How To Know When Upholstery Should Be Painted

To paint or not to paint…that should be the question before painting our upholstered furniture. But sometimes we just dive into a project with our eyes wide shut. After all, won’t our gusto and faith in all things beautiful produce a DIY miracle? Probably not, then we’ll have to compromise our vision, or live in denial. Well, don’t do that when it comes to painting your furniture…I mean, your guests and family have to sit on your furniture, and they certainly won’t suffer any delusions regarding our DIY’s. *grin*

Things to Consider Before Breaking Out the Paint

  • Texture: While most fabric will absorb paint, the factor that makes the difference is whether the material can be brushed, rubbed, or if necessary sanded without damaging. Being able to brush the material keeps it feeling soft and normal without turning it into a hardened or plastic-like surface (unless that is what you’re going for). Upholstery that has a “fuzzy” quality rather than woven is ideal. (Not to say you can’t paint other textures, but you will have to vary your paint type and approach)
  • Color: Look for colors that you can lighten a shade, or darken a shade rather than seeking a drastic makeover. This allows you to use minimal paint for maximum results…which means a soft finished product that no one will know has been painted.
  • Print: No print or pattern is preferable, however a print that doesn’t have too much contrast can still be covered without too much paint. 
  • Tufting, buttons, etc: Know that any part that has tufting, a lot of folding, or tucking will be more difficult to soften up, and any paint in those nooks and crannies should be well moistened after paint has dried, if you choose to proceed.

After evaluating, if your piece is less than ideal for painting, first consider reupholstering it, or slipcovers. Then if that is not an option, don’t worry! All hope isn’t lost! Try a specially formulated fabric paint in spray form for less than ideal textures. Try a dry brushing technique for velvety tufted chairs… after all, if you are just going to throw it out or donate it, it can’t hurt to try first! 😉

My Midcentury Paint-Over

I have two amazing (and oh-so-comfy) midcentury modern chairs I found online for just $30 a piece.
They are soft to the touch, firm to the tush, and easy on the eyes…well, except for that particular hue of ugly on the cushions. 
What’s wrong with a light minty color you ask? For one it’s not quite the color I’m going for in this particular room (or anywhere, ever), and for another it is more of a dingy mint color where some yellowy stains interfere with the color. Yep, these are the perfect pair of chair cushions to paint.

I am using Chalk Paint® decorative paint by Annie Sloan in Paris Grey. The chalkiness of the paint makes it perfect for rubbing off any paint accumulation thus keeping my cushions soft to the touch. It sands down to dust and perfection on furniture, so why not fabric? I started by watering down the Chalk Paint® to a one-third paint to water ratio (or basically as thin as it could be without losing color), and applying it in even strokes with a sponge brush. If you want to ensure good “bleed” of your paint (probably the only time bleed is a good thing in painting!), use a spray bottle to moisten the upholstery first.
I quickly brush across the chairs pushing the cushion hairs around with my sponge brush. Go with the grain, then against the grain, working the paint into the fibers.
Immediately after (or even during) paint application, rub vigorously with a cloth. When you are done painting each surface of the chair rub all the fibers in one direction so they lay down while drying.
Mid-dry (and it only takes about 10 minutes for the surface of the paint to begin to set up even though the cushion will be wet), use a stiff bristled brush (or your cloth if preferred) and give it a vigorous brushing. Once it has dried completely, if there are still areas that feel stiff to the touch, lightly sand (or brush) the area again. Usually the brushing works wonders and there is no need to sand at all.
And voila! I have changed the hue of my cushions from dingy mint to a flattering grey-blue, and the users will be none the wiser! Sometimes the subtlest changes make the greatest impact, see the cushion before, and the cushions after? …Um yeah…no more dingy-icky. *rejoicing ensues* *also a quick dance party in which I say “uh-huh, it’s my birthday”*
Want to see another upholstered chair I painted? I used a slightly different technique (dry brushing) since it had tufting, and it worked amazingly well! See more here.
Armchair Painted Makeover
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19 Comments on How To Know When Upholstery Should Be Painted

  1. Ratri
    July 17, 2019 at 11:42 am (2 years ago)

    What the colour the paint ?

  2. April Chard
    March 16, 2017 at 9:33 am (5 years ago)

    Hi Ursula – I am thrilled with your comments – can you let me know what sort of brush you used please ?

    Many thanks

  3. Donella
    March 31, 2015 at 5:57 am (7 years ago)

    Just wanted to thank you for your post. I have a group of chairs (4 matching and 1 singleton) that I am interested in painting. My husband was quite the skeptic until I showed him your “story”! All the chairs are microfiber with wooden legs. I appreciate your description of the brushing and sanding — some of the other posts I’ve read from others don’t dwell on that point or even reference it. Keeping the fabric soft and “touchable” is important, so I will definitely do that.

    One question is whether the upholstery becomes stain-proof/resistant with the chalk paint as they do with regular latex or acrylic? I am using the chalk paint, as the regular paint requires adding a textile medium to the mix and I’d rather not bother. But, will I lose out on the protection factor?


