Adventures in Painting Upholstery

How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric mediumOver the weekend I tried my hand at painting upholstery for the first time. It was a great experience, and today I’m here to share all the details with you! 

Years ago I saw an artsy painted couch in the dressing room of a retail store. From a distance, I could tell it was painted and was immediately curious about both the process and the finished result. When I touched the couch, it was hard as a rock. When I sat on it, it was stiff and made a crinkly sound—as if I were sitting on plastic. As cute as it was, I realized that it wasn’t something I’d want in my own home, and from a comfort standpoint, the couch was ruined. 

That little experience has lived in the back of my mind ever since, and every time I come across an upholstery painting tutorial online, I cringe a little and feel like the article is trying to “catfish” me. 

So you might be wondering what changed my mind.

I was 100% sure that these tutorials suggesting to paint uphostery with wall paint were bogus. I mean, it would probably end up looking good, but would it be functional? That’s kinda important, right? After I read a few more extensive tutorials (this being the best one) about combining fabric medium with latex paint, I decided it was worth a try! 

Before + AfterBefore we begin, it’s important to note that the couch I chose to paint was damaged. Jeremy acquired it when we had our vintage store and he worked in the space above. It had some major staining that we tried all our tricks to remove unsuccessfully. When he was preparing to move to his new studio, he was planning to donate this, and I told him I wanted to try painting upholstery, so we kept it just for this project. 

This is not a tutorial that I would recommend for a brand new couch. Reupholstering would obviously be the first choice for a lot of furniture, but since this is a small bench (i.e., not large enough to be a functional living room couch) with damaged caning (another super expensive thing to fix professionally), and it lives in the sunroom of his studio (not super high traffic), we had nothing to lose. So, we went for it! 

How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric medium 1. You’ll need a stained or ugly colored piece of furniture with lightly textured upholstery (you wouldn’t want to try this method on a fuzzy, vinyl, or leather piece).

2. Supplies needed: flat latex paint (I bought one quart and had some leftover), fabric/textile medium and paint brushes (you can see here that I started out with a foam brush, but I quickly switched—see below).

3. Mix fabric medium and latex paint. You’ll need 1 part fabric medium and 2 parts paint. Don’t freak out if it looks crazy at first (see above); it takes a bit to mix in!

4. When the paint and medium are completely combined, you are ready to paint. 

How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric medium Before you begin painting, use a spray bottle or damp rag to get the fabric just a little bit damp (but not very wet). 

5. If you have a fear of painting the fabric, go ahead and mess it up real good like I did. Commit yourself! 😉

6. You can see here that with thin coats of paint the fabric’s texture is completely maintained. 

How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric medium 7-8. You’re probably curious about how long this process took me: Only about 3 1/2 hours, with a break for drying in between (for a couple hours with a fan facing the couch). I completed this, start to finish, in just one afternoon. First, go over the entire couch quickly. If you have a lot of tufts, like I did, save them for last. Then go over the piece once more, checking for missed spots. Then let your first coat dry for several hours. Mine dried enough for coat two in about 2-3 hours. Thin coats dry faster. It’s also important for the coats to be fairly thin because that will ultimately make your coach more comfortable and less stiff.

9. Halfway through the first coat, I switched to this 1 1/2″ paint brush instead of the foam brushes. The foam brushes were okay, but this was much better for getting into the creases and tufting.

10. After the second coat it’s time to do the edging. I used a double-folded piece of paper (cardstock or very thin cardboard would be perfect!) because I will basically do anything to avoid taping things off if I can. This worked great! I only had one or two mess-ups on the wood, and I immediately wiped them off with a wet paper towel. This was the most tedious part of the project, but it only took about 30-45 minutes. 

After checking the piece over for missed spots, I let it dry overnight. (Insert nerves here!)

How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric medium How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric medium How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric medium The finished result is AWESOME! I am really glad we went for it. The color is gorgeous, and it looks so much more clean and fresh than it did before. 

How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric medium How does it feel? Good question. I will be COMPLETELY honest with you! 

It feels like a couch painted with matte fabric paint (not the sticky stuff). It is not stiff, crinkly, or cracking, but it no longer has the same texture as fabric. It’s like it has a rubbery film over the top. For that reason I wouldn’t do this for a main couch that you sit on every day to watch television. However, for a cute side chair or a decorative bench like this, it’s totally fine! It’s not that it’s uncomfortable to sit on; I just wouldn’t lie on it to take a nap, if you know what I mean. 

