Arthur strives to balance aesthetics, functionality, and quality with costs when planning DIY projects in the home and garden.
Know Your Limits
Obviously, unless you have the skills, a major restoration of a large piece of furniture is best left to a professional.
However, if you just want to cover a seat, then upholstery isn’t that difficult. With a few simple tips and guidelines, it can be well within the reach of most people.
How Easy Is Upholstery
Simple Guide to Basic Upholstery
If you have an old chair where the material has become threadbare or tatty, rather than throw it out or spend a small fortune on getting it professionally restored, then reupholstering it yourself isn’t as daunting as it may look.
Likewise, if you have a stool that doesn’t have a padded seat, it’s an easy task to make it far more comfortable with a simple bit of upholstering.
In this article, I aim to demonstrate how easy upholstery can be, illustrated by the seven simple DIY projects I've done using various materials, as listed below.
Upholstered in furniture fabric:
- Rocking chair
Upholstered in red faux fur fabric:
- Cat tree
- Sewing box
- Step stool
Upholstered with carpet:
- Foot stool
- Cat flap Insulator board
DIY to Reupholstering Dining Chairs
Choice of Fabric
- For recovering a chair you should really use furniture fabric, although for a seat that doesn’t get much use, you might consider using other fabrics, including curtain material.
- For stools, good quality carpet works just as well and can be very effective as I describe in detail below for upholstering a foot stool.
- For furniture that doesn’t get much heavy wear, such as cat trees and occasional stools, materials such as Red Faux Fur Fabric can be fun and colourful.
Regardless to your choice of fabric, the basic principles for upholstery are the same. The only real variation is whether you use staples or furniture tacks, and that’s largely dependent on whether the edge will be on the side or underneath.
If tacking on the side the edge will be visible and should be either fixed with furniture tacks or if stapled first, then tacks used for decorative effect. Whereas if the edge of the fabric is under the seat, where it will be out of sight, then you’ll just staple it in place.
Below I give examples of upholstering with and without furniture tacks, where in my projects I’ve used furniture fabric, faux fur and carpet.
Upholstering an Armchair With Furniture Fabric
For a chair, furniture fabric is the obvious choice. The first item of furniture I ever attempted to upholster was an armchair I inherited from my grandmother; to be precise, a commode. The fabric was threadbare and the wooden arms grubby through years of use.
I also inherited a small sofa where the fabric was good but the springs had gone and the legs a little wobbly.
Therefore, in the days before the Internet where you can learn from ‘how-to’ web articles, I reversed engineered, e.g., by carefully removing all the furniture tacks and existing fabric on the armchair as a way of learning how it was constructed.
Then after removing the fabric from the broken sofa, I cut it to size using the fabric from the armchair as a template. Then I reupholstered the armchair, using new furniture tacks to fix the fabric in place.
What I learnt from this exercise was the importance of:
- Once it’s tacked down at one end, pulling the fabric taut as you tack it down at the end.
- Paying particular attention to tucking in the corners neatly.
- Repeating the process of pulling the fabric taut while fitting to the sides.
After I’d successfully reupholstered my first item of furniture, I removed the commode bucket and fitted a false bottom to create a storage area. I then finished the restoration of the armchair by rubbing down and re-staining the wooden arms and legs.
Using Upholstery Tacks
Step-by-Step Guide to Upholstering a Rocking Chair
My latest upholstery project was for a friend who seeing the armchair asked if I could upholster a rocking chair for his wife. The rocking chair, a solid birch bentwood with a walnut finish for the frame and a natural rattan wicker seating, retails in the UK for about £70 ($90).
The reason they wanted me to upholster the seat and the back was because the rattan had become dry and brittle and was beginning to break off in places. Obviously they would have preferred to have had it repaired, but they didn’t know anyone with the skills and to get it professionally restored would have been prohibitively expensive.
Having examined it closely, and discussing the options with them, I agreed to upholster the rocking chair as a favour to a friend for the cost of any materials I needed to buy, e.g., the foam and padding, and a nominal fee for my time. All I need to get started was for the wife to choose and buy some suitable furniture fabric to cover the chair with.
Her choice of fabric was red velvet, which although nice, wasn’t what I would have called suitable in that it was hard to work with (too fine), and it attracts every bit of dust so during and after restoration I was constantly brushing it clean of bits. I had the spare plywood and other bits and pieces I needed in my workshop so I only needed to buy some 1/4 inch foam and 1/4 inch thick polyester wadding; which only cost a few pounds (less than $5).
Once I started, it took less than two hours to upholster the chair, and in gratitude my friend gave me £20 ($30) for my time.
The basic steps for upholstering the rocking chair was:
- Dismantle the chair into its various parts.
- Using the back rest and seat as templates mark out and cut plywood to size; as support to replace the function of the failing rattan.
- Cut 1/4 inch foam and polyester wadding the same size as the seat and back.
- Cut the fabric to wrap around the seat and back rest, and further pieces to fit over the back of both pieces of plywood.
- Upholster the seat and back rest with the foam, wadding fabric; and the plywood with just fabric.
- Reassemble the rocking chair.
- Fit and secure the plywood into the underside of the seat and back rest.
Below is a more detailed description of each step.
Dismantle the Chair
- Unscrew the seat and back from the frame.
- Put the bolts to one side and keep them safe for reassembly.
