Refinishing Vintage Theatre Chairs

When I found these theatre chairs online, I absolutely fell in love.  Not with the dark stain or the old fabric, but with the potential.  I initially saw them upholstered in a funky pattern fabric and standing in a hallway where kids used them to sit when putting their shoes on the wrong feet. My imagination is vivid! No matter where these chairs end up, I absolutely wanted to refinish these vintage theatre chairs.


Table of Contents

Furniture Pickups are always entertaining.

I must confess! My husband picked up the chairs for me, while I was busy.  His unending supporting and belief in my projects is unfathomable!

While I immediately started checking out the condition of the chairs, he entertained me with the story of the pick-up. 

A little bit of history; my husband has had to carry cabinets down narrow stairs from attics.  Discussed crazy plans with owners wanting to push objects out windows for him to catch on a ladder. Travelled down backroads that would fit perfectly in a horror movie.  But these theatre chairs are probably my favourite. 

They had resided on a houseboat for the last couple of decades. He needed to carry them single handed over the houseboat deck, along the narrow edge and safely back to dry land.  

He has assured me that there was a very real chance he would end up in the river with two theatre chairs next to him.

Why Refinishing Vintage Theatre Chairs?

If you follow me and my refinishing antics for a while, you know that don’t do chairs.  I just haven’t.  The spindles are not a challenge that I wanted to start with.  Thankfully these chairs didn’t have spindles.  It was the main reason why I decided I would love to work on these chairs. 

Furthermore, I thought they would be a great opportunity to attempt my first reupholstering job. I also love a new challenge with each project.  Stepping outside of your comfort zone is how you learn and develop further.

Removing upholstering from vintage theatre chairs

Reupholstering Plans Changed.

When I was removing the current fabric on the chairs, it became apparent that this was the second time that they were upholstered.  How did I figure that out? 

Well, the current fabric and foam padding was simply placed over the original.  Unfortunately, neither was in good enough condition to keep. 

Between the original upholstery and the second, more recent work, there was countless staples used.  There were more staples in the chairs then wood! 

When I had removed all the staples,  the edging was so holey that I had to change my original plans to reupholster these chairs again.  I focused instead on repairing the weakened edging with strong wood epoxy.  Filling each hole and sanding the epoxy smooth. 

The result was a strong chair base, which I decided I would paint.

Original upholstery of vintage theatre chairs

Removing the Old Finish

Original thick finish on vintage theatre chairs
thick finish on seats of vintage theatre chairs

The finish on these theatre chairs was thick!  It was meant to be durable for frequent uses.  And it Was! 

It took a lot of scrapping with my carbide scrapper to only remove the top layer of the thick varnish.  I also used a stripper to work away part of the stain or toner and then I sanded! 

Gosh did I have to sand as these chairs had a lot of staining on them from the thick finish.   When I had removed the old finish, I still had wood which was flecked with grey stains throughout.  It was rather unsightly and not the look I was going for.

bahco carbid scrapers for removing paint and finishes from furniture

If you do not have a Carbide Scrapper – Run out and get yourself one now!

Oxalic Acid to lighten the stains.

Oxalic Acid tools needed for mixing a batch
Applying oxalic Acid with a brush

In an attempt to remove the stains and lighten the wood, I turned to oxalic Acid

Looking back, I would now have also tried Hydrogen Peroxide to have bleached these vintage theatre chairs into the light wood tones which I was hoping to achieve.  But you live and learn, and I went with a product which I was more familiar with at the time.  

For full details on how to use oxalic acid and how to use it, read more here.

I probably did an astonishing 10 rounds of the oxalic acid, washing the chairs between each round before I felt that the stains in the wood would not be removed any further.

Finish removed by vintage theatre chairs are stained
Vintage theatre chairs after oxalic acid

Tan washing the Wood.

