DIY Chinese Chair Makeover with Leopard Print Suede & Paperclay

For a recent Throwback Thursday post, I shared a story about the time the wrong chairs were shipped to us from Thailand. Why would we go furniture shopping in Thailand and risk such things? Because we love style from Asia: Thai, Burmese, Chinese, Japanese. They have it all there in a village called Baan Tawai. A woman working in a very upscale mall in Bangkok actually told us about Baan Tawai. We must have looked shocked at the prices of antiques in her store, because she told us: “Go to Baan Tawai. Looks like this but new. Cheap-cheap-cheap.” So to Baan Tawai we went. (And from now on forevermore, whenever we talk about something cheap, we have to say three times, “cheap-cheap-cheap.)

These are crates of furniture from Thailand that arrived in our garage eight years ago:

When we opened them, we were thrilled with nearly everything, except two Chinese style chairs we expected weren’t there. The chairs we received had interesting features:

  • Grapevine carvings on the backrest
  • Thick sticky yellowed plastic cushions

If you sat on the cushions with bare legs on a hot day, the plastic made you sweat and the cushions would stick to you when you stood up. Nice!

You might ask, why not ship them back? Each chair was fifty bucks. Not worth the cost to ship them around the planet again. And because I could do a makeover, we didn’t want to quarrel about a refund. It was our mistake to not give the shipping consolidator a better description of our purchase. Lesson learned! Mark your purchases and give pictures to the shipper.

STEP 1:  Spray paint the chairs black

Pretty self explanatory! Good thing, because there are no photos of the spray painting. Which also means there are no “before” pics. This was so long ago, it was before this blog and the obsessive photographing of everything that happens when you blog.

STEP 2: Recover the cushions

Remove the sticky plastic from the cushions and recover them with leopard patterned suede. Yeah!!! While you might not think of “leopard” and “Chinese chair” in the same sentence any more than you’d think “grapevine” and “Chinese chair,” I’m likin’ the leopard. So does Chaai the Crafty Cat and because he supervises every DIY here, he has lots of experience to know these things.

Leopard Print Suede Cushion on a Chinese Chair

STEP 3: First attempt to hide grapevines

Recovering the cushions was a big improvement. But the grapevine carvings still had to go. The backs of the chairs are curved, so I struggled with how to fix this area.

Curved Back of Chinese Chair

The first attempt to fix it, when I started writing this post way back in September 2011 (!!!), was to “upholster” the carved area with orange tiger striped suede.

I thought the leopard and tiger combo would make a cool “Chinese safari” effect. And for sure, I’d strike design fame and fortune with this innovative style mash-up!

Instead it looked just like what it was — tiger striped rectangles taped on the back of a chair, trying desperately to hide something. I could only imagine what HGTV Design Star judges would say about this tiger print band-aid:

Chinese Safari Style Fail

Then during an insomnia-fueled brainstorm — because the most creative problem-solving happens for me at 2 a.m. — it hit. Sculpey! Why not fill the carvings with Sculpey? Then sand it smooth? I probably saw something Sculpey’d on Pinterest a few hours before that. That’s how this subconscious problem-solving works, you know.

So I sought out the Sculpey, and then found it must be oven-dried. Hmmm. I don’t know much about Sculpey but one thing I do know:  These chairs aren’t going in the oven.

Thankfully nearby there was this stuff called Paperclay with magic words on the package: air dry. Really? I gave it a try …


STEP 4.  Paperclay smooshing

I smoooooshed Paperclay into all the nooks and crannies of the grapevines:

Paperclay Fill In

I Googled Paperclay and found you can sand it and sculpt it after it dries. So I didn’t worry about making it perfectly smooth yet. Just smoooooosh it in there.

Let it dry overnight. I couldn’t get back to the chairs for a week. That’s fine. The Paperclay was dry. I sanded with a block. I don’t know the grit, but it was a coarser sanding block.

Sanding made a mess. If you sand this stuff, be forewarned.

Sanding Mess

After sanding the Paperclay, there was still a lot of unevenness. See:

Filling In with Paperclay

While Googling, I found Paperclay can shrink and crack a bit while drying. No worries. You just smooooooooosh some fresh wet Paperclay in any cracks or uneven areas, and let that dry. It will stick to the first layer of Paperclay. Then sand it again:

Second Sanding Round with Paperclay

Paperclay Filling in Furniture

You can see after this second round of smooshing and sanding, the finish is more even.

