I’ve bought, fixed up, and sold hundreds of pieces of furniture over the years. That includes antique, midcentury, vintage, even brand new IKEA on occasion. During this time I’ve learned that some people have very strong opinions about what furniture they think should or shouldn’t be painted – especially when it comes to some of the rarer pieces like burl wood furniture.
First, let’s clarify a few things…
What is Burl Wood (aka Burled Wood)?
Burl wood happens when a tree has a growth or deformity due to infestation or illness (some kind of stress). It’s found in oak, maple, walnut, cherry, ash, redwood, and other tree species. It’s usually found in the roots, curled branches, or large rounded “warts” on the tree. Some regard the growths as ugly imperfections but others see them as rare and beautiful.
Burled wood is thick and resists splitting, so it’s ideal for building furniture and decor with unique designs. It’s also often cut into thin layers and used as veneer for furniture, musical instruments, automobile paneling, and more. Because of its qualities, items made from this type of wood are one-of-a-kind and can be quite expensive (especially furniture).
Some Burl Wood Examples
First is this burled wood buffet that I bought years ago to refinish and has been in my storage unit for awhile now:
You can see the variations in the wood and how the patterns are symmetrical on the drawers and doors.
Here’s another antique burled wood piece below that I bought to refinish – it was a non-working radio cabinet and so far I’ve only removed all the radio parts from the inside. Again, the doors have a lovely symmetrical design:
Here are a few more examples of burl wood:
You get the idea. Burled wood is rare and definitely special.
So this begs the question… if you have burl wood furniture that is damaged, how do you repair it – and should you paint it?
Repairing Burl Wood Furniture
If you plan to repair and restore the piece, you have a few options.
- If you’re too nervous to try any major repairs, you could clean it up with some refinishing wood cleaner and learn to embrace the imperfections.
- You can glue and clamp loose veneer back into place.
- If small areas of the veneer are chipped, you can add wood filler and then attempt to paint just that area to match the rest of the woodgrain. It’s helpful if you have patience and also knowledge about different painting techniques (frottage is one technique that comes to mind).
- If one area (like the top) is too damaged for repair, consider carefully removing the veneer and using pieces to fill other areas like on chipped drawers. That brings me to the next option…
- If some of the burl wood is in great condition but some is damaged, you could paint part of the piece (like the top or the body) and leave the rest unpainted for a two-tone look. Here’s an example:
- And if you’re an experienced painter and/or feeling particularly brave, you could attempt to paint a faux burl finish like below (although it might be difficult to match the design to another area).
So, should you paint over burl wood?
I’ve never been one to stand on a soapbox and tell other people what to do (unless it’s my three crazy boys). If you own furniture then you’re entitled to do what you want with it. But hopefully after reading this article, you’re more informed and you better understand what is burled wood and why it’s special. And there’s a huge community of people out there who will transform into an angry mob if you even mention thinking of painting burled wood, so consider yourself warned.
As for the two burl wood pieces that I showed you earlier and are currently in my storage unit – I plan to add shelves in the radio cabinet and paint the inside white, and just freshen up the wood on the outside with maybe hemp oil (it’s already gorgeous IMO).
For the buffet, I need to check it over again to assess the condition of the veneer. Depending on how it looks, I might do a partial two-tone finish. Or I might not do any painting at all… that’s why it’s been sitting in my storage unit for years. I had planned to paint it at first and then decided I couldn’t just cover up all that beautiful wood.
Let me know in a comment below – have you come across secondhand burled furniture, and would you rather refinish or paint part of it?
Please share your experience so we can all benefit! – Jen
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