Painting On A Faux Inlay Pattern

This kind of spoils the whole “wait for it… here it comes…” build-up, but I had to lead with an after picture for you guys.

It’s a super affordable, deceivingly simple thrift store table upgrade. Seriously, don’t tell me you can’t do this. You can.

And I’ll give you one of these if you say you can’t.

Do you remember the $25 thrift store Moroccan table that I brought home nearly two years ago?

Even after cleaning it up, the top still had a few issues, but I didn’t want to rush into altering it right away (like attempting to putty, sand, prime, and stain/paint it) so I just tossed a few things on the top to hide those cracked and water-stained areas. John and I really liked the wood tone and the cool interlocking shapes on the top anyway, so we thought living with it as-is for a while was the way to go.

Fast forward nearly two years, and well, we’ve definitely lived with it for a while. No sir, there was no rushing into anything with this guy. But the years haven’t been very kind to the top of the table. And by “the years” I mostly mean Clara, who figured out that she could pull little wood shapes out of it like a puzzle.

Some areas were a lot looser than we thought, and a few pieces even started to pop out and get lost in the shuffle.

The temptation to paint our bedragged little table definitely came back full-force as it continued to fall deeper into despair. Especially when we started noticing sweet little versions like this and this popping up. Meanwhile, our old thrift store find was giving off that “uh, you don’t really have much to lose at this point” vibe. So we thought “let’s just try refinishing it, and if that backfires we can always paint it as a backup.” The first step was sanding it and adding some wood filler to those cracked, broken, or uneven areas.

We had luck using this same type (and tone) of wood putty with our dark-stained kitchen cabinets (more on that here), so although we debated running out to buy some darker wood putty for this project, we figured we’d have the same luck with being able to even things out with a little more stain on those puttied areas. That last sentence is foreshadowing. Feel free to read into it.

After everything was dry, we sanded those areas, and then it was stain time.

We wanted the same rich reddish-brown tone that it had always had, so we went with Red Mahogany stain by Minwax (we’ve had the same can since using it on Clara’s two-tone dresser four years ago). After two coats – applied with a brush and wiped off, per the instructions – it was clear that those wood puttied areas were being a lot more stubborn than they had been when it came to our kitchen cabinets. Bummerz.

So I did what I usually do whenever a project goes wrong. I stepped away from it for a while and John and I started working on something else and ran to Home Depot for some other materials. In other words I just tried to forget about it for a little while – hoping some solution would come to me. Honestly I expected the solution to be “well, we said painting was a backup plan and it sounds like that’s the best option.”

Then as we pulled into our garage after returning from Home Depot, stain markers popped into my head. I knew we had one in a dark color since I occasionally use it to touch up the dark wood furniture items that we have (like our foyer console table, Clara’s dresser, our sofa table, etc), so I figured I could just give that a go on the wood puttied areas to see if it might darken them up so they blended better.

Miracle of all miracles, it worked. I just scribbled it on and gently wiped it with a paper towel to blend it all in.

It didn’t completely hide the putty (you still can see those spots when you stare at the top in this picture) but it definitely was a nice leap closer to the not-as-obvious effect that we were going for.

And that’s when I had another idea to completely obscure them. What if I didn’t paint 80% of the table, but I added some interest in a few areas with an inlay inspired detail? I figured that might draw the eye away from those patched spots while adding some fun detailing without completely robbing the table of the wood look like a full-on paint job would. I even found this example in an binder full of magazine tear sheets since I vaguely remembered thinking about that as a “down the line” idea a year or two ago. Turns out I had even written myself a little note so I wouldn’t forget.

It’s definitely not a tame idea (ok, maybe it falls into the “kinda crazy” category) but I figured we didn’t have much to lose, and John was down with the idea too. So with his blessing it just came down to the “how” of the project. I considered everything from stencils and stamps to attempting to freehand the whole thing, and landed on a combo move: freehanding the leafy vines that connect everything but creating a cardboard template for the star-like shapes that seem to be on a lot of Moroccan designs.

