How To Make Old Armchairs Look Modern

Have you ever spent countless months scouring buy and sell websites for a specific piece of secondhand furniture? For almost a year we were on the lookout for two matching accent chairs for our living room. Finally, we stumbled upon an ad in a neighboring town for exactly what we were looking for.

The price was right and the chairs were structurally in great condition BUT the fabric and wood finish had seen its better days. We decided to take them anyway because there are a few ways how to make old armchairs look modern with or without a dramatic makeover.

Two old secondhand armchairs that have seen their better days get a modern new look.

Second-hand Armchairs Get Modern Makeover

You can see in the photo above what they looked like when we brought them home. The fabric is worn and the dark wood frames have some scratches.

Having the chairs professionally reupholstered was not in the budget and the key motivating factor for looking at ways to update them ourselves so they look modern.

How to make old armchairs look modern by updating the finish with paint and DIY upholstery.

We paid a visit to our local Fabricland store and found a pretty Rosedale Meadowland Parisian fabric at an affordable price, prompting our decision to reupholster the armchairs ourselves. We were confident in our DIY skills because we had previously reupholstered these mid-century modern armchairs.

DIY upholstered armchairs with Roseland Meadowland Parisian fabric.

I've included a supply list below of the products we used to update our secondhand armchairs along with links to the helpful tools and resources we used to reupholster the chairs ourselves.

This post contains affiliate links so you can see what products I used or recommended for this project. As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small commission from any qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!

Supply List

Armchairs (second-hand)
Warm White Chalk Paint
Upholstery Staple Removal Tools
Upholstery Staple Gun
Heavy Duty Hot Glue Gun
Decorative Trim or Welting
The Complete Guide To Upholstery by Cherry Dobson
The Upholstery Bible by Cherry Dobson

How To Make Old Armchairs Look Modern

If the chairs are structurally sound, there are several ways you can make old armchairs look modern again and I've listed a few ideas below.

  1. Reupholster This option may or may not be costly. If it is within your budget, have the chair professionally reupholstered with new fabric. However, if it's not in the budget, don't let it prevent you from changing the fabric.

    With the right resources and tools, you can reupholster the armchair yourself. I share some DIY upholstery tips further down in the post. Trust me, if we could do it with our chairs, you definitely can!

  2. Refinish Your chair's hard surfaces can get a dramatic makeover simply by updating the finish. It might mean sanding and touching up the existing stain or completely changing the stain color.

  3. Paint Did you know that you can paint fabric? If the upholstery on your armchair is in good condition other than looking dated, you can change the color of the fabric with paint!

    But if you like the fabric on your second-hand chair there is another option to update the look by painting the wood frame. I share some tips for doing either of these paint options further down in the post.

  4. Pillows/Throws If the hard surfaces and the upholstery on your armchairs are in good condition, another way to update the look is by simply adding a pillow and/or a throw.

Let's dig deeper into the suggestions for making old armchairs look modern with the helpful tips below.

Helpful Tips For Updating Old Armchairs

Armchair DIY Upholstery Tips

  1. Your camera and the old chair fabric will be your best friend. Before getting started, take photos of the chair with your phone camera. Capture every corner and every fold in the old fabric. This will be your pictorial when reupholstering the chair with the new fabric.
  2. Have helpful resources available at your fingertips. I consider these two books by Cherry Dobson my upholstery bibles and always have them by my side when taking on an upholstery project.
  3. Chances are there will be a ton of annoying staples to remove. Save yourself a lot of time and puncture wounds by investing in an upholstery staple puller. Ask me how I know!
  4. Carefully remove the old fabric to use as a pattern for cutting the new fabric. It may take extra time to carefully remove the old fabric in one piece but it is worth the effort.
  5. If you've never upholstered a chair before, choose a solid upholstery fabric with no pattern. This way you don't have to worry about pattern repeats or getting stripes perfectly straight.
  6. Change it up a bit by using a contrasting pattern or color of fabric on the back of the armchairs like we did (pictured below) with a neutral color fabric with subtle metallic swirls.

  7. DIY upholstered old armchairs with different metallic swirl fabric on the back.

  8. You will need to invest in an upholstery stapler but a handheld manual or electric stapler will do the job just fine.
  9. To cover the new staples you can use either a decorative trim or welting available at most fabric retailers. I chose to make my own welting by following the helpful double welting tutorial at Confessions Of A Serial DIYer.

DIY upholstered armchairs with handmade double welting trim.

Armchair Refinishing Tips

If you wish to keep the hard finishes on the chair stained, there are a couple of ways you can refinish the wood with stain.

  1. If there are a lot of scratches and damage to the wood frame, you can sand it to the natural wood by hand or with a palm or mouse sander and 150-grit sandpaper. Then refinish the wood with a fresh coat or two of stain in either the same color or a lighter color so it looks like new again.
  2. If the wood only has minor scratches, then lightly sand it to rough up the surface so the new stain has some bite. Unlike traditional stain that soaks into the wood, gel stain sits on top of the wood like paint and gives it a consistent finish that will easily blend with the original stained finish. You can see how I refinished an oak end table this way.

Armchair Painting Tip 1

If the fabric on your old armchair is still in good condition but you wish it was a different color or no longer like the pattern, you can change it with paint. That's right, I said paint and I show you just how to do it with chalk paint in my how-to-paint chair fabric tutorial.

