Here at Period Living, we are often asked how to give ‘brown’ furniture a French country look. In eight easy steps Helaine Clare works some paint effect magic on a plain console table, transforming it overnight into an elegant piece.

‘Brown’ wooden furniture – that tribe of low-value, clunky pieces dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries – suffers from an image problem. With today’s preference for light, airy and uncluttered interiors, ordinary ‘brown’ furniture can be hard to work into a room scheme. Many of us will like the basic design of a piece that has been picked up at a sale, or more often than not inherited, but find the dark wood and imposing size a headache.

As a result, perfectly serviceable pieces of Victorian, Edwardian and early 20th-century ‘brown’ furniture are often chopped up into firewood or thrown ingloriously into a skip to end their days in a landfill site. I say, put down the axe and cancel the skip. If the design is good it can be uplifted, recreated and transformed with a bit of imagination and several layers of paint.

To prepare the wood I used Owatrol ESP (Easy Surface Preparation) which is available from Brewers or via mail order on 0845 061 8899 ( For the paint, I used Chalk Paints by Annie Sloan, water-based paints formulated specifically for painting furniture and floorboards; she supplies clear and dark wax too (01865 768666;

Giving an ugly piece of furniture a coat of paint, particularly one that is a similar colour to the walls, will allow it to blend into the background. So if the design is pleasing and the item is useful, keep it and learn to treasure it, rather than opting for a flat-pack item. It will last longer, and you don’t have to struggle to put it together.

Before you know it you’ll be looking for more pieces to transform, scanning car boot sales and local auction houses for those misfit pieces just waiting for someone inventive to claim them.

You will need…

  • Sugar soap
  • Owatrol ESP (Easy Surface Preparation)
  • Annie Sloan Chalk Paints or other water-based paints
  • Paintbrushes
  • Glasspaper
  • Wood finishing wax
  • Scourer, sponge and cloths
  • Work gloves
  • Face mask
Creating a French country look paint effect steps 1 and 2

1. Clean up the wood: Remove any loose or flaking paint or varnish. Scrub the table with sugar soap and hot water to get rid of grease and dirt. Mop up the surplus water as you work or it may raise the grain of the wood. Rinse with clean water and wipe dry with rags. Allow to dry naturally and if necessary lightly smooth with fine glasspaper.

2. Prepare the surface with ESP: Easy Surface Preparation (ESP) primes shiny surfaces for painting, so you don’t have the laborious job of stripping or sanding back paint or varnish. Using a clean dry cloth, wash the table with a generous amount of ESP. Leave to dry for a minimum of two hours. When dry, the surface will be dull and slightly grainy.

Creating a French country look paint effect steps 3 and 4

3. Apply the first coat of paint: Unlike most water-based paints, Annie Sloan Chalk Paints can be applied straight on to the wood without using a primer. Stir the pot of ‘Old White‘ paint and if it’s too thick add a little water. Apply with a syntheticmix bristle brush big enough to cover efficiently, but without overloading the brush or applying too thickly.

4. Create depth and shading: Once the first coat is dry use a narrow brush to apply Annie Sloan ‘Paris Grey’ to the legs and to the edge of the table. Painting brown furniture draws attention to the shape and emphasises mouldings, so highlighting some areas will produce a greater depth when distressing and ageing the finish.

Creating a French country look paint effect steps 5 and 6

5. Apply the final coat of paint: Next brush a coat of Annie Sloan ‘Country Grey’ over the whole piece. Leave it for a couple of hours to dry. A note of caution: when emulsion paints are applied to a non-porous finish, such as ESP, they will take longer to completely cure – up to 30 days, so treat furniture very carefully after it’s been painted.

6. Apply a layer of wax: Apply a thorough coating of clear wax using a brush, cloth or sponge. Use a wood-finishing wax made from natural ingredients, such as beeswax, rubbed in with a sponge using a firm circular motion. The wax will be absorbed into the water-based paint making it easier to distress and reveal the colour beneath.

Creating a French country look paint effect steps 7 and 8

7. Create faux wear and tear: Now the paint is softened rub away patches with glasspaper or steel wool in areas that would naturally show wear through use and time. You can produce different effects with various grades of glasspaper and steel wool. You may want to practise first by experimenting on some painted and waxed wood off-cuts.

8. Add an antique patina: To create an antique patina rub in wood-finishing wax (dark), using a circular motion, and push the wax firmly into the paint. Rub lightly with glasspaper and apply more wax until you achieve the desired finish. Finally, apply more wax all over. Leave to harden overnight and buff to a sheen.