Painting Upholstery Fabric with Chalk Paint: Vintage Armchair Experiment

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Recycled timber tables by Timber Feeling

How Does Painting on Upholstery Work?

Lara Knight – 6 August 2019

Chalk paint is a DIY best friend. It’s easy to use, comes in great colours, layers beautifully, and eliminates painful sanding and surface prep. Many of us have used it for years to jazz up solid furniture.

But what about upholstery? Painted upholstery just seems wrong even though there are loads of Youtube videos showing it’s possible. The one below with Annie Sloan is quite long-winded but covers the basics.

Mid Century Armchair Overhaul

A quick room shuffle for an event finally got me testing chalk-paint with fabric.

The chairs I wanted to change were mid-century timber armchairs picked up for $100 each on Gumtree. The upholstery was dated synthetic boucle in reasonable condition, but as I stripped it off extra layers appeared. The next layer looked like stained wool blend, and the third layer was steel blue leather… totally unexpected but an exact match for our living room sofa.

Unfortunately the leather was only on the seat cushion. And there was no budget for professional reupholstery.

So, for a quick update it was either sew new fabric covers (a tedious job for a non-sewer), or magically match the back to the leather. Chalk paint seemed worth a try. If it failed, I could still pull out the sewing machine.

The wool layer was the smoothest texture so I threw the covers into the washing machine and went to find paint. (Note: Some fabrics may shrink in the wash. If you’re not removing covers, you can also give them a sponge clean.)

Annie Sloan is a UK brand that has a stockist near us. There are also Australian chalk paints like Porters Paints and Canterbury Blue if you wish to try local products. Both these have stunning colour ranges but I haven’t seen them mention fabric so I stayed with a brand I knew.

Adding Paint

The first challenge of this project was colour. I had a fun 10 mins at our Fremantle distributor Little Leaf Co mixing different chalk paint shades. We eventually chose Napoleonic Blue and Graphite as the best chance for steely blue.

Then came the hard part. Different videos use different paint-to-water ratios to get a dye/wash effect. I also had to blend two colours with a consistent look on quite textured fabric. I started with thin-ish paint like the video above but the first layers soaked in with very uninspiring results. Cotton or linen fabrics that are more colour absorbent would obviously be easier.

Getting impatient, I switched to 50/50 paint and water which worked much better. More even and quicker coverage. So I charged along, mixing slightly different blues and allowing each layer to dry.

As other bloggers mention, textured fabrics that absorb a lot of paint can get stiff. A light sand between coats helped smooth crusty edges and soften the finish but, as I was matching leather, I didn’t get too hung up about a heavier weight.

Wax

The final layer was a coat of Annie Sloan wax, softened in with a warm hairdryer. (It was winter and the wax was going on slightly patchy so the heat helped even everything out.) Apparently chalk paint wears OK without wax but for this project it darkened the paint a little and gave a leather-ish sheen.

Results

A few extra days to sand/recoat the timber, and some op-shop cushions, delivered two classic chairs for a reasonable price. Not a super quick DIY, but something I’d try again on a cheap piece. (Was grateful I didn’t paint the velvet lounge I swapped for these chairs. That would have used a truckload of paint and been a total nightmare!)

If you’re a sewing/upholstery whiz you’d probably do the whole thing ‘properly’ but here are the easy-fix results:
– A smooth outdoor fabric/leatherish feel.
– A close colour match with a cushion to hide the slight difference in texture.
– A cheapish (chalk paint is $50-$60 litre) update for secondhand furniture.

Happy so far. Will update this post in a couple of years with how it wears 🙂

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