Whether you’ve found an ancient upholstered chair with new potential at a thrift shop, spotted an intriguing specimen curbside or have your own old beauty in need of some TLC at home, there is hope! But there are also pitfalls and many possible mistakes to be made along the way. Andrea Ford, the designer, furniture maker and founder of Toronto’s RE:Style Studio, not only holds reupholstering workshops, but she designs and sells her own furniture. We spoke to her about the dos and don’ts of reupholstery — here are the pro’s top mistakes and the best-case scenarios for giving old furniture new life:
Beyond repair chairs
First of all, although many chairs can be saved, some are just not worth it — even for a pro like Ford. “Few chairs, to me, are beyond repair,” says Ford, who will put in the finances and time needed to not only reupholster but to rebuild wooden frames of chairs she loves. But, she says rebuilding often ends up costing more than buying new. Plus, some issues are just beyond repair. “Serious moisture damage can compromise the strength and integrity of a chair frame, which, when dried out, can become brittle and prone to breaking. Mould is also a hazard that is almost impossible to seal out and the smell is impossible to remove,” she says. “Worm damage can create some serious structural damage that ultimately makes the wood like swiss cheese inside, and less durable.”
You can spot water damage by looking for warped wooden frames and you should be able to feel how brittle a piece is just by lifting and touching it. You’ll be able to see and smell mould. If the mould is only in the upholstery, the chair may be worth saving, but if it’s throughout the wood, don’t bother. Finally, worm damage will be apparent via tiny holes throughout the furniture.
Do: Fully uncover your furniture to decide if it’s worth saving. Remove upholstery and inspect the seat of the chair for sagging and irreparable damage.
Don’t: Bother with a piece of furniture that smells musty or mouldy.
Do: Look for water stains on fabric. This is an easy way to spot damage.
Avoid DIY armchairs
While old armchairs are definitely salvageable, it’s not a project for amateurs. “Armchairs are like furniture versions of jigsaw puzzles,” says Ford. “Without the proper guidance (or knowing the next steps) you can actually staple yourself into a corner.” So take your fully upholstered armchair project to a pro.
Be wary of extra affordable upholsterers
“When getting a quote, check to make sure the upholsterer is going to strip the piece down to examine the frame and structure,” says Ford. “A cheap quote usually means that original fabrics and stuffing will be hidden underneath your new fabric.” She says that skipping the vital step of stripping down can lead to undetected structural issues and will wear down your new fabric from the inside. Issues that can go missed with chairs that haven’t been stripped: sagging seats and loose springs. Ford says that sagging can be caught by checking to see if the armchair’s dust cover is bulging way below the frame of the chair. This is a bad sign. Also, issues with springs and the clips that keep them in place are often concealed and can often be overlooked. If an old chair has loose clips, you’re that much closer to falling through the seat and onto the floor.
A fully upholstered armchair will cost at least $500 in labour, plus fabric and supplies, says Ford, while a dining chair with an upholstered seat may only cost $40 in labour plus supplies.
Do: Be realistic about the cost of reupholstering an armchair. A cheap quote usually means the chair will fall apart sooner than later.
Don’t: Trust the structural integrity of a chair whose dust cover (the fabric on the bottom) sags below its frame.
Do: Try stripping down the piece yourself before bringing it to an upholsterer. This way you’ll see the issues and it may even save you money since the professional can skip this step.
How to choose a pro
Besides being wary of cheap prices, Ford warns that professional upholsterers who sell fabric are marking that fabric up to make extra money. Those same upholsterers will often charge a cutting or handling fee if you want to use a fabric you’ve bought yourself. She suggests checking for businesses that offer no-fee COM (customer’s own material).
Ford says that you should shop around when looking for an upholsterer. Get multiple quotes and compare. If you get a quote that seems high, she says, ask why. “There could be additional services built in upfront that you aren’t aware of, while the cheaper option may have a lot of unexpected extras later.” Also, always ask how long it will take and what their process is. You want to ensure that they plan to strip and fully clean your piece before rebuilding.
Don’t: Automatically choose the first upholsterer who gives you a quote.
Do: Look for a professional who allows you to find and purchase your own fabric.
Don’t: Choose just any fabric. Ask the pro what weight and material you should be looking for for your specific chair.
Do: Go to a professional store for your fabric. Ford says that many trade upholstery shops are now open to the public.
Do it yourself
There are chairs that are more suitable to DIY jobs. Try chairs with only an upholstered seat, like a dining chair. Ford also suggests that “chairs that have a separated back and seat (like a Louis-style chair) are the best combination of challenge and ease.” But start small. A dining chair with an upholstered seat is a great small project. Starting with a larger seat, say a bench, or a more complicated shape (an oval seat back) may pose problems for the amateur.
Practice stapling and master getting a simple square seat upholstered correctly so you’ll have the confidence to move on to bigger projects. The square seat is an easy first project and a great starting point because you will develop basic upholstery skills that you can use on more challenging projects later. Start by stretching the fabric over the seat and placing two staples on opposite sides of the underside of the seat, then tighten the fabric and add two more staples on each of the other sides. Continue to pull and staple until you have a series of staples that are an inch apart all around the base of the seat.
Do: Remove all of the old staples from the seat using a flat-head screwdriver.
Don’t: Apply new fabric to damaged, smelly or falling-apart cushioning. Replace the cushioning, too.
Do: Staple sparingly at first, giving yourself lots of room to stretch and tighten your fabric.
What you’ll need
“The basic toolkit includes pliers, a staple lifter, scissors, utility knife, short measuring tape and a stapler,” Ford says, adding that pneumatic staplers with an air compressor are best for the tidiest and most durable staple seams. Look for a stapler with all-metal pieces and one that will take upholstery staples, which are between 3/8″ and 5/8″ long and 22 gauge. You can often find upholstery staples and staplers at big box hardware stores like Home Depot.
Other basic supplies you’ll need include foam, polyester batting — “specific to upholstery use called terylene” — cotton batting, elastic webbing, jute webbing and burlap.
Have no idea where to begin?
Take a class, like the ones offered by RE:Style Studio, or at the very least, watch a video online before going crazy with that staple gun!