Shabby Chic Furniture Painting Guide

What should I consider before starting?

Visualise The Result

It may sound obvious but decide in advance how you want the finished item to look. Make sure the chair, table, sideboard or cupboard fits into the overall scheme you want to create, redefining your surroundings and taking you on a stylish journey for a fraction of the cost of buying new "old" furniture. There's no point spending money on the furniture and materials if you don't have a plan already in mind, this might otherwise result in you wasting your time as well as depleting your bank balance.

Decide in advance whether you want to use just varnish, one coat of paint or two. Know whether you want to accentuate the natural colour of the wood with a light stain or through a single coat of white or whether you want to use a strong colour as a top coat and distress it to show the white undercoat.


Whether you're agonising over a certain shade of paint that you're going to paint the furniture in, the level of distressing you're going to inflict on it or the style of the furniture itself, visualising the result and its place in your home will help you to make those tough decisions.

What will I need?

  • Dustsheets or newspaper as required
  • Apron, overalls or old clothes
  • Plastic safety goggles
  • Protective gloves (trusty marigolds will be fine)
  • Sugar soap and cloth
  • A bucket of warm water
  • Sandpaper
  • Large soft brush and/or duster
  • Two colours of one-coat paint matt emulsion: brilliant white for a first coat and your chosen colour for the final layer
  • Three paintbrushes (one for each colour and to save on washing)
  • (Optional for bigger projects) Sanding tools such as Bosch, Dewalt, Black and Decker
  • Decorator's clear satin varnish
  • Putty knife

Getting Started

There are five steps to follow as far as the distressing furniture process is concerned:

1. Preparing the furniture

2. Washing the furniture

3. Sanding the furniture

4. Painting the furniture

5. Distressing the furniture


Assuming this is your first attempt at distressing a piece of furniture, start small with a chair or even a decent-sized piece of off cutwood. Smaller items mean you finish quicker, they're easier to handle and work on and it's great for building confidence to tackle larger items.

1. Preparing The Furniture

Giving furniture that coveted distressed appearance is not a mess-free job, and it's generally not one that can be completed in a quick spare hour that you have. You need to ensure that you prepare the furniture and work area before you get started, particularly if you're using power tools.

For larger projects such as wardrobes or bed frames you may need to take the items outside to distress them down. Stripping a lot of paint off or layers of varnish can generate a lot of dust and even cause a health hazard. If you are concerned at all, it's best to wear a dust mask and take the item outside first. For smaller items such as chairs or tables, you should be fine to do it indoors, especially if you are just using sandpaper and not an electric handheld sander. Once you have chosen where you will be working, start by laying down proper floor protection. You'll be sanding, painting and chipping so expect to make a mess. For smaller items newspaper will be fine but for larger furniture (or if you plan to do a lot of items) you may want to consider proper trade-quality floor protection. If you're working on a small item, raise it up onto a table to make it easier to work on and to get in close.

Useful Products:

Poly-Backed Dust Sheet

Fold Flat Dust Mask


Not all wooden furniture can be distressed. The process requires stripping back layers of polished coating, wax or paint to reveal the wood beneath. This obviously doesn't work with any kind of laminated (plastic coated) furniture or medium-density fibreboard (MDF), which is an engineered wood product.

2. Washing The Furniture

Washing the wood before you do anything strenuous to it is essential because you need to be able to see exactly what kind of effect your efforts are having on the piece without any built-up dirt obscuring it.

  • Wear protective clothing and gloves and apply sugar soap solution to the surface of the furniture.
  • Work it into the wood as much as you can, paying attention to knots and cracks that might go uncovered.
  • Wash the solution away with warm water and allow the furniture to dry thoroughly before moving onto the next step.

Useful Products:

Mangers Sugar Soap

Flower Power Rubber Gloves

3. Sanding The Furniture

Prior to repainting a piece of furniture, you'll need to sand off its existing paint or varnish using either sandpaper or an electric sander. Both techniques ultimately have the same effect, but you can arguably be more precise with sandpaper than a power tool (depending on the model you're using).