I thought a paint pen would give me more control than a paint brush, so I decided to try that first. Thankfully this Sharpie paint pen worked well, so I’d recommend it – but be sure to use their oil-based version (they also have a water-based one that I love) if you’re using it on a stained piece of furniture to avoid any bleed-through. To avoid fumes, I just opened a bunch of windows and Bane-d things up with my respirator so I wasn’t breathing anything in that I shouldn’t be.

To make my cardboard stencil I found a seven pointed star online, printed it out onto card stock in a bunch of different sizes, picked the size I liked best, and cut that one out. As for how I landed on seven sides for my shape, I noticed some Moroccan designs that had five, six, seven, or eight pointed stars – so because seven is our favorite number I went for that.

I traced that onto a piece of cardboard and cut it out. Then it was as simple as tracing around that like a template right onto the table, and filling it in (it took a few coats of “filling in” for things to look nice and solid, so pardon the sketchy look of these progress pics). Note: in hindsight I wish my stars were a smidge smaller, so choosing a star printout that’s a little smaller than the one you want will probably yield the perfect size since the traced outline makes it slightly bigger.

I drew one of them in the middle of the top and one on each of the corners, and then I just made random sort of wavy lines to connect them all.

Those were the simplest part, and adding little leaves on alternating sides turned those squiggles into vines. If you tell me you can’t do this I’ll challenge you to a duel with a paint pen, because you can. Anyone can. Just practice with a marker on a piece of paper, and make some wavy lines and add some leaves. It’s crazy easy, I promise.

Then I just added more vines to connect the outside edges. This is before I did one more “coat” for the stars, so it’s still a bit sketchy looking in a few places. The cool thing about adding the faux inlay detailing was that it made the puttied parts virtually invisible, thanks to adding a lot more contrast with that white detailing. Can you even tell where the putty is anymore? It’s amazing what a little “look over here” diversion can do for a cute-but-flawed patch-job on an old secondhand table.

To do each of the six sides of the table, I laid it down on its side and worked on each one at a time – adding a star to the top, middle, and bottom of each leg, and connecting those with a hand-drawn leafy vine.

As I mentioned, the paint pen filled those stars in sort of sketchily, so I went back over all of them with another “coat” to make them look more solid. The vines were fine with one coat though, so it didn’t take too long. I actually might do one more star coloring session to make sure they’re solid looking before I use Safecoat Acrylacq to seal it all in (that’s our favorite non-toxic poly alternative).

Overall this entire refinishing process took a few hours and the inlay inspired stenciling/freehanding probably took two more, so it wasn’t as fast as painting it a solid color, but it was really fun to try something new – especially since this design is so common on Moroccan tables, and we still get to enjoy that pretty wood tone coming through.

Considering that some of the real-deal mother of pearl inlay tables sell for over $1000 (!!!) I’m cool with this $25 “look for less” result with some paint on our sweet little thrift store find. We had everything that we used in our arsenal already, but even if you had to buy wood putty, stain, a stain pen, and a paint pen, you’d only spend around $25 on materials.

It’s definitely one of those bolder furniture moves, so it’s probably not for everyone, but it was fun to try something different. And the nice thing is that it’s not too much of a commitment, so if we tire of it down the line we can always sand it down and re-stain it, or even paint it a solid color someday.

Right now it looks pretty sweet in the nursery since there are other wood elements in there (the built-in dresser tops, the crib drawer, the wood wrapped toy cabinet, the wooden bike frames) but we’re not sure if it’ll stay there for the long haul. You know we’ll keep you posted!

Were any of you making over any furniture this week? Have you ever tried one of those stain pens on wood putty? Or a Sharpie paint pen? I was so relieved that the stain pen helped and the paint pen actually worked (I think my lines would have been a little harder to control with a craft brush). When a project stalls out, how do you deal with it. Do you walk away and work on something else? Google around for ideas? Consult your all-knowing chihuahua?


    • says

      Aw thanks Evelina! We’re trying to get posts up a little earlier so it frees up more time to do all the crazy showhouse/book/secret project stuff that’s going on these days. We figure if anyone notices it’ll be a nice little surprise. Haha!


    • Evelina says

      Wonderful surprise!! I feel like it’s our little secret until 10am when the others tune in.

