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You are here: Home > All About Hand Dyeing > FAQ > dyeing furniture > painting upholstered furniture

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Scarlet Zebra's
Instructions for Painting Upholstered Furniture
by Deborah P. Harowitz

reprinted by permission. Copyright ©1998-2004 by Deborah P. Harowitz

Every Spring and Fall I am showered with e-mails asking one, specific question. Because it comes up so many times and is not a simple, one paragraph answer, I have added it to my instructions section. These instructions are a result of trial and error and my one-time experience in this area. Please take with a grain of salt ;o) The most asked question of the season? "How do I dye my sofa?"

If your sofa (chair, ottoman, etc.) is lucky enough to be covered with slip covers and 100% natural fibers, it's easy, remove the slip covers and scour, then dye as you would any other fabric of the same fiber content.

Since the furniture in question is usually of the type that cannot have the fabric removed and is usually a blend of natural and synthetic fibers, it becomes a lot more complicated and time consuming. The easy answer and easy solution is to go buy/make slip covers or have it reupholstered. I know this is not the answer you want so I will tell you how if you are really determined.

Firstly, for those who want to save money by dyeing or painting over the existing upholstery fabric. It will cost you about the same as slip covers, less than a new upholstery job, and not wear or last near as long as either. You also need to be prepared to spend several days on the project.

Dyeing is a process which requires a lot of water, a chemical additive to "fix" the dye, batching or heat setting to make the dye permanent, and a LOT of rinsing under running water to get out all the un-bonded dye when you are done. Dye is also ALWAYS transparent and all the little stains, old pattern, and worn spots will show through the new color. Since the process itself is not conducive to large, wood framed furniture, we will rule it out.

Painting is doable, but a lot of work. If you are determined, roll up your sleeves and start planning.

NOTE! When painting upholstered furniture, you will not get an even, solid color. It is physically impossible and simply won't happen. There will always be a slightly mottled, water stained look to it. Planned color variations are your best bet. For that reason, I suggest you pick two colors to use in the same family, a main color and an accent; Olive and Bronze, Mustard and Old Gold, Plum and Purple Shimmer, etceteras.

#1 - Decide how the finished piece of furniture will be used. If it is an art piece and will not actually be sat in - ever - your job will be quite easy. The curing and final rinsing are not really required.

If you actually want to sit in the chair or sofa, proper curing and rinsing are vitally important.

#2 - Analyze the condition of the upholstery you are about to paint. Does it have bad worn spots? Stains? A pattern? Is the color light or dark? All these will effect your paint decision.

For a medium to light colored fabric that is in good condition, has no worn spots or stains and no pattern to cover up, select a transparent paint like Setasilk or Setacolor Transparent and apply your new (main) color as a wash. Transparent paints will show the old color through and effect the result of the new color. If you put a yellow wash over a blue fabric you will have a green chair! The best part of this technique is that you will have a soft, non-stiff finished fabric that will be indistinguishable from "dyed" fabric.

If you have anything you need to cover up or hide, select an opaque paint like Setacolor Opaque. Make sure your new (main) color is a few shades darker than the old color and try to stay in the family range for best results. Cover an old gold with olive or rust, light blue with any darker blue, pink with salmon or maroon, etc. Opaque paint is really only more opaque than Transparent paint (in any brand) and for truly opaque results (white over black, or dark spots to "hide") the thicker you will have to put on the paint and the less happy you will be with the results. Is there a print or woven pattern in the fabric? Decide right now you will like it with the old pattern showing through in the new color. You will be happier in the end! Putting on paint thick enough to cover up printed stripes or flowers will only result in a stiff, plasticy feeling fabric that may even crack and peel with wear. Not good!

#3 - Prepare the old fabric. If you want the new paint to adhere to the old fabric, you must clean it thoroughly. Do not use a spray-on, vacuum-off upholstery cleaner as it will leave a film behind that will interfere with your paint's ability to bond to the fabric. You have to do it the hard way. I have a home model carpet shampooer that heats the water and has a nifty little attachment for shampooing upholstery. It's a hand held device that shoots hot, soapy water into the fabric, rotating brushes to scrub and then sucks it back out again. This is ideal. If you don't have one of these, see if your local grocery store or rental place has one you can rent. Do your best to get out any stains as they will cause you extra work and paint (use a light touch with a bleach pen if needed). Make sure you have rinsed it thoroughly by going over it with the machine and plain water. More than once if needed. You may paint on your clean fabric, wet or dry (but not too wet! Extract as much water as possible).

