With every fiber of my being, I didn’t think it was going to work. Still, when I found two chairs on craigslist that had the style and quality I was looking for — and a price I couldn’t beat — I decided it was worth a try. I was going to paint upholstery.

I won’t leave you hanging in suspense. Did it work? Yes. Is it for every application and use? Maybe not. Read on if you are contemplating adding a splash of color to a room or updating an old upholstered piece.

Spray painted upholstery before & after

What makes a good candidate for upholstery painting?

  • Clean lines — the chairs I painted had some cracks and crevices and buttons and cushions, and while the finished piece was great, it was a lot more work to get it to look good.
  • Stiffer fabric — a fabric without a lot of nap is more suitable to the paint. While the paint dries soft, with each application, it gets stiffer. I wouldn’t use a fabric with a high pile length (velvet, corduroy, velveteen, etc.). I don’t think you’d be as happy with the results.
  • Lighter colored fabric — don’t try to cover a dark color with a different color. It will require too many coats and even then, you may not get you the coverage you want.
  • Fabric void of any stains — if the fabric is heavily soiled, the paint won’t evenly absorb.
  • Fabric without stain protection — that being said, you don’t want fabric that has been treated with a stain protector either. It’s necessary for the dye to absorb into the fabric. Stain guards prohibit absorption.

OK, taking those guidelines into account, you’ve decided you have the perfect piece to paint. What now? You need to decide what paint to use and how much.

I selected Simply Spray Upholstery Fabric Paint in the caribbean blue color. Hobby Lobby carries small cans of the paint in their t-shirt craft aisle. I stopped by there with my accent pillow to make sure the colors matched. They did, so I went online to place an order for the larger cans.

The Simply Spray website states each eight-ounce can covers 17 square feet, but that depends upon the kind of fabric and the conditions when you paint.

(I knew the weather was going to be turning colder and my Wednesdays [the day of the week when both boys are in school] were numbered. So, even though it was one of the windiest days of late, I setup my painting space in the yard. I share this because I think I used more paint than had it not been windy. A good portion of it blew away onto the drop cloth … me … the grass … me … the bushes … me … the driveway … me … a lot on me … . It took 3 1/2 cans to paint two coats on one chair.)

The website accepts PayPal payments. Once the order was placed, my paint arrived in about a week.

Simply Spray Upholstery Fabric Paint

I selected Simply Spray Upholstery Paint in caribbean blue.

To get started, you’ll need:

  • vacuum cleaner
  • spot cleaner
  • drop cloth
  • painter’s tape
  • upholstery paint
  • latex gloves (or non-latex)
  • foam brushes of assorted sizes

I’m not crazy about buying used upholstered furniture, so I set the chairs outside in the sunshine for a couple of days. (Pets and smoke are the least of my worries if I really allow my imagination to run wild.)

Before painting the first chair, I throughly vacuumed it; spot cleaned areas that needed it; and Febreezed the underside. I didn’t spray the upholstery for fear it would leave a residue that could impact the paint’s absorption. If you do any spot cleaning, make sure the upholstery is completely dry before painting.

(In spite of my cleaning, I still missed a small spot where the paint didn’t absorb. It’s not that noticeable, but I wanted to let you know it happens and that cleaning is an important step. Since I don’t know what is stuck to the chair — and I don’t want to think about it — we shall never speak of this again. Never.)

Use painter’s tape to protect any areas you don’t want painted.

The manufacturer recommends doing a spot test with the paint to make sure it properly absorbs. I didn’t. I’m wild and crazy that way. (Keep in mind, I didn’t think it was going to work anyway, so I had the Go Big or Go Home mentality. YEEEHAW!)

Spray painting upholstery

First coat of upholstery paint on the back of the chair. Note I covered the wood along the bottom with painter’s tape.

I started at the top of the chair and worked my way down using a spray-and-brush technique. Basically, I sprayed a large area using slow back-and-forth strokes. Once the area was covered, I grabbed a foam brush and worked the paint into the fabric, brushing it in different directions. For the large flat areas, I used a broader brush. For the nooks and crannies, I saturated the area with the spray can and then followed up with a small foam brush. Make sure your final stroke is with the pattern or weave of the fabric.

This can be rough on the foam brushes. I went through quite a few of them. Buy a big pack.

Spray painting upholstery piping and tufts

This was the most complicated area of the chair to paint. I had to pull back the attached back cushion and the piping while spraying the paint. I followed up by jamming the foam brush into all the creases.

If there’s piping and tufting, be sure to pull it back and really get the paint and foam brush in there. This is when the gloves come in handy. I failed to wear any and I am still trying to clean blue paint from under my nails and around my cuticles. For a week, I looked a bit like Dexter … you know, if he weren’t so meticulous … and if instead of targeting serial killers, he targeted Smurfs.

