How to reupholster a chair

With a few instructions, tools, some re-upholstering tips and some fabric, you learn how to reupholster an old chair and give it new life.

Re-upholstering a chair is not as complicated as you might think. It is actually quite fun and easy to learn. Doing your own reupholstering allows you to be extremely creative and save money at the same time. With a few instructions, a few tools and some fabric, you will be ready to begin.

Before you begin, you will need to purchase the tools necessary for upholstery work. Of course there are endless tools that can be purchased, depending on the sophistication of the project, but only a few are really necessary basics. You will find upholstery tools at a fabric shop, or hardware store, or possibly even a few in your own toolbox.

All upholsterers need a claw tool or a tool with similar capabilities of the claw tool. A claw tool is a tool designed to pull out old staples, tacks and fabric. It has a bent shank and a forked blade. If you can't find a claw tool, you can use a screwdriver or a wood chisel, but they aren't quite as efficient as the claw tool, which is made specifically for this purpose.

Next you should have a cutting table. It doesn't have to be anything fancy. A smooth surface (even a 4x8 foot piece of 1 inch thick plywood on two sawhorses) at waist height will do. You just need a convenient place to lay out the fabric and cut the pieces.

A magnetized tack hammer is a relatively essential upholstery tool though. This is a hammer with a special head that picks up and holds tacks on one end and has a small hammerhead to pound the tack in on the other end. If you do not want to use tacks and a hammer, you can use an electric stapler. Electric stapling is a quick way to apply fabric, but removing a staple that has been misplaced or removing fabric which has been stapled, is more difficult than removing tacks.

You will need needles, especially a curved 3-inch needle, a curved 6-inch needle, and a strait 12-18 inch needle. Your needles should have a round point to them. (There are needles with triangular points on them, but they are for working with vinyl and leather and probably aren't what you want if you are just beginning to learn about reupholstering furniture.)

Other supplies you will need include pliers (for pulling out tacks or staples or fabric), a tape measure, some shears, chalk and a yardstick. If you are doing anything but the most basic upholstery, you may also need a sewing machine, a serrated knife (for cutting foam), an upholsterer's knife (a razor blade or retractable knife will do in most cases), and a webbing stretcher for re-stretching or replacing the webbing of your chair.

After gathering the necessary tools, you will need to pick out upholstery material. For your first project, it is best to start with a simple chair design (without channels or tufting) and use a plain fabric (one that does not require matching and does not have a pile or nap to it). There are fabrics called upholstery fabrics that usually hold up to wear and tear better than other types of fabrics. But don't rule out drapery fabrics for reupholster work, either. I've made drapes and re-upholstered a chair out of the same fabric with dramatic effect. Keep in mind that anything but a solid fabric will usually require additional fabric for matching, unless the pattern repeat is 3 inches or less.

The amount of fabric needed can be determined by measuring all areas of the chair, adding 3 inches to each side to each measured area, and then totaling those areas together. A much quicker way to figure out the approximate yardage for your project, though, is to go to a fabric store where they have re-upholstery yardage charts. Look at the picture of the chair that most closely resembles the one you are going to be working on and take the chart's recommendation on yardage. As a beginner it is always better to buy a bit more fabric than you think you might need in case you have misjudged or you make a mistake. The leftover yardage can always be made into a nice matching pillow for your chair if you don't use it in the actual upholstery process.

You've selected your chair, your tools, and your fabric. Assuming that the frame, the padding, and the springs are okay in your chair and you wish to replace just the fabric, you are now ready to begin the actual process of re-upholstery. First you must measure the chair carefully and record the dimensions of each area of the chair. I usually draw a representation of the area of the chair on a piece of paper and then write the length of each piece along the edges and across the center. Always measure the widest and longest parts of each area. For example, measure the widest area of the seat of the chair, both side-to-side and front to back. Measure the highest part of the back of the chair to the seat of the chair and then across the back from the widest point across. I always add two to three inches to those measurements to allow for the area that is tacked down or "seamed" against another part of the chair.

After you are done drawing out the dimensions of the fabric pieces of your chair, you can begin to make a paper pattern of those pieces to use for cutting. (A note here: Sometimes I have removed the pieces of fabric from a chair very, very carefully to use for my pattern. I have marked each piece carefully by drawing a picture of the chair, numbering the fabric piece and then marking that same area on the picture of the chair so that I'll remember where the fabric piece will need to be placed when I put the new covering on the chair.)

Next, lay your fabric out on your cutting table. Check the grain of the fabric to make sure the weave is straight. If the selvages (finished edges of the fabric) pucker or the motifs do not follow a straight line, work those out toward the fabric's free end or trim off the selvage to "release" the unevenness before you start cutting the fabric.

On your fabric, mark the area to be cut with chalk. If using a paper pattern or the original fabric piece, mark along the edges of the pattern piece in several places so that when you cut you will be accurate. If your fabric is a loosely woven one, you may wish to put masking tape along the cut edges to prevent unraveling after you have made your cuts.

The back and the arms of the chair are re-upholstered first. Tack the piece that goes on the inside of the back of the chair at the bottom rail and bring it up over the back, pulling it tight and smooth and tacking it at the top (on the back side). The arm pieces are then formed and fitted over the padding. Tack the inside arm pieces under the bottom rail (under the arm) and bring the fabric up over the side (on the inside) and tack the fabric down on the outer side of the arm. Do this for both arms.

For the seat of the chair, tack the backside of the piece to the frame first. Pull and smooth the fabric as you bring it to the front of the chair. Cut corners in the fabric for the arms (if necessary) and work the fabric into a smooth transition to the front and around the arms, tacking the fabric underneath in the front.

Now cover the outer arms by tacking the piece against the edge of the inner arm from underneath the fabric and then smoothing the fabric toward the bottom of the chair and tacking it on the underside. You will have to invisibly sew the arm at the corners and down the front side of the chair with your circular needle and thread. (You may choose to do this across the top outside of the arm also, instead of tacking, especially for more delicate fabrics).

Now add the fabric on the back of the chair by either invisibly stitching it at the top to the fabric from the front side, or tacking it underneath at the top, and then tacking it to the bottom frame of the chair.

When all areas have been covered on the chair, you will want to either replace the fabric that was on the underside of the chair or replace it with new fabric by tacking or stapling it.

That's it. Your chair has taken on new life! If your chair is in bad shape and needs more than just a fabric update, be sure to consult many of the available upholstery books on the market. And remember to be very conscious of how your chair is constructed as you take it apart. Knowing how it used to be, will be very helpful when you are putting it back together again. If necessary, write notes about what you find as you take your chair apart and draw diagrams. After you have re-upholstered a couple of chairs, it will be easy to remember the steps and parts of the chair's construction. But in the meantime, taking careful mental and paper notes will help you enjoy this creative activity even more and with greater success.

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