  • Nearly every piece of wooden furniture is covered in some kind of paint, varnish or gloss which protects it.
  • If you don't sand first and just go straight to painting on to the gloss, the paint won't grip the wood properly.
  • Use a handheld electric sander if the furniture is covered in a heavy coat of gloss as opposed to a thin one. This will be the easiest way to start taking it back to the grain.
  • If your item is only painted, coarse sandpaper will be fine.
  • Take care when sanding and try not to strip off any of the natural wood underneath.
  • It's often best to start by using an electric sander and then using a bit of medium grain sandpaper just to go over the final bit.
  • Don't worry about roughing up the wood, this allows the fresh paint to bond onto the wood and will achieve a better finish.

Useful Products:

Aluminium Oxide Roll

Bosch Sander

Consider how much distressing you will need to do to achieve your desired result. As you paint over the surface, think about how you are applying it and the thickness of the brush. Make sure you don't obscure any intricate detailing by laying the paint on too thickly.

4. Painting The Furniture

This step could be skipped if you deem it unnecessary, but painting the furniture in a different colour will really help it to stand out (even with the damage you're about to inflict on it) and make it feel like a new old piece.

First Coat

  • Once the piece has been sanded, run a brush or duster over the surface to help remove any loose bits or dust before painting.
  • First apply a thick coat of white emulsion, taking care to avoid any drips.
  • You can then apply the paint more thickly than you would a wall, for instance, because you will be sanding it back later.
  • Allow it to dry according to the instructions on the paint tin, usually several hours.
  • If you plan to paint a number of furniture items as part of an overall colour scheme, make sure you buy enough paint for the job for consistency.

Second Coat

  • When dry, gently rub the furniture down with sandpaper to rough it up and help the next layer 'grip'.
  • Paint the second coat the same as the first and leave to dry.

Useful Products:

Crown Emulsion Brilliant White

Mineral Mist - Matt Emulsion

From silk, matte, gloss and emulsion to primer, one-coat and undercoat, the list of available paint seems endless. Go for one-coat options where possible as they are thicker and do not require undercoats to generate a bright and defined colour. Be aware that paint colours and shades do differ from brand to brand. For example, a Dulux apple white might be very different to a Crown apple white. Companies do stop making particular lines every so often so don't fall foul of running out of that perfect colour.

5. Distressing The Furniture

To really achieve that vintage look, you'll need to get sanding and scraping again. It might seem a little weird doing this just after giving the furniture a fresh coat of paint, but you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

  • Once the furniture is dry, use a putty knife to very carefully scrape away the paint.
  • Areas that would naturally get worn by general use.
  • Start small and don't overdo it straight away.
  • Try to scrape at edges and corners to achieve that distressed, shabby look.
  • If the paint peels up, try not to pull it off but rather cut it with the putty knife and use sandpaper to smooth it out.
  • Now take the sandpaper and gently apply it to the scraped areas, just to smooth off the edges.
  • Take a dry brush to the paint and get rid of any loose bits or dust.
  • Apply one or two coats of clear varnish to finish it off or use a furniture wax, which provides a soft lustre to the finished piece.

Useful Products:

No Nonsense Quick-Dry Varnish Gloss

Putty Knife

Useful tips and further information

Where Can I Pick Up Cheap Wooden Furniture To Upcycle Into Shabby Chic?

There are some great resources out there for picking up inspiration to create new shabby chic designs or to delve deeper into restoring well-loved furniture & upcycling.

  • Online auctions can be great places to pick up old items at a knock-down price, especially if you've got a fast finger on the mouse. The likes of eBay and dedicated furniture auctioneer sites feature a regularly revolving cycle of pieces that any fan of shabby chic would love to get their hands on.
  • Second-hand shops can vary wildly in terms of price (antique places will have significantly higher price points than charity places like Oxfam) but it's possible to find vintage gems there if you look hard enough. Head to towns like Bridlington in Yorkshire or Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds for high concentrations of second-hand places in which to browse furniture.
  • Online forums and social media tend to be good places to connect with people looking to make a sale. Local area forums and groups on the likes of Twitter and Facebook help buyers and sellers from the same areas find each other so they can start negotiating. Gumtree, where users often give large items like furniture away provided the buyer will come and collect it from them, is also a good source.
  • House clearances don't always relate to the contents of a home being auctioned off if the occupant has died with no living family and no legally binding will. They can also be initiated if an occupant decides to get rid of everything they've accumulated over the years in order to get new things. In these cases, salvageable furniture might be available for selling. Keep an eye on local announcements and auctions to see what might pop up.