STEP 5. Paint the chairs black again

I’m not 100% happy with the finish. Ideally the “Paperclayed” area should be so smooth, it looks like nothing was ever carved in the wood. I don’t know if I’ll achieve that perfectionistic ideal. Now that we have a decent orbital sander with a vacuum, I might do another round of filling and sanding.

Also the Paperclay absorbs more paint than the finished wood around it. It probably needs to be sealed so you don’t get this weird two-tone effect:

DIY Difficulty

So what did I do to fix it? This:

Naga Throw on Chinese Chair

STEP 6. Throw textiles over the backs

Isn’t it easier to hide a mess than to fix it? Of course! Yes as a child I was the kid who, when mom told us to clean our room, I shoved my toys under the bed and called it clean. Some things never change. So, I draped some throws over the chairs:

  • A throw from Nagaland, found at The Loaded Trunk (she still has a few!)
  • A woven and beaded skirt from a tribe that lives in Laos and Vietnam, found at Arastan which was a store in Bangalore, India

Global Style in Our House

Chinese Chairs

The rug is silk (so luxurious for your feet!) that my husband got at auction many years ago. Back in the ’90s before we even met. The curtains behind the chairs are damask print curtains from Target. The things hanging on the walls are carved wooden combs found in India, and I DIY’d cute little museum style display shelves for them.

To round out this global style corner, I’m on the hunt for a small side table to put between the chairs. I can see a little Syrian/Moroccan/Indian inlay table here, something with some pattern on it.

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How to Add a Far East Touch with Chinese Hardware

If you’d like to add a flair of the Far East in your home, it’s actually really easy to do. There are a few distinctive details and one of them is hardware. Chinese hardware is often a burnished brushed brass color. Like a soft-looking metal. The brass can take many shapes, often with big dramatic backplates and dangling pulls. Let’s take a look …

(And, follow through to the end of the post where you will find my super-secret source for Chinese hardware which as of now, is no longer so super-secret.)

From PUREfourhundred:

Chinese Hardware PUREfourhundred

This shows simple Chinese hardware on a cabinet, photographed by me at Primitive in Chicago:

Chinese Hardware on Red Cabinet

Here’s another red cabinet with typical simple Chinese hardware. You’re going to see a lot of red cabinets and sideboards because it’s pretty common to use red lacquer on Chinese furniture. I like how this furniture from the Far East is combined with strong simple shapes from other cultures around the world. Originally from House Beautiful:

Red Chinese Cabinet with Global Accessories via House Beautiful

From Apartment f15, tribal Afghan and Turkish jewelry hanging from Chinese cabinet hardware for global flair:

Apartmentf15 Chinese Cabinet with Tribal Jewelry

For a change of color, here etched brass door pulls on a yellow Chinese cabinet. Maybe the internet is getting over-saturated with images because it’s getting harder and harder to trace images to originals through my tried and true methods. If you know the source of this one, let me know:

Etched Brass Chinese Door Pulls


So far, by analyzing these photos for visual patterns, you can see a big part of the look is the large decorative backplates, which can come in many shapes, and they can be etched with decorations or left plain.

This next one is a striking combo of very large backplate with two smaller door pulls. This super oversized look is my favorite. This cabinet was featured at Skona Hem:

Red Lacquer Chinese Cabinet via Skona Hem


From Golden Lotus Antiques, this is the coolest treatment of hardware. It’s like mesh combined with the traditional round backplate shape:

Black Lacquer Chinese Cabinet via Golden Lotus Antiques

Source for Chinese Hardware:

As promised, here is my once super-secret source for getting this hardware:  An eBay store called Chinese Brass Hardware. I share because I just like to share like that, and surely there’s enough of this hardware to go around!

Here’s a project I did where I used their hardware. I did a makeover on an old cabinet that was once Danish modern, and turned it into Chinese antique style. The post showing that process is here. I chose an oversized set of hardware, just because:

Danish Cabinet Makeover into Antique Chinese Style

In the next post, I’ll share another, smaller project made using hardware from that eBay store!

If you like this Chinese style, there’s a lot more of this on my Pinterest Chinese Style Board:

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A Lil’ Bit Boho: Colorful Painted Cabinets

This cabinet found on Annie Sloan’s Facebook page stopped me in my tracks, in fact I think it stopped all time from moving and the Earth from spinning. At least it seemed that way to me. Here it is:

Painted Cabinet in Annie Sloane's Home

It’s described as: ‘In my boho bedroom in France –  a sideboard painted in Aubusson and Barcelona with a paper cut out on the front panels and side panels too.”