My conclusion: It’s not a miracle, and I wouldn’t do it on EVERY piece of furniture, but it’s also awesome, and I will most definitely be doing it again for my own home! 

How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric medium A little tip—If you have tufted fabric, it’s pretty hard to get every single crease. I thought I did awesome, but I’m not a perfectionist, and as you can see here, I did miss some spots. 

Save some of the extra paint mixture in a Tupperware for touch-ups! 

How to paint upholstery with latex paint and fabric medium Thanks for letting me share this fun project! If you decide to try it yourself, I’d love to see photos! xx. Elsie 

Credits // Author and Photography: Elsie Larson. Photos edited with Stella from The Signature Collection

  • I wonder if painting it with screen printing ink and setting it with a hair dryer would work better. I’ve painted drops with screen printing ink and you can get really vibrant colors and the fabric remains flexible (not stiffness). You would just have to be really good about heat setting it so that it doesn’t come off when you sit on the chair.

  • Interesting idea for sure… is there a chance the paint could transfer to clothing? Adore the color!!

  • The couch looks gorgeous. I would love to see you go antique white on the wood. I am going to try a piec myself. Thx

  • i love how honest you were about this project. its not often you see a diy type project on a blog that the author owns up to not being sure about it, and breaks down the totally honest results at the end. thanks, elsie!

  • love the color! not sure i’d be brave enough to try this though. the pillows are gorgeous! are they DIY, or an awesome find?

  • I know it’s a silly comment to make especially considering you guys are doing a lot of D.I.Y. posts but how can you stand the smell of paint for so long without a break? 😀

  • this looks so great ! I love the colour and the idea !
    Actually I love everything you show here 😉
    greetings from Germany
    Daniella

  • OMG, this is stunning! Love the way it transformed into something gorgeous, a fun and easy project, will be definitely doing this in near future! Thanks for sharing!

    xo

  • Will you keep us up to date on whether the paint starts to crack/flake off? Thanks!

  • I really love how this turned out I could see it being used for maybe a window seat or something like that. Not sure I’d ever be brave enough to paint fabric like that 🙂

  • I totally love it! You did a great job. I’m going to try this tomorrow on an old couch I got from my grandma. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • I’ve never seen anyone paint furniture fabric! Wonder if I could paint my pleather bench? Maybe there is a reason I keep forgetting to put it out with the trash…will def check into it. Thanks for the awesome blog post.

  • Hi April,
    Thanks so much!

    About the transferring- I don’t think so. I have had that happen before with fabric dye, but never with paint.
    xx- Elsie

  • Hi there! It would definitely work. We’ve painted a few shower curtains with matte fabric paint as well (not the entire curtain, but a pattern on it) and it worked great.
    xx- Elsie

  • Hi Lesia,
    This project was only a few hours and the paint was not crazy. Oil base paints are WAY more smelly and I sometimes do those outside or with the door open.
    xx- Elsie

  • Hi Robin,
    Here’s why-
    I’ve never used a dye that didn’t need to be rinsed out, and since I was unable to remove the upholstery that didn’t seem to be an option. Fabric paint would be a good choice, but a lot of varieties would be too sticky or too shiny, so the only one I would use would be my favorite matte paint- but it doesn’t come in very many colors.
    I loved the flexibility of being able to use any paint color.

    xx- Elsie

  • Hi Katie,
    Yes- DIY is definitely always a learning experience. I’ve been there too. I love your chair in black and it DOES look way better than it did before. Plus- you always have the option of getting it upholstered in the future if you still don’t love it! 😀
    xx- Elsie

  • Hi Courtney,
    Yes- I will update here if anything goes weird. Since it’s in a low traffic area of Jeremy’s studio (like really low, nobody ever sits there unless he has a band in town) it probably won’t get much wear. What I’m even more nervous about is if it will fade since it’s in a sunroom.
    Fingers crossed for the best!
    -Elsie

  • Thanks so much for such a detailed tutorial! I’m sold on using it to update the most awful $5 upholstered armchairs for my kitchen table. The slightly rubbery finish would actually work for me there 🙂 What are you thinking in terms of durability? Does the paint have any sort of slight waterproofing effect? (FYI… I’ve been a fan since meeting you years ago at CHA!)

