Shabby chic: upcycling vintage chairs

As some of you may know, I’m lucky enough to have a house in south west France, a former farm house that’s around 150 years old. Part of the fun has been furnishing it with junk shop finds of the right sort of age for the house, and sometimes that’s taken a bit of ingenuity!

Over the years, I’ve taught myself to re-upholster (after a fashion!), apply a range of paint effects, get handy with a saw and screwdriver and sew for both decorative and practical purposes. Mostly, the results are great – I have had the odd thing go a bit wrong, but usually a second coat of neutral paint sorts out most things. I’m a bit fixated on buying chairs at the moment – they cost next to nothing and you can get as creative as you like.

The chairs as they were when they arrived.

I recently bought a pair of vintage chairs at our local TROC (a sort of junk shop where things are sold on commission. It’s a great place to pick up vintage finds), and decided to ‘shabby chic’ them. As they’d been in the shop a while, I talked the manager into letting me have them for 10 euros for the pair (about £9) instead of the advertised 15 euros (about £13.50) – well, there’s nothing like a bargain! Before buying them, I checked that all the joints were sound and the chairs were solid and sturdy, otherwise they can be expensive to fix.

The first step was to wipe them with a damp cloth to remove what looked like several years of dust, then treat them with woodworm treatment. This is an essential step in France for anything made of natural wood, and it has to be done before you take it into the house!

Painted, waxed or varnished surfaces are normally safe, but if you look the item over and spot any recent little telltale holes, it’s worth treating. If you buy anything in France and take it back to the UK, probably a good idea to seal it in a plastic bag and then treat it when you get home!

Applying the first coat of undercoat.

While the woodworm treatment was drying, I looked out some little tester pots of paint. I collect these – whenever I see a colour I like, I grab it so that I always have a selection on hand. I also save leftover paint for the same reason, and these small quantities are perfect for things like these chairs.

Chairs with top coat finished

I started off by painting each chair with two coats of the palest colour I had, and leaving it to dry. Then, I took a little clear furniture wax and rubbed it over the paint on the areas where wear might naturally be expected to occur – for example, on the edges of the legs, seat and back. Then, I applied a top coat. One of my chairs needed a second coat of my top colour, and the other didn’t. I then left them to dry overnight.

Close up of distressing

Finally, I did the ‘shabby’ bit. The idea now is to rub off enough of the top coat in the waxed areas that the bottom colour shows through – the wax means that the top coat should come off fairly easily. You can either use a soft cloth, or you can do what I did here for a slightly rougher effect, and use the shaft of a screwdriver! If the screwdriver slips, it doesn’t matter at all, you’ll just get a slightly more bashed looking effect.

The finished chairs!

This is an incredibly easy paint effect to achieve and if you’re not great at painting it can still look good. It’s not ideal for large areas such as table tops, but works well on chairs and other small pieces of furniture.

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