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Before & After: How We Took a $20 Thrifted Chair & Made it Cool Again


Earlier this year, when we did our reader survey, literally thousands of you begged us to do more simple projects (or what we call internally “micro projects”). You also requested in hoards that we do more vintage and second-hand-focused blog posts so that’s what we’re here for today, folks. Double whammy. You might have noticed that I’ve been deep in the thrifting and flea market-ing game lately (hope you didn’t miss this past Saturday’s post) partly as a result of what you guys asked for but mostly because it’s ALL I actually ever want to do.

So today, we’re trying something different we hope you’re into. We picked up that safari chair up there for $20 last month at the St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles thrift store because that is a steal of a deal. Sure, the high-gloss cherry finish on the frame screamed 2002 and made the black canvas seat and back look faded and dingy (which, to be fair, it was…nothing a little wash couldn’t fix, though), but it was in great shape and pretty clean…it just needed a little kick in the tush in terms of style and bringing it into 2019.


Did I mention this was $20?!? For a chair that, in the right finish, could go for at least a few hundred in a retail boutique in LA? I’m no chump. So it came home with me and myself and Emily Bowser from my team helped to give this lady a refresh. We love a good cheap makeover around here.

Chair Before

It was a pretty simple process (which is outlined below), and in my usual fashion, there were some mistakes made that we learned from along the way and will share with you. But ultimately, we just hope seeing what can be done with a little vision, a little cash and a little sanding/staining will make you want to run out this weekend and see what you can find to make your own. I’m your official flea market and thrift store ambassador…just go hunt. You never know what you’ll find or what you can turn it into. Okay, PSA over. Let’s get into how we rehabbed this baby and what everyone wants to see…the “after.”

Full Process

Step 1: Find a chair that has solid bones-slash a silhouette you’re into. If this is your first DIY rodeo, we don’t recommend spending a fortune here, so the twenty buckeroos I spent on this felt like a worthy investment should things go south (though I’ve done this enough, I knew it wouldn’t).

Step 2: We knew we wanted to get rid of that shiny cherry finish, so we went to town sanding the frame once we took it apart. (Quick note: take pictures of the process of taking something like this apart because it was actually a little bit of a puzzle putting it back together, more than you would think). We used 100 grit sandpaper for the bulk of the job and finished it with a finer 220 grit we put on my trusty DeWalt orbital sander. For the harder to reach areas, we used angled sanding blocks. Definitely use face masks and protective glasses! Was there purple-y dust everywhere during the process? Yes, but we persevered because we were confident in the final prize of a rad chair. We sanded…and sanded…and sanded.

Step 3: You might see this photo and think…”wait, why is this all of a sudden a weird red? Did someone spill their Kool-Aid all over perfectly sanded wood?” No my friends, we just couldn’t leave well enough alone. The purple tone persisted so we decided to try a paint stripper. In theory, this should have worked. We used a paintbrush (make sure you wear protective mask, glasses and gloves!) to apply and let it sit overnight, knowing this situation was INTENSE. In the morning, we used a scraper to remove the stain and remove it did…except somehow it was worse?? It was even more purple. Here is the part of the post where I say DO AS I SAY NOT AS I DO. Maybe we needed to do it a few times, or maybe the wood was too raw, or maybe this wood was just TOO stained?? This whole step could have been skipped. Just go straight from sanding to staining (well, wipe down after sanding, of course, to reduce sawdust).

Step 4: Stain that puppy. Stain it dark enough to cover any undertones, like, literally stain it black. We used Minwax Ebony which required two coats. I highly recommend you do this outside because of the fumes and definitely put down a cloth to avoid transferring black onto everything you own. Wear nothing precious, protective glasses, face mask, oh, and WEAR GLOVES unless you want black fingertips for two weeks. Also, as we were doing this, Emily Bowser and I kept saying “wait, why don’t we stain things more” as in, instead of painting. We will forever just stain everything black now. You’ve been warned.

