Original Post: Feb 17, 2016


A simple upholstery project can change the world when it comes to an old piece of furniture or refreshing a dull interior space. Additionally, it can be quite inspiring and gratifying to work on unique pieces, bringing them back to life as they tell their story.

One of the perks of living in a small town is the small businesses and getting to know the owners a little better than you would in a bigger city. One of my favorite places to visit is 'Not Bob's Antiques' on Lower Street, downtown Spruce Pine. It has become a regular haunt of mine for interesting finds to use in photo shoots and for re-upholstery projects.       

Herman, the kind and quiet shop owner (Not Bob!) is unfazed by me scouring every nook and cranny of the shop in search of something unusually special or easy to re-upholster. I've unearthed several great treasures at Not Bob's ranging from a 100+ year old wooden, caned backed chair to a wonderful red velvet Eastlake Settee set, a camel saddle (my favorite!) and most recently, a sweet, yet simply designed vanity chair from the 1930's. A most perfect wintertime project!

Choosing The Piece: This particular style of seat is elegant and understated with clean lines and classic detail. The perfect frame to offset my Khema pattern in Steel Grey.

The Beginning: To get started, wipe down any dust and grime that has accumulated. This will give you direction on how far you will have to take reconditioning the wood. Unfortunatly, there was paint sprayed onto the chair back so I had to sand it out. (Please use a mask when sanding!)


The Finish: I would normally leave the wood alone and just wipe it down with a restore-finish like stain that preserves the original finish. (Can be found at your local hardware store, Lowes or Home Depot) NOTE: This is not super eco friendly so please take care! It is quick and easy but please suit up with mask, rubber gloves, goggles, apron and a well ventilated space! That said, it does help polish up, fill in and bring out the beauty of the old finish and its colour. It saves time and energy while restoring the original look of the piece as it was intended.


After sanding, I gave the wood a rub down with the restore-finish and old cloth to bring out the woods beautiful colours and texture. This also uncovered one of the unique features of this particular piece, the two tones of wood and a mirroring technique on the back of the chair.

Keep an eye out for what a piece reveals during this process. These are details that should shine!


Upholstery Tools: I like to keep it simple. A staple gun (and staples), pliers, small tack hammer, a flat head screwdriver, scissors, (fabric and non-fabric!) and my favorite upholsterer's tool: a tack/staple remover….the screw driver-mini crowbar combo! This is little guy will be your best friend for prying out old staples, tacks, and nails… or new ones that were misplaced or misaligned. It saves time and your hands!


Fabric - The Chosen One: In this case, the chair was chosen for the fabric. However, the fabric still needed to be ironed, prepped and cut into the right shape to fit the seat. I often use chalk (on the back of fabric) to lightly mark out where to cut, but on this one, it was pretty straightforward.

When cutting out fabric, remember to add extra to all sides. I add about 3 inches to be safe. This will allow some wiggle room for placement and enough to grab onto when pulling the fabric taught to staple.

Another note: when working with a pattern, especially one with a hard direction like Khema here, please take note of how it will lay out. Is it vertical? Horizontal? (in this case, both) Or is it on the diagonal? These are important ideas to have before scissors touch the fabric. Make sure it will maintain its symmetry once placed onto the seat. (Or seat back, or whichever part you are working on).


If Fabrics Could Talk: Uncovering of the wooden structure of the piece isn't the only part with a story to tell. One of my favorite moments is deconstructing the many layers of old textiles that lay beneath the surface. They too tell such stories of not only the last owners decor tastes, but the decades the piece passed through. This one went through several.  I am going to guess late 40's/early 50's (pale pinkish beige), 60's (green and white) and 70's (the orange). 


Getting Down To (Brass) Tacks. Literally. - After pulling out every single staple, tack and nail to remove the old fabric, make sure you clean up/sand down any splinters the tack remover might have pulled up. I am all about taking (almost) as much care of the parts you don't see, as the ones you do. As for the seat cushion, I chose not to replace everything but did remove the top two layers of fabric (the 70's orange and 60's green and white) so their colour and textures wouldn't show through the new fabric. 


