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How to Paint Upholstery

Are you looking to paint fabric furniture? Transform a faded, stained, or simply outdated piece of padded furniture with the right products and the easy technique detailed here.

A vintage arm chair that has been painted blue. Julia Fischer with Shangri-La Lane

Crafters who’ve achieved great results painting various types of wood, metal, even plastic furniture may raise their eyebrows at the notion of putting a brush to upholstery. Yet with the right technique, just about any comfy textile-covered but not-so-fashionable chair, sofa, ottoman—you name it! —can take paint well without changing the original texture.

The secret is in diluting the paint enough so that it functions more like dye. This easy, inexpensive project can turn a flea market find or inherited has-been from stained, faded, or just plain ugly into a showpiece.

Check out the basic guidelines and step-by-step directions here for upgraded upholstery you’ll be proud of.

Before You Start

Scrutinize the piece

If it’s threadbare or holey, or the springs are shot, it’s not worth your time and effort. Consider the fabric: While most upholstery material can be painted, the tighter the weave, the better.

In terms of color, as with paint projects in general, it’s best to go from light to dark; the reverse approach will require more coats and the final shade may still be a bit off. Plus, if the piece is patterned, keep in mind that a ghost of that plaid, floral, or striped design will likely show through in the end.

Pick the paint

Various types of paint can be used on upholstery, and some are made specifically for it. (In fact, purchase a specialized product for leather, suede, or vinyl.) Ordinary latex paint mixed with a textile medium can do a decent job, but for uniform tone and the ideal comfy-not-crunchy texture, most experienced crafters opt for highly pigmented chalk paint, such as Country Chic or Debi’s Design Diary DIY Paint. While quality chalk paint can be pricey, just a quart should be adequate to cover a modest-sized sofa.

Gather supplies

Success painting upholstery requires getting deep into the seams of vertical channels or puckered tufts, so a short-handled nylon brush is your ideal implement. You’ll also use painter’s tape, a drop cloth or newspaper, a spray bottle, a paint container, and a sanding sponge or sandpaper (about 220 grit). You may want to pick up sealing wax or clear liquid patina as well, for a topcoat that will extend longevity and prevent paint transfer.

Work with water

While you’ll thin the paint to give it a watery consistency, you’ll also want to have a spray bottle of plain water on hand to dampen (not saturate) the piece as you work. Moistening the fabric helps paint spread smoothly and absorb well.

Do a test run

Choose a small, hidden area (the underside of a cushion, for instance) to practice your technique and see how the paint reacts with the material. If the look and feel seem too stiff, adding a bit of concentrated liquid fabric softener to the paint mixture may yield a more pleasing surface.

Instructions for Painting Upholstery

With the above guidance in mind, you’re ready to update that upholstery!

Step 1: Prep the piece

Remove any details you don’t care for, such as a fussy fabric skirt. Take off any removable cushions and vacuum everything well, using the upholstery attachment. If necessary, spot clean with water and a small amount of dish detergent, then allow to dry completely. Tape off areas that shouldn’t receive paint and cover the floor with a drop cloth or newspaper.

Step 2: Mix the paint

The formula for chalk paint is typically one part paint to two parts water. For latex paint, the ratio is one part fabric medium to two parts paint. Mix in a container and stir well.

Step 3: Apply in small sections

Spritz a few inches of the piece with water, then apply paint, working it into the fabric and going at deep nooks and crannies with circular motions. Several thin coats will yield better results than glopping paint on heavily, so be patient.

Step 4: Sand between coats

While the paint is wet, sand gently to work the product into the material more thoroughly and create an even tone.

Step 5: Seal if desired

Once you’ve achieved the coverage and depth of color that suits, allow the piece to dry fully, then apply a top coat of wax or liquid patina if you like. This shouldn’t be necessary, since dried paint won’t typically transfer to clothing, but it provides a smooth, professional-looking finish. Allow the piece to dry completely before use.

Step 6: Add your extras

To finish, you may wish to swap out or paint the legs, add nail head trim, or otherwise personalize the piece.