Painting shabby chic furniture

By Lynn Richardson
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Old blue chair
Make any piece of furniture into a shabby chic treasure
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The now popular shabby chic style in decorating started with Rachel Ashwell in 1989, when she began marketing washable slipcovers and refinished flea market furnishings in her California boutique. Since then, the style has spread from her original Santa Monica shop to decorating books and retailers across the nation.

While there are hundreds of places to order shabby-chic style furnishing and accessories, for many people the true challenge comes in refinishing existing furnishings in the cozy, cool style we've come to identify with Rachel Ashwell's vision of comfortable, livable home décor.

Turning a piece of furniture you already own, or even a flea market or trash day find into a work of shabby chic art is not difficult. The tools are simple, and the techniques are easy to master.

Tools needed
  • A quality waterless furniture cleaner, or if very dirty, TSP (trisodium phosphate) mixed according to package directions (available at all home improvement stores)
  • Soft scrub brush, tooth brushes and sponge
  • Clean soft clothes
  • Blade and Philips screwdrivers in a variety of sizes
  • Paint stripper, if needed
  • Flexible scrapers, if using striper
  • An assortment of sandpaper grits from medium to extra fine
  • Extra fine steel wool
  • Tack cloth
  • Paint sealer, such as Kilz
  • Oil based wall paint – look for a soft white, light cream or very pale petal pink
  • Paint brushes
  • Paint thinner
  • Old fashioned or antique-style hardware in the same sizes as existing hardware
  • Paste wax

Ready, set, refinish
  • Begin by thoroughly cleaning the furniture. If the piece is very dirty, use a standard TSP and water solution to scrub the item completely. Toothbrushes, soft scrub brushes and even toothpicks can help you get into detail and trim and remove years of dirt and oils, If the item appears very clean, just use a waterless furniture cleaner to remove surface dirt and household grime.

  • Remove all hardware from the item. This includes drawer pulls, knobs, hinges and decorative metal plates. Store everything you remove in a large plastic zipper bag, even if you don't plan to reuse it. You'll need to measure the old hardware to select the right size for your replacements.

  • If the item has many layers of paint, particularly if there are runs and drips, consider stripping the item. Using a paste stripper will allow you to pull the paint out of detail work and carved areas, but for simple straight items, a liquid stripper is just fine. Follow the instructions on your stripper, and be sure to work in a well ventilated area.

  • If you are not stripping the piece, or if you have finished stripping, lightly sand all surfaces to smooth out surface imperfections and rough spots, If you used a water based cleanser, you may need to sand more, as water raises the grain on wood.

  • Once the surface is smooth (check by wrapping your hand in a handkerchief or bandana and sliding it across the surface. If it snags, you need more sanding), wash the piece again with a waterless cleaner and extra fine steel wool only. When it dries completely, use a tack cloth to gather up any remaining dust.

  • For the most durable finish, use a paint sealer to cover the entire item. Be sure to paint drawers and doors separate from the main item to avoid drips and missed areas.

  • When the sealer is dry, lightly rub the surface with the steel wool and then dust with the tack cloth,.

  • Paint your piece in thin, even coats. If you're using more than one coat, be sure to let it dry completely between coats.

  • When the paint is completely dry (at least overnight – longer if there is high humidity in your area) begin the shabby chic process by going over the whole thing very lightly with medium grit sandpaper,

  • Take a look at the furniture you are refinishing. Imagine that you're opening the drawers or doors. Where would the paint be likely to wear? Where would years of use leave scratches, rub marks, or indents? Door and drawer edges, spaces near handles or pulls and spots where restless feet might kick are all areas where you would expect to see wear.

  • Take your sandpaper and begin to thin or even remove the paint in some of these areas. Go slowly, removing just a bit at a time, then stand back to see how it looks. Take your time. Look at antique pieces in your home or at a shop to see exactly how and where they show signs of wear and duplicate these on your similarly shaped piece,

  • When your furniture looks sufficiently aged, give the whole piece a good coat of paste wax. This will protect the paint and the exposed wood where you've sanded.

  • Install the hardware. Replace the drawers and doors.
    Your "new" shabby chic furniture is now ready to use.

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