Recycle an Old Chair with Stain and Paint
A few months ago, a local non-profit announced a chair-painting fundraiser. ARC Community Services, which serves individuals with developmental disabilities, had 100 sturdy old wood chairs stored in its basement. To raise funds, ARC invited local artists to refinish and decorate the chairs for auction at the Fitchburg Art Museum.
Here is the chair I picked to work on. It had been stained with an opaque dark brown that hid the grain of the wood. I decided to give the chair a more transparent stain that would give the surface a feeling of depth.
My first step was to sand most of the dark stain off of the chair. The chair was very sturdy, but had earned dents and dings during its years of service. I wanted to maintain the "distressed" feeling of the surface, so I left hints of the dark brown stain here and there.
Because I had no idea of the chemical makeup of this old stain - and because I have children in the house - I worked on the chair either outdoors or in a very well-ventilated room. I used water-based materials (water-based stain products, acrylic artist paint, and polyurethane varnish).
The wood was very dry, so I reconditioned it with Minwax Water Based Pre-Stain; reconditioning helps the stain spread evenly. I wanted to paint an orange tabby on the seat, so I chose a blue stain that would make the cat's color pop out more.
I drew a curled-up cat the same size that I wanted for the chair seat and cut it out. I wanted the cat to be sitting on cloth, so I put down a napkin to find a good arrangement.
I needed to put down acyrlic gesso (I could have easily used a household acrylic primer instead). Gesso would leave a smooth, bright surface for my paints to adhere to, and would also block the colored stain from migrating into my finished painting. Transfering my drawings onto white gesso would be much easier than transfering them directly onto the blue stain.
I marked the edges of the cloth square with blue painter's tape. With the tape protecting the edges, I could brush the gesso into the square without worrying about keeping everything straight. This was especially helpful at the corners, where the cloth draped over the seat's edges. Once the gesso was dried, the painter's tape pulled off without any damage to the surface.
The three white marks you see in the above photo were holes left by a cushion that had been attached to the chair seat (the fourth hole is hidden by gesso). I filled the holes with wood filler, assuming I'd give them a quick pass with the stain after the filler dried.
Wood filler comes in paintable and stainable varieties. You can paint over the stainable wood filler just fine, but stain will not adhere to paintable-only wood filler.
The wood filler had already dried once I realized that I had grabbed the wrong tube from my shelf. I should have checked to make sure I had the stainable wood filler! Now the blue stain wouldn't stick to the obstinately brilliant white filler.
I dabbed diluted cobalt blue acrylic paint over the white marks and let it dry for half an hour. Then I dabbed a bit of burnt sienna onto the holes and gently blended the brown along the grain. Fortunately, because I had left traces of the chair's original brown stain, the mixture of the two acrylic paints hid the holes fairly well.
Next, I brushed in gesso where the cat's face would extend beyond the cloth square.
After the gesso dried, I transferred my drawing onto the chair.
I blocked in the underlying colors with diluted acrylic paint and let them dry.
Working from dark to light, I filled in the cloth under the cat. I painted over the cat's outlines to lose my drawing's transfer lines.
Using my original drawing as reference, I painted in the edges I had lost while painting the cloth. I blocked in the white areas of the tabby's face and chest with white mixed with a touch of cobalt blue.
I left the light blue as shadow under the cat's jaw line. I highlighted the white patches on the cat's face with a mixture of white and a touch of yellow.
I painted the tabby's stripes with a mixture of cadmium red, burnt sienna, cadmium orange, and white.
My sketch of the mice came out too large, so I reduced it on my computer instead of drawing it out again. Just as I had needed to do with the cat, I needed to put a gesso undercoat beneath my mice. I cut out my sketch, traced around it with a fine line permanent marker, and painted in the gesso. After the gesso dried, I transferred my drawing with the help of a piece of homemade carbon paper.
The final touch was to paint in the thread that wound down from the spool, around the back of the chair, and into the needle stuck into the cloth. The line was too thin for me to put down a gesso undercoating, so I painted over the thread several times to build up the paint.
Instead of household varnish, I used a craft varnish (Delta Ceramcoat Gloss Exterior/Interior Varnish) that I've used on my gourds and other projects over the years. The varnish stands up to wear, doesn't yellow, and protects the colors well. I gave the chair seat over 15 coats of varnish, and somewhat fewer for the remainder of the chair.