How to Paint Upholstery: Old Fabric Chair Gets Beautiful New Life

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:

  1. our chair would be as uncomfortable as a pile of crusty baguettes.
  2. our chair would look like the ghostly face of Johnny Depp in a Tim Burton movie…
  3. 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!

* Some resources in article are affiliate links. Full disclosure here .

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.

Fabric types:

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!

Choosing paints:

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.

I used the HomeRight Finish Max Fine Finish Sprayer  which I received as a gift. ( Thank you Homeright!) I really like this sprayer: it sprays beautifully, is easy to clean, and saves a lot of time!

Important: if you are using a sprayer, make sure to wear a respirator mask and work in a well ventilated place. Use a spray shelter or draperies to contain the fine mist / paint particles!

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!

Related post: How to reupholster a fabric chair – step by step tutorial.

How to reupholster a fabric chair – step by step tutorial.

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.

Detailed tutorial on 3 beautiful tie dye techniques to create your own glorious Indigo Shibori textiles for home decor or fashion projects! - A Piece Of Rainbow
Make envelope throw pillows in less than 10 minutes using re-purposed fabrics such as canvas drop cloth : super easy, no sewing skill required! A Piece Of Rainbow

How to make your own indigo tie dye fabrics and pillow covers.

Helpful tips:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Secrets to keeping the fabric soft to the touch: use diluted paint, and paint multiple coats. Sand with extra fin sand paper between coats.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Pros:

  1. Painting upholstery is much faster and easier than reupholstering or making slipcovers.
  2. Painted upholstery is a lot easier to keep clean because paint is waterproof: just wipe off any dirty areas with a damp cloth.
  3. It is easy to repair any surface scratches: just touch up with paint!

Cons:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

How to root Fiddle Leaf Fig from stem or leaf cuttings! Now you can have the one of the most gorgeous indoor plants and propagate it for every room! - A Piece Of Rainbow Blog

How to grow and propagate Fiddle Leaf Fig.

Happy creating! See you next week!

71 Comments

  1. Your articles taught me a lot! This is my 1st comment here, so I just wanted to give you a shout-out and tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog posts.

  2. I was thinking to paint my office chair fabric but was worried that I could ruin it and then I will have to buy a new one. But after reading your article I was confident that I could do it. And yeah I did it, it looks like new. Thanks for saving me money on the new one as that was quite expensive.
    You are great, Ananda!

  3. I have a Lazy Boy recliner that I use on a daily basis, it has been recovered once and now the fabric is faded and stained, did not hold up well. Wondering how well paint would hold up on a chair used on a daily basis for reading, watching TV, just resting, etc. It is my favorite chair very comfortable, do you think painting would work for this and if not would I be able to reupholster it later on?

    • hi Phyllis! first it works best if the fabric is thin and smooth. the painted chair feel like fake leather, and can feel a little cool to the touch vs fabric just like a leather car seat vs fabric. πŸ™‚ i would find a piece similar textured fabric and test it since it’s something you use so much! the other option would be slipcover.

  4. Hi there! I have to say your Pinterest page is everything! You explain everything g so clear and the step by step process you give is amazing. I have a question though for you I am painting our dining room chairs they had really good fabric to be able to do that. Do I use the 2 cups water and 3 cups paint for each coat that I do?

  5. I’m wondering about durability. Is this chair used often or more for looks? My church owns a coffee house and the chair seats need to be redone. Someone previously used faux leather and they are peeling like crazy! I’ve found cute coffee fabric at a quilt shop and am looking to find the best option for covering the fabric… clear vinyl or some kind of sealing paint/finish. Durability is the big issue due to high use and possible spills. Any suggestions? Suggested products or sources? Thanks for any help!!!

    • hi Patty, painting works great and is durable and comfy on smooth and thin to medium fabrics. if the seats are made of thick, velvety or textured fabrics, a better idea would be to make some simple cushion covers with water resistant fabrics that are also washable. πŸ™‚

  6. The Amazon link for the dye that you recommended for velvety type fabrics does not go to that product. Could you tell me the name of the recommended product?

