Upholstery 101: Ready, Set, Go!

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Hi, guys! I hope you’re all well! And I hope you’re ready to dig into some fun with furniture! Let’s dive right in!

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I found this chair on Craigslist recently, and while I bought it because I love the shape and style, this is also a great upholstery project because it’s something that is totally achievable for a newbie. Why? It’s nice and square, which makes it much, much easier to manipulate the fabric. Navigating curves is fiddly at best and downright frustrating on bad days. So, while you may love the Saarinen womb chair, I wouldn’t recommend something like that for your first project!

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Now, the odds of you finding the exact same chair as mine (or even wanting one just like it!) are slim to none, but my goal with this post is to help you think through the steps before you attack any piece of furniture. Although each piece is put together its own unique way, I want to help get you in the upholstery mindset. With that in mind, our goals for today are:

  • To understand the order of operations
  • To learn the tools and supplies that we’ll need
  • To write up a plan of attack!

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The first thing you should do when you’re starting an upholstery project is to photograph the chair in its original state. Make sure you focus on all the little details- how the corner comes together, where there’s welting, pleats, or buttons, how the fabric wraps around the legs. When you’re working with your new fabric, you’ll be glad you have photo reminders to refer to when you can’t remember what something looked like!

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Next up, take detailed measurements, and sketch the chair, labeling each part with its corresponding measurement. This might seem like a lot of work when you’d rather be attacking the chair, but again, it’s something you’ll almost certainly wish you’d done once you’re in the middle of the project.

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One last thing before you dig in… take a second and sit in the chair! Does it feel hard? Lumpy? Saggy? Loose? Can you feel springs poking through? Make a note of it!

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Here comes the fun part- time to destroy your old chair! Here’s where you get to start using fun tools! It’s good to have all three of these in your toolbox- I use them all for almost every project.

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The first tool is a tack lifter. If you’re working with older furniture, you’ll almost certainly need this. You slide the tool under the head of the tack, and use it like a lever to pry it loose. Here’s the one I have (affiliate link)- it’s under $6 on Amazon, and you may even be able to find one at a hardware store.

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In older furniture, especially if you’re removing decorative tacks, like the ones you see on fancy leather chairs like Ron Burgundy might have in his office, the tacks can be really brittle. The heads will sometimes pop right off, leaving sharp wires sticking out. A pair of needlenose pliers is perfect for pulling out broken-off tacks or bent staples. Dig around in your tool box- you probably have a pair of these already!

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This last tool is a staple lifter. It works just like a tack lifter, but the head is a bit sharper and more beveled so you can slide it under staples. Be careful with this guy- I stab myself at least once every single time I use this! But if you’re recovering newer furniture, or if you’re planning to use a staple gun yourself, you’re going to want one of these puppies! A certain well-known sewing blogger disclosed to me that she once removed the staples from a chair with a screw driver and was really, really sorry she did when her hands were totally torn up at the end of the day! The staple lifter I have and linked to is a bit more expensive, coming in at $23ish. There are cheaper ones available, but I haven’t used them so I can’t comment on them. Just make sure you buy one that’s intended for upholstery and not for office supply staplers. 🙂

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Alright, you’re ready to start taking apart your chair! Grab a notepad and, as you remove something, jot it down. You’ll need to come up with an order of operations that’s specific to your chair, and writing down every step as you undo it is a great way to make sure you don’t forget something. Also, working on sawhorses is a good idea so you’re not bending over, but if you don’t have those at home (I don’t), you can rest it on top of a card table like I do or another firm, stable surface.

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The bottom of the chair is almost always the first thing to remove- you’ll see visible staples or tacks. from there, it’s often the outside back, and after that, it just depends on how your chair was put together. Just keep removing tacks or staples as they appear, and remove the fabric as you can. After each piece comes off, jot it down on your notepad, and take photos, too. Do yourself a favor- if you remove screws, pins, pegs, tags, or anything else that needs to go back into the chair, gather them up and put them in a ziploc bag! It’s really easy to accidentally throw away something that you’ll wish you had later!

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If you’re just recovering your chair, just remove the fabric and call it a day. But, since you’ve already got the thing open, this is a good opportunity to replace the guts. If you’re doing that, photograph each layer as you take it off, and write it down.

For example, here’s what’s under the vinyl, a layer of cotton:

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On the seat, under the cotton, there’s burlap, with spring wire running through it:

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And, finally, the springs!

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Avert your eyes! It’s a naked chair!!