#4 - Your old upholstery is now sparkling clean with all stains gone or minimized. If you are still determined to paint it, You need to guesstimate how much paint you will need. This is nearly impossible as there are so many variables. Different fabrics will take up paint at different rates. A light wash in Setasilk will take less paint than a "cover-up" paint job in Setacolor Opaque. The size of your furniture, how many cushions, etceteras, will all effect the quantity. A wild-guess place to start would be that a 250 ml jar of paint will cover anywhere from 15 square feet (Setasilk wash) to 4 square feet (Setacolor Opaque with heavy stains to cover) of fabric. To get the paint you need in the quantities you will need, make sure to order your paints in the largest jars possible (much more economical) and give your supplier about 3 or 4 weeks to get it in. Very few will carry the color you need in the sizes or quantities you need. Also, most shops and sites, if they don't have pint or quart size jars listed, can still get them if you ask. There just isn't a big enough market for those quantities to stock them.

#5 - OK, you have your paint. My instructions for painting and curing are specific to Setasilk and Setacolor paints as they are my favorite and what I have. Most other fabric paints are very similar. If you are using another brand, make sure you read all instructions first to double check for differences. If you are working on completely dry fabric, mix your first batch of paint, 50% with plain water. If using opaque paints, use only 1/3 to 1/2 of your available paint in this first step. I like a foam brush or a soft bristle brush about 2-1/2 inches wide. If you use long strokes to apply the paint, come back with little "dabs" to soften the brush strokes that will show. Paint about 1 or 2 square inches in an unnoticeable spot (back or bottom) first, to make sure you like the result. Then go to the most obvious spot (front) and quickly apply an even layer to the whole piece of furniture. If you run out and have to mix more, you will be applying it (one hopes) in the back or a less conspicuous place. This first coat, even in opaque paint, will not cover completely, don't panic, just get the first coat on.

NOTE! Never mix your paint with more than 50% water. This will dilute the binders in the paint and effect the paint's permanency. In other words, it will fade some in the rinsing stage and be more likely to sun fade or "wear" off later.

#6 - Using a hair dryer or heat gun, dry a small patch in a hidden spot. Do you like the color as is? If so and your old stains and flaws are adequately camouflaged (not necessarily completely covered), you are done with the base color. You can now progress to step #7 without letting the fabric dry first.

Does it need to be darker? If you feel the coverage is too light or not opaque enough, repeat the process with the paint diluted with only 15% to 25% water. You can paint while the first coat is still wet. Dry a test spot and see how you like it. If you are happy, go on to step #7.

If you are still not happy with the coverage, go over the entire surface again with undiluted paint. Do not use a paint brush for this last coat! Use a sea sponge of other sponge and "dab" the paint on taking care to dab over any stains that still might show through. Applying a 4th coat of your main color is not advisable as the paint will start to build up too thick.

#7 - Now you can apply your accent color to make the mottled texture of the main color look like a deliberate design element. Dilute your accent color about 15% to 30% with water. The more you dilute it the subtler the effect. Dab the whole surface of your piece with a sponge, leaving the main color showing through. The more you dab on, the more your fabric will look like the accent is the main color and the main color (peeking through) is the accent color. You control the color and look, know when to stop.

As a design option, your accent color can be applied with stamps to add a specific pattern or design. Soft sponge stamps work best on non flat surfaces.

#8 - Let your furniture air dry and air cure for 48 hours.

#9 - Heat setting is required for any furniture that will actually be used, sat on. This will make the color permanent, resistant to sun fading and less likely to rub off on the "sitee". A hair dryer is an option if it gets hot enough but, you really should use a heat gun. You can get them at most hobby or wood working stores. Visually divide up the furniture in 1 to 2 foot sections and work them in a set order. Apply heat 3 or 4 minutes at a time. Don't hold the heat gun so close it scorches your fabric or paint. If there is exposed wood, a heat gun can burn, scorch or ruin the finish. They also get hot enough to burn skin quite crispy. Use with caution! If using a hair dryer, make sure it is one of the hotter one's available and heat for about 5 to 8 minutes in each section. Go over the entire painted fabric in this manor - twice!

#10 - Let continue to air cure for another 48 hours.

#11 - Final rinse. This is very important and cannot be skipped if the furniture will be sat on. This is the only step that will truly keep any one sitting in it from walking away looking like a coordinating cushion. There is always un-bonded paint that will "crock" (rub off) and needs to be rinsed off before use. Use the same carpet cleaning machine with the upholstery attachment you used to scour your old upholstery fabric in the first place. Use a little soap (I recommend Synthrapol®) and then go over it again with plain water. Suck out as much water as you can so that it will dry thoroughly before it has time to mildew. You can dry it with a hair dryer or your heat gun. When it is dry - you are done!

You may want to spray coat it with Fabric Shield® or some other protective spray to help it last longer. As a decorative chair in the corner of a formal living room, not frequently sat in, you will be delighted with your results and they will last for years. As a couch in the family room with rowdy kids wallowing on it daily, you will see signs of wear and fading rather quickly and not happy with the amount of work and effort for such a short term solution.

Good luck and I hope your project, whether painted or slip covered, meets your needs, expectations and budget!

Copyright ©1998-2004 by Deborah P. Harowitz, all rights reserved, no graphic or text may be copied in any form, for any reason without prior written consent.

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Page created: November 10, 2005
Last updated: October 13, 2006
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