How to Upholster Furniture

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upholster furniture

Furniture upholstery (and reupholstery) is a fun and not-too-difficult project for the average person. The most common furniture item to reupholster for the first-timer is a chair or bench cushion. The average dining-room chair can be reupholstered with 2-4 hours of work, depending on your handiness skill level.

Upholstering requires being able to use basic tools like scissors, a staple gun, a glue gun, and pliers. Most people who have done any handy work around the house will qualify. Some of the work involves working with sharp objects, so parents should take care when letting children participate. Protective eye ware should also be worn when doing potentially eye-hazardous things like removing old staples.

One of the best features about doing your own upholstering is choosing your own fabric material and color. This enables colors to be matched or paired perfectly with other items in the home and can give a very expensive, custom look. Choose fabrics that are stain-resistant, medium-weight, and are specially designed for upholstery.

Step 1: Gather Equipment

Basic Equipment:

  • Standard Pliers
  • Needle-nosed Pliers
  • Large flat-head screwdriver
  • Upholstery tacks or heavy duty staple gun and staples
  • Glue gun
  • Sharp scissors
  • Upholstery fabric

Other Equipment (may be necessary):

  • Rubber mallet
  • Foam padding or cotton batting for cushioning
  • Welting: cording that makes edges more attractive
  • Digital camera – nice to take pictures before you get started
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Large piece of cardboard or paper for tracing fabric
  • Pen or pencil
  • Tape or straight pins

Step 2: Choose Materials

The most common upholstery project for first-timers is the chair cushion, generally one for the kitchen or dining room. The chair cushion is often the first thing to go, and is one of the easiest upholstery projects. If you have a good time doing the chair cushion, then you’ll be well suited to tackle additional projects.

Your first step in upholstery is to gather the tools you’ll need and pick out suitable, aesthetically pleasing fabric. If you don’t have an eye for interior design, ask a friend. It’s much easier to make the right color and material decision before you do the project! You can buy upholstery fabric at specialty stores (look up Upholstery Supplies in the phone book) and at the larger fabric stores. Don’t buy regular clothing fabric! It tears more easily and will wear out quickly.

You’ll want to choose fabric that is not too heavy-weight. It’s much more difficult to work with heavy, thick fabric. A medium weight fabric that can stretch a little is your best bet. The fabric should also be stain-resistant, as spills are inevitable. You may love fabric like leather or suede, but don’t pick it. You’ll also want to make sure to buy enough fabric to cover your piece and plan to have a little left over. It’s much better to have a bit extra than not enough. Plus, you can often find crafty ways to use the extra fabric that will match your upholstered furniture.

Step 3: Prep

If you’re doing a new upholstery and aren’t working with existing fabric, you’ll want to take the chair bottom, put it onto a large piece of cardboard, and trace a line around it. Now make another line around the trace, 3-4 inches further out (you’ll need to adjust for the height of your cushion, usually 1-2 inches tall). This is the slack. It’s much better to cut too much than too little, so if you’re unsure of how much slack to provide, give it more.

The second line will be the template for your new fabric. Cut out the template and trace this directly on the fabric. Then cut the fabric in your desired shape. Don’t be too disheartened if you don’t get it right the first time. Hopefully you will have cut too much fabric and just need to trim it a little with scissors.

If you’re reupholstering, the task of getting the right fabric size is much easier. Take your piece or pieces of the old fabric and affix them directly to your new fabric. You can affix them with tape or use straight pins (be careful!). Then simply cut out the new fabric, matching the outline of the old.

The chair seat will be made of wood or plastic. Less expensive furniture will have fiberboard type of wood, while more expensive furniture will be solid wood like pine or oak. The softness of the wood or plastic will determine how difficult it is to take staples and tacks out, and put them back in.

Step 4: Take Pictures

Before you get started, it’s a good idea to pull out your digital camera and take a few pictures of your chair. You’ll want to photograph how the cushion is attached to the chair.

Step 5: Remove the Cushion

The next step is to figure out how to remove the cushion from the chair. Often it is a matter of unscrewing it, you’ll need to make sure you have the right screwdriver for the job. Once you remove the cushion from the chair, take photos of how the fabric is attached to the cushion.

The fabric will be attached by staples, tacks, or less often with glue. Take out the staples or tacks with a pair of needle nose pliers. Make sure you wear protective eyewear while doing this. It may require a bit of muscle. If you run into particularly strong staples or tacks, you can wedge them out with a large flat head screwdriver.

The fabric may be a single piece or multiple pieces stitched together. Once you take the fabric off the cushion, you may want to take a couple pictures of how the fabric may be stitched together. If there are multiple pieces, carefully separate them. You’ll want to save these pieces as templates for your new fabric.

Step 6: Upholster

Next, you need to evaluate if you want to add/replace the cushioning. Use a heavy polyurethane foam or cotton batting. You can also add a layer of thin memory foam for an extra cushy sitting experience! Foam is held in place by the fabric around it. Batting can be put on top of the chair seat, pulled over the sides, and stapled or tacked into the bottom of the seat.

To cover your chair cushion with the new fabric, lay your fabric down on your work surface, and then lay the chair seat, cushion-down, over the fabric. Pull your fabric up over the sides of the seat. Then begin stapling or tacking the fabric in place. Make sure the fabric is pulled tight with each new staple or tack. The corners of the chair seat can be tricky, make sure that the fabric on top is held in place neatly. You may need to trim any extra fabric underneath the seat.

Once you’re happy with your upholstery, attach the seat cushion and you’ll have a beautiful new chair!

Once you’ve done the chair cushion, you’re ready to move on to new projects. You can reupholster fabric covered benches, armchairs, loveseats, and couches. These projects are more difficult, but the basic process is fairly similar. You will need to do some sewing with projects like armchairs or couches.

Good luck, good skill, and make sure you take adequate safety measures. You’re only a small project away from making something much more beautiful in your home!

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