  7. Looks great! Did you seal it with a wax, such as Annie Sloan or other brand? I see that some articles say to seal it with wax, while others do not. What would the difference be? Thank you for your time.

    • hi Karen! we did not seal ours. i don’t think any sealing or wax is needed if you use a paint which is already very water resistant, such as acrylic, or latex here. if you use milk paint then yes, it is good to seal it! πŸ™‚

  8. Thank you so much for this article! I have 3 round red chairs that needed custom upholstery. It would cost me quite a sum to upholster. Just cause the existing cover was stained from wear. Over the weekend, I painted them the same color, per your instructions and they look fabulous! Two coats were adequate since it was the same color. Light sanding helped to remove the roughness. Again, thank you!!

  9. Your post us so helpful, thank you! I got 2 armchairs for free on FB marketplace and would like to paint them. There are some worn areas in the fabric that seem to be about to start fraying. How would you handle that?

  10. Hi! Thank you for your instructions! I am painting booth cushions that has a little denser fabric. Plan on using latex paint. Should I water it down a bit more to help it soak into the fabric? Can I get the medium at Walmart?

    • yes thin the paint a bit and sand between layers so its not too stiff. the medium is not a must. not sure if they have it at walmart. amazon always have it. πŸ™‚

  11. I purchased two new mid century modern wing chairs w metal bases in charcoal grey fabric. I am regretting color choice and I am thinking I want to paint these new chairs white. Would you recommend painting new chairs or only beaten down furniture. I am afraid of completely ruining the chairs. Shopping them back is too expensive…

    chair style linked here: https://www.overstock.com/Home-Garden/Living-Room-Chairs/2737/subcat.html?featuredproduct=22251755&featuredoption=37039181&kid=9553000357392&ci_src=17588969&ci_sku=27903890-000-001&cnc=US&cid=248961&type=pla&targetid=pla-412622198097&track=pspla&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI9Z-ei_GH6gIVCm-GCh1wpgqAEAQYASABEgIlK_D_BwE

    • hi heather! you can paint new chairs but it’s just more scary, i can understand! if you could test it on a piece of material very similar to the chair and feel it, that would be the best way to decide. slip cover is also a great option πŸ™‚

  12. Dixie Belle Paint Company actually makes several paint to do this. There is also a torturial on their website.

  13. Do you know if the paint would bleed if skin sweated or if it got hot in the sun? Does it transfer to clothes?

    I am so excited to try this! Thnks so much for posting.

  14. Thank you so much for these excellent instructions! I love how your chai r turned out and it so generous of you to share your process. I have a terribly ugly couch recliner I would love to paint. I do not have a paint sprayer, however, and I couldn’t use anyway as the couch is too heavy to move out of my living room. Is it possible to use just a brush or would the brushstrokes be too visible? Thank you again for taking the time to share!

  15. We have a sofa that is kind of a dark purple microfiber. It would be a big job but I’m thinking of trying to paint it a very light gray. I already painted a small stool with a sort of velvet material and didn’t sand it, so it’s pretty gritty, though it turned out well. Sofa is a much bigger project and I just want to be sure that the microfiber will work, especially because I’m going from dark to lighter. What do you think? Thanks!

    • hi ellen, i think it will work if the fabric is thin and not fluffy, but i would try to find a little test piece of fabric, maybe from under the sofa, or a similar thickness & textured dark fabric, and test it to see how the color and texture feel after painting. otherwise i would try slipcover instead. good luck and let me know here or on instagram! πŸ™‚

  16. In desperation, I tried this on my set of 6 dining room chairs. It turned out fabulously! I followed the directions exactly and I get compliments on my chairs every time someone sees them. Thanks for your detailed post!

  17. Ananda, Thank you very much for the feedback. I’m gonna make the experiment and I will share with you the result. πŸ˜‰

  18. Hi, I love this post! Thanks for sharing your experience. I have a question for you: When time goes by, let’s say a year, it still holds good? The paint does not deteriorate? I’m ready to do the experiment, but I’m a little bit affraid. Thank you in advance

    • hi nancy, our painted chair has held up nicely. it is so much easier to clean- just wipe it with a damp cloth. no chipping or fading so far. πŸ™‚

  19. Without a doubt, a beautiful furniture always beautifies the home and we always need to take care of them. Painting the old furniture makes them look new and beautiful. This article really helped me a lot as I was looking for such kind of instructions which can help me while painting the furniture of my home.

