The Up Side of Upholstery

You’re a DIYer, doubt-free and determined that you can do or fix just about anything around the house. But before you dive into an upholstery project for the first time, do yourself a favor: Keep it simple — real simple — and know who to call for backup.

“Life is long, and a lot of things in your home will need upholstering,” says Daryl Vstetecka of Upholstery Stylists in Minneapolis. “Do simple pieces at first, gain confidence as you go and then take on more complex projects.”

With Vstetecka’s advice in mind, we worked on a footstool with Jan Johnson of Jan Johnson Upholstery Inc. in Minneapolis. The job was simple: Remove the old fabric, touch up the cushioning, and recover the footstool with new fabric. This would normally take her about an hour, but it ate up an entire morning because of all our questions and photo pauses. Fortunately for us, Johnson knows that when you’re working with upholstery (not to mention magazine editors), patience is a necessity.

Why bother?
Considering how involved upholstery projects can be, you may wonder whether you’re better off just buying new furniture. The answer depends on the piece you’re recovering. It may be better to trash that old ottoman if it was junk when you bought it and will still be junk after you’ve jazzed it up with a new cover, say Johnson and Vstetecka.

To determine whether a project is worth your time, first assess the condition of the underlying materials. Remove enough of the existing covering to expose several portions of the frame. If it is hardwood and the wood’s not rotten, it’s probably in good enough condition to recover.

Remove all staples from the underside of the footstool with a staple knocker and needle-nose pliers. Pulling back the black cambric exposes webbing that typically supports springs (although this footstool doesn’t have them) and cushions.

Next, consider the quality of the piece. “When the furniture’s cheap, usually customers know it, deep down,” says Vstetecka. “The frame is flimsy, loose and lightweight, and springs are broken. When you ask how the furniture performed, they often wince.

“People may go to a garage sale and get a wingback chair for $15 or $20. It may be junk or it may be excellent. The cushions may be all worn and the seat sags, but if there’s an Ethan Allen label on it, that should tell them, ‘Yes, it’s worth reupholstering.”

So, a good frame is most telling. Also, if the piece puts you in a good frame of mind because of the style and fond associations, certainly consider upholstery. The finished product may cost you as much as a moderately priced new piece, but you’ll gain a new appreciation for quality furniture.

Mark the midpoint of the footstool’s length. You will staple the midpoint of the new fabric to this point on the frame.

If you need other reasons to reupholster, consider these:

  • Once family heirlooms have been rejuvenated, you’ll be glad to restore their rightful place in your home.
  • You’ll have bragging rights to a period piece that’s no longer available in stores.
  • You’ll reap the benefits of an older hardwood frame, which tends to be of higher quality than most frames now on the market.

The right tools
To recover our footstool, Johnson used five upholstery-specific tools: a staple knocker, which removes staples ($15 for a hand knocker or $140 for a pneumatic model); a stapler ($130 for a pneumatic tool); a regulator for tucking and folding material ($3); T-pins ($3); and a tack hammer ($18).

There are many other upholstery tools, including a variety of specialized pins and needles, webbing stretchers, sewing machines, rubber mallets and clamps. You can get by with almost any pair of scissors, but if you plan to tackle more than one project, you’ll want to invest in upholsterer scissors ($25 to $35), which are longer and of better quality than everyday scissors. Although purchasing tools can add up, your finished product will look better — and your sanity will be preserved — if you invest in these tools as you graduate to more complex projects.

The right stuffing
Taking on a project like the footstool (see photos) offers a glimpse at these four upholstery basics:

