Painted Upholstery on Vintage Shell Chairs: A Basement Update!

modern birch table and vintage chairs painted black

This chair makeover marks an important turning point in my life: between the completion of this project and a few drop offs at the thrift store, I no longer have a stash of chairs in my garage waiting to be painted/reupholstered/etc. and moved into the house! I feel relieved and a little empty.

I bought these chairs off of Craigslist months ago, when we first started planning our basement game room. I paid $50 for seven (we only needed six, so we donated one) from someone who had bought them at an estate sale and planned to strip them down to the fiberglass but didn’t get around to it). For a long time they sat in the garage threatening to meet the same fate here.

Here’s the picture from Craigslist:


The two more square ones are marked Haywood Wakefield, and the others are marked (less excitingly) “Unit Plastics” but they all have the same fabric. The fabric was in decent shape as far as not being ripped or torn, but it had a lot of stains. And the legs were dirty and had a good bit of corrosion.


I agonized over these chairs and what to do with them. They’re the perfect style for the basement, and the under $10/chair price was certainly right, but what to DO with them?!

I actually liked the idea of stripping them down to the fiberglass and painting, but Dave didn’t; he wanted the padding. And when I read up on it, it sounded sort of terrible. People who wrote tutorials about it were ready to give up and throw the chair out the window doing just one, and I had six to deal with.

I liked the color (this was before we had decided on a plan for the table. I like this color in the basement, but I actually don’t like it with the birch, it turns out), so I tried just getting the stains out:

folext carpet spot remover

This is the After picture:

yellow mid century chair

Yeah, no go. The stains had just been sitting there for too many decades, I think.

I never really considered reupholstery, because I was reasonably certain it was a project far too complicated for my skill set in that area.

I did look into 400 different methods of painting upholstery, though, before settling on mine. One runner up was spray paint made for car upholstery, but the research I did suggested it would take too many cans of the paint to be feasible…..the painting would end up costing way more than the chairs themselves had.

So in the end I went with using black latex paint and fabric medium. There are a million tutorials on this out there; I found this one from The Gathered Home particularly helpful.

We already had the paint on hand….it’s the Benjamin Moore’s “Jet Black” that we used in our master bath (it’s one of the more expensive, thicker Ben Moore paints; if I were buying it just for the chairs, I would have gone with something much cheaper, and I don’t know how that would have affected the coverage).

Then I picked up three containers of (affiliate link) Martha Stewart tintable fabric medium:


I mixed together two parts paint to one part fabric medium:


….and started painting it on with a regular old paintbrush.

I suspect that how this part goes depends a lot on what kind of fabric you’re painting. My chairs had really rough, kind of nubby fabric….almost like a burlap texture….hard to explain, but the pictures up there show the weave pretty well. Because of this, I wasn’t particularly worried about the painted finish being too rough; this is everyone’s number one worry/complaint about painted upholstery. But my chairs were going to be fairly rough and stiff no matter what, so not much too lose.

Here’s how they looked after one coat:


In the end, I did two coats and then kind of touched up some spots afterwards. Honestly, they probably could have used a full third coat, but I was really tired of painting chairs. I also didn’t paint the bottoms where the fabric wraps around, because it was so hard to get to. Following Brynne’s advice, I sanded them with a fine sanding sponge as a final step, but, again, the fabric was so rough to start out with that I don’t know how much of a difference it made in my case (I’m making it sound like sitting in these chairs is like wearing a hairshirt. They’re not really bad at all; just not cushy. Plenty comfortable for office chairs, which is what they are; you just wouldn’t want to upholster something you were going to lounge around and watch TV on in this fabric).

Anyway, here’s the fabric after the second coat:


Now for the legs. Here’s how they started:

corroded chair legs

After doing another bunch of online research, I went out and bought some Bar Keeper’s Friend to try. I wasn’t super impressed with the results, though (I’m still anxious to try it on brass). What ended up working well was plain old vinegar and scrubbing it with steel wool. My system was to dip the steel wool in vinegar, scrub a leg, then wipe it down with a clean cloth and plain water. The legs are still not perfect (it looks like some of the spots are places where the finish is chipped or worn away instead of something on top of the finish, so I’m not sure anything could be done for those without replating or whatever one does), but much, MUCH better. And so shiny!


Here’s a close up of the upholstery and some of the metal on one of the chairs:

vintage chairs with painted upholstery

So they’re not perfect, but, given the options, I think painting was the best route to go with these, and I’m pleased with how they turned out.

heywood wakefield chair with painted fabric vintage chairs with painted upholstery

diy birch table with refinished vintage chairs

Here’s how this half of the room is looking these days:


We weren’t sure there’d be room for the table and chairs and the foosball table in here, but we made that work. The original plan called for a wall of shelves on the far side there, though, and there’s definitely not room for that. We have an alternative plan, which I’ll talk more about later. Aside from that, we still need to do the baseboards in here and get something for the windows. And I’m thinking that big wall back there is looking pretty sad and empty, so I may need to do something about it, too.

Vintage Shell Chairs with Painted Upholstery

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Painted Upholstery on Vintage Shell Chairs: A Basement Update! — 14 Comments

  1. What a transformation! These look great. I’ve always been worried about painting fabric but good point about starting with a nubby texture. The basement is really coming along!

  2. I’m REALLY glad you didn’t get the spray paint for car upholstery. I know, because one of my early early blog posts (I mean, like, one of my first 5 posts I think) I tried spray painting a wingback chair with fabric spray paint made by the brand that does the car upholstery spray paint. And it was a horrifying experience. I had used 6 cans i think, and it STILL wasn’t enough coverage for the chair. You would have been extra hating life if you had gone that route. I think you did the right thing for sure. They look so great. I especially LOVE the legs and how restored they look. Well done my friend.

    • ooh, I’m very glad, too, now! Yeah, that was pretty much what the few reviews I read said, so it’s a good thing I actually read them instead of diving in headfirst like I sometimes do 🙂

  3. If anything, the fabric is probably nicer to the touch after painting – I know exactly the texture of that industrial/office type fabric on those chairs and I personally CAN’T STAND touching it! *shivers*
    The black looks great in the room!
    P.S. I’m glad my post was helpful to you! Thanks for the shoutout 🙂

    • Yeah, that’s why I would have been happy to strip them down to the fiberglass (or, more precisely, I would have been happy if magic chair refinishing elves did it for me!)….now I’m kind of wishing I’d held onto that extra chair so I could have tried it to see how awful it really was. ah well–hindsight!

  4. This is amazing!!! I have never painted upholstery before…..this is awesome!!!! And they look perfect especially with the table!!! Wishing you all good things this week friend! Nicole xo

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