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How To Update An Old Curio Cabinet

Sometimes you buy old furniture or antiques because you just like them or they’re cheaper than buying new ones. Or sometimes you’re handed down a piece that has sentimental value and you can’t bear to part with it. But what if you don’t love it as is? That was the case with this beauty. Check out how I made over this curio cabinet for a dear friend who lost her mom.

See how I used paint to modernize and update this antique curio cabinet. Even antique furniture can be transformed into a style that you love and suits your home.

When my sweet friend lost her mom, she suddenly gained her mom’s house and all its possessions. Sorting through someone else’s lifetime is hard.

What do you keep and what if it’s not exactly your style, but you’d be sad to see it go? This curio cabinet is exactly that situation. It’s a solid piece and in amazing shape for its age, but it didn’t suit her style at all.

All it needed was a little love and paint and now she can hold onto her mom’s memory a little tighter each time she looks at it!

Here’s the before of this outdated curio cabinet:

An antique wood curio cabinet with glass in the corner of a room.

It has good bones, but it’s just too dark for her taste. This is the space below that she is using the cabinet in and she didn’t think the dark wood would mesh very well with her style.

Blue and white chairs with a wooden end table in between them and a blue ottoman.

I knew this one would be tricky. That’s a lot of curved glass to go around. I always get nervous when I’m doing something for someone else, no matter how many times I’ve painted.

Especially when it’s a sentimental piece of furniture that I can’t easily replace should something happen. And I sure didn’t want to try and replace a ton of broken glass!

My friend’s dad told me he and her mom had bought this one over 35 years ago and they had it refinished at some point with stain.

Here are a few tips for a project like this:

  • Take your time – if you’re working around a bunch of glass like this, have some patience
  • Clean it thoroughly. Years of oils and everyday gunk will affect how your paint adheres to the surface. And you sure don’t want to have to start over because you didn’t prep it good. I use ZEP Cleaner – it’s my favorite out of anything I’ve tried over the years. Use gloves with it and ideally use it in a ventilated area as with any cleaner. 
  • Give it a light sanding –  especially if it had years of oils building up on the surface. You can buy sanding blocks like these that are super easy to work with.
  • Prime if necessary. I hate priming furniture. It’s smelly and it’s one more step to do. But, if the paint you’re using needs a primer – don’t skip it. I was using latex paint for this piece and didn’t prime simply because I was distressing it. I wanted some of that wood color to show through in places. If your piece is in a high traffic area and you don’t want to risk any paint peeling up use primer.
  • If you have glass to paint around, use tape or keep a wet rag handy at all times. The paint will wipe right off if you do it quickly. If you miss a few spots, you can carefully scratch them off with your nail.
  • Remove all the hardware – don’t try and paint around it. Take it off and store each individual set in its own baggie. Especially for older pieces – keep those hinges and screws together and put them back just like they were so you know they fit.

Choose a Color

Choosing the color was a bit tricky for this piece. Initially, she wanted dark gray. We considered dark gray with a lighter gray inside. However, we knew as soon as I painted that first swipe of gray, it just wasn’t working.

Then I tried a lighter color inside and the contrast was just too much. I could have fixed the outside, but that thin backing piece of wood wasn’t going to be an easy fix – there was no going back to wood there.

A wooden curio cabinet that has been partially painted gray with a pink arrow and words that read \"Not working at all\".

So it was back to the drawing board. In my head, I was thinking a very pale blue or white for this one would look amazing. Mainly due to the wall color in her space. Her walls are a beautiful gray and if this whole cabinet were gray, it would just be too much.

Round Two

So we settled on white. I was able to sand most of the gray off the door and then I used latex paint in off-white for the rest. But, I did not prime this one – I wanted distressed areas. I cleaned it and gave it a good sanding. If you’re doing something like this and you want areas that are easily distressed, skip the sanding.

First, I removed the door and all the shelves. I made sure to keep the hinges separated. I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t, they don’t always go back together correctly on older pieces.

Then, I painted the undersides of the shelving, let them dry, and flipped them over to paint the top of each shelf. 

