Every Chest Deserves Paint


Every time I build a tool chest for a customer or during a class, someone asks me this question: Why are you going to paint over all those beautiful dovetails?

My answer: Because it’s the best finish for a tool chest.

Historically, most tool chests were painted. I think I’ve seen only a dozen that have avoided the brush. And most of those were shop queens. But that’s not why I paint all my chests. Blindly obeying the historical record isn’t my thing. While the historical record usually wins, I am willing to question it.

So here is my propaganda paper on paint.

  1. It is the most durable of all finishes. Good paint is nearly impervious to UV light. It forms a tough film that readily resists water, abrasion and other shop mishaps.
  2. Unlike other finishes, paint looks better (not worse) after abuse. This is opinion, but a battered, torched and gouged paint finish looks awesome.
  3. It is easily repaired – just add paint. With most modern finishes, repairing damage is difficult. Say you finish your chest with varnish or polyurethane. After a year of hard knocks and water damage it will look like something at a church tag sale. Fixing those clear film finishes is usually difficult. Fixing a paint finish is easy. Just add paint. (Note: Shellac, lacquer and wax are more easily repaired than varnishes, but they also are easily damaged.)
  4. Paint reveals the form. Many modern woodworkers love the look of natural wood. I agree that the wood’s figure can really enhance a piece. But the figure can also be distracting or detrimental to the form. Because of all the dovetails and wild figure, the form of the piece can get lost. Paint reveals the silhouette.
  5. A good paint job isn’t the easy way out. When I use clear finishes, I spray them on. So I can finish a big piece of furniture in a morning. Not so with paint. Choosing to paint a piece adds two or three days to the process. It takes skill and care to do it well.
  6. Expressed joinery isn’t the point. This is another opinion, but when I see lots of exposed dovetail joinery in a piece, I assume the maker is trying to make a point about his or her skill with a saw or a router. So I’ll step back, squint my eyes to blur them and look at the piece again. Are the dovetails the “bread and circuses” of the piece?

It’s your tool chest, so finish it the way you (or your customer) wants. But know that someday, someone is going to take a brush to cover over your crazed, flaked and dented French polish. And that is the moment when your true workmanship will be revealed.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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28 Responses to Every Chest Deserves Paint

  1. martin says:

    Is “no finish” historically accurate? I feel like i’ve seen a bunch of tool chests that ended up with no finish…

  2. kendewitt608 says:

    like your comments a lot. Might even paint over a piece or two.

  3. Madhav Mehra says:

    And the inside …

  4. dknott2013 says:

    You have me scratching my head, Chris. In your post, “The Stupidest Glue-up Ever,” the culprit was the grain: “I woke up and decided I didn’t like the grain. So I went to the shop in my pajamas and remade the panel…” In the end, the remade panel didn’t fit, and made for some uncomfortable on-camera moments. If you were ultimately going to cover the chest with paint, why didn’t you just roll over and go back to sleep?

  5. karlfife says:

    Is the inside completely bare, or is it typically waxed? Clearly paint is not _needed_ on the inside, but is a chest’s function or condition actually _served_ by being bare?

  6. pinusmuricata says:

    You didn’t mention that paint covers up a lot of crappy work.

  7. Eric R says:

    Good article Chris.
    I like to paint some of my pieces.
    Like you said. Do what you want.

  8. mariocat10 says:

    Chris, would you ever consider using a burnt finish on the outside of a chest, like the Japanese Yaki Sugi technique? With a coat of wax or shellac perhaps

    • A burnt finish is difficult on a piece that has joinery and/or glue. The heat weakens the wood and dissolves the glue by the time you get the piece looking right (this is from actual experience….). So if I were going to try it on a chest, I’d char the pieces mostly before assembly and use a joint that didn’t rely on glue so much (nails?). Then touch it up with the torch after.

  9. I hate wood being painted. Mine is finished with shellac and I enjoy the look of the wood and my dovetails. I woodwork in a club so other members see the dovetails and have been encouraged to make them. I have not found the finish to be vulnerable and I will not allow it to become wet. I can of course paint over the shellac or my Granddaughters can if it starts to look too tatty. The wood is also taking on the colour of honey – it will of course become darker the longer it is exposed to light. The reason chests were painted is because people though softwoods were unattractive and dark hardwoods were much preferred.

  10. Wesley Beal says:

    You had me 100% sold right up until point 5., “A good paint job isn’t the easy way out.” See, that’s what I’m looking for.

    Actually a true statement. A lot of people enjoy the whole process, beginning to end. Quite a few people really enjoy figuring everything out about finishing. Most people like the look of their work to stand up to time.

    All of that is fine. I’m odd. After I finish the construction of something, I’m not that interested in it anymore. I’ll put it to work, sure. As far as finishing goes, the quickest, easiest way to get it done and move on to whatever I’m doing next is what I want to do.

    • Wesley,

      I think the majority of woodworkers I’ve met are not thrilled by finishing.

      The way I see it, surface prep (planing and clean-up work) is about 50 percent of the trick to a good finish. So if you like a crisply constructed carcase then you are almost ready for paint.

      The fastest/best/easiest way to apply paint to carcases, by the way, is with a little 3″ foam roller.

  11. many years ago I made a reproduction early nineteenth century candle box for my sister I even added an authentic hand made finish. Several weeks later she sent me a photo of it with the subject “Look what I did”. She had F&B’d it (Farrow & Ball) painted all the visible faces. At the time I was horrified, but as the idea mellowed I began to realize that a small early 19th century piece would have undergone many abuses over the years and probably have been painted.

  12. I’m hoping that you’ll also be putting out a post regarding the actual finishing process. I’m curious what your current thinking is regarding the steps to achieve a good painted finish, and if they have changed much since the writing of Anarchists Tool Chest.

    I have a couple of toy chests / future tool chests close to the finishing process, so the timing couldn’t work out better. Thanks again for the quality content!

  13. The little foam roller, that’s the ticket. I painted my shop furniture Navajo Red to match the tool chest. Love it.

  14. ptross says:

    Painting is a great finish not only for a chest but all kinds of workmanlike things for everyday use, like furniture, house interiors, wagons, etc etc. The hardware on old stuff is usually painted too- same color as the wood. The design and details, and fit stand out so much more when you’re not distracted by grain, or shiny surface. besides, this is a working tool, just like the ones inside.

  15. Good timing. Just finished reading Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide (Vol. 4) regarding painting and its commentary on / instructions for mixing of lead paint. The Dutch Tool Chest that awaits painting could be a candidate for such methods…. but will most likely end up with exterior grade latex. Cheers! jpm

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