  20. Just want to thank you profusely for your excellent tips. I bought a chair for $40 at an odd store that sells both new and used pieces… it was a beautiful design and really well made, but after a month I realized the stark black-and-white zebra stripes were just too dominant and considered reselling. Thanks to you, I decided otherwise. It took five coats (over three days) of a curry colored acrylic (and the first four terrified me, so I was deeply grateful for your insight!) and now it is absolutely gorgeous in my living room. Even the dog loves it πŸ™‚ Your tip about the fine sanding was also hugely appreciated. I too often get ideas from the internet and don’t bother to thank those who were kind enough to share their experience. Your instructions were perfect, and I know I’m not alone in my gratitude. Merci, gracias, domo arigato, thank you!

    • hi penelope, thank you so much for your sweet comment! i really appreciate your sharing and wish you lots of happy creative adventures! xo

  21. Do you sand after the final coat too? Just applied the last coat to my grandmother’s antique wingback chair that J didn’t want to pay to get re-upholstered. Thanks for the instructions!

    • hi kim, thank you! πŸ™‚ we didn’t use and wax or sealer because the latex paint repelles water and it’s really easy to clean with a damp cloth.

  22. After sanding for the final coat of paint how do you clean the piece so there won’t be any dust from the sanding?

  23. This turned out great! I love your tips and the fact that you went light over pattern, showing that can work. Would you even ever consider doing an entire sofa like this? For a family with children? Just wondering because I have been offered the most incredible, high-end sofa (beautiful and indestructible) by a friend. I love the design and sturdiness, but the color is so not us. I totally would like to try this because I know reupholstering isn’t possible at this time. Do I dare?—Your opinion, really??! Thank you!

    • hi! if the sofa is made of a VERY smooth fabric then yes, i’d try to find a piece on the bottom side and test it first. . if the fabric is thick like velvet or a knit or textured, then no, because it won’t be soft. i would make slipcover instead, and they are washable! =)

  24. I painted an ugly old upholstered chair about a year, and have been pleased with it. But I’ve wondered if I could paint over the existing color (sort of an creamy ivory) with a faux leather effect (browns, tans, etc). Has anyone tried RE-painting a piece of painted upholstery? If so, what advice/tips would you offer?

    • hi debbie, i think it should be no problem to paint more coats. i would give it a light sanding and use compatible or same type of paints. =)

  25. I am impressed about the transition of that chair. Although i am with you and not sure whether I would like the leather feel over the fabric feel of the chair. On the other hand if it’s still comfortable and it does better with the design of the room as you want it to look, i would definitely try paining the chair.

  26. Wow, this looks amazing!! I’ve always heard that painting is an option but now I just might do this. I’m obsessed with how this turned out!

  27. I don’t think I’ve tried painting a chair before that’s covered in fabric. It’s sure nice to see how it’s done and I love how it looks now! The white is perfect!

  28. I have seen upholstery and fabric painting a few times before and I the first time I saw it I was so surprised that you could actually do this! I think it’s a great way to be able to use furniture that is still in good shape but is not attractive because of the fabric. Your chair really turned out great!

  29. This is just a bright spark idea, thank you so much for the courage and breakdown on how to go about to Paint Upholstery. I have some studio pieces that will change in the following week or so.

  30. I have never seen anything like this before! I’m so curious now, that I’m looking around the house for something to try! I could always try to pick up something at a resale shop! How great this turned out!

  31. This is something new I learned today. I only thought you have to re-upholster fabric furniture to make it look like new again. I don’t know if I could pull off something like this, but it is still good information to know.

  32. I think your chair came out beautiful and feel that even if it came out like a white-faced Johnny Depp in a Tim Burton movie, it would still be nice to look at (I mean, he is, right?) lol.
    Great post!

    Kate | The Organized Dream

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