  1. Lauren says

    I completely agree. Early YHL posts is akin to getting out of school early when you were a kid! And the table looks so wonderful. Who knew Sharpie paint pens were a thing?!

  2. Emmy says

    Happily surprised by the early post. I don’t even know why I came to check early…I was very aware of the time and thinking “if I work 30 more minutes I can take a break for some YHL.” But here I am. :)

    This post totally makes me think that I need to check out thrift stores/flea markets more frequently. I love old, dark wood pieces and we need a little table for our little one’s room. Everything else is going to be pretty modern, so an older piece might add a nice eclectic touch. Love all the YHL inspiration!

  3. says

    Ooh love it! My fiance and I recently built a headboard out of reclaimed crown moulding pieces and pine boards from Home Depot. It’s unstained / unpainted for now (darn snow keeps foiling my outdoor attempts at DIY! Small apartment with carpeting = probably not painting or staining inside …), and I’ve been debating how to move forward with it. This is such a cool idea! Thanks, as always, for the inspiration. :)

  4. kris says

    Maybe it looks better in person, but it’s just too busy and it looks like you just drew on it, which I guess you did. Sorry, not a fan at all–it takes away from your gorgeous nursery–I vote paint!

    • says

      Thanks Kris, it’s definitely “a lot of look” and we could end up painting it someday. As for the nursery placement, we mentioned that we just put it there to shoot it, but I’m not sure it’ll stay there (our living room is super neutral/bland right now without any pattern anywhere, so it could be a fun accent in there).


    • Lisa says

      I agree with Kris. It does look a little too frou frou on a lovely old-timey piece.

      Could you have tried to make little cuts to put pieces in the bald spots instead of wood putty?

    • says

      We thought about trying to make tiny pieces of wood to slide into those missing spots, but some were just low points/cracks and some of the missing pieces were too small to tackle on a saw without risking fingers, so we would have had to whittle them or something. Someone else left an awesome wood putty tip that we’ll have to try next time though. You essentially save the sawdust from the table and sprinkle it on top of the putty and then it matches the wood tone of the rest of the table better. I can’t wait to try it!


    • Susan says

      Balsa wood is easy to cut with an exacto knife and comes in small strips. It would fill those imperfections perfectly and then take a stain nicely.

  5. Susan says

    That’s an interesting solution. We had a table in college with similar missing pieces woe. I was able to cut popsicle sticks (college student budget) to shape and fill the pieces, sand, and stain.

  6. lizzzzy says

    Do you have a few of those cactus toys in your house? (Much like my candle obsession.) I swear I see them every few days on your blog! LOL!

    • says

      That’s my favorite thing! We recently put a little table fan on the Expedit for the baby (where the cactus used to live) so that freed him up for this table – although I’m sure he’ll migrate to the built-ins someday. He’s on a whirlwind tour of every surface of our house!


    • Annie says

      Just wanted to point out that table fans are terribly dangerous for little fingers. The baby won’t be climbing out of his crib any time soon, but big sister Clara will be able to reach it. The air circulation method of choice with small children around is a ceiling fan. You could get one for as little as $100 in Lowes or HD.

      Bonus is that the breeze from the fan lets you set the A/C at a higher temp to save on greenhouse gas emissions.

    • says

      Thanks Annie! We have a narrow grate on our tabletop fans so even the littlest fingers don’t fit inside the cage (Clara’s small tabletop fan has one as well). That would be my mommy nightmare! Although we do love overhead fans as well – we even added an extra one to the back porch so we have two in there now. If only this snow would go away…


  7. Susan says

    Looks great! I’m wondering – did you do this all with the same paint pen? I can’t believe it didn’t run out? I have thought of buying one of those for a project but I was afraid it wouldn’t have much paint in it…

    • says

      All the same one – with paint to spare! There were some times it felt like it was running out but I closed it and shook it a bunch and more came out. It was some sort of paint pen miracle.


  8. Mel says

    Sorry, Sherry. This project gives me the sads. All that doodling totally ruins the table’s personality. Seems there could have been many better solutions to fix the issues the table had without resorting to Sharpie.

    Not my jam is an understatement.