You could get a similar look as the plant shapes on these door panels by decoupaging a crazy quilt of printed paper, then painting or stenciling over it. It would be fun to decoupage colorful magazine ads and then stencil over them, revealing just glimpses of the ads! I’ve collected design magazines in Thailand during trips there and I can’t read the ads – this might be a cool thing to do with them.

For more boho style in a cabinet, here’s a painted Tibetan cabinet from Baronet 4 Tibet:

Painted Tibetan Cabinet from Baronet 4 Tibet

This one is like a party in a sherbet-colored sideboard! From Maisons du Monde:

Painted Sideboard Cabinet from Maisons du Monde

This one is more subdued, a different mood, just as colorful:

Painted Cabinet for Boho Style

I wasn’t able to track down the original source of this. If you know, please leave a comment and I’ll update this. It deserves credit, beautiful!

A bit less bold, the colors on this Chinese style cabinet could blend into a lot of home styles. It could bring some contrast to modern, and it would fit right in with rustic country. This is now sold, but was at Wisteria:

Chinese Painted Cabinet from Wisteria

If most of a room’s décor is more conservative, these kinds of cabinets are a great option to add unique personality without being too overwhelming with the color and pattern. They’re a good size to tuck into a space and add a little style contrast. I made a Chinese style cabinet for our dining room to get that result in our house. The dining table is … hmmm, maybe transitional style? And cherry stained? It doesn’t have much style personality. Rooms like that need something a little different to be more interesting.

Like tuck this little cabinet from Plumo next to a chair or sofa and you have an easy infusion of something spunky in the room:

Painted Cabinet from Plumo

These little cabinets are always useful near seating areas to hold a coffee mug, remote control, a candle, picture frame, etc. Why not choose a colorful cabinet for a little shot of personality?

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DIY Cabinet Makeover: From Danish Modern to “Antique” Chinese

Back in his bachelor apartment days, my husband got a nondescript Danish cabinet. This cabinet was like a guy’s boxy T-shirt – no style when style is scary, and it filled a need without offending anyone. But it also wasn’t much worth looking at. So I decided to do a visionary DIY furniture makeover. Here’s the before and after:

DIY Antique Chinese Cabinet Before & After

Do you even see that Danish cabinet any more? It’s under there somewhere! We’ve always wanted an antique Chinese sideboard in the dining room, and saw many we liked over the years, but we never committed to spending for one. So for a challenge, I wondered, can this boring Danish cabinet be remade into antique Chinese style? Yes it can! Here’s how …

1. Chinese Hardware

To get the look, it’s most important to get Chinese style hardware. There’s an eBay store called Chinese Hardware that sells reproduction “antique” Chinese hardware of all sizes and styles. I love the quality of their hardware. It’s very heavy and substantial feeling, and they even included the antiqued brass nails to match. Here are examples of their hardware:


I decided to have fun with scale, and got ridiculously large 16″ long hardware for the size of our cabinet:

Chinese Brass Hardware

This hardware is still available even though I got it two years ago. Yeah, this project has been waiting to happen for awhile! Next, here’s how the cabinet was remade into Chinese style …

2. Chunk It Up

Chinese furniture is far chunkier and “blocky” looking than the original skinny laminated particleboard cabinet. So how about add another layer of wood? I simply glued, clamped and then screwed wood – okay, PLYwood – to the cabinet:

Plywood Added

Plywood Added

(Ugh, need a better camera for low light!) So what’s the obsession with particleboard and plywood around here? We really don’t have much furniture made of cheap wood. I wasn’t sure if this DIY would turn out well, so I didn’t want to invest in thick pine wood (which I had considered due to its lack of grain – Chinese furniture isn’t grainy) to “chunk it up.” If you do this project, you can use whatever wood you like. Next, I filled the sunken screws and any gaps between boards with wood filler. I also smeared wood filler over the rough ends of the plywood. I guess the ends could have just been sanded, but I’ve never used plywood before. I had no idea how well the edges would sand down. So I figured, maybe wood filler is like “duck tape.” Maybe it can solve all problems? The content of this cabinet is now probably 10% wood filler, 10% laminate, 80% mystery wood!