Sanded Hands

There are a few more steps you’re not seeing in the last grid (we had to take the chair apart to fully sand, strip and stain the dowels that held the canvas seat and back, plus we cleaned the canvas which left it looking worn but in a cool, purposeful way), including the moment between stripping the wood and staining it where we thought maybe we’d leave it oak colored, but it was just too pink. Hence why we stained the whole frame black, and we’re happy we did, because here’s the finished product…

Img 56021
photo by veronica crawford for ehd

Maybe we’re all biased, but no one here thinks this looks like a $20 chair…what do you think? It could ABSOLUTELY be at least $300…so if you think about it, we just saved $280…that’s how it works, right?!? Styled in this corner of my living room, with my new antique oil lady, it’s such a cool juxtaposition. Throw in an ottoman for ultimate lounging, and you’ve got yourself a little reading/podcast listening nook. (Oh, and for anyone who might ask, the dress is vintage and these are my absolute new favorite sneaker).

Before And After
after photo by veronica crawford for ehd

Here is the before and after side by side because that’s the real fun in these kinds of projects. Like seeing a poorly lit frowning face next to a professionally photographed and made up face advertising a “miracle” serum in a late night infomercial. Except there’s no asterisk here or trick of the eye. Just a genuine refresh of something that was already pretty great…a make-under really.

Thanks to Emily Bowser for helping throughout the process, and like I said earlier, I hope you’re inspired to get your hands busy in the near future with a thrifted treasure. Have fun, and tag us using #ShowEmYourDIY if you finish something this weekend.

Fin Mark


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It’s indeed a cool chair now 🙂 Good job!


Love the new look of this chair! It’s hard to tell from the photo, but would just painting it black have achieved pretty much the same result?

nope. painting it would lose all wood grain. Of course had we known that it was SO red underneath the stain (and therefore never going to be the pretty wood we wanted) then we could have eliminated some steps along the way and just did a light sand and paint, but I’m telling you now that we’ve stained something black i’m wondering why we would ever paint it. I LOVE seeing the grain and it was so much easier than painting because it soaks in so well.


Yes! Staining wood is the best. And over time stain wears off, it doesn’t chip like paint does. All the stains! I’ve also found that Benjamin Moore can stain their Arborcoat products to match most BM paint colors. ??


Ooooh. I think these notes might have convinced me to stain a little bedside table I have black instead of painting it. I would love a more matte/soft look and to show more of the age through versus the “sameness” that paint ends up applying. Thanks for the extra info!

DO IT. and @christa is right, it doesn’t chip!! painting always chips and is generally harder to execute. this was so easy.


Oh wow! The transformation… amazing! Please keep doing these kind of posts, this was such a fun read!




Once you finish this next book on home renovation, what I could really use is useful book on buying, updating, and styling flea market finds. Yes there are many books on this subject — all of them useless. Trust me, I’ve read them. Most of them are just picture books of old stuff that don’t tell you how to make your finds cool, how to display them, how to fit them into your style in MODERN ways.

You could write a great book on this! (Not so subtle hint.)

Carolyn Marnon

I love love love this idea! Maybe you could even expand it to show how the same item can be made over in three different ways. Call the book the Thrifty Three or something. LOL! I love alliteration. Thrifty Three by Emily. Throwaway into Thrifty Three. I could go on but I better not.


I’ve refinished a lot of wood furniture over the years and I’ve always stripped the wood first to remove the old finish then I sand. I’ve never heard of sanding then stripping. Sanding cuts through the stain and patina but it also does it unevenly.


This is exactly what I came here to say. Strip then sand.


Have you ever used soy gel stripper. It is so nontoxic you could bathe in it and it works if you leave it on over night. It is awesome and zero smell. I also used a low voc stain that was awesome by General Finishes -water based stain. Then used a non toxic bona topcoat. Skip all that nasty stuff!

oh awesome. we didn’t do a ton of research on this one – it was so fast and really meant more for the idea of updating, less of a ‘this is the best way to do it’ so that i super helpful because WHY use all that toxic shit if you don’t have to. Back in the day when I did all of my refinishing the non-toxic stuff didn’t work, but that was 7 years ago and I know that things have changed. Thanks for the suggestion. xx


Thank you for the information on non-toxic options! I tend to avoid re-doing furniture that I would have to strip for this very reason. I am glad there are better products now.

Also for Emily, you can use Annie Sloan chalk paint on fabric and upholstery as a dye and it’s also non-toxic. (I agree this black canvas looks good as is.)

ooh good to know Re: annie Sloan and fabric. thank you!


Amazing transformation. I just read a comment by Leslie Sinclair about how to get the pink out of wood on a mahogany chair redo, pics at end of link (plus pics of an amazing Ikea hack with brass front drawers!)
Posted at 08:03h, 19 March REPLY
Hi Belinda!! I stripped and bleached them several times first. Then I used a primer wash to kill the rest of the red undertones and applied a very translucent warm gray glaze!! I do love them now–the carvings show up so much prettier!! Good luck in your transformation!!

