Chalk Paint Is a Do-It-Yourself Superstar

chalk paint
You can use chalk paint to provide a matte finish for all kinds of home craft and refinishing projects. ondacaracola photography/Getty Images

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Legions of DIY devotees are upcycling outdated furniture into modern treasure — all with the help of a type of paint known as chalk paint.

The original chalk paint formula was created and trademarked by the popular paint brand Annie Sloan in 1990 for furniture, floors and walls. The chalky-finish matte paint can be applied without priming or sanding, and it has a thick, drip-free formula that dries within an hour.

Chalk paint is available in more than three dozen hues and can be combined to create custom colors and can be purchased for anywhere from $15 to around $40 per quart at most hardware or do-it-yourself stores. Or, you can follow a recipe to make your own chalk-finish paint in a variety of colors and consistencies.

Don't mistake chalk-finish paint for chalkboard paint. This isn't the same stuff that made the matte-black chalkboards once found on schoolhouse walls. Instead, you'll find this thick, forgiving paint has become a favorite of beginning and expert DIYers alike.

From Tired Furniture to Tres Chic

No priming, no sanding, no expectation of a perfectly pristine surface. These are just a few of the reasons that people who love to tackle furniture projects are gravitating toward chalk paint. It forgives all manner of imperfections or, and perhaps just as importantly, brings those imperfections to life.

“Chalk paint can be a great way to achieve a vintage finish on any piece,” says Jared Cohen, an artist and web designer who refurbishes vintage-style furniture, in an email interview. “I use it as part of a multilayered weathered approach to achieve the furniture’s final look.”

There are several ways to give furniture a distressed look, but at its most basic, this technique layers two chalk paint colors. Once the base color is dry, a second chalk paint color is applied, allowed to dry, and then topped by a coat of wax. Once the wax is dry to the touch, sandpaper is used to remove small areas of the top coat and reveal the color underneath. After the desired effect is achieved, a final layer of protective wax can be applied.

Wait, wax? Most people opt for chalk paint because of its matte, chalky finish. So why cover the paint with a top coat? If you're the type of person who is likely to refinish that same furniture frequently, then you may want to skip the wax layer. It's time-consuming because it requires multiple light coats and adds extra expense. However, adding a wax layer as a sealant will protect your furniture from everyday wear and enhance the color of the chalk paint.

Transform Everything From Curtains to Cushions

You can even apply chalk-finish paint to fabric, ranging from stenciled drop cloth curtains to upholstery fabric to outdoor cushions.

"This is a good 'quick fix' for a chair you kind of like, or think has potential, but don't want to spend a lot of money on having it reupholstered," said Ashley Poskin, in an article for ApartmentTherapy.com. "It's also a great way to get creative by adding stripes or patterns onto plain fabric, without a huge investment."

And, it's relatively easy to control whether the paint is applied full-color or as a light gradient. To create a dye wash for a upholstery fabric, for example, add water to dilute the chalk paint and then test the mixture on an unseen patch of fabric. You can adjust the water/paint ratio until the color wash is the preferred intensity, and then it apply it to the fabric. After it is dry, the fabric can be heat-sealed with an iron or by setting the chair in the sun.

While this easy project can breathe new life into a chair with an outdated style, it does have limitations. "My once soft, comfortable cotton felt scratchy, almost like outdoor fabric," Poskin adds in Apartment Therapy. "In the end, know that it doesn't feel anything like upholstery fabric. So, if you wake up one day and decide your yellow living room sofa would look pretty turquoise instead, chalk paint isn't necessarily your answer because you probably don't want to sit on it daily."

Upcycling furniture with chalk-finish paint may sometimes necessitate special tools. “Chalk paint finishes sometimes require a thick, round custom brush to achieve best results,” says Cohen.

Although chalk-finish paint is more expensive than other types of interior paints, you typically need less chalk paint to finish a project because it can be applied in only one or two thick coats. Cohen starts by applying a dark layer of paint to furniture, then coating most of the surface with a crackle medium.

“After the chalk paint is applied, it will crack to show a beautiful black web of vintage crackles,” he says.

Although Cohen uses a chalk paint method to give new life to old furniture, there are lots of other home project ideas using chalk paint to spruce up everything from fireplace mantels to front doors.