Before and After: A Painted Fabric Chair

A year or so ago I watched an episode of the Great Interior Design Challenge on which a designer had painted, then waxed, a fabric chair to make it look like leather. It looked, albeit through the lens of a camera and possibly carefully edited at that, fantastic. Feeling inspired I hopped online and bought a couple of tester pots of the recommended Annie Sloan chalk paint and gave a few of the care home chairs a patch test. It didn’t go well and I promptly binned the idea, slightly embarrassed that I had even entertained it.

This year the series graced our screens again and whilst I watched it far later than everyone else (about three months behind on catch up) watch it I most certainly did. It contained the usual….rooms done in an anxiety-inducing ambitious three days (I have no doubt that if the cameras panned in closely the finishes would be lacking) in addition to preposterous upcycling challenges and forced and repetitive urges to ‘showcase the designers creativity’. But despite the manufactured jeopardy and try-hard ideas such as chandeliers made of whisks, hostess trolleys as laundry baskets, lampstands formed of piles of old tables glued together, zigzagging magnetic tape and wallpapered ceilings, there’s still inspiration to be had.

“I wish you would stop watching that s**t” sighed S as I waxed lyrical about yet another episode. And he’s right to be concerned. Cause actually, about that seemingly bonkers wallpapered ceiling…. I’ve been thinking….that cloud wallpaper…(used in the Final on a bedroom wall)…on our bedroom ceiling? It would certainly hide the cracks…….


Cole and Son Nuvolette

But I digress. My point was that given the need for the designers to wow the judges with their leftfield thinking, painted fabric once again made an appearance. And it made me consider it all over again…

Perhaps, I reasoned, my stumbling block last time was expecting my fabric to look anything like leather when in actual fact most of the chairs I have in my possession have textured coverings.

So once I had started thinking ‘denim’ rather than leather I figured actually there might some mileage in this idea.”If it doesn’t work” my mum reassured me “next time I’m over Ill help you try and re-upholster them.”

She said it believing, I’m fairly sure, that in a few weeks time that would be exactly what she would be doing. But, as always, she gave me the freedom to try. Taking the children from me she set up an area of building-block play giving me time and space to set about having a good go….

It wasn’t just the fabric I wanted rid of. The chair was coated in a thick brown lacquer and I definitely wanted to see the back of that too.  But it was a conundrum…which way round should this operation unfold? Should I paint the fabric first or sand the wood back first? In the end I went for sanding and sealing the wood so that I could wipe off any paint that would undoubtably make its way onto it. So on went a coat of Home Strip which I then scraped off along with the majority of the softened varnish.

 Then out the chair went onto the hard standing at the front of the house for a good sanding. (Top tip: wait a few days after scraping off the paint stripper and sanding the wood for it to thoroughly dry so that the sandpaper doesn’t bung up. I know, I know...when you are impatient like me that sounds like a right pain. And it is. But sit on your hands as its worth the wait.) Before long the varnish was off and I figured my dusty, parched throat could do with a coffee. I went inside.

“Do you think I should oil the chair and leave it outside?” I asked  “Will it get stolen do you think?”

Mum looked at me incredulously.

“Stolen? That chair?”

It was decided that in all likelihood rain posed a more immediate threat than the above and so the chair was indeed brought in and placed in the snug where it was duly given its Osmo’ing. I figured a second coat could be applied once the painting was complete but for now that would protect the rawly sanded wood.

The next day I started with the paint. In theory I should have used Annie Sloan paint as it is she who champions this method of ‘dyeing’ fabric. However her range didn’t contain the denim blue I wanted so I had purchased a pot of Stiffkey Blue emulsion and thought I’d try my luck with that. Being water based I could thin it as instructed by Annie and I reckoned, with the jury on this whole episode still out, that it had just as much (little?) chance of working as the chalk paint. So thin it I did, about half paint to half water, and spritzing the fabric first with a water spray I set about applying the first coat.

I have to admit it didn’t look promising at this point. The fabric was originally a tan/orange and black check and the colour was showing through quite strongly. But several coats later and it was starting to look a bit more likely that it could work.

“Is it crunchy?” my mum asked.

“It needs to be sanded” I explained doubtfully, “but yes, it is a bit at the moment.” and leaving coat three to dry S and I took advantage of mum being with us and went for dinner a deux.

Returning home I ran my hands over the chair back.

“You know what…I think this might actually work” I mused.

“And if not you could always throw it away?” S suggested hopefully.

But throw it away I did not. Instead I gave it a sand and then a fourth coat before calling it a day. The original colour showed through a bit but the overall effect was decidedly better than it was.

The next stage was the wax. On TV I had seen this applied with a cloth but my attempt at that wasn’t hugely successful due to the texture of my fabric. So I grabbed the kitchen washing up brush and applied it with that, working the wax into the weave as best I could. Some suppleness returned to the fabric and it began to look a bit like waxed calico.

The final steps were to polish the studs with some wire wool, removing the paint I’d clumsily washed over them and bringing them up to a shine. Then I rubbed the wood down with the wire wool and placed it in position to dry, issuing everyone with strict instructions not to sit on it for at least a day unless they wanted a waxy behind.

The verdict?

Pleased as punch. Obviously reupholstering in fabric would be preferable…but as the chair itself is of very little value – it was about £70- so it probably doesn’t warrant the extortionate expense. This cost about £50 once paint, wax and brush were factored in so it wasn’t free by any means but was far, far cheaper. It now fits with the room decor and is comfortable enough to sit on with a cushion adding a finishing touch.

Want some more top tips after my experiment?

  1. Invest in an Annie Sloan brush….I found that it was excellent at working the paint into the fabric and well worth the money.
  2. Definitely sand and seal any visible wood frame first then have a wet wipe handy to wipe paint off immediately. Doing this afterwards means you get loads of dust on the fabric you then want to paint plus you risk adding a layer of unwanted paint to the varnish making your sanding of the frame an even bigger job.
  3. Make sure the paint is watered down on each coat. My attempts last year at applying  tester patches of neat paint to the fabric left really crunchy areas which still show through if you look hard enough. Its time consuming but building up the watery layers of colour means the fabric retains as much suppleness as it possibly can.
  4. Don’t miss out the spritzing. That definitely helped the application.
  5. Go easy on the sanding…the fabric on my chair was old so I risked making holes in it if I went at it too ferociously. So I only gave it a light rubbing down but I could definitely feel the difference once I did.
  6. Applying the wax with the washing up brush worked a treat and gave me a ‘bogof‘ in that it enabled me to lightly sand at the same time.
  7. Go easy with the waxing…..I’ve found since use that the seat pad is showing some waxy-white blushing, particularly where the fabric folds to give way to a behind. I think perhaps I put it on too thickly…. But if the whitening worsens I’ll simply chuck a sheepskin on it as the sides and back seem fine.

So now I have the bug no chair is safe. You’ll hear about more of these makeovers in due course…..



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