Armchair Painting Tip 2

  1. Painting the hard finishes on the chair will provide a dramatic new look. Keep in mind that when painting over dark cherry or mahogany, the tannins in the wood can bleed through the paint, especially when painting white or lighter colors. It's important that you prime the wood first with a stain-blocking primer and I share helpful tips in my how-to-fix wood tannin bleed post.
  2. I chose a custom warm white color for my armchairs in a 50:50 ratio of Old White and Pure White Annie Sloan Chalk Paint.
  3. For a beautiful smooth finish, lightly sand between each coat of paint with 220-grit sandpaper.
  4. For a lasting finish, it is better to paint a few thin coats of chalk paint rather than one or two thick coats.
  5. To really bring out the ornate details and carvings on the wood, give it a shabby chic patina by lightly distressing along the edges with 220-grit sandpaper similar to how we did on our armchairs pictured below.
  6. To protect the paint finish use either a clear wax applied with a small wax brush or a lint-free rag and buffed to a matte finish or a non-yellowing clear top coat.

The wood frame on the old armchairs are painted white to look more modern and distressed with a shabby chic finish.

Armchair Pillows/Throw Tips

  1. If the armchair is quite deep like ours, adding a pillow will help vertically challenged guests scoot forward in the chair while getting lumbar support. I recommend using a heavyweight feather-down pillow for adequate lumbar support.
  2. If the armchair fabric is a solid color, add a large pillow with a bold pattern. Or add a high-contrast pillow in a solid color pulled from the pattern in the chair fabric.
  3. Another option is to make a simple envelope-style pillow cover with the leftover fabric like we did (pictured below). I have a tutorial on how to make a simple envelope pillow cover.
  4. Another idea is to drape a throw blanket on the armchair with either a pop of color or a lovely neutral texture. This is a great way to hide the old fabric when reupholstery is not an option.

DIY Upholstered Accent Chairs With Lumbar Pillows

How I Used My Updated Modern Armchairs

Our secondhand chairs with their new Parisian fabric are lovely accent chairs in our living room that flank our curvy swan table makeover.

Old second-hand armchairs in living room after a dramatic modern DIY makeover.

At one time I moved the armchairs into our dining room to pair with our modern farmhouse dining table makeover and they looked great as formal host chairs.

Old secondhand armchairs after DIY modern makeover paired with a dining table as formal host chairs.

Thanks for stopping by the Interior Frugalista today! I hope you found the ideas shared here on how to make old armchairs look modern helpful and that they motivated you to consider transforming an old armchair that you may have in your home.

Almost all of our DIY ideas have step-by-step tutorials so why not get your budget DIY on and subscribe. You can also find us on Pinterest, Facebook, and YouTube.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below or the Contact Me tab at the top to drop me an email. I love hearing from you!

If you enjoyed this secondhand armchair modern makeover, I'd be so thankful if you shared it with a friend and pinned it to your favorite board on Pinterest.

Do you have an old armchair that has seen its better days? Here are five ideas on how to make the armchair look modern by reupholster, refinish, paint, accent pillows or throw blankets and it can be done on a budget! #armchairslivingroommodern #armchairmakeover #armchairreupholstery #furnituremakeover

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  1. These chairs are so pretty and spring like. I love them!

  2. WOWZA! What a great update, but even with the phone tip I don't think I'm gonna attempt any reupholstering.

    1. Thanks a bunch, Bliss! Girl, I know your work and your talent, you definitely can do this!

  3. Your chairs are absolutely gorgeous Marie! Love love love the fabric you chose. That green is so pretty and fresh.

    1. Thank you very much, Tuula! That French fabric just had to come home with me. Wish I could find more of it.

  4. These are gorgeous, Marie! What a fabulous makeover!

    1. Thank you so much, Beverly! I was tickled pink with the results considering it was our first attempt at accent chair upholstery.

  5. Thank you, appreciate the pin and share, Marilyn! Have a lovely Sunday 😊

  6. Wow, this is an amazing chair makeover ~ Pinned! You definitely have patience. The closest I get to upholstering is covering a simple chair seat.

    1. Thank you, Allyson! I was determined to get new living room chairs at a bargain basement price. Thankfully, they turned out or it could've been a hot mess. We were surprised at how it was easier than we thought. If we could do it, you definitely can!

  7. Gosh, Marie, those chairs are just beautiful! I have a similar chair in my garage that is upholstered with (dirty) tan leather. I bought it at an online auction and didn't know 'til I picked it up that it was leather. It's really ugly and I want to reupholster it but am petrified to attempt it. I don't have fabric or anything yet nor have I painted the wooden parts so I'll be starting from scratch if I get up the nerve. I think Marian from the blog Miss Mustard Seed reupholstered several similar chairs and did tutorials of the process so I'll have to see if I can find those for guidance and courage! You folks did a really gorgeous job on yours. Thanks for sharing them!

    1. Hi Naomi, so glad you like the chair makeover! I didn't realize Marian did upholstery tutorials on her blog. Dang, they probably would've been helpful when we did these. I'm curious now and will pop over to her blog to check them out. I was very intimidated too, Naomi, before we started. Good luck with your chair. YOU CAN DO THIS!!!


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