Let The Games Begin: Upholstery is often like painting a house. 80% prep, 20% getting down to business. It is also about trial and error. (Note first photo was taken BEFORE I removed the first two layers of fabric!) But the image still illustrates the point. 

Fold about 2-3 inches of fabric over the first side, staple two or three times in the center to keep it in place. Pull the fabric firmly to the opposite side and staple another two or three times in the center. Continue to gently pull fabric while adding two or three staples at a time, alternating sides as you go. This keeps the stretching of the fabric even. 

Staples should be about an inch/inch and a half apart. Give a quick inspection of both sides AND everything underneath and in between. Once the first two sides are finished, make sure the fabric is laying flat, tight, even and with no gaps along the edges. Double check to make sure pattern alignment is straight as well!


Next! - Repeat the same; staple the centers first on each side (opposite each other), then work back and forth between sides until you have stapled all the way across and close to the corners.


Turning The Corner: A neat and tidy corner is key. Not only for doing fine work, but also to keep the fabric bulk from interfering with the seat setting into the chair form properly. Once you have stapled all sides, pinch fabric so that it makes a neat triangle, but hold it the bottom part flush to the seat so you can get those last staples into the corners. (Note: You may have to play with the fold of the corners a bit, but try to get them as clean and nicely folded down flat into a triangle as possible.) Then staple to hold corner folds into place.


Finishing Touches: ALMOST THERE! Now for the cleanup. Cut any access fabric around the edges to get rid of the extra bulk. Not only does this just look more professional, it keeps the fabric from catching on something or getting pulled. I like to leave about an inch/inch and a half away from staples so there is no unnecessary stress on the fabric around the staples and chance of tearing. Once you have cut away the extra, staple down edges so they do not hang down below the seat of the chair. (Unsightly and messy!) Flip seat over, inspect for any adjustments needing to be made and place it into the chair frame.


See the difference! A little bit of love goes a long way! 


The joys of before....and after. 


A Few Thoughts and Basic Fabric Tips For Upholstery:

  • Make sure you purchase enough fabric, especially for larger projects. Fabrics are not always going to remain the same exact color of print, or base fabric color if it comes from a different bolt. So make sure to get what is needed for your project from the same bolt, and then a tiny extra.
  • Carpenters rule of thumb: Measure twice, cut once. And cut with FABRIC SCISSORS. This is non-negotiable folks! Every household should have one pair of scissors reserved for cutting fabric. If you don't understand why…try cutting fabric that has been used for cutting tape, paper (wood fibers!) and other house old weirdness. Yeah. You get my point.
  • If you don't have upholstery experience and it is a large, complicated piece, find a good upholsterer. Unless you are determined to cut your teeth on this thing, take it to a pro. This will save you a TON of time, energy, frustration and cost of materials. Ask them how much yardage is needed, before purchasing fabrics, then see tip #1. I have learned that upholstery is not as easy as it looks! So if you are going to DIY and are new to it, keep it small and simple. Or, if you choose to work on bigger projects, start with less expensive fabrics that won't be a problem to learn with. 
  • Make sure you choose fabrics that are appropriate for the piece you want to refurbish. Choose a woven over a knit or stretchy fabric. (Upholstery fabric does not need to give or it will grow!) Is this piece going to get a lot of wear and tear? Are children or pets present? Is the fabric durable and heavy enough for the amount of wear and stress it will get? Or is the piece what I call a ‘sit proper’ piece? (ie. not appropriate for couch potatoes.) Is it needing to be water/stain resistant? Make sure you think through the use of the piece, who will be using it, how frequently and the setting it will live in.
  • How much wood or spring repair does it need? This could be tricky if one doesn't have some basic knowledge of wood, proper glues, furniture reinforcement, paint, stains, and varnishes etc. Or spring repair. There are so many beautiful furniture pieces out there who need a lot of TLC. But many of them need some serious surgical procedures needing to be done by professionals. Do a little Google research on this one or ask a woodworker or professional upholsterer. There is a method to this madness and the last thing you want is a chair or couch that dumps its sitter!
  • Most importantly, if using any toxic materials or sanding, please wear gloves and a mask. Set the project up in an open, ventilated area. SAFETY FIRST! 

As Leonardo Da Vinci once said: "Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication". Keep it simple. Keep it fun. Keep it real.