How to Shabby Chic a Table

I’m no Rachel Ashwell. In other words, I’m not the founder of a home design empire, nor the veteran of countless years of vintage furniture shopping and refurbishing. However, I’ve read nearly all of Rachel Ashwell’s design books, poring over pages and pictorials that describe how she sources old pieces that have just the right shabby chic vibe, and spruces them up until she achieves that romantic “old-new” look. As described in “Rachel Ashwell’s Shabby Chic Treasure Hunting and Decorating Guide,” she finds special pieces that others might overlook, and gives them a fresh, new look that deserves a coveted spot in a “shabby chic” home. I need a new coffee table for my tiny apartment, and I’m going to try and replicate Rachel’s methods. How hard can it be?

Finding the right tableWith hours of research under my belt, I head off on a “shabby chic” junket. I scour thrift shops in the Beach Cities of Los Angeles to find the perfect piece of furniture that is calling my name. I’m going to test out my “eye” for design and keep a lookout for a table that will lend itself to a cottage or shabby beach style. I need to keep an open mind, but the coffee table must: 1. Be round or oval; 2. Have romantic lines; 3. Look good painted white; and 4. Fit into the trunk of my Toyota.

The first couple of thrift stores I visit have some nice mirrors and baskets, but not a great selection of furniture. The third thrift store, in Torrance, is full of battered furniture, and…they are having a 50% off already marked down prices on furniture. Bingo! (This is the kind of thing we junk shoppers get excited about!)

After perusing aisles of battered bunk beds and deck furniture, I find it. A small, oval coffee table that will look perfect painted white. Bonus: It will fit in my car trunk.

ReadytoRefinishOnce I get the table home, I spread out my handy paint cloth and gather my tools. It’s best to find a spot outside for this work, because the whole refinishing, white-washing thing can get messy. Also, I wear a mask to protect my airway from all the dust I’m about to create. I usually pick up some painter’s masks when I buy my other paint supplies. I wear my glasses in lieu of eye protection.

I’ll need heavy duty sand paper, a couple of soft-bristle paint brushes, primer, and paint. I can buy most of my supplies at home improvement stores like Orchard Supply Hardware, or directly from paint stores like Dunn-Edwards Paints, or Sherwin Williams Paint Store. Many people favor Benjamin Moore paints, but I like them all.

GatherYourToolsThe first step is to sand the old finish off the table–at least enough to rough it up and give it some “tooth” that a fresh coat of primer will stick to. Note to reader: If this is your first shabby chic refinishing project, start out with a small furniture piece like this coffee table. Why?

Sanding off the old finish, or even just roughing up the old finish, can take a long time and lots of elbow grease. I am sanding this table by hand. I wish I could say I was another “Rehab Addict” like Nicole Curtis, who loves her power tools, but the truth is, those things scare me! So, since I don’t want to devote an entire weekend to this project, and I’m not ready to invest in an electric sander, I’m starting small.

Sand off the old finishOnce I’ve “roughed up” the entire table from top to bottom, I wipe it down with a slightly damp cloth or dampened paper towel. I don’t want any bumpy dust spots sticking in my paint.

Now I am ready to prime the table with paint. I use a satin finish latex paint for both my primer and my top coats. I have heard you can find a spray on primer, which would save me a bunch of time, but those little cans get expensive, and I know I’ll need more than one.

I try to find traditional, brush-on paints in the sale bin at the big DIY retailers like The Home Depot or Lowes to use as my primer. I have gotten some great deals on paint that way in the past. Since the primer doesn’t have to be an official “primer,” and it doesn’t have to be the final color, I’m going to use some off-white paint I previously bought on sale as the primer for this table.

Primer coatOnce in a while when I’m looking for primer paints, I find a can of pure white, pale blue or aqua color paint in the sale bin at a fraction of the retail price. This happens when someone orders a custom-mix color of designer paint (even better, with no odor and low VOCs) that isn’t quite right for them, so they return it and it lands in the sale bin. So, word to the wise: Always check the sale bin at the home improvement store or paint store!

Second coatI allow the primer coat to dry outside for about an hour. Once it is no longer tacky to the touch, I am ready to apply my second coat of paint. The second coat should be in the final color. In this case, I’m using a pure white or “Super White” low VOC latex paint in satin finish from Valspar. The “Super White” paint color from most brands or paint lines is comparable to the popular “Designer White” from Benjamin Moore. For shabby chic furniture, off-white shades can look nice, too. However, for bright shabby chic or shabby beach painted furniture, I can’t go wrong with a crisp, pure white.

Seaside walkI know I need to let each coat of paint dry before I add the next one. This little table needed one coat of primer and two coats of top coat, plus a few touch ups. Once I’ve applied the final coat of “Super White,” I need to let it dry for another hour. So, I’m off to have lunch and take a walk along the Palos Verdes cliffs overlooking the beach. It never hurts to get a little added inspiration in the middle of a project!

Scuff the edges

When I return to project central, I check to make sure the top coat or final coat is dry enough so that I can begin scuffing up my edges to recreate that “shabby” look. According to Rachel Ashwell and other shabby chic mavens, it is best to scuff up the edges that would most likely get bumped into and organically scuffed during the natural life of a piece of furniture. I’m looking for the most exposed edges along the table top and table legs.

To get that “chippy paint” look I usually use a heavy duty sand paper (about #200 or so) attached to a sanding block. Sometimes I’ll use another rough tool like a patch of metal screen from a screen door or a metal file. I work my way around the entire table, using a relatively light touch with my sandpaper. I don’t want to overdo it!

Shabby chic or shabby beach coffee tableI’ve read that many people who re-sell shabby chic furniture will paint or spray a clear coat of varnish over their refinished shabby chic pieces, especially the edges or corners that have been artfully chipped or scuffed, to lock in the chippy look. I opt to skip this step.

My view is, it’s supposed to look gently battered, so a few additional scuffs that happen along the way will just add to the look. Or, maybe I’m just lazy.

At any rate, I’m ready to move the table inside and see how it looks in its new home. I move some things around, add accessories, and feel proud of myself that I completed this entire project in one day. And, I’m pretty happy with the finished look of this little coffee table, which looks quaint in my tiny beach apartment by the sea!

Shabby beach details

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did, or if you have a few shabby chic or furniture refinishing tips of your own to contribute, please feel free to add your comments here. I’d love to hear from you!

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