    • says

      Oh no, Mel! It’s definitely not one of those universal choices that we thought everyone would love, but it was fun to take a risk and try something new. Never meant to give you the sads though. Maybe we’ll end up sanding it down or painting it someday (it’s a nice flexible piece, and the table is really solid – especially with the repaired top – so we hope to have it a nice long time).


    • Lo says

      I agree major sads. It was such a beautifully crafted and unique table! You covered up all the awesome woodworking. I realize it wasn’t in perfect condition, but it doesn’t seem like you did any research on how to properly fix it? Maybe an actual woodworker can pop in with some tips, but I have at least a few that will hopefully help someone else with similar table issues!

      Trying to stain wood filler isn’t usually a good idea. It’s usually a bad idea. (The reason it may have worked with your PolyBlend stuff is because that stuff is basically just paint and not actually stain that goes into the wood.) A better idea would have been to try to find a filler in a color that actually matched from the start (only for the gaps). Or recoloring with a crayon or marker (not Crayola, but ones made for this purpose). You could have also tried making a filler using the sawdust from sanding the table mixed with glue or other adhesive so it would be the right color. (I would have just left the gaps alone)

      Did you use a palm sander? If so, I’m surprised it didn’t flatten out the pieces that were raised up??

      Lastly, and I’m sorry to be rude, but it was a terrible idea to try to fill the slots that had missing pieces of wood with filler. That was never going to look good. A big blob of putty on a tabletop does not look like wood. I’m actually kind of flabbergasted by this. (People! Only use wood filler in inconspicuous places!) This part, you should have just left alone, missing pieces and all. That would have looked much better. Just glued in the loose pieces, accepted the way it was and left it alone. OR cut out tiny parallelograms (or at least one long one) to fill the missing ones!! Don’t craft stores sell little wooden shapes? Maybe popsicle sticks?

    • says

      Thanks for the tips Lo! John debated trying to cut tiny shapes but we didn’t think we could use a saw without risking fingers since they’re so tiny, and went the wood filler route since it worked on the cabinets. We got an awesome tip from someone about saving sawdust from the top and sprinking it onto wood putty so it’s the right shade, which sounds really smart so we’ll have to give that a try!


    • Heidi says

      I think it’s more important to experiment and try something new to give an old piece more life, than to let it sit around. At least Sherry is making use out of something that would have otherwise sat in storage. Thanks for being bold and trying something outside the norm, Sherry – I love it!!!

    • Christine says

      I’m with the sad ones on this. :(
      This table would have looked nice in the nursery as is. A nice element of “old”

      One needs to know WHEN to be bold and experimental…that’s what makes a good designer…less is more

    • Jennifer says

      Yeah, sorry, I kind of have to agree with Mel. Major sads. When I was in 7th grade I took my stash of Sharpies to my laundry basket in almost the exact same pattern. This doesn’t look anything like inlay to me, it looks like white out on a formerly gorgeous table. Sorry, but I think this is a big miss. :(

    • says

      It would have been cool to see you or John tackle that inlay. They make veneer just for this purpose. You would use an exacto knife to cut it, not a saw, and then wood glue to secure it.

      Otherwise, personally, I would have just painted the top a solid color, maybe even something kidsy and colorful, and left the bottom pretty and wood stained.

    • says

      That would have been fun too! I wonder how the side would look finished if you used veneer since you’d just see the raw sides of it if you didn’t finish that in some way? Would you get one of those iron-on wood side pieces like they use for laminate counter sides and use that around the edge? Sometimes those look plastic-y to me, but veneer itself looks so nice – and I love the idea to use that on the top!


    • Criss says

      I think a smaller star with a darker color (less contrast) would have made it look better. But you don’t know unless you try!

    • Kate C says

      Yep, sorry but I’m in the ‘whomp whomp’ club on this one. The free hand curves contrasting with the beautiful angles of the top really bug me. I hope you choose to restore it fully one day.

      Thank being said, I hope *you* love it. I hope you love it and use it. Because it’s your table and what you think is really the only thing that counts.

    • says

      Sorry, maybe I was not clear. I didn’t mean veneer the entire top of the table. I should have used the correct terms regarding repairing marquetry, i.e., inlay. You can buy woods meant to cut (with an exacto knife) and glue into those spaces that are missing pieces. =)

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