How To Paint a Family Heirloom: Danish Empire Style Chest

How To Paint a Family Heirloom: Danish Empire Style Chest

Carrie McBride
Apr 1, 2014
(Image credit: 1stdibs)

Welcome to our new series about painting family keepsakes and heirlooms. More and more readers are finding themselves the custodians of pieces that were passed down from generation to generation, but that don't quite work with their current decor. You could sell or auction the piece to someone who will appreciate it or, for the DIYers among us, paint it!

I'm kicking off the series with a step-by-step look at how I painted this empire style, marble-topped mahogany chest. You can modify the steps to fit your own antique. This chest was built by my great-great-grandfather, a master woodworker, around 1880 and it has been treasured for three generations. In pristine shape, the piece has nice lines, but the details are a bit fussy for my taste and it clashes with my mostly teak furniture collection.

Let's get started!

(Image credit: Kate Legere)

What You Need

Tools & Materials

  • Paintbrush roller of any size (mine is from the Dollar Store)
  • Latex paint (the cheapest you can find)
  • Drop cloth (a homemade quilt is a perfect size)
  • Sandpaper in three different grades: grating, craggy, & brutish
  • Old rag for cleanup (an absorbent child's stuffed animal is ideal)


1. Turn off your phone. One of your relatives may have gotten wind of your plan, and you don't want to be interrupted with sentimental stories about the furniture's provenance.

(Image credit: Gregory Han)

2. Prep your workspace. My mother sewed this quilt when she was pregnant with me, and it is the ideal size for a drop cloth. If you don't have an old quilt around, a hand-embroidered tablecloth will do nicely.

(Image credit: Flickr user dryp fra dejnen under CC BY 2.0)

3. Remove the gaudy bronze mountings. I found the quickest way was to wedge a chisel underneath and really lean into it. Don't worry about scratching the mahogany - you're painting it, remember? Work your way around each mounting with the chisel until they pop off. Check with your municipality, but I put mine in with the glass and metal recycling.

(Image credit: 1stdibs)

4. Remove all the drawers and start sanding. I found it best to use 'brutish' grade sandpaper on the sides and drawer fronts and switch to just 'grating" for the detail work around the brass stringing and inlaid fluted stiles.

(Image credit: Eleanor Busing)

5. Drill holes for the new hardware. I find that Hobby Lobby has the best knobs and pulls, but some people swear by Big Lots.

Tip: If you accidentally drilled too many holes or drilled them in the wrong place, don't worry! You can easily fill them with spackle or, in a pinch, toothpaste.

(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

6. Now for the fun part: the painting. Some people would advise you to use primer first, but those are the same people who use turn signals and buy health insurance. Instead, we're going to dive right into the painting. Apply the paint with a roller brush. One coat is sufficient.

(Image credit: Eleanor Busing)

7. Get the kids involved! After all this is a family heirloom, right? Pipe cleaners make a great brush for little hands and if it's bath night, go ahead and let them just use their hands.

(Image credit: Alejandra Valera)

8. Let your chest dry for at least 5 minutes before moving it into place in your home. Stand back and admire your work!

(Image credit: Craigslist)

Have a really old antique or heirloom you've painted that you want to share with others? Let us know! We love checking out what you're making these days, and learning from our readers. When you're ready, click here to submit your project and photos.

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