The paint quickly soaks in, so it’s easy to do little touch-ups as you go, but I waited a couple of hours before applying a complete second coat.

The second coat provided a more thorough coverage — a nice solid color — but, I could tell the fabric wasn’t as soft. It was still soft and pliable and comfortable, but not as soft as after just one coat.

Close-up of spray painted upholstery

With the fabric now a beautiful blue, I wanted the wood along the bottom and the legs a different color. A white chalk paint would’ve been easy and beautiful, but I have a lot of dark wood in the room where the chairs were going to be placed. With that in mind, I went with a dark walnut stain.

Staining the legs of the chair

After sanding the wood on the chair, I was ready to stain it using gel stain and a foam brush.

I prepped the wood by heavily sanding it to remove the existing finish. I started with a 150 grit and worked my way down to sanding the surface with steel wool.

Since I would be working on a vertical surface, I selected a gel stain to minimize drips.

Using foam brushes again, I ended up applying two coats — waiting a day between each one — to get the darkness I wanted.

Once the last coat was dry, I gently steel wooled it again and applied a coat of polyurethane.

I kept the chair outside during a few more days to help the drying process. Within hours it was dry to the touch, but the Simply Spray website recommends waiting 72 hours for it to be completely dry. At that point, it will not rub off and it can be cleaned.

The paint is expensive compared to other spray paints. The six pack is $70, but compared to the cost of having a chair reupholstered, it’s an excellent deal. Both chairs — including their purchase price and supplies — will end up costing me less than $150 total. And the feeling that I’ve defied all logic by painting upholstery? Priceless.

  1. Garry says:

    I wouldn’t have ever believed this would work. Thanks for being a rebel.
    One question. Once done and inside do they smell like VOCs ?

    • OmahaHa! says:

      Garry, I was as surprised as you. I don’t detect any VOC smells. I don’t know if it had to do with keeping it outside in the sun and wind / in the garage or if the odor is really minimal no matter when you bring it in the house. When I read your question, I actually went and gave it a sniff test. I’d say if anything, there is a slight odor from the stain/polyurethane. Nothing from the upholstery.

  2. Tracy says:

    Wow, fantastic! These are really cool and just plain fun. Thoroughly enjoyed reading about the process. I, too, also forgo gloves until I realize I have paint all over myself. How long did it take you to spray each chair?

    • OmahaHa! says:

      Vacuuming the chair, set-up, taping-off the wood legs and painting one coat took about two to three hours. (Since it was the first time, it probably took longer to set-up and I also wasted time waiting for the gusts of wind to die down.) I took a long lunch break and then the second coat and clean-up took about another hour. Add to it staining the wood and it makes for a good weekend project.

  3. Holly says:

    This is very interesting. I have two chairs I would like to refresh, however, they are stained. I’m struggling to think of an instance that I’ll have a pristine piece of furniture that I’ll want to change the color of. Maybe because I only have pristine furniture the day it is delivered–and it’s already in the color I want.

    • OmahaHa! says:

      Ha! Well, these were not pristine chairs by any means. They are in good condition, but they are from the ’60s and had some wear-and-tear. You could tell where heads, arms and hands were rested over the last 50 years.

      I think you just need to look at the stains and determine two things: 1) is there residue and 2) is there a huge difference in contrast between the stain and the fabric colors. If there is residue, clean the stains to remove any grease, oils, etc. That will enable the paint/dye to soak into the fabric. Once you’ve made it so the paint can be absorbed, you need to determine the contrast between the stain and the original fabric color. If it’s subtle, and the paint you are using is significantly darker, I think you’d be OK. It will cover the stain and you’ll never know it was there — it would be a great solution to those chairs. (Totally a guess — but I would say it stands to reason.)

      The spot you can see on the one chair I did, I totally missed cleaning it. The result was a small circle that is still blue, just a lighter blue than the rest of the chair.

      • OmahaHa! says:

        You know, Holly, actually, I bet even if there is a huge contrast in the colors of the stain versus fabric, the paint will still cover it OK as long as it can be absorbed. Don’t quote me ’cause I’ve never tried it, but I’d give it a try if I were you. (I was just thinking about the fact the chair I did had two colors to it — the grey and the peach — and you’d never know that by looking at the finished product.)

        • Holly says:

          I have (crappy-looking) covers on these chairs now. It might be fun to try and paint a section to see how it looks. If it’s bad, then the cover goes back on (or maybe a new cover).

    • OmahaHa! says:

      We haven’t had any problems with the paint rubbing off on anything. I’m trying to think of an instance that it might — the chairs have never been wet, so I don’t know if they’d stand up to spills or sweat — but nope, no problems at all with our normal usage.

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