  • What a great look! I am dying over the pillows!
    Where are they from??!

  • I did this on a chair that would have matched that sette. It was taupe velvet and cained arms…I used black paint and when it started to crack and chip, it made the chair look like it was covered in old leather…very nice effect that might not translate well, depending on the color.

  • I painted an old love seat about a year ago, using a similar technique. The main difference is that I used a bit more fabric medium and also watered the paint/fabric medium way, way down until it reached a stain consistency. I found that doing so allowed the pigment to seep all the way into folds and cracks of the fabric. And! Once dried, I didn’t experience any stiffness. The fabric didn’t feel the same as before, but it didn’t feel bad, either: kind of like a printed canvas. It’s been used as a comfy sitting spot in my office/craft room since! Super fun project!

  • Wow! I love the way this turned out! I’ve been looking for a cute little bench for our bedroom and have seen a couple good-boned ones at the thrift store, but I wasn’t willing for fork over the kind of money to get it re-upholstered, so I will most definitely be trying this out! I’ll let you know how it goes!!

    xoxo
    Taylor

  • I tried this a couple years ago (my name links to the blog post with pictures) and am currently in the process of reupholstering the same chair. I agree with you and would not recommend people do this unless it is an accent piece or is stained. The chair felt kind of canvas like (still comfy) and I sat in it A LOT so it became crackly. Definitely a temporary alternative to reupholstering, but not for every piece.

    PS. I love the green you chose.

  • I love this and the detailed instructions. I look forward to trying this. I always thought it would make them super hard but it does not appear to be so!

  • I love the detailed instructions! I am looking forward to trying it out. I always thought it would make the fabric super stiff, but it doesn’t appear so! Thanks!

  • Hi Jessica,
    Oh fun- CHA is like a lifetime ago! Thanks for reading all these years. 😀

    I think it would be more water resistant than fabric because of the textile medium. Definitely more “wipeable” at the least.

    xx- Elsie

  • Whoa!! Love this! That color is great, I love how bold you went. I never even considered that you could paint furniture. Now I just need a piece of furniture!

  • I have also heard of painting fabric with chalk paint. I wonder how much different using that medium would be?

  • Looks like a perfect idea in a small office/Pilates studio 🙂 clients post mat work typically do not like to sit on upholstery sweaty anyways. The material before, was it more canvas like? thnx again may totally be trying this!

  • Thank you so much for this post! I’ll be bookmarking this and saving it for a future project. Im all about painting fabrics these days

  • Hmmm. I’ve never tried it, but I don’t think I would do it on a chair or couch. Mostly because it would get chalk on you if you sat on the chair. Maybe for a wall canvas, though!
    -Elsie

  • I would second this…maybe it is definitely something to look into…I don’t know if screen printing would be super permanent, but you could do some funky things with it…like take a plain white chair with straight lines and add some patterns to it as well….I think I’m going to go thrift for a chair and try this out….

  • Love this project, I’ve been thinking about doing something similar with a chair I inherited from my Grandma. The only reason I haven’t tried it is I’d eventually like to recover it and I’m worried painting it as an interim step will ruin it for upholstery… I haven’t been able to find much advice about this.. Any thoughts/ advice are much appreciated!

    Thanks,
    Katie

  • i’m curious about how it has worn so far? do you see any of the paint flaking or peeling off in any areas?

  • I follow a local shop in my city on social media, and they are big supporters and sellers of chalk paint and recently posted about painting apohltsery with that. I wonder if it feels less rubbery? Not sure. They did say for chalk paint you had to be careful what kind of fabric you painted.

  • I just finished a couch painting project. I used acrylic paint diluted with water and fabric medium. After the paint had dried I sanded the couch. My couch is soft and flexible and great to sit on. I would recommend these products over house or spray paint if you want your couch it look and feel awesome. Here is the post on my blog:

    http://blochart.wordpress.com/2014/06/26/diy-couch-saga/

  • I’ve always been scared to do this, too, even though I think it can look really cool. I appreciate your tips and advice for approaching this. Thanks for sharing!

