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Finding and Refinishing a Great Staging Accent Piece - An Antique Writing Desk

Finding and Refinishing a Great Staging Accent Piece

To me, effective Home Staging and Presentation Consulting is an art form.  It is a tool we use to bring out the best we can in the properties we showcase for sale.  Grand Gables has always taken pride in giving our clients the best advice before bringing their homes to market.  Each property is unique and as such we try to bring a tailored combination of elements to each staging performance that gives the viewer a better lens in which to see the property and, hopefully, see themselves through that lens as the next owner of the property.

In the majority of cases, our property listings are occupied so our strategy is structured to work with the owners to edit their personal furnishings and belongings to enhance the view of the property through the lens.  In some of those cases, we suggest removing the things we feel can distract from the view (clutter, over furnished, damaged items we all overlook, etc.) and then work with the client to add items to the setting – additional furniture and accents – a combination of new, pre-owned and repurposed items.  Since most people live with a variety of furnishings in their homes that they’ve acquired over time, it only stands to reason, staging with that variety in mind is probably the most effective way to enable someone else to see themselves in the space.  Vintage finds and family hand-me-downs or heirlooms add to the eclectic look; when done with a sense of order and a theme, this can create a wow statement that showcases a home beautifully through the lens.

I like to approach each staging engagement by getting to know the space and learning from the property’s biggest advocate, the owner, what makes this property so special to them – learning what makes their house a “home” – it might be the way the sunlight reflects on the floor on a winter morning, the feel of a summer breeze blowing through the rooms, the way the kitchen smells after a home cooked meal, the gatherings they’ve had, how they celebrate throughout the year, where’s the best place to relax and read a book or take a nap – it’s the memories and experiences that we weave into our presentation – both in the staging and the marketing to make this home feel like it could be the buyer’s home.

Today, I want to talk about finding those special elements that can help make such a statement.  Mary-Ellen and I love to wander through antique and consignment shops and the occasional yard sale or flea market – in search of some unique items that can help us tell the story of the next home we represent.

Not that long ago, we were on the Upper Cape meeting with a new listing client – a family we have worked with before in both the purchase and sale of other properties.  Actually, the staging services we performed for this family last year prompted them to ask if we would help with consulting on a makeover of another family home that couldn’t sell that year - wonderful people who truly were open to our suggestions and aesthetic, knowing that we would work with them on keeping the overall makeover budget to a manageable level making it worth the effort to undertake the work.  They hired a great local general contractor and together we scoped the project, created a timeline so that we could bring the completed property to market this Spring. I’ll talk more in details in the coming months about some of the specifics of the project.

Text Box:

On our way back to Scituate, we stopped at one of our favorite antique consignment shops and found a charming older mahogany wood carved and paneled writing desk, complete with skeleton key to lock the working drawers and cabinet doors. I’m not sure of the age but it probably dates back to the late 1800s or early 1900s.  Beautifully made, it was finished in a medium wood stain and varnish that had developed a dull orange patina over the years.  There was also some wood filler repairs made to prior damage that was visible since the piece was stained.  We negotiated a great price and took it home in our Grand Gables company van. 

I have refinished furniture pieces in the past when time permits but I wanted to try something different with this piece – I wanted to give this a timeless, somewhat distressed painted look to bring out the beautiful details of the piece while hiding the repair flaws – a look that would enable it to blend beautifully with current, trendy furnishings that appeal to a wide range of buyers.



Text Box: Step One – Stripping the old Varnish.  I contemplated using a wet distressing technique with chalk paint (which enables you to bypass the varnish stripping step since chalk paint will cover over almost any surface that has paint, stain and or varnish) but since I wasn’t sure what type of finish I wanted to apply from the outset, I chose to strip the varnish and see what the natural wood grain looked like.  Using rubber gloves, several clean rags, a varnish remover, a plastic drop cloth and the open air of my back yard, I spent a couple of hours stripping the varnish. The stripping product’s directions were easy to follow and I was happy with the end result.  I rolled it into the garage and took this photo later that evening. 

Now that the natural color of the wood was exposed, I took a few days to think about the color accents I wanted for the piece.  Every decor needs a special pop of color.  I wanted this piece to have the look of having previously been painted many years ago, then stripped and painted again and then to look as though the years have added a worn patina to the surface with some hand applied distressing. 


