How to Paint Upholstery

A purple couch in a modern living room.
What You'll Need
Flat latex paint
Fabric medium
Painters tape
Spray bottle
Light sandpaper
Paint brush and / or foam brush
Clean cloth
Optional: stiff bristled brush
Optional: fabric sealant

Have you ever wished that you could just paint a couch or chair instead of having it reupholstered or replaced when it's worn out? You may have considered the idea, but quickly dismissed it thinking that it would certainly ruin the fabric or not turn out well. But thanks to years of DIYers attempting it on their own furniture, a lot of progress has been made and with the right materials and techniques painting upholstery that is still usable, functional, and fabulous is possible.

Up First: Evaluate Your Upholstery

We suggest that your first try at painting upholstery be with a piece of furniture you're not overly fond of. This way, you can get your method and technique just right before you move on to something more permanent.

Secondly, when considering a piece to paint, look at the upholstery. Certain kinds of upholstery and fabrics won't work well, such as those that have a shiny texture or are woven. It should be a fabric that will absorb the paint well and that can be brushed or sanded without damage.

Note: For leather or vinyl upholstery, there is a special paint or dye you can purchase from a leather shop. Do not use the process below on leather or vinyl.

The third consideration is that the item you're preparing to paint will turn out best if it has no pattern or print. If it does have one and you still want to paint it, just know that it will likely show through the paint.

The fourth consideration is the current color. If it's light and you want to go darker and cover any stains, painting is an ideal way to transform it. If you instead wish to go a shade lighter, it is often possible. However, it's not recommended.

The fifth and final consideration is whether or not the furniture has buttons, tufting, or folded areas in the upholstery. Getting the paint into these folds is difficult and the fabric will have a problem in softening.

Time: 2-3 hours || Cost: $20

Ready to Go! Painting the Upholstery Is Straight Ahead

Once you've evaluated your furniture to see if it's a piece that will accept paint well, it's time to get to work. You'll need the following materials ready: painter's tape, spray bottle, sand paper, paint brush, and paint mixture. A quart of paint is usually enough for a chair.

Step 1 - Prepare the paint mix. The paint mixture is going to be the most important part of the process. After doing it multiple times, we've found that the best paint mixture is a flat latex paint mixed with fabric medium. The exact ratio is 1 part fabric medium to 2 parts paint. Mix it well and set it aside.

Step 2 - Tape off any wood areas that you don't want painted.

Step 3 - Using your spray bottle, spray the upholstery down with water. Get it damp—not dripping wet.

Step 4 - Begin painting with your paint mix. You can use a paint brush or foam brush. Paint several thin coats, allowing them to dry in-between (usually less than 20 minutes).

Step 5 - Use sandpaper and a cloth to lightly sand the upholstery between coats. If you need only one or two coats, sand once at the end. Some upholstered pieces will get little pills as you sand; this is actually a good sign as it shows that the fibers are relaxing and hopefully won't be stiff when dried. Simply sand away the pills or use a lint roller to collect them.

Step 6 - Using a cloth, brush the fabric in the direction of the grain to help it dry. Once your piece is completely dry, check how it feels. If it's stiff and crinkly, moisten it with water and lightly sand it again. The sanding and brushing process is what keeps the fabric from becoming hard and plastic-like.

Finishing Touches

If you paint a piece that has any folds in it, such as around buttons, make sure it's well moistened after you put your final coat of paint on and that all the nooks and crannies have been filled in. These are easy to miss and hard to sand, so double-check them.

Paint transfer to your clothing shouldn't happen once it's dried. Should you be concerned, you can spray the furniture down with a fabric sealant after it has dried for a few days.

Once you've completed your first piece, go find others to transform and experiment with. Some DIYers use chalk paint with a fabric medium and a stiff bristled brush instead of sandpaper. Others use latex paint that is satin or gloss instead of flat. If you have some pieces to experiment with, do so and make note of how each technique and paint mix performs with different types of upholstery.

Whatever method and technique that you choose, remember that it (hopefully) wasn't a piece of furniture that was working for you anyway, so if it doesn't turn out fabulous there's not a big loss. If all else fails, you can go back to the drawing board and learn another DIY trick: how to reupholster it.