How to reupholster a chair in 43 easy steps

July 13, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Or something like that. Spoiler: it’s not easy to reupholster a chair. This post is very TL;DR. Sorry.

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Last weekend was the first weekend of July