by the grain or stain color jumped out in sharp relief. During construction, I had carved a small gutter around the perimeter of the seat that , when painted , appeared as a perfect dark line rimming the work. I had spent an hour planing and filing a nice curved chamfer on three edges of the crest rail at the top of the chair. Those chamfers now shined, no longer shying away from attention. And a chamfer on the swooping arm bow looked clearly tied to the chamfers on the crest rail.
But there was more. When I stood back a few steps I could really and truly see the chair. It was like a graphic drawing of a chair. It looked more like a shiny green animal ready to pounce than a jumble of sticks covered in brown goo. It looked like the chair I had seen in my head when I set out to build it. I simply had to cover the wood with two coats of paint to uncover its true form.
Years later now, I’ve found that painting furniture well is a skill that requires careful cultivation. Since painting that first chair, I’ve painted a full set that I’ve built and have been experimenting with different mixes of paint and varnish (to give the paint a luminescence) and different brushing techniques. Painting a chair is as challenging as any hand-applied finish I’ve ever tried.
And now I know the truth: Paint doesn’t obscure mistakes. Instead, paint can reveal the form (good, bad or average) that we sometimes try to hide with flashy joinery, showy wood and shiny finishes. The opaque pigment lays bare our skills as designers of furniture, which is perhaps one of the real reasons we avoid painting the things we build. WM