Here's how to upcycle your old dining chairs

Here's how to upcycle your old dining chairs
Don’t be afraid to add colour to a middling piece of brown furniture. Just don’t give away your amateur-hour exploits with lack of preparation. Picture: iStock

Kya deLongchamps gives three staid old dining chairs an upfunk.

RECENTLY, I was in a large furniture retail house in Cork, and spotted a truly gorgeous spindleback grey dining chair. Frolicking over, ready to slice the air with a credit card, I put my hand on the back of my lovely stone-shaded rustic target. I felt it yield. The chair legs were uneven — so it ever so slightly but significantly rocked. This little rattle can compromise the joints. I was not impressed. Still optimistic, I pulled out another chair and placed it on another section of smooth, level, hard flooring. It rocked.

It’s truly, deeply annoying to be asked for €150 for a solid wood piece of standard, classic furniture built in simple pieces and not find the quality of even an apprentice carpenter’s work.

Up-cycling may not be grabbing glossy magazine acreage, but every interior designer and decorator I’ve ever spoken to has second-hand furniture re-imagined for almost every domestic project. The orphaned singled dining chair (with level legs!) or even better, a set of structurally sound timber chairs offer a perfect starting point for the utter beginner. Use middling secondhand or vintage chairs, not something with more than €30 a piece in value. Ercol or any Danish? 1980s plus, please.

Divide a chair’s parts with paint to give its lines a new pop; St Giles Blue, Full Gloss, Farrow & Ball.
Divide a chair’s parts with paint to give its lines a new pop; St Giles Blue, Full Gloss, Farrow & Ball.

For a paint job to a full timber chair or part timber chair, the preparation is as important as the new coat. First of all, wipe down any dirty furniture with a solution of sugar soap. Don’t over-wet the joints and dry with an old, clean towel as you work. A light sanding will provide a “key” to let the new colour adhere. With varnish you’re aiming to just knock the sheen off. Use your cordless drill with a wire brush attachment if you hate sanding and finish with a medium/fine paper. With an older chair, wear a mask to ensure you don’t breathe in any sort of lead finish.

Once the surface is clean and dry, finish with a primer suited to wood. This can be a specific colour that you can work back into with a sanding if you want two or even three broken colours on show in a distressed finish.

Coat and sand repeatedly for a silky feel. Can’t be bothered? There are spray and paint-on products that allow you to just point and shoot, but I would still advise to clean your chair first. Layer these easy colours if you like and seal with a wax or lacquer (Rust-Oleum Chalky Finish Furniture Paint, 750ml, €22.99, Furniture Finishing Wax, €19.99, Woodies DIY, B&Q and any good DIY outlet).

Part-paint or dip-dye furniture in a water-based colour was something of a Pinterest cult five years ago, but it still looks great and is a nice entry point for something just that bit different. You can dip the legs or the back of the chair, The back rail is a rather messy job and is best handled with a judicious paint job instead, keeping the edges very crisp with the application of FrogTape. This tape reacts with emulsion paint to form a micro-barrier that seals the tape edges, delivering a crisp border between colours (€8.99. Woodies DIY or any good DIY outlet).

Grogg reclaimed ombre bench, €345.49, Etsy.
Grogg reclaimed ombre bench, €345.49, Etsy.

Dip dye needs that rather “fat” paint look to succeed, but the ombre style of a gently graded colour shift can look equally attractive and is very 1970s luxe. White, a metallic, neon brights or even a dark matte on a blonde wood or over a white primary coat can all work well. Experiment on a piece of timber before approaching the chair. Try a brushed ombre on small pieces of storage or other heavier legged pieces you cannot lift. Be patient and allow the chairs several days to dry to and harden in a cool, dust-free place before sitting in them.

For the classic leg dip to a light diner, cut off the top of a two-litre plastic bottle and fill with your dip colour. Hang the chair up if possible (we should be out in the garage, ladies and gentlemen) and just dip the legs in the paint to your chosen depth. Allow the paint to dribble off and ensure you cover the floor as they will drip for some time. Executing a softer ombre edge, use an almost-dry brush on a fully dry base colour or raw wood finish. If you prefer to buy a crafter piece in this style, try Snug Design (Donard, CoWicklow) which celebrates the look in a growing range of robust, beautiful family furnishings, snug.ie.

Spindles can be painted a different colour chair to chair or try using two or even three colours and/or metallic for the back of each chair in a pleasing rhythm. Use paint on lining paper to mock up your palette before interfering with the chair itself. We love that individual harlequin look with chairs in

different colours and even different styles matched to a very plain table — gorgeous for a family feasting spot.

A simple string wrap demonstrated on a €22 Ivar chair from Ikea, ikea.ie.
A simple string wrap demonstrated on a €22 Ivar chair from Ikea, ikea.ie.

Wrapping a chair in string or wool might sound a bit hippie, but trust me, Google images of projects by competent crafters and you’ll see how effective it can be. A spindle-back chair or any chair with straight rustic uprights to the back and even the arms can wear this look. Be very careful about wrapping legs (crafters do wrap entire chairs) that the material does not come loose and turn into a tripping hazard.

Ikea suggests its Ivar chair for these projects and the juxtaposition of smooth and slightly roughened texture, with a raw twine colour against a deeper, smooth, painted surface is very charming. My personal favourite is the fine wool wrap to chrome arms and legs. This not only adds something interesting to a piece with failing chrome, but it’s easily reversible.

For this more tailored look with finer threads or wool, use slipknots, pulled tight one a after another, rather than a tension wrap to cover the back or arms of a chair (without upholstery, obviously). The slipknots will create a seam which you can hide or show off — see how it comes out. Use finer yarns for a more chic approach and rough hairy twine for a rustic touch.

Tie on new seat pads on a plain wood for a lazy bit of upholstery. Drop-in seats with a surviving bounce to the upholstery are a gift. Simply lay over a new (low-stretch) fabric, pull to the rear and staple in place to the seat frame, being attentive to the corners for a crisp finish. For more complex seat re-builds, find a tutorial online to cut new foam precisely. A shoddy job will prove uneven chair to chair, uncomfortable, and drive you completely mad in no time.

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