OOH i’m going to look!


Yeah. That last photo with you in the oversized (vintage) jean dress with cool, new black sneakers against the backdrop of a vintage oil painting and a (now) cool, new black chair – wait, I see what you did there. And I like it. All of it.

*decides to finally refinish the hoards of old chairs in the basement*

Hilary A Tschoepe

I love this!!!!! In 1955, my grandfather built my grandparent’s house, and he stained everything black, and to those of you asking, no, it is NOT the same as painting. It’s a massively cooler effect. I’d spend $300 on this puppy. More, more! Thanks, guys!


OK I think you nailed the requests from the survey. This is great! It’s like the “Trolling Craigslist” post (which I love) and then one more step further and better. LOVE IT. Thank you!


This is really cool and I love that it’s affordable. Now I’m going back to look at the mountain house kitchen before I have to work because it makes me happy.

Thank you so much xx this comment makes ME happy


You guys did a great job! It looks awesome. Thanks for sharing, hope you are having a lovely day.



Awesome! What did you do to the canvas?


Looks great!! Love how the cloth part doesn’t look as dingy after the staining.


Is that the same fabric seat and back? It looks like leather to me. I’d love to know more!


Very cool! I’m loving the black stain between this and the mountain house kitchen island!

Just a hint I’ve learned from staining stuff over the years – Neutrogena makeup remover wipes are THE best thing I’ve tried for removing stain from your skin. I’m sure other makeup removers will work well too – and any would be better than the abrasive soaps sold at home improvement stores! I once scrubbed until my skin was raw trying to get mahogany stain out of my skin, then a quick, soft rub with my makeup remover wipe took it right off and could have saved me some pain.

AH thank you! I may or may not have had black stain everywhere for DAYS


Yes! Enjoyed this post! Inspiring me to go down to my local Kansas City Salvation Army/Goodwill and see what they have.


Looks nice! FYI, if you rub on and then buff off a paste wax as your final step it will look more finished and be protected a bit from water damage. Glad you didn’t use a polyurethane top coat because poly is gross. 😉


I LOVE your dress. It’s exactly my style.


Absolutely love posts like this!!


Good job! I have done a lot of this without all the work you went to. Annie Sloan Graphite Chalk Paint could be painted right over the cherry finish, and comes out beautifully. You might want to try it.


Try Fusion Mineral paint. Great paint with no need to wax (but you can) and no smell! Low VOC. The only way to repaint a waxed piece is the remove all of the wax – who has time to wax anyway?


Hi. I love your refurb posts. I’m halfway through sanding the varnish off an old pine coffee table. I like the look of the pale bare wood but it needs sealing. Should I use oil or wax? What looks best? Thanks!


Recently someone on my street threw out a rattan chair that caught my eye. The poor thing was sitting on the curb, abandoned in the rain. However, despite its sad weathered look you could totally tell it had some serious style hiding under the grime, it just desperately needed some tender love and care. Naturally, I went over to inspect it, and a quick Google search later I realized I had just scored a vintage Fick’s Reed trellis swivel chair! Sadly, one of the rattan wrappings that held one of the legs in place had completely come undone, making the chair practically unusable. I thought about trying to fix it myself but decided against it since getting this right would affect the balance of the chair. But as luck would have it, there’s a wicker/rattan repair shop literally around the corner from me! $60 later I had a repaired chair 🙂 Now what’s left to do is paint it because it’s badly weathered from neglect and rain. I think it would be an absolute stunner in black, so I’ve been thinking about spray painting it, but now you have me seriously thinking about staining it instead. Do you think staining… Read more »


I just spray painted a wicker chair and it was really easy and looks amazing! I feel like painting it would have been much more of a hassle and the paint would have pooled in the mesh. Not tried it though so I’m no expert!

Wow! Wicker and rattan repair shop?? I need a contact like this in town. I actually own a cool rattan lounger that I found at the flea market and I think I may try to stain instead of paint. I just feel like it will weather better since it’s outside?


I’m actually in LA! Here’s the repair shop’s info: Cane & Basket | | (323) 939-9644 | They were a little slow doing the work, but I wasn’t in any rush so it was fine.