    • Ursula Carmona
      March 31, 2015 at 8:24 am (7 years ago)

      Thank you! Glad I can be helpful. 😉 Yes, definitely wipe vigorously with a wet cloth or a scrub brush while painting, and even periodically while it is drying…it won’t be dry and crunchy at all. 🙂
      In answer to your question, it is not stain proof, but even after spilling grape juice on this chair I simply took some carpet cleaning spray and a wet cloth and was able to remove the grape juice normally, and no paint came off on the cloth…it was clearly there to stay! It looked great, it worked great. I believe the key to this is rinsing the upholstery out a second time after it has dried. Once you brush and rinse all that chalky remnant out, all that is left is the dye, which doesn’t come out.
      Good luck on your project!

    • Melanie Gross
      September 2, 2015 at 10:14 am (6 years ago)

      Just and FYI. When NOT to paint your furniture.
      1. When you’re trying to go from a darker color to a lighter color.

      2. When it’s a jacquard material with contrasting colors.

      3. When the jobs just more than you can do. ( like an entire couch).

  4. Becky Nieman
    February 13, 2015 at 12:26 pm (7 years ago)

    I was wondering if this would work on a cotton fabric on a wing chair. There is no texture so I’m not sure if it would take the paint. Enjoyed reading this and thanks in advance for your advice!

  5. Heather - New House New Home
    July 23, 2014 at 8:11 am (7 years ago)

    Great tutorial!! I’ve painted fabric before with terrific results using ASCP. But I’ve never done the mid-drying brushing. I’ll try that next time. I’ve usually sanded at the end to get a great feel.

    • Ursula Carmona
      July 23, 2014 at 2:14 pm (7 years ago)

      Thank you Heather! It really seems to help! 😉

  6. Diane
    June 21, 2014 at 11:28 pm (7 years ago)

    I have a lime green chair that I was dying to paint. Painted the legs in graphite and wanted to paint the fabric in Ochre. After seeing your project, I think I will give it a try. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Janet Woolley
    June 18, 2014 at 7:27 pm (7 years ago)

    I have tried this before with a dusty pink 1950s slipper chair which I painted in Emperor’s Silk. What ever I did the pigment kept lifting off so I think your tip about brushing it could have helped, although I think such a strong pigment isn’t so good to use. I have another pink slipper chair that I would like to paint, any advice on the colour choice?
    I also have some 1960s red leatherette office reception chairs, do you think I could paint these?
    Thanks Jan

    • Ursula Carmona
      June 19, 2014 at 12:42 pm (7 years ago)

      Hi Jan, I would also recommend wiping it down with a wet cloth after it has dried a couple days. If you have a problem with pigment you could spray it with a fabric sealer (similar to something you would use to seal leather shoes).
      So sorry, I have no experience with leather-like materials. I’d love to know what you learn! 😉

    • CharlotteDeeDesigns
      June 19, 2014 at 5:59 pm (7 years ago)

      Leather and leatherette paint brilliantly with Chalk Paint but I would recommend waxing afterwards 🙂 x

  8. Jeanne Stringer
    June 18, 2014 at 4:24 pm (7 years ago)

    i have a red couch that need sprucing. it’s a canvasy type fabric and seems like a perfect candidate since it’s starting to get sad and faded looking. it’s red and I want to keep it red. my only concern is that we sit on it ALL THE TIME. is it possible for the red color to rub off onto clothes?

    • Ursula Carmona
      June 18, 2014 at 6:37 pm (7 years ago)

      Do you plan to use a chalk based paint? If yes just be sure to allow it to dry then dry brush or sand it thoroughly. Wipe down with a damp cloth, and it should be good to go! If you are not using a chalky paint, then no further actions are necessary… think about what happens when you spill an acrylic paint on your clothes…it doesn’t come out, and it doesn’t run. Good luck with your project!!

  9. Malori and Jon Saline
    May 20, 2014 at 12:17 pm (7 years ago)

    I had honestly never even thought about painting upholstery before! This is absolutely brilliant! I have a hand-me-down chaise that my husband and I love, but it is so darn ugly we can’t put it out anywhere for people to see – I don’t even like to look at it, but it is really comfortable to sit on – and this would be a perfect solution!! Thanks again for being your brilliant self!

    • Ursula Carmona
      May 20, 2014 at 12:43 pm (7 years ago)

      Aw, thanks! Glad you could find a solution to transform your chaise! I mean, who doesn’t love a good chaise? 😉

  10. Haley
    May 20, 2014 at 10:19 am (7 years ago)

    Looks great! Does it feel the same as the original fabric? I painted a chair about two years ago and am in the process of reupholstering. The fabric felt canvas-like and I was the only one that enjoyed sitting on it. Yours looks a lot more comfortable.

    • Ursula Carmona
      May 20, 2014 at 12:42 pm (7 years ago)

      Thank you! Yes, it is like the original, which was very important to my husband since he sits in them all the time! 😀


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