  • The frame: When Johnson removed the staples, cambric (black material that covers the bottom) and old covering, she exposed the footstool’s frame. The type of wood is crucial to quality. Softwoods often cannot support the joinery required for good-quality furniture. The tight grain of this footstool’s hardwood holds pegs, screws and nails much better over time. Joints in the frame are reinforced with blocks or dowels to prevent the frame from loosening.
  • The spring system: The footstool has webbing, which supports a spring system, but it doesn’t have springs. Instead, it has webbing under cotton padding covered by a layer of Dacron. In most furniture, the frame supports standard springs or hand-tied springs. There are two kinds of standard springs: sinuous, which have been heat-formed into continuous S’s, and drop-in, which are mass-manufactured welded units that are of lower quality than sinuous springs. Standard springs move only up and down and are less comfortable than eight-way hand-tied springs that can move up and down, side to side and diagonally.
  • Cushioning or padding: The frame and springs support cushions usually made of a high-density Dacron foam core. The core is wrapped with soft polyester, feather and down or a hypoallergenic down substitute. Dacron helps pillows and seats to keep their shape, and wraps form a soft envelope. Cushions and pillows are usually sewn into cotton cases to ensure smooth upholstering.
  • Fabric or leather covering: The fabric or leather that covers the cushioning is the “show” material that can account for as much as 70 percent of a furnishing’s price. Johnson says the footstool’s new covering costs $200 a yard, which is high-end; most material costs $20 to $50 a yard. (If you add the cost of the exacting labor of cutting, sewing and attaching the material, you can see why hiring a professional makes reupholstery an expensive proposition.)

  • After applying a fresh layer of Dacron over the old cushioning, measure for the new cover. Don’t pull down on the tape, and measure at least 2 in. below the frame on each side. It’s better to cut the fabric oversize than too small.

    On each side, staple the midpoint of the fabric to the midpoint on the frame length. Pull the fabric snug so the cushioning is firm; then drive a few staples. Finish stapling all sides except for 2 in. on both sides of each corner.

    For corners, cut at a 45-degree angle from the outside of the leg to where frame and inside edge of the leg meet. You will staple the flap in the left hand all the way to this edge. Then you’ll trim and fold the other flap to make a corner.

    When choosing materials for a project, keep in mind that tightly woven fabrics and blends wear longer than light or loose-weave natural fibers. Leather is beautiful, durable and easy to care for, often growing softer and more comfortable with time.

    Considering the cost of upholstery fabrics, it’s easy to see why you should make your first project a simple endeavor, preferably one that does not involve sewing. You might also consider doing part of the job and turning the rest over to a professional.

    A T-pin temporarily secures the fold. Pull the flap tight around the corner, use a regulator to tuck in material (photo 6) and then staple (photo 7).

    Whether you do all of the work yourself or get help for the hard parts, it’s hard to hold back a smile. You did it, salvaged a good piece of furniture gone bad. And your efforts will be rewarded with a piece that is now yours, an expression of your craftsmanship and creativity.

    One head of the tack hammer is magnetic, which helps when securing the fabric with a gimp nail. Add three more gimp nails up the fold line.

    Staple new cambric to the frame, leaving 2 in. on each side of the legs. Fold and cut cambric at 45 degrees toward each corner. Pull flaps around each leg and finish stapling.

    The fear factor
    As a professional upholsterer, Johnson has seen many handy beginners humbled by a project once they remove the fabric. “With most pieces, you don’t just lay new fabric over it and staple it,” she says. “Customers see all the pieces inside — especially the sewing that’s required — and it messes them up. They get frustrated and come to me.”

    “Upholstery can be intimidating,” agrees Vstetecka. “People love their furniture and want it to look like the chair the professional reupholstered for $800.”

    Before you start ripping, Johnson recommends taking an upholstery class and using your piece of furniture as a class project. If you can’t take a class, make friends with an upholsterer. Although you can’t expect every professional to give you his or her time, many friendly sole proprietors will offer advice and help you to get over your trepidation.

    When I took an upholstery class, I recovered chairs that were part of an heirloom dining set. I removed the old fabric and worn webbing cushioning. Before I could sew and tie springs to new webbing, I needed to firm up the wobbly foundation. This meant regluing, which involved whacking the antique frame with a rubber mallet.

    Left alone, I doubt that I would have had enough nerve to tackle this step. And when I told my wife about this leap of faith, she covered her ears and said, “I don’t want to hear this!” I was wobbly with fear but trusted my instructor, who assured me that we would put the pieces back together again – and better than ever. She was right: With her help, I was able to re-glue, recover and rejuvenate the chairs, and return home a conquering hero.