In order to lighten up the wood and even out the tones, I decided to do a paint wash.  I opted for my favourite tan from Fusion Mineral Paint, Algonquin.  I’ve used this colour to tan wash before, and it’s my go to colour anytime I want a light but not a white paint.

A wash is very easy to accomplish, and I recommend it to everyone who is trying to even out a wood tone or mask a strong under colour in the wood. 

Fusion mineral paint Algonquin

How to do a paint wash.

I mix my paint to water ratio at 1:3. It’s easier to work with and I rather do an extra coat for more coverage, then try to remove a coat which was too thick. 

Taking a glass jar (I save empty jars for this purpose), I will pour in the paint then add approximately 3 times the volume in water and stir. It’s that simple.

You then brush this watery paint mixture on the surface. 

I wait a few minutes only. Then I take a clean cloth and wipe it back before it dries too much. 

After which you need to allow the surface to fully dry.  Only after the surface is fully dry, can you decide if you need to add an  additional coat of your wash.

Painting the Seats with a Simple Tape Design

I wanted to mask the use of wood epoxy on the seat bases, which is the only reason I truly painted the base and edges of the chairs.  That and it made a nice contrast against the tan wash of the rest of the chairs. 

I used again a Fusion Mineral Paint in colour Coal Black. Which is a lovely, rich, true black.  I painted the bottoms of the chairs which when not in use, you will see swung up on the chair backs. 

For the top of the chairs, I added two simple lines with tape design.

The secret to getting a crisp line when using tape is to seal your tape!  I sealed the tape by brushing on the edge the top-coat which I knew I would be using.  If any bleeds under the tape, it will be masked when you add the top-coat later.

Check out this complex tape design project.

Fusion mineral paint coal black

Top-coat for Durability.

For a top-coat I wanted a matte, barely there look.  It would help to give the tan wash a more natural wood look.  I therefore opted for Polyvine Wax finish in Matte.

Don’t be fooled by the name.  There is no wax in this water based finish.  It only gives the look of a wax finish with the durability of a water based top-coat.  

This is absolutely one of my favourite top-coats to use.  It can be easily brushed or sponged on and leaves no visible brush strokes.  It works fabulously over dark colours where you would normally be left with a hue.

Polyvine wax matte top coat

Top-coating dark Colours Successfully.

If you do find that the top-coat over a dark colour is leaving a hue, there is a simple trick to remedy this. 

Add a few drops of the dark colour which you are adding your top-coat over.  These few drops will colour the top-coat and help to blend it in over the dark colour without leaving a visible hue.

New and Painted Hardware

The chair seats contained hardware which was fir the swing mechanism of the chairs.  They were in good condition and also not replaceable. For this element I opted to only paint the exposed metal as a refresher.  

In order to paint metal successfully, I opted to clean the metal with a metal cleaner and lightly sand the surfaces.  This allowed the special paint which I bought to adhere to the surface.  The paint which I used was Hammerite Metal paint in black.

For the bolts which where rusting, I simply opted to purchase new bolts in black.  This limited the need to paint metal unnecessarily.

The final element was the element on the chair arms which the seat would rest in and swing.  These were painted black, were filthy and chipping.  I used stripper to remove the original and failing black paint and was shocked by what I found.  The pieces seemed to be made of pressed woods and it gave such an interesting look.  I opted to leave these pieces with the wood exposed.

Hammerite Metal paint and cleaner.

The Final Reveal

The final result of these tired, dirty theatre chairs was a modern, bright take on a vintage classic.  I personally find the finished look very Scandinavian in style and picture them in a bright hallway.  A place to sit when putting on your shoes. Refinishing vintage theatre chairs was both a challenge and a great chance to learn how to work with oxalic acid.

Vintage Theatre Chairs in scandinavian vibe
Vintage theatre Chairs Refinished
Vintage theatre chairs with close up of bottom of swing seat
Author picture

Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

This post may contain amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, if you decide to make a purchase through the provided links, at no additional cost to you.


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