How to: create a shabby chic paint effect

The shabby chic look is a boon for reluctant DIYers. Even if you’re not very good at painting, you’ll be able to produce a stylish result – in fact, it can even work better if you’re not very good at painting! This is a vintage, lived in look that works well in traditional settings, and can help to revive junk shop and secondhand finds quickly and easily. It’s also great for using up odds and ends of paint left over from other projects. Here’s what to do.

You’ll need:

  • At least two different colours of paint in contrasting colours
  • Clear furniture wax (wax not cream!)
  • Sandpaper
  • Paint brushes
  • Clear varnish (optional)

I chose to re-vamp a cheap pine towel rail, bought in a junk shop for a few pounds. It had a nice shape and was sturdy, but the yellow-varnished pine look was a bit 1980s, and out of step with the rest of the bathroom.

For my paint colours, I used up an old tin of Laura Ashley paint in duck egg blue as the base coat. For my top coat, I used Colours Premium matt paint in Metropolitan from B&Q. As I didn’t need much, I bought three 50ml tester pots for £1.24 each, and crossed my fingers!

Keying the surface

The first step was to ‘key’ the surface of the towel rail by rubbing it lightly with sand paper, to produce a roughened surface for my paint to stick too. My towel rail was a bit of a funny shape to sand and I got bored quite quickly! I did make sure I removed any loose flakes of varnish though, before wiping it all down with a damp cloth to get rid of the dust.

After just the base coat – and already looking much better.

Next, I applied two coats of my pale base coat. It’s a good idea to have a strong contrast between the base and top coats so the difference is clear when you chip the top coat away. You can also add a third colour as another coat if you like – the more the merrier!

Adding the wax to the edges.

The next step was to take a careful look at my towel rail and decide where the natural areas of wear would be. These are normally areas like the corners or edges, where paint would naturally get knocked about in the course of the furniture’s life, as I’m trying to recreate an effect of age. Then, using a dry cloth, I applied a little clear furniture wax to those areas – I chose the top edges, and the rounded spindles of the legs as I was going for a subtle effect – you can put as much wax on as you want, though!

After the top coat.

Finally, I applied two coats of my top coat. Fortunately, each one of my tester pots just did a coat so I had a spare pot left over for use on another project at some point.

Wiping away the top coat to produce the distressed effect.

When everything was completely dry, I used a dry cloth to gently wipe away the top coat of paint from the areas I’d waxed, revealing the lighter base coat underneath. I did get a bit overenthusiastic, and go right down to the wood at one point – but it just make it look more vintage-y.

I’ve gone for a lightly distressed look, but you can do as much as you like.

Once I’d got the level of distressing I wanted, the last step was to apply a coat of clear varnish. I wouldn’t normally do this, as I like to leave the surface unprotected so it continues to distress naturally over time. As this project was a towel rail, though, and would have damp towels thrown over it, I wanted to protect the surface so it didn’t flake off.

This was a very simple and quick project (the actual work took me around three hours in total, I spent a lot of time waiting for paint to dry though!), but was satisfying to do. This is a great technique for transforming charity shop finds – with the added attraction that you really can’t go wrong!


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