Close-up of a white painted curio cabinet with distressing.
The top of a painted white curio cabinet with a farmhouse finish.

I ended up using two coats of paint. The hardest part of this was the tiny inside grooves of the door and all the sides.  I used a tiny artist’s brush and did two coats on each groove. I tried to tape at first but it was easier to use a wet rag and wipe off any paint that got onto the glass.

Tedious and time-consuming, but worth it. It didn’t look right without painting those. Same process for the mirror at the top of the cabinet.

After lots of days painting in my foyer and threatening every kid that walked through my front door not to dare bump into this thing – it was done!

The bottom of a white painted curio cabinet with wooden legs and décor pieces behind the glass.

I used a sanding block and lightly sanded the edges to give it a little character. But I didn’t paint the feet at all.  I started to and then I thought it would be nice to leave a little piece of this special cabinet just as my friend’s mom had it.

So it’s not that I ran out of paint or patience – well maybe patience! I kind of loved the idea of keeping some of the old with the new.

The final result!

White curio cabinet with glass and décor inside in the corner of a room.

A painted white curio cabinet with glass and décor pieces on the shelves.
A white curio cabinet with glass in the corner of a room with décor pieces on the shelves.
A white farmhouse curio cabinet with glass and décor pieces inside.

Of course, I had to style it at my house before she picked it up. I threw a bunch of random items in so she could see what it was going to look like. And then I wanted to keep it! 

But here’s the funny part –   When I first brought it inside, my husband and my kids looked at me like I was crazy. They hated it.

However, when it was done, I moved it to the corner of my dining room and everyone loved it. Even my 11-year-old son said it was really pretty and looked perfect in our house.

But off it went to live with my friend – sadly I had to let it go. And now she’s got another sweet way to remember her mom.

An image collage with a white curio cabinet filled with décor pieces and shells.

Her mom loved the beach and she’s filled the curio cabinet with beautiful treasures her mom would’ve loved. Including the most gorgeous hand-blown glass conch shell that contains her mom’s ashes. Such a beautiful way to treasure something that her mom loved for so many years and I’m grateful she let me help in some way!

I’m so happy she decided to keep this curio cabinet. It’s great for displaying special pieces and now it fits her style perfectly. Maybe I’ll get lucky one day and find my own curio cabinet in an antique store and I can do the whole process over again!

Even if you have a piece that you just don’t fully love, there are ways to fix it, like the way I used paint to modernize this antique curio cabinet. A bit of work and imagination goes a long way.

Create and Find Logo with author\'s name

And for more ideas on refinished curio cabinets and china cabinets, check out these amazing transformations.

Pinterest graphic with text that reads \"Antique Curio Cabinet Makeover\" and the before and after of a wooden curio cabinet painted white.

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Wednesday 5th of April 2023

I have this very same curio cabinet and was just getting ready to donate it to a charity but you have inspired me to try an bring some life back into it.


Thursday 6th of April 2023

Give it a try!!

Janice Wood

Saturday 18th of September 2021

Beautiful makeover! I have a very similar curio that was my mother's too, however the glass on one end is missing. Any ideas on removing/replacing the remaining glass?


Wednesday 5th of April 2023

@Janice Wood, check on Pintrest. I saw on on here where they replaced the glass with chicken coop wire and used the cabinet in their kitchen. Another one had used fabric to make cute curtains for it.

create and find

Wednesday 22nd of September 2021

Thanks Janice - I'd start with a glass shop - see if they can replace it for you. It may be less expensive than you think. If that doesn't work, I'd consider removing the rest of the glass - I've seen them that way and they still look just as beautiful.


Thursday 7th of November 2019

It’s beautiful! What color paint did you use?


Monday 25th of October 2021

@create and find, First off,The work You did is one of an an amateur. Secondly,You pushed Her to change colors, and lastly, the replacement glass that You mention i. One of Your responses “It’s not as expensive as You think” $400 a section. There You Have It

create and find

Thursday 7th of November 2019

Thank you Lisa! It's a color from Sherwin Williams called Panda White (it looks brown on the color card, but it's actually a creamy off white).