Cut the Plywood to Size
- Choose a 1/4 inch sheet of plywood large enough to fit in the back. Use thin plywood to minimise on weight.
- Choose a 3/4 inch sheet of plywood large enough to fit the seat; thicker than for the back as it needs to be strong enough to support the weight of people sitting on the chair.
- Using the seat and back as templates mark out and cut the plywood to size to fit on the inside the wood profile. A little tricky to do as the rattan gets in the way; so it’s a case of marking on the plywood between the rattan and then joining up the dots afterwards.
- Check the plywood for fit, and make any necessary adjustments, so they fit neatly into the recesses of the seat and back.
- Sand the edges of the plywood smooth.
Cut the Foam and Wadding to Size
- Using the seat and back rest as templates mark out and cut 1/4 inch thick foam to fit.
- Likewise, cut 1/4 inch thick polyester wadding to the same size.
Cut the Fabric to Size
- Place the seat on top of the furniture fabric, and using it as a guide, cut the fabric around the outside of the seat leaving ample spare to rap around the seats frame.
- Likewise, using the back as a guide cut plenty of fabric to rap around the whole frame.
- Repeating the process, cut two pieces of the furniture fabric to rap around the edges of both pieces of plywood.
Upholster the Seat, Back Rest and Plywood
- Place the fabric on a flat surface with the wadding and foam on top and position the seat over the top of it.
- Staple the fabric on the inside along one edge, close to the base so the staples will be concealed when the plywood backing is fitted.
- Pull the fabric taut to the other side and secure with staples.
- Tuck in the corners, pulling on them tightly as you staple them in place.
- Staple down the adjacent edge and while pulling the fabric taut, staple opposite end in place.
- Repeat the same process to upholster the back rest.
- Cover the two pieces of plywood with fabric in the same way as for upholstering the seat and back; except that as the back piece of plywood is only 1/4 inch thick, and too thin to use staples, it can be screwed in place (rather than tacked down) with tiny screws.
Assemble and Final Fit
Because the bolts that hold the chair together will be hidden by the plywood the chair needs to be reassembled before the plywood is fitted in place.
Once the chair is reassembled:
- Push the plywood for the back rest firmly in place, with the fabric face up, and secure in place with small angle braces discreetly screwed into the wooden frame of the back rest.
- Repeat the process for the plywood fitted under the seat; ensuring a strong fit as the seat will need to take the full weight of a person. For added strength, I used plastic ‘Fixit’ blocks.
Upholstering With Red Faux Fur Fabric
The principles of upholstering with fun fur such as red faux fur fabric are the same as for upholstering with furniture fabric as described above for upholstering a rocking chair.
Although I wouldn’t advise using this material for heavy wearing furniture, e.g., it would soon flatten, look matted and be difficult to keep clean.
However, it’s ideal for cat trees, and in our conservatory, I’ve also used it for light usage furniture such as a step stool and seat for a sewing box (which don’t get much wear) as a fun way to add a bit of colour to the décor.
Upcycling an Old Tool Chest to Upholstered Sewing Box
Upholstering With Carpet
Carpet is a hard wearing material that when padded e.g. with foam, can make a very comfortable seat and is particularly ideal for stools. Although there can also be other useful applications, such as the cat flap insulator board I recently made, in this article I describe in detail how I used carpet for upholstery using a foot stool as my example.
Carpets of Quality
Axminster is one of the two distinguished British carpets of quality, the other being Wilton and both being 100% wool.
Axminster carpets, with its design emulating Turkish rugs, started being made in Devon, England in 1755. The Wilton carpet, based on Belgium carpet making techniques brought to England by two French weavers, was first patented in Wilton, Wiltshire, England in 1741.
The high quality and durability of these carpets, reflected by the price, is such that they will outlast other expensive carpets most people buy, and if cared for can be expected to last a lifetime showing little wear.
Carpeting a Foot Stool
A few years ago my brother dumped an old footstool in his back garden, to throw out in the bin, because it was tatty and the top was in a poor state of repair. When I visited him and saw it laying waste in his back garden in instantly saw the quality of the wood (solid mahogany) and the potential in the stool; so I asked if I could have it.
On bringing the stool home I lightly sanded the wood and restrained it to bring it back to its former glory; and then upholstered the top with some foam and a spare bit of furniture fabric.
More recently we had our living room carpeted with Axminster carpet. After the carpet layer fitted our new Axminster he left me with the offcuts, part of which I used to reupholster the stool, so that it now looks better than ever, and a lot more comfortable to sit on; albeit it does tend to blend into our new carpet in the living room.
If you haven’t upholstered a seat before, it’s not as difficult as it looks. The key to its success is pulling the material taut over the foam and paying particular attention to getting all the corners neatly tucked in. In simplistic terms, using a suitable staple gun:-
- Staple the material on one side, underneath the seat where it’s going to be out of sight, with lots of staples close together.
- Pull and hold the material tight over the foam while you staple it in place on the other side.
- Then repeat the process for the two ends, ensuring you tuck in and well staple the four corners as you go.
Arthur Russ (author) from England on December 07, 2016:
Thanks Larry, With my DIY projects I'm always looking for opportunities to repurpose and upcycle materials, and be innovative whenever possible.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on December 06, 2016:
Interesting how to.