Wood Filler, Lots of Wood Filler

Next I sanded everything. Even the edges and corners were sanded and rounded. Antique Chinese cabinets don’t have perfect sharp corners and edges. They’re worn down and a bit rounded. Here’s an old Chinese cabinet in our family room, where you can see worn rounded edges:

Chinese Cabinet Rounded Edges

3. Picturesque Doors

Chinese furniture doors can be solid color or have painted scenes. I wanted a scene, so I searched online for a poster, wallpaper or fabric with a chinoiserie image or other Chinese style scenery. I also looked for colors that wouldn’t clash with the celadon green and paprika colors of our dining room. And it had to look old. This Chinese wallpaper print at V&A was perfect:


Because this print was pricey when you factor in the Euro-Dollar exchange rate at the time, plus shipping, I chose a size that could be turned sideways, cut through the middle, and used across both doors. I measured and marked the space carefully for the print so it would be perfectly placed. Then I glued it to the doors:

Chinese Wallpaper Print Glued on Cabinet Doors

I used repositionable spray adhesive to attach the prints, just in case I needed to adjust them. Then I brushed a few layers of Mod Podge over the prints for protection. Next I sawed thin pieces of beechwood to make frames around the prints:

Beechwood Frame Added to Door

The frames finished the prints nicely, instead of leaving the raw edges of the prints, which would just look like prints pasted on a door.

Framed Doors for Chinese Cabinet

4. Paint

I chose milk paint from the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company, to try a paint that I’ve never used before, and because it has a matte vintage finish. Plus it’s a “green” paint without toxins. I mixed Bayberry Green and Driftwood milk paint colors (1 part Bayberry Green and 2 parts Driftwood) for a brownish-olive color:

Milk Paint in Bayberry Green and Driftwood

The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company sells many colors that you can mix to make custom colors. They have milk paint color recipes here on their Facebook. You mix the powders, then add water to make the paint. DesignSponge has a great tutorial on how to paint with milk paint. DesignSponge cautions about flaking, but I used the Extra Bond that’s recommended to help the first coat adhere, and there was no flaking.

Milk Paint and Riesling

If you try milk paint and see the first coat is thin and streaky, maybe looks horrible, don’t panic! It fills in nicely as you add more coats. Also, it’s recommended you use the Extra Bond in the first coat, then use paint without Extra Bond in the next coat(s). However, for me, the coat with the Extra Bond dried to a nice deep finish with some luster, but the paint without Extra Bond dried chalky. I didn’t want the chalky finish. So I repainted and used Extra Bond in all coats. Last, I applied wax for a nice finish. I used Fiddes brand wax (from the UK and ordered from Websters in the U.S.) in Rugger Brown color for an old look. I left some dark wax build-up in the corners of the door frames:

Dark Wax in Corners

5. Attach Hardware

Finally, the brass Chinese hardware was attached to the doors:

Chinese Hardware Attached to Cabinet Doors

Chinese Hardware

The seller of this hardware includes attachment instructions on their eBay pages. They recommend protecting the hardware when you hammer the nails because if you hit the hardware with your hammer, you’ll ding the antiqued brass finish. I just hammered very carefully. My nailheads have shiny spots on them, but I’ll touch them up with an antique gold paint.

Carefully Attach Chinese Hardware

But of course, the most important factor of any project around here is this:

Chaai the Crafty Cat is Always Supervising

Chaai the Crafty Cat

Oops I made a mistake with the paint:

A Paint Color Oops

6. The Reveal

I was surprised to find the original cabinet really was made in Denmark and not China:

Made in Denmark

From “Nondescript Danish” …

DIY Cabinet Makeover: Danish Modern Before

To “Antique Chinese” …

DIY Cabinet Makeover - Danish Modern to Antique Chinese

DIY Antique Chinese Cabinet After

(I’m sorry the photos could be better. This room is dark and it’s really hard to get non-grainy photos there.) We got global style at a fraction of the cost of real antique or even reproduction Chinese cabinets. Plus, the original cheap particleboard cabinet has now been strengthened for a longer life. This was so much fun, I’m looking for another plain cabinet to turn into “antique” Chinese furniture! Also if you’re curious about the unusual color of our dining room walls, I posted about the dining room color here. The “before” version of this cabinet makes an appearance in a few photos there.

This project is shared at:

Beneath My Heart | DIY Showoff | East Coast CreativeFunky Junk Interiors | Jennifer RizzoMiss Mustard Seed | PinkWhenRemodelaholic | Southern HospitalityTatertots and JelloThe Shabby Nest

This project was featured at Roadkill Rescue!


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