Painting furniture shabby chic style

Up cycling – taking something old and making it better rather than throwing it away or recycling it – is the word of the moment, and there’s no better way to do it than buying an old piece of furniture and painting it shabby chic style. I’ve found the best place to pick up furniture for shabby chic painting is eBay (it’s also a great source of inspiration as there are many finished examples to view too). There are some great old pieces, typically priced around £30 – £40.

Here’s a 1940s writing desk I picked up for £40 after its final coat:

Don’t ignore furniture that doesn’t ‘look’ old – as it’ll often be cheaper. Here’s a fairly modern chest of drawers that the previous owners of my house left behind –  with a few coats of paint and some nice antique looking handles and I converted them, for around £20 in total. You could pick an old piece of furniture like this up on eBay for around a tenner.

(To be shabby chic they ought to have been ‘aged’ after painting as well but they were for my daughter and when she saw them, she wanted them just like this!)

Again eBay is a fantastic place to pick up vintage looking handles to spruce up boring furniture. I’ve just done a quick search and look at these! They’re gorgeous and they’re just £2.50 each.

Choosing a paint

Although you might think that a more expensive paint will give better results, my preference is Wilkinsons Satinwood. It’s good value, there’s no need to use an undercoat and it doesn’t seem to chip like some of the leading brands. There’s a nice range of pastel shades to choose from too. It can look really good if you put on a couple of coats of white first followed by as many coats of your pastel shade as you need to achieve a good coverage. When you come to distress the furniture, this layering shows with really good results.

Preparing your furniture for painting

Once you’ve got your piece of furniture, you’ll need to get it ready to be painted.

  1. Remove any hinges, handles or metalwork that you can safely remove without damaging the piece.  If some are impossible to remove, you will have to paint around them carefully and wipe any splashes quickly (don’t be tempted to use sand paper as it scratches the metal). It always looks much neater if you can take them off before painting.
  2. Mask off any glass windows using masking tape. Don’t remove the masking tape until the paint is dry as it can seep into the cracks and touch the glass.
  3. Clean the furniture thoroughly and leave it to dry. Over the years old furniture picks up dust, polish and dirt, and this will stop the paint adhering properly or give you a poor finish.

Many guides will tell you that you also need to strip off any paint or varnish. This isn’t really necessary as long as your paint sticks okay to the surface (which it usually will). When you’ve cleaned and prepped the item, test a little in an inconspicuous area and leave it for about 20 minutes to dry. If you see the paint pooling into bubbles rather than drying, you may have to strip off any varnish before you start. More often, it’ll just dry (don’t worry about coverage – you’ll be putting quite a lot of coats on anyway). You also might find that just one area of the piece of furniture gives you problems because it’s made of a different material to the rest (lots of pieces of furniture have a thin plywood back and the paint doesn’t look like it will stick to this). Don’t worry if it’s just a small area like this, just try painting over it with more coats – it often starts to stick eventually.

If the paint really isn’t sticking, Nitromors is a good way to strip off old coatings (take precautions as this stuff is strong and will strip skin too!). A heat gun can also be useful.

If you’re leaving on the old paint or varnish but any of the current finish is uneven, you will need to sand it smooth. Once you’re done stripping or sanding, wipe the furniture down using warm water and let it dry.

Painting the furniture

It’s impossible to know how many coats of paint you’ll need – it’s different for every item. Dark wood takes more of course. As a guide, most items need about 4 coats. Paint in the direction of the wood grain and keep your layers thin for a professional finish. Make sure you give each layer plenty of time to dry.

Distressing the furniture

Once you’re happy with the paint and it’s completely dry, it is time to distress the item. Make sure the paint really is dry or this will go horribly wrong. To achieve a natural shabby chic look, you distress the areas where wear and tear would naturally occur – the edges, raised areas, around handles, and so on.If you distress the furniture in areas that wouldn’t naturally wear, it can look very unnatural and a little odd so avoid this.

Use sandpaper and sand in one direction over and over until you’re happy with the wear.  For a really battered look, you can use metal chain or the edge of metal tools to beat at the furniture. Some people really like this look but I prefer to do the wear and tear carefully with sandpaper, although if there’s small drips that have dried in the paint, I sometimes sand them away deliberately leaving a bit of a worn patch.

Here are some examples of distressing:

  • Distressed edge – writing desk
  • Glass display corner unit
  • Distressing on corner unit cabinet

So that’s it! That’s my guide to painting furniture shabby chic style. If you’ve got any comments or questions, or you’d like to share some of your projects, please get in touch by sending an email to:  [email protected]. If you’d like more tips on preparing furniture or you’re considering selling your furniture on, I recommend Tomorrow Studio’s guide to making money from shabby chic items, which explains not only how to prepare the items for sale but also how to turn your passion into a viable business.