  • I’d never even heard of painting upholstery. How interesting! This looks like it turned out really nice. I don’t have any furniture this would work with, but maybe someday I’ll acquire something worth trying this on.

  • What a lovely project! The end result looks wonderful 🙂

    Can I ask where you got the pillows or if you made them yourself? They look so good!

  • This is such a cute tutorial! I have chair cushions I am tempted to try this on, but they may be too “fuzzy”…they are pretty damaged, though, so I don’t really have anything to lose…

  • Such a great piece of furniture to start with – such a cool idea to pain it. I love the green you picked, I think it really turned out great. This will def make me think twice next time I drive by a piece of semi-damaged furniture on the sidewalk. Did you guys also make the pillows? If not, where did you find them? They’re awesome too!
    Xo, Randi

    http://eye-see-you-randi.blogspot.com

  • It looks alive…I love the green…It gives off a bohemian feel. A few months ago I painted my settee black using the magnaverde version and I love it! It has more a leather/faux leather look and is comfortable to sit on. My husband has actually fell asleep on it. check it out at http://domicile37.com

  • I am SO curious, (and you have a team of folks helping you sift through projects)…. if you had a chair with stains, but incredible shape – would there be a type of permanent dye you could possibly use to stain it instead of paint? Thus making the fabric stay soft?? I even wondered if you could use a (mostly natural ingredient) hair dye possibly? (Blacks and browns could be really elegant.) Maybe a chair or upholstery that could even be hosed off and dry more easily? HA! Could you guys throw around these things and let me know?? 😀

  • Ummmm, just browsing around and noticed you gave a shout out to my IKEA Hack: Painting Fabric Chairs post on DIY Network’s Made + Remade. (Insert instant freakout, complete with squealing.) Thanks so much! Love the couch – gorgeous lines and color!

  • Hi Grace!
    We’ll definitely try more paint/dye projects in the future!

    With hair dye or fabric dye it needs to be rinsed out REALLY well in order to now stain your clothes/skin when you sit on it. For that reason I probably wouldn’t do it on something like this that isn’t washable. It’s kinda a “spot clean only” thing, you know?

    We’re always on the lookout for something new to try!
    xx- Elsie

  • Do you think this process would work best for outdoor pieces too? Possibly the result’s texture could protect against rain and mold?

  • I always wanted to paint a couch, but never thought I could do it or quite picture how it would turn out! Thanks for the tutorial!

    Ashley
    electriceelfashion.com

  • Need to redo a white couch. It is a piece we do use however it has removable pillows and 1 large seat cushion that I would not paint. I’m hesitant because this is the main couch in the room. Can I ask for opinions?
    ,

  • I bought a hunter green armchair at a yardsale and tried painting it dark gray with some spray on fabric paint I ordered online. It did not cover at all, even after several coats. I tried painting it with gray wall paint, and even then it wasn’t covering enough! I finally said screw it and had my mom sew a canvas slipcover for it. (That was a whole separate nightmare for her). Just all around not worth it.

    Your bench looks cute though!

  • LOVE the vibrant green color – so pretty and just POW!!! nobody asked about the fabulous blue and white pillow, so maybe you have already talked about that somewhere else? it is OMG gorgeous!!! both pillows are awesome, but the one in the lead photo is amazing – where’d you find that beauty? great job on the sofa, love the idea in the comments about a shower curtain too!!pinning,to add to my ridiuclously long to do list!!! thanks for sharing your results!!

  • That chair rocks! It has such Great Bones so I can see why you saved it from the landfill and now you are saving the earth too.

  • I read a tutorial that did everything you did PLUS one more step… she SANDED the painted upholstery after it was dry, which, apparently, gives it the appearance of soft leather — so soft and supple that you can’t even tell it’s painted fabric. The photos looked great. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read it and I didn’t save the link (a consequence of binge-reading. LOL!)

  • The color is amazing. I appreciate that you were honest with your results. I used to have a bright vinyl couch in college and I think it probably felt like what that looked like. It was okay to sit on but not ideal for a nap. But it is bright and fun and a conversation starter. Great job!

  • You can use Annie Sloan Chalk paint on any surface including leather and fabric with fantastic results….you just need a thin coat of Annie Sloan Soft Wax on top to seal….I think you ladies would love the paint!

  • That looks beautiful! I love the color green you chose. And thanks for an honest and informative tutorial.

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