Text Box: Step Two – Choosing a base color.  I chose a Candy Apple Red high gloss latex paint.  Using latex gloves, a small mixing container, some water to dilute the concentration of paint, some small disposable paint brushes to apply the paint and several clean rags to wipe the paint into the grain and carved details and the excess paint off the surface.  My goal was to give the wood a red hue and have some of the bright red paint remain in the carved grooves to accent the details.  By using a little water to dilute the paint, it was easier to rub into the surface and not become tacky or too thick when trying to clean off the surface allowing me to fully expose the grain with the just the hue of red.  If you look carefully, you can see the red accents in the grooves – as if someone stripped it years ago and couldn’t get the red out of the hard to reach places.

I am happy with the selection of the red wash - it highlights the wood grain leaving the wood character exposed but at the same time addressing some of the blemishes in the wood and the repairs made.  I also think it could be interesting if I chose a different color than red to do the wash - perhaps in another piece - for a later blog!


Text Box: Step Three – Choosing the overlay color.  I wanted to choose a color that would work well in most any décor and, at the same time doing justice to the quality of the piece.  I waited a few days, contemplating the overall objective, I selected a flat black latex paint. The application here was different as I did not intend to wipe off as much paint has I had with the red – I wanted the piece to be largely covered in a mottled look of flat black.  Aside from not diluting the paint, I used a similar application process as I did with the red paint; the thicker paint enabled me to more easily keep a less transparent coat.  I loosely coated the surface with a brush and then waited a couple of minutes before taking a clean rag and dabbing the surface to remove the excess paint and then lightly rubbed it into the surface being careful not to remove too much paint.  I worked an area fully before moving on to the next section.  In sequence, I applied paint with a brush, dabbed it with a rag, lightly rubbed it with a rag to get the mottled look, smoothed the layer with a dryer brush then dabbed it again to give the overall look one that the painted surface wore thin over time.  This technique allowed a hint of the wood grain in some places to come through. If you look closely, you can see this allowed the red paint in the grooves to highlight the previous layer of paint.  When I was finished with this step, I realized that this technique gives the impression that the surface could be covered with a think stain as opposed to paint.  Loved it!

Text Box: Step Four – Waxing and distressing the surface for a finished look.  I waited a day to allow the paint surface to harden enough to apply the finishing wax.  Using a manual palm sander and a fine grain pad, I lightly ran the paper across random edges on the piece, exposing down to the bare wood.  I recommend you go very lightly and wipe with a clean rag on each pass to see if you’ve done enough.  It took me three careful passes across the piece before deciding I had achieved the look I wanted.  Next, with latex gloves on, I used some clean rags to hand rub a dark stain tinted finishing wax into the surface.  Once I had worked the wax into the wood grain, I used a clean rag to buff the surface to remove any excess wax and shine up the finish.  Again, as with the painting layers, I worked sections fully before moving on to the next area.  The tinted wax somewhat darkened my previously sanded edges but the original wood surface still stood out.  I decided then to lightly re-sand some of this previously sanded area to remove a bit of the wax – thereby giving the piece the impression that the first sanding marks were from wear that happened many years ago before the piece was waxed – the second sanding work suggested that subsequent to the waxing, more wear has occurred.  I believe that I have the wood looking the way I want it.

Final Step – Selecting the writing surface.  When we bought the piece, it came with a bright green felt piece of material.  I think I want leather instead so I’ll look around for something appropriate. 

I invite you to follow us here by signing up for this blog and please join us on Facebook as I hope to be sharing upcoming listing information and open houses, timely articles on relevant topics, more staging and DYI project overviews and some homemade instructional videos you might find interesting.  I would love your suggestions and comments on what you liked about this article and suggestions for upcoming articles (style, topic, etc.).  Thanks for reading!

About the Author:  For more than twenty years, David S. Drinkwater has been setting a quality standard for how real estate should be marketed and sold in the coastal communities of the South Shore - the "Gold Coast" region between Boston and Cape Cod.  Consistently one of the region’s Top Producing Realtors®, David has earned numerous sales and recognition awards over the years.  In his local community of Scituate, David has dominated sales in all price ranges since the start of this Millennium - based on MLS transactions measured as of August 5, 2015, David has closed more sales (both units & dollar volume) than any other agent – in all price ranges. Combined, his dollar volume is 66 percent higher than that of the next closest agent. The October 2004 issue of Boston Magazine named David as the Top Power Broker South of Boston for dollar volume sold in 2003.  For an expanded resume on David, click here.