How to Makeover an Antique Chair Without Paint
Check out this chair:
I found it at my local Habitat Restore at their very busiest time. About a hundred people were frantically running around the store trying to secure the best pieces before they disappeared. But this little chair was being blatantly ignored.
I get it. The fabric doesn’t do the chair justice. Plus it was covered in cat hair. Not exactly room-ready.
But the solid wood. The carvings. It had potential. And it was a small, well-contained chair, which was exactly what I was looking for to complete my living room seating area. The rocking chair aspect was a little strange, but hey, you can’t have everything. I snatched it up for $35.
Of course, the moment it was on my cart everybody noticed it. “What a beautiful chair!” “Such intricate carvings!” “Oh, it’s such an antique.” I have a hypothesis that thrift store items immediately increase in perceived value as soon as someone claims them.
Regardless, that chair came home with me. But it needed a lot of work before it’d fit into my living room. And that work was full of interesting little surprises.
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Between the fabric and the wood, the chair was pretty dark when I purchased it. But my living room (so far) is all light-neutrals and medium toned wood:
I wanted the chair to match. I thought about painting the wood a lighter color, but frankly, the wood was just too old and pretty to cover up. Since I figured the wood was oak, I decided to strip the finish and re-stain to a medium color.
The fabric was easy- I had already recovered the couch with bleached dropcloths, reupholstering the chair with the same fabric would bring some continuity to the furniture.
Therefore, there were two big parts to the project: 1) Strip and refinish the wood and 2) Reupholster the chair.
Part 1: Stripping and Refinishing the Wood
Stripping wood is never something that goes super-easily for me. The stripper goop says to let it rest for 15 minutes before removing, but every time I’ve tried that, the goop dries before I have a chance to scrape it off. This time I got smart, and wrapped the goop/chair in plastic wrap immediately after applying.
It also helps to be out of direct sunlight. Opps. I started in the shade, I swear.
This method was a win. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, the goop was still pretty wet, and scraped off easily.
Someday, after I’ve done this five more times, I’ll write you a whole tutorial on it. In the meantime, have this small tip. Plastic wrap is a win.
Additionally, as you might have noticed, I didn’t bother to protect the fabric parts from the stripping goop. Since I was throwing out the fabric eventually anyway, and it was pretty thick decor fabric, I decided the fabric was enough the protect the innards of the chair from the goop.
Eventually, my chair was fully stripped:
As you can probably tell from the photo, the chair was still pretty blotchy at this point, so I grabbed my sander and sanded everything down. Any parts that were too curvy to hit with the orbital sander, I very carefully sanded with the my Dremel and sanding bit combo.
For whatever reason, I didn’t take a far-away photo of the chair, but here’s a nice closeup of what the wood looked like fully sanded:
Now, this was a surprise. I figured the wood was stained oak, but this is considerably darker and redder than oak. The current guess is cherry, but feel free to chime in in the comments if you have a better idea!
At this point, I realized that the chair hadn’t been stained at all, but the finish that was applied just darkened the look of the wood significantly. I knew I’d need to be careful finishing the wood, else I end up exactly where I’d started.
I took a couple different finishes and stains I had around the house, and tested them on the bottom of the rocker.
I learned a long time ago in my furniture refinishing journey that the “gourmet” chalk paints and waxes are not worth the extra cost. That being said, I found some Miss Mustard Seed Brown Antiquing Wax at the Habitat Restore a few weeks back, and for $5, picked it up. It was at Habitat for a reason; when I opened the can, I was greeted with this (minus the obvious hole. I made that.)
But that had been my favorite of the finishes I tested on the rocker, so I used it anyway. It seemed fine. I’m also not sure the wax is intended to be used directly on wood. It only talks about chalk/milk paint in the literature. I figured it would be fine.
Halfway through, the chair looked like this. You can really tell the difference the wax is making.
In addition to the whole matches-the-living-room thing, I think the new finish really brings out the carvings, which is a nice bonus!
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Part 2: Reupholstering the Chair
In some reupholsering projects, I’ve just covered over the fabric that was already there (the couch being the prime example.) Sometimes that’s easier. But frankly, this fabric was pretty dirty, so it had to go. It took almost as much time to get the fabric off as it did to put new fabric on. There were a lot of staples, but a pair of pliers can be a miracle tool sometimes.
Look a little closer. Do you see the nails?
I think those once held upholstery in place. I have no idea how old this chair is, or when in history nails were used for upholstery, but between that and the cherry, I’m guessing this chair is old. There’s one more clue, but we’ll get there later.
Eventually I got all the fabric off the seat. The batting was in pretty good shape, so I left it there.
I used the fabric I removed as a pattern for my new fabric. I traced about an inch outside of the pattern, because I’d rather have too much fabric than too little.
Then I laid it out on the seat. Typically (probably because I cut extra fabic) I had to do a little snipping around the arms and other tricky areas, but nothing major.
Then I stapled the fabric in place. I don’t have an electric staple gun (just a manual one) but I do have a brad nail gun. So one trick I have is to use the nail gun to secure my fabric once I have it perfectly arranged, then come back with staples for extra security. That way the fabric doesn’t move as I struggle with my staple gun.
After working my way around the chair, I had a recovered seat!
I repeated this process for the top, and it’s cool and everything, but there was one more “age clue” that I think is more interesting. Once I got the fabric off, I was confronted with this:
It might look like normal padding in the picture, but let me tell you, it’s not. My dad was super into farms when I was a kid, and as a result, I’ve been through an impressive number of farm and stockyard tours.
This, more than anything else, reminds me of wool sheared off of a sheep, possibly minimally processed (my memories of the farm tours are admittedly vague.) I have no idea if that was ever actually a thing used in furniture, but it is my best guess at what this stuff actually is.
Here’s a close up. See all that debris? That’s what made me think of it. I remember I was shocked at how dirty the wool was when it came off the sheep. Even after being processed a bit, it still had chunks in it, just like this.
But maybe it’s something else. I am not at all a farm-animal expert. I’d love any thoughts you have on what this stuff actually is!
Regardless, I eventually got the fabric off and the new fabric on, following the same process as on the seat.
The seat back had two different fabric pieces- the part the covered the front and the part that covered the back. I arranged the back piece to cover all the staples from the front piece, and secured it with brad nails.
I only secured it with brad nails because I was hoping if it looked pretty enough, I wouldn’t have to cover the nails up with piping (and could return the piping I’d bought for this purpose.) The back fabric won’t be strained as much as the other pieces by people sitting and moving around or anything, so I think the nails will be enough to hold the fabric in place.
And, finally, the chair was done!
Any guesses on how old it actually is? I’ve got no idea, other than “old.”
I love how it matches my living room! It really brings everything together, and I think the wood came out the perfect color. I’m so glad I took the time to strip the old finish off!
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