Upholstery 101: How to Really Nail It

by Jess ViceNovember 13, 2018

Upholstering or reupholstering a piece of furniture can be one of the most satisfying projects in the DIY world but it can also reduce a seasoned DIYer to cursing and tears. We’re here to help you find that happy medium where you end up with a nicely finished piece in just a weekend’s time.

via Eduard Militaru

A Few Rules of Thumb

For a first-time upholstery job, do these three things:

  • Start small. Reupholstering a piece of furniture takes about twice as long as you would guess, so start with something like an ottoman or dining chair cushion or piano bench.
  • Use loose patterns. Avoid lines, stripes, plaids, or any linear fabric that will show if one corner is pulled tighter than another. Toiles, solid colors, gradients, and repeating patterns will be your friends here.
  • Keep the value low. Notice we didn’t say cost – feel free to buy expensive fabric or invest in all the proper tools. Just be sure to choose an item with low sentimental value in case something goes wrong. You don’t want to experiment on a family heirloom and end up paying three times as much for a professional to fix your mistakes.

Setting the Stage

Choose your workspace, lay out your tarp, and make sure you have all your tools before you start prying and poking. Here’s what we recommend you have on hand:

  • A blanket or tarp: broken nails and staple pieces are super common and easy to lose
  • A set of pliers: preferably a needle-nose and a one larger one
  • A flathead screwdriver or forked staple remover: something to dig under stubborn staples and nails
  • A hammer or two: you can use a traditional hammer, but a finer headed tack hammer would be best
  • A pair of work gloves
  • An Xacto knife or sharp craft knife: super useful for precise tasks
  • A small handsaw: best for cutting foam, though your Xacto knife can work
  • A measuring tape
  • A box of fresh upholstery tacks or a staple gun and upholstery staples
  • Fabric scissors
  • A piece of chalk or fabric marker or Sharpie
  • New seat foam (depending on the condition of the current foam)

Toolkits are available that include specialized versions of these tools (like the staple remover), but if you’re old-fashioned or tight on cash, a flathead screwdriver and pliers will do the same job.

via Michael Browning

Choosing Your Fabric

If you’ve followed the first rule of thumb, you should have a fabric with a nice open pattern. Here’s a great guide for fabric measurements, though they only cover larger pieces of furniture. You can guess from their dining chair measurements that if you are recovering a bench or ottoman, you probably only need about 3 yards of fabric.

I take a less scientific approach by measuring the length times the width of the cushion plus half the resulting number to account for any mistakes I might make, but also so that I can cut longer pieces and then trim when I’m done. (Note: this is the DIYer’s approach, not that of a professional upholsterer Let the scoffing commence, but it works.)
So my formula is:

length x width = area

area x .5 = half area

area + half area = final yardage

via Katarzyna Grabowska

Getting Started

Remove the seat from your chair, and turn the piece to be reupholstered upside down in the middle of your workspace. Take a second to explore how the current fabric is fastened – this will give you an idea of what you’re shooting for with the new fabric. Look especially at the corners – there are several ways to fold or cut corners of fabric, and some are easier than others.

Start pulling staples! Use the flathead screwdriver or staple remover to dig under the staple and lift it, then use the pliers to remove all parts of the staple. Pull the fabric off, and take a look at the seat foam. If it’s in good shape, great! On to measuring new fabric. If you want to replace it, I use the current seat as a template for the new foam – turn the seat upside down on your fresh foam and use a pencil or Sharpie to trace around the edge of the seat itself. Don’t curve the Sharpie in toward the seat – keep it as vertical and straight as possible. (Foam is squishy, remember? So even if the new cut feels a little wide, the fabric will pull it in and give you a softer seat.)

If you’re feeling pretty confident, here’s a brief video that walks through all the steps we’re about to cover in much less time: How to Reupholster a Chair, by BeforeAndAfterTV.

To cut the fabric, lay out the old pieces as a pattern (if they’re still usable) or “mock up” the new seat by draping the fabric around it and marking your cut lines (be sure to leave some extra length – you can always trim the edges later).

When your fabric is cut, lay the pieces pattern-side down on your workspace, center the seat or bench backing, and start stapling. Sort of like tightening the nuts on a tire, start by fastening one side, then go directly opposite that side, pulling the fabric as tight as possible. It’s ok to stretch the fabric as hard as you can – the threads will loosen and wear with use, so the tighter in the beginning, the better.

via Julie Johnson

Practice Makes Perfect

Upholstering chair seats and benches and ottomans are a good starting place. If you’ve made it through this first project and are feeling ready to tackle something bigger or more complicated, here are some great resources for pushing yourself to the next level:

How to Reupholster a Wingback Chair

How to Reupholster a Tufted Chair

How to Reupholster a Loveseat or Small Couch

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About The Author
Jess Vice
Jess is a user experience strategist by day and a writer by night. Jess loves making a space feel unique and welcoming through DIY renovations, cooking Southern soul food, and hosting dance parties. She and her Schnoodle Puck spend most of their free time playing in the great outdoors in Utah.