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Painting fabric drawers: A DIY furniture project for the nursery

By on October 14, 2014


I took on a relatively simple DIY project for Baby T‘s nursery recently – transforming this basic fabric drawer unit into a custom furniture piece, using a little paint, pattern and creativity.

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

We bought this handy little 3-drawer unit when Toddler E was born (I think we paid $30 for it at Target) and used it in her bedroom to store things like pacifiers, burp cloths, little toys and books, etc. It’s 20 inches high, 14.5 inches wide, and 15 inches deep, with a black particle board casing and three green fabric bins that act as as sliding drawers. The drawers are collapsible, but they hold their shape when open with inner cardboard supports. Pretty basic construction, but it’s held up well over the last three years, with only a few stains and scuffs.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

I wanted to re-purpose this for the new baby’s room, but not go overboard with our time or money. The green color had worked well for E’s room, but didn’t fit with the orange-yellow-blue palette for the nursery. So I decided to try painting the drawers a pale yellow and lining them with some coordinating patterned fabric.

Since I haven’t really painted fabric before, I did some online research to see what it might entail and how to go about it. I actually found quite a few tutorials and examples of painting upholstery (such as Kristin’s blue chair, A Beautiful Mess’s couch, and this DIY Ikea hack) and the results were amazing – seemed like if you do it right, painted fabric will hold up really well without the color flaking or rubbing off.

Because my project was a little different – instead of a piece of furniture that needed to be as soft and comfortable as possible, my drawers would be used for storage, and so holding their shape and staying a little stiff wasn’t a bad thing – I took these tutorials and adapted the materials and steps a little to get a specific end result. Here’s what I did.

First, I pulled the drawers out of their case and set up a little painting station in our garage. (Sorry for the bad early-morning lighting!)

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

I also gathered all my project supplies together, including:

Even though I was painting outdoors with zero-VOC paint and lots of fresh-air ventilation, I was also eight months pregnant, so I decided to wear a mask just to be safe!

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

From the upholstery painting tutorials, I learned that the best formula to use is a ratio of 1 part paint, 1 part fabric medium, and 1/2 part water. The idea is to do several coats this way to help the paint mixture bond to the fabric fibers, while retaining as much softness as possible. Again, since I was painting drawers instead of furniture, I adapted this to fit my particular needs – I didn’t think I’d need as much fabric medium in my “recipe” since I preferred keeping a measure of rigidity and strength on the drawer surfaces.

So for the first base coat on the drawers, I started out with 1 part paint, 1/2 part fabric medium, and 1/2 part water. I used stock white latex paint for this first layer instead of the Pale Daffodil, to help initially cover the darker green for the subsequent yellow layers. And I pretty much just eyeballed the “recipe” amounts (because I’m a rebel like that).

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

The paint mixture was very thin and watery, which I had read would help this first coat to soak well into the fabric fibers.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Just before applying the first coat of paint mixture, I brushed plain water on the fabric with a clean foam brush so the paint would adhere better, another tip I found during my fabric-painting research.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Then I started painting. The white paint mixture went on pretty smoothly and created a good bond with the fabric. I used the corners of my foam brush to get into any seams and make sure the slight texture of the fabric was totally covered.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

I had plans to cover the bottoms of the drawers with a fun patterned fabric instead of painting them (more on that in a minute), so I didn’t paint those – just the front, back, and sides of the drawers (both inside and outside). The heavier white spots show where the paint is still a little wet.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

After the drawers were all painted with the base coat, I let them sit for a few hours until they were completely dry to the touch. I noticed that the white base coat hadn’t made much of a color change on the fabric, because it had been so thin – the drawers just looked like a paler shade of green (see the photo below).

So for the next coat of paint, I switched to the Pale Daffodil yellow. I used 1 part paint, 1/4 part fabric medium, and 1/4 part water. This second layer of paint covered the base coat pretty well, but I still kept my application relatively thin. The upholstery tutorials I referenced suggested several thin coats to keep the surface as flexible as possible. Even though I didn’t need a super flexible surface, I did want the painted drawers to be durable and not crack or flake. So I made sure not to glop this second coat on too heavily.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Again, I let that dry for a few hours. The color was looking better – definitely yellow, but I could still see a green undertone.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

I was crossing my fingers that just one more coat of paint would do the trick, since I was doing this project over the course of one weekend and really needed to finish it in that timeframe.

Before starting the third coat, I lightly sanded the painted surface – I was starting to see some rough fibers coming through and wanted to smooth them out. My mixture for the third coat was mostly paint, with a small dash of fabric medium and water. Again, this combination would probably make an upholstered chair feel stiff and uncomfortable, but that didn’t matter so much for the drawers, and I was trying to get as much color coverage as possible.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Even though it was the thickest mixture so far, I made sure to apply it smoothly and evenly, working the paint well into the fibers and staying glop-free. The color looked pretty true to the final shade I was going for, but I left it for four hours again to see how the paint would look when dry.

And luckily, the color looked perfect! A pale yellow with no hint of green underneath.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

The last step of this fabric drawer transformation was to add a fun pattern to the bottom of each drawer. The drawers came with a square of green fabric-covered cardboard, so I decided to cover these with my own fabric.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

I had this yellow-and-gray fabric on hand from an earlier project, and it worked well with the new drawer color and the room’s overall palette. For a more detailed tutorial on how I put these together, check out my similar post on how I made the covers for our DVD bookcase shelves. It’s a pretty simple method of just using heavy-duty masking tape to secure the fabric around the edges. I also cut a small slit in the fabric to allow the little tab to pop through the fabric (since the inserts fit pretty snugly into the drawer bottoms, and we do need the tabs to pull them out). Notice that even though I left these bottom inserts unpainted, I did paint the tabs yellow since those would be visible and uncovered by fabric.

Painting Fabric Drawers for the Nursery | Rather Square

Painting Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

Then I set the new fabric inserts into each drawer, put the drawers back into the black case, and moved the unit into the nursery.

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

I love the way it turned out! Functional, practical, and super cute. With our gray rocker-recliner, orange rug, yellow throw blanket, and blue print pillow, this 3-drawer unit fits in perfectly.

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

Not bad for a quick upgrade to a basic piece of furniture that we will use a lot every day. And it only took one weekend and about $22 to do this. The cost included the quart of Pale Daffodil paint ($12), and the fabric medium ($10). I already had the fabric for the inserts, the white base coat paint, the foam brushes, and the paint cup. But even those would probably add only an additional $15 to the budget. Since we paid $30 for the 3-drawer unit in the first place, it’s nice that our DIY upgrade came in at less than that original price!

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

(And now that I’ve shown you this one small corner of Baby T’s nursery room redesign project, I need to finish the rest of it for the final reveal. You know, before he goes to college!)

This was such a fun project! Have you had any experience painting fabric before? What method did you use?

I was featured on Remodelaholic

(linked at Miss Mustard Seed, Thrifty Decor Chick, Remodelaholic, and Massive Sway)

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October 14, 2014

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