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Now, take a look at the notes you took. Read through them carefully, and now, create an order of operations for yourself. You’ll be working in the opposite direction from the way that you stripped the chair, so the last thing you removed will be the first thing you put on. Make sense? This is a really crucial step- you don’t want to spend an entire day hand sewing your chair closed only to realize that you should have put the legs on first!

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One last thing to do is to decide if you want to deviate from way the chair was originally put together. Let me give you some examples: I opened up an antique chair recently and found that it was stuffed with straw. That’s a situation where you’d want to deviate from the original. Or say it’s filled with horse hair- gross! You can think through substitutes for stuff like that. In my case, I’ll be changing up a few things. My chair was originally covered with vinyl, which was held in place in the back with decorative tacks. I’ll be using regular fabric, so I’ll change up the construction so that my back will be sewn on instead. These are the kinds of things that you might want to think about, particularly if you’re using a different material than what was originally on the piece.

Alright, I hope you guys are excited to tackle the guts! It’s gonna be fun! In the meantime, take a moment to clean up the frame. Carefully inspect it for any cracks or loose screws and take care of them now. Fill any holes (I use a mixture of wood glue and sawdust) and sand the interior frame so that your fabric won’t snag on any rough spots. If you plan on staining or varnishing, now’s the time! If not, clean the legs, arms, or other visible bits with a little Murphy’s Oil Soap and fill in scratches by rubbing a walnut (out of the shell) on them. You can finish up with orange oil or your preferred furniture polish. While you’re doing that, I’ll be working away at the next post in the series… stay tuned!

 

 

Book Report! Spruce: A Step-By-Step Guide to Upholstery and Design

Hello, friends! I hope that you’re all well! In the past I’ve mentioned that I’m now doing upholstery for a furniture designer in Brooklyn, and it seems like many of you makers have an interest in upholstery. So, I’ve decided to share more about that here on the blog, beginning with a review of a book I’ve recommended to everyone who’s told me they want to learn about upholstery!

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When I first started at the workshop, I felt like I was really in over my head. The techniques were all so new to me, and my boss was away quite a bit and often had me work independently. I took tons and tons of notes every time she demonstrated a technique, but I still felt a little panicked when I needed to work through a project on my own. So I looked around online and ordered Spruce: A Step-By-Step Guide to Upholstery and Design (Amazon affiliate link or Indiebound) after seeing it positively reviewed. Long story short, I love this book!

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The book is written by Amanda Brown, who runs Spruce Upholstery in Austin, TX (their Instagram account is a fun one: @spruceathome). Her style is so fresh and fun, and it makes the book really inspiring.

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I appreciate that she spends time talking about how she designs a space, starting with an empty room and adding furniture to it. We’re in the process of redoing and replacing some old hand-me-down furniture, so it’s helpful to get a professional’s opinion on how to balance statement pieces with quieter ones (this is a struggle for me!).

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The book walks you through five projects: a Louis chair, a slipper chair, a wingback chair, a three-seater sofa, and a cocktail ottoman. There are tons and tons and TONS of photos, so you can comfortably follow every step yourself. Plus, Amanda shares lots of inspiration images for each style to help get you thinking outside the box with your fabric choices… I loved these images!

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Another clever feature is the color-coded chart pictured below. This shows you where in the book to find instructions for different upholstery features, so you can mix and match them to suit your own needs. Super helpful! Before I had this book I frequently tried to google information when I was stuck, but I didn’t have the proper terminology to find what I needed to know and even when I did, the info didn’t seem to exist online. So this solved that problem most of the time.

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The book is really thorough– it covers everything from calculating how much fabric you’ll need to sewing matching throw pillows. Webbing, foam, tufting, welting… you name it, it’s in there! Many of these techniques I’ve never learned at the shop (since we specialize in midcentury modern furniture, there are some techniques that we just don’t use), so I was excited to see them demonstrated in the book.

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Personally, I think that upholstery is a craft that’s helpful to learn in person, but if you can’t take a class, this book is a great resource for you. It’s also just a nice book to help you think about your furniture in new ways. January always gives me a big ol’ dose of cabin fever, so every year around this time I start looking for ways to jazz up my apartment. If you have to be stuck inside, your home should be as, well, homey as possible!

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If you’re interested in more upholstery-related posts, then I have good news! I picked up a chair on Craigslist last week, and I’ll be documenting my makeover on the blog. If you aren’t interested in upholstery, I’m really sorry, and I may actually have some sewing content soon! I’ve felt so scattered lately that it’s been hard to focus on sewing, but just yesterday I started cutting out a coat, so maybe I’ll have a garment to show you someday soon! 🙂

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