There’s the Cane shop in Berkeley ca too.
They just did a set of vintage dwr chairs for me.


In the bay area, I had a my grandmother’s vintage chairs re-caned at “Marin Furniture Clinic.” It was a great experience.


Looks great! In hypothetical life, I would totally tape some stripes and triangles on that canvas and hit it with a bold pattern. In real life, if I’d just done all the sanding and stripping, I’d be over it and maybe just find a piece of patterned fabric to drape over the back 🙂


Love this post. I would also LOVE a post that pulls together what you do to vintage to clean it after purchase. For example, professionally cleaning a large vintage rug can cost more than what you paid for it. How can you do it yourself and save money? How do you make sure you’re not bringing home bed bugs? What can get tossed in the laundry or the dishwasher, and what will get ruined by that treatment? I see that you just washed the canvas here, but if it had been leather, how would you have refreshed it?

ooh yes I love this idea. adding to our list!


Hemp oil does wonders for refreshing leather. It hydrates the leather making it soft and gives it back its rich color.


Love how the chair turned out ! And I love how you guys just have a go at stuff – even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly how you first imagined it would be. This why you are such a success Emily and an inspiration. Thank you for inspiring me!

Thank you so much xx

Joana Diogo

Hi Emily, what a great find that chair! I love this kind of restoration and I know how dificult it is to get this final result. Your attention to details (wood grain) made ALL the diference 🙂 Keep posting this type of good taste transformations!


Loooove it! Great job! I’d also like to see the canvas seat in a nice camel leather to go with Emily’s beautiful credenza and contrast with the black wooden frame 😉


Hell yeah this looks awesome and doable. Good job and thanks xo


Emily, have you ever used chalk paint on any of your re-do’s? I tried it on an old headboard and loved the fact that you don’t have to sand off the old finish. My son is using the bed at college now and I haven’t heard that the new black finish on it has rubbed off or anything (you know boys!) so I’m assuming it is pretty durable (I used the wax over the chalk paint to seal it). I’m just curious on your opinion of it if you’ve tried it.

Lynn W

The “new” chair is perfect!!!
I enjoy reading posts like this….please do more ?

Carolyn Marnon

I enjoyed imagining how I would make over the chair before I scrolled down to see what you and Emily B. did. I was seeing a bright color on the wood and then a bold floral print to replace the black canvas. How’s that for being at the other end of the spectrum? LOL!

lydia @makinglamadre

chair is neat but where do I find dress info???

ha. its vintage. Japanese from the flea market. its oversized and goes ‘sister wives’ really fast but I kinda LOVE it. thank you 🙂


Love it! Now I know that I can use black stain and it looks gorgeous. I always wondered how well black stain would take. I love being able to see the wood grain, So much better than the generic look that you get with paint.

Amanda M

Love a great before/after!! Could you tell me how you cleaned the canvas?



Can you tell me if you waxed the stain or applied poly as a final coat?


Its ok, but i still think it looks like a very cheap old chair in your very expensive living room.


so nice to see you writing


Emily, almost everything you do is fabulous. The makeovers are great, the clothing choices rock and the design articles are truly helpful. Any chance you can post something on a screened porch and designing it with outdoor fireplace and maybe an outdoor kitchen?

Also, I’d like to see you promote some healthy products-like Fusion Stain and Finishing Oil-Low VOC. Try it next time!

And what about healthy organic wool and cotton mattresses and Follain for some healthy makeup? And all wool or cotton rugs? Have you heard of GreenGuard certified furniture? Even Pottery Barn is helping out.

What about Environmental Working Group? Check them out. They identify healthy substitutes for many products like shampoo, cleaners, makeup, etc. and they are not more expensive in many cases. I heard Target is probably heading in this direction too!

If your team could promote the healthy products, I’d love that.


I’m totally interested in this, too (healthy products/mattresses/rugs).

I’m very interested in reducing chemicals bad for the planet (and PEOPLE/animals on this planet)!

Love everything you do, as well.

– A loving [politically conservative] reader (pointing that out, because it seems environmental stuff is not traditionally a conservative thing). But for this conservative, it is!

[…] We’ve always been a bit more “DI-Buy” than DIY, but after seeing how Emily Henderson revamped this $20 thrifted chair, we’ve got second thoughts. It turned out […]


Absolutely gorgeous! I’m inspired to go thrifting now :).

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