Before we talk about how to paint upholstery, let’s first talk about if we should paint upholstery.
We have a big old fabric chair, and this question was on my mind for almost a year. I feared all the possible failures of painting upholstered furniture:
- our chair would be as uncomfortable as a pile of crusty baguettes.
- our chair would look like the ghostly face of Johnny Depp in a Tim Burton movie…
- if I fail, I would not only ruin a still-decent chair, but also make a big mess and waste a ton of time.
In the end, lots of research plus the lure of a bright and happy white fabric chair helped me overcome all the fears and just do it! I am so happy with the result!
No wonder we all love white slip-covered sofas or white fabric chairs. They are the perfect starting points for so many creative decor styles! I can’t help but playing with another color combo!
In this step by step tutorial, I will share everything I have learned about how to paint upholstery –
- which paints and fabrics give good results, and which materials to avoid
- secrets to make your painted upholstery soft and comfortable to sit in
- the pros and cons of painting upholstery vs other methods to makeover old furniture
Let’s start with the most important step:
Step 1: Determine if your piece is suitable for painting, and choosing the right materials.
Smooth cotton or poly blends are the most suitable type of fabrics when it comes t painting upholstery.
I highly recommend practicing on a piece of fabric very similar to or the same as your piece ( maybe a matching pillow, a swatch, etc) first. This way you get familiar with the whole process and the feel of the finished fabric. ( Some of the helpful resources are affiliate links. Full disclosure here. )
Fabrics with a lot of texture such as velvet or thick woven fabrics are much more challenging to paint over. It is super important to do a test on a scrap piece that is same or similar, try using a liquid dye such as this to tint the fabric instead of paint, or consider slip cover instead!
I tested both Martha Steward fabric medium and Folk Art fabric medium mixed with acrylic paints vs acrylic latex paints. I don’t think the fabric medium made the fabric feel any softer. ( I will share the secret to that later!)
In this project, I used Sherwin Williams Emerald Latex paint in Dover White satin finish, which is such a beautiful soft shade of white. I really like this paint because it meets the most stringent VOC regulations, and has anti-microbial agents inhibit the growth of mold and mildew on the paint surface.
Fabrics with a lot of texture such as velvet or thick woven fabrics are much more challenging to paint over, because paint tends to form a thick crust after soaking into the textured fibers. If your piece is made of such fabrics, consider using a liquid dye such as this, instead of paint. The fabric dye is transparent, so this method works best if you are tinting a light colored fabric into a darker colored one.
Step 2: Prepare your piece for the first coat of paint.
Vacuum the nooks and crannies. Wipe off any dust on the surface of the fabric.
Spot clean stains so they don’t dissolve in the paint and discolor the area. Just do the best you can, no need to be perfect.
Tape the legs and any parts you want to protect from the paint.
Spray water on your fabric chair or sofa until the fabric is damp. This will help the first coat of paint to soak into the fabric. You can use a spray bottle or a paint sprayer (more about that in next step).
Step 3: Apply the first coat of paint.
While the fabric is still damp, apply the first coat of paint.
One of the keys to keeping the fabric soft is to use diluted paint, and paint multiple coats.
I diluted the Sherwin Williams acrylic latex paint in the following ratio: 3 cups of paint to 2 cups of water.
I decided on this ratio after doing some tests on scrap fabrics similar to the fabric on our chair . If you are using different paint, dilute the paint to a consistency similar to crepe or pancake batter.
Use a brush or a paint sprayer to apply the first coat of paint while the fabric is still damp.
Use a paint brush to reach the areas where the fabric folds. After applying the first coat of paint, take a piece of rag or sponge and rub the painted surface to help the paint soak into the fabric. You only have to do this for the first coat.
There will be areas where you cannot completely cover with paint, for example: where the seat cushion turns vertically to meet the side arms. Just reach down and paint these areas with a paint brush so when no one is sitting on the chair, you won’t see the original fabric. Don’t use too much paint or these areas could stick.
Step 4: Sand the first coat of paint.
Let the first coat dry.
You might think your piece is looking awful right now. Don’t panic! It will look significantly better with each coat of paint!
Take a piece of 320 grit to 400 grit extra fine sand paper, and sand the painted areas.
Sanding between each coat with extra fine sand paper is another key to keeping the fabric soft to the touch. You will notice such a big difference. The fabric will feel like synthetic leather instead of dry paint!
Step 5: Repeat with the painting and sanding process.
Apply the second coat of paint. Let dry. Sand the painted areas.
Repeat this process with more layers of paint until you are happy with the result. I did a total of four coats of paint. It took a couple of days because I had to wait for the paint to dry between layers.
What a difference it makes! Now our room feels so much brighter and airier!
If you love that indigo fabric or pillow, here’s a tutorial on how to make your own indigo tie dye fabrics and pillow covers.
- First determine if your upholstered chair or sofa is suitable for painting. Avoid fabrics with thick textures. Do some tests on scrap fabrics or smaller pieces.
- Fabrics with a lot of texture such as velvet or thick woven fabrics are much more challenging to paint over, because paint tends to form a thick crust after soaking into the textured fibers. If your piece is made of such fabrics, consider using a liquid dye such as this, instead of paint. The fabric dye is transparent, so this method works best if you are tinting a light colored fabric into a darker colored one. It will not work the other way.
- Secrets to keeping the fabric soft to the touch: use diluted paint, and paint multiple coats. Sand with extra fin sand paper between coats.
- Use smaller paint brushes to touch up the hard to reach areas. If you have a tufted chair or sofa like ours, paint the areas where fabric is bunched up with a thin coat of paint so they don’t stick together and harden.
- Wear gloves! As you can see I learned my lesson after the first day!
The pros and cons of painting upholstery vs other methods to makeover old upholstered furniture.
- Painting upholstery is much faster and easier than reupholstering or making slipcovers.
- Painted upholstery is a lot easier to keep clean because paint is waterproof: just wipe off any dirty areas with a damp cloth.
- It is easy to repair any surface scratches: just touch up with paint!
- Not all fabrics are suitable for painting. In those cases, reupholstering or making slipcovers are the only options to refresh a piece. Same applies if the fabric surface is damaged.
- Painted upholstery feels like synthetic leather. Fabrics are softer. I am one of those who always prefer fabric seats to leather seats. The chair is still very comfortable, and we add pillows and blankets when we want extra coziness.
Recognize the Fiddle Leaf Fig you see in the background? I grew it from a cutting 2 years ago! Here’s a tutorial on how to grow and propagate Fiddle Leaf Fig.
Happy creating! See you next week!