How to Tackle a DIY Antique Chair Transformation in Westchester

Design expert Caronine Garbutt shares her tips and steps to transform an antique chair into a modern marvel.

A vintage piece with good bones + quality products + time and inspiration = a transformed piece of furniture.

Caronine Garbutt of Cara Saven Wall Design USA knows style. As principal of the company founded by Cara Saven, she has been in the design business for almost 12 years.

Here she shares her tips and steps for transforming an antique chair that is dark and dated into a bright and fresh piece that will fit in any modern-day home.

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“I love going to vintage and flea markets looking for unique pieces,” says Garbutt. “My décor style is mixing pieces of old with new and I could just picture this chair redone with some fabric designs that are more in style right now.”

antique chair
Photo by Doug Schneider (right), courtesy of Caronine Garbutt (left)

She said she draws a lot of home-décor inspiration from staying at hotels and eating at restaurants. You never know where you’re going to find inspiration. “I usually keep those ideas at the back of my head when visiting the markets,” she adds. “Buying and restoring vintage pieces is a way to make something more custom and it adds personality to your home.”

What to Look for

Always look for a piece that has good bones. “Look out for bad cracks in the wood or very rusted nails that could lead to the whole piece falling apart,” says Garbutt.

Ask yourself where this piece will go in your home. “Will it fit with your other pieces in your spaces, the colors, the size of the item, etc.” says Garbutt. “It’s easy to fall in love with a piece, but harder to find a place where it fits at home.”

What is the return on investment? “Some would say it’s not worth the money to refinish a piece but ask yourself what it would cost to replace a new item and would that brand-new piece be made with the same quality and type of wood?” she adds.

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Gather Your Materials

You will need a basic tool kit for any DIY project and a dedicated workspace as it could take a few days to complete the steps Garbutt suggests.

“I’d suggest starting with simple and easy tasks for your first piece or two,” she says. “If you’re not a sewer, it would be good to contact a local upholsterer to take care of that part for you.”

✓ Water

✓ Baking Soda

✓ White Vinegar

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✓ Mood Board

✓ Oven Cleaner

✓ Putty Knife

✓ Wire Brush

✓ Wire Pad

✓ Needle Nose Pliers

✓ Pin

✓ Paint Brush

✓ 120 Grit Sandpaper

antique chair materials
Courtesy of Caronine Garbutt

✓ Green Velvet

✓ Tread (optional)

✓ Fabric Scissors

✓ Staple Gun

✓ Fabric Glue

✓ Throw Pillow

✓ Danish Oil

✓ Beeswax

On whether to paint, stain, or oil a piece, she says, “Sometimes I paint over the wood to create a colorful accent piece and at other times I feel it would be ‘sacrilege’ to cover up a beautiful piece made of expensive wood,” says Garbutt. “It also depends on what the current home-décor trends might be. For this project I preferred to have the natural look of the wood rather than applying varnish.”

She said she chose this fabric because when it came out in their floral line, she “fell in love with the greens and persimmon color mix. This project started with the color palette,” she adds.

antique chair pillow
Cara Saven Wall Design, “Sweet One” fabric was used for the pillow. Photo by Doug Schneider

Quality Counts

Make sure you choose wisely when it comes to the fabric you use. “Certain fabrics are not made for upholstery, and it won’t last,” says Garbutt. “Make sure you buy fabric that is made for your purpose.”

Green velvet and Danish oil was used for the chair and cushion. Photo by Doug Schneider

She also adds you should use good paint or stain. “The well-known paint brands might cost a bit more, but your paint coat will last longer and not fade or scratch off easily (if applied correctly),” adds Garbutt. “Using good-quality products will make your piece look durable and more luxurious, and it will stand the test of time.”

danish oil
Photo by Doug Schneider


1. Clean the piece with some water, a bit of baking soda, and some white vinegar.

2. Create a mood board, order sample fabric and paint swatches, and test it on your piece to see what will work.

3. Strip the old varnish (or finish) off using oven cleaner. (It is less messy and more eco-friendly.)

4. Use a putty knife and/or sandpaper to remove any remaining varnish from the furniture.

sanding antique chair
Courtesy of Caronine Garbutt

5. Wait for the chair to completely dry and then apply Danish oil. Do this for two coats. Let dry, then apply beeswax for maintenance and care.

6. Keep the original upholstery and cushions to use as a template for your new piece. Using the old fabric as a template, cut out the new fabric.

Courtesy of Caronine Garbutt
fabric stencil
Courtesy of Caronine Garbutt

7. For the cushion cover, use a staple gun and fabric glue. Pull the fabric taught, and staple and glue it to the underside of the cushion. You can also enlist a upholsterer for this step. If the cushion is worn, you may want to replace it with a new one.

re-upholster chair
Courtesy of Caronine Garbutt
re-upholster chair
Courtesy of Caronine Garbutt

8. After the chair has dried, replace the cushion to complete the transformation.

antique chair
Photo by Doug Schneider

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