how to: paint a fabric chair

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A while back I bought a vintage chair intending to reupholster it; I liked its curvy lines but the fabric was quite blah, so I thought it would be a perfect upholstery-learning project. Well. A year and a half went by and I had done nothing to the chair, and I knew that learning upholstery was nowhere near making it to the top of the to-do list, so I decided to try painting the chair instead–fabric and all.

This kind of painted upholstery has been all over the web lately, and I’ve always been very intrigued by it. I wasn’t sure I trusted it at all (wouldn’t the fabric be awfully stiff and crunchy?!), but I figured this was a good piece to try it out on–I was ultimately planning to reupholster it anyway, so either way it didn’t matter. Worst case scenario, I could just tear the fabric off.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is how the chair started out–fun shape, but plain colors. When I first brought this piece home I declared it to be Fifi’s chair, because she immediately claimed it as so.

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Here she is giving me the stinkeye for making plans to change her chair. Oh, Fifi. Don’t worry. Change is good!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOk! Let’s talk paint! I’m not going to lie, I took a very lazy approach with this project. I decided to paint the trim and the fabric all the same color, partly because I thought it would be an interesting effect, but more because I realized that by painting the whole chair one color, I wouldn’t have to worry about taping anything off or being neat at all!

So, first I started by scuffing the wood slightly with some sandpaper, then wiping it down, and vacuuming the whole chair really well, including the fabric and all the crevices. (If you were painting the trim and fabric different colors (or not painting the trim at all), you’d have to take an extra step here and carefully tape off the fabric/wood.)

I started by painting the wood. If I were more serious about the longevity of this chair I would have primed the wood first with an oil-based primer, but I didn’t bother in this case, I just painted directly onto the wood, using regular old acrylic wall paint. (Priming the wood first would just help the paint to stick and discourage chipping, and is generally a good step to take when painting wood.)

As for the paint color. I had a lot of black, white and grey wall paint leftover from various projects, so I just mixed up my own shade of grey and went to work!

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I applied two light coats of paint to the wood. (As you can see, I got some paint on the fabric, but it didn’t matter. Gotta love that.)

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Here’s how she looked with all the trim painted. Next it was time for the fabric!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo paint fabric, you can either add a fabric medium to regular acrylic paint, or use fabric paint. Either option will give you a result that’s (somewhat) soft and flexible once dry, rather than crispy the way regular paint would be on fabric. Because I wanted to use the exact same color paint as I was using on my trim, I chose to go the fabric medium route, using a product I picked up at an art store (the Golden brand bottle up above). This type of fabric medium simply gets mixed in with your acrylic paint, and you’re good to go.

The other option is to use a special fabric paint, which you can find easily in craft stores. Tulip makes a great line and I kind of wish I’d done a test with the Tulip paints and this fabric medium/paint mixture to compare results.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was super freaky to paint the fabric, it just felt wrong–but I persevered! The fabric medium made the paint really watery, and I just slopped it on and kept going. I needed two coats to get full coverage on the fabric.

After the paint was dry it had to be heat-set, either with an iron or a hair dryer. I used a combination of both. The paint was very crispy before being heat-set, and a bit less after the fact, but still crispy nonetheless.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the paint was done, all that was left to do was add some color! I had been thinking about doing bright-colored buttons, but as I was staring at the chair one day it just occurred to me to try sticking some felt balls into the divots of the tufting…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd what do you know, it worked! The felt balls fit perfectly in the tufting and I thought they were a fun touch. They add lots of texture and they make this chair very playful. And, since they’re not permanent, I can easily swap them out if I get tired of them. (I think fabric-covered buttons in all one shade would look great, and definitely more sophisticated. But the balls are fun for now.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd that’s it! This really was a quick and easy project, and I love that I was able to do the whole makeover using materials I already had around the house, except for the fabric medium.

The verdict? I like the way it looks–I wouldn’t say this chair is Miss Forever, but she’s definitely Miss Fun For Now. As for the comfort, I have to give the painted fabric a low score. It is crunchy, sort of just like you would expect it to be. It might be the fabric medium I used (again, wish I’d tried the Tulip paints, to compare). I definitely wouldn’t recommend painting a piece of fabric furniture that you want to cuddle up on, because it doesn’t have a cozy feeling. But for a piece like this that’s more decorative than functional, and especially for a piece that you don’t intend to keep forever but would like to play with for the time being, it’s a fun quick fix.

But the most important question is, what did Fifi think?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think she likes it!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShe really likes it!

chair before after textAnd here’s the final before and after! All in all, I feel like this is a fun facelift for a quirky piece that wasn’t valuable or particularly special to me. Why not, right?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat about you, have you tried this painting fabric furniture trend? Have any tips to share about fabric paints in general? Post ‘em in the comments!

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  • http://www.modeknit.com Annie

    I’ve done the tulip route for large scale fabric painting projects (for costumes, creating stenciled period fabrics, etc.) and it can get pretty stiff, too.

    • Brett

      Good to know! I’ll try to stop regretting not testing it on my chair. :)

  • http://www.etsy.com/shop/missbatch Christina

    I say, pretty fantastic over all! I love the pop of color w/ the felt balls– and the way they make Fifi’s eyes glow. :)
    …I wonder if a spray-on fabric paint/dye would be less stiff? Though, probably would be harder to get a color match to the trim– or a super-saturated effect.

    • Brett

      Well, you know everything I do is designed to flatter Fifi!!
      Good thought about the spray-on paint. We’ll have to try it out on one of the chairs at your house. :)

  • http://www.blissous.com Inis

    That turned out fabulous. My cats would have those felt balls all over the house in no time flat :)

    Pinning for inspiration on a future project.

    • Brett

      Thanks! Fifi is too lazy to bother with the felt balls. :)

  • http://yahoo.com louise ross

    I want to paint a wall to wall rug. please let us know how when you can make it look and feel great.

  • jenn

    I’ve done the spray fabric paint (simply spray brand). It took 6 cans ($70 total) to cover one armchair and it still turned out uncomfortably stiff. Huge bummer.

  • Sheri M

    I’m just about to embark on a fabric painting project and am glad to have found this. Not only is this super looking, I gleaned useful info! It never occurred to me there would be a fabric paint medium. I bought a tired-looking storage ottoman to spruce up for the living room, and now I have that boost of confidence I need. Thank you.

  • Terri

    Love the creativity and Fifi, too!

  • Donna

    There is an artist in western Pa. Who lives in an old Victorian house called the ‘painted castle’, and she has filled the place with artistically painted furniture, walls & woodwork. Every inch has some sort of image on it. Sounds crazy- but it’s actually one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. One piece that stands out in my memory is a sofa painted like an American flag- and bedazzled with sequins too. Your chair looks great! Have no regrets! It’s ART!

  • Donna

    Oh and after seeing this I am also going to paint a sofa & loves eat. But I think I’ll recover the bottom seat cushions with something softer to sit on.

  • Nadia A

    Apparently if you sand it after you are done painting it, it is more smooth. Just saw that online

  • Terril

    What about spray on dye? Would that work?

    • Brett

      I’ve never tried spray-on dye!

  • Janice Shivers

    I’M fixing to try painting a chair .
    But I’ve been painting my bathroom sink with seaside art and it stays until some one leaves it sitting with water on it for a long time .I paint with art paint and then coating it with acrylic polyurtene several times .It findley yellows and it stay on fairly good until some one really gets a lot of water standing on it .I’ve seen a lot of bathtub that look like some one like me painted it . But it wasn’t coming off Can you tell me what to do so that it would stay on,. I’d like to paint the sink and tub both .Can you help me !!!!!!!!!!!

  • sa scrap

    Hi, Love the chair, I am getting ready to paint a couple….. because I’m cheap as well as lazy!! (vs doing the re-upholster thing) I am wondering if there is a recipe somewhere on how to make your own fabric medium…. I think the little bottles are $$ for what you get and I have two chairs (wing back todo….) Thoughts anyone??

  • goddess

    new idea thank you

  • Misty

    I have a “new” couch coming tomorrow. A friend bought it for me because my poor dear old couch is near falling apart. However, the color… well it’s something. I looked into slipcovers which I don’t look because you can, well always tell it’s a slip cover. I looked into stretch slip covers and although the look promising I still don’t like the fact that all my seat cushions would be in a “bag”. So I started looking into fabric paint. I’ve found some but it’s fairly pricey. I am so glad I found this article!! I am going to try it on a smaller piece of existing furniture that I have to see if I like the outcome and if it works I’m going to tackle that couch. Any suggestions to help the durability after painting a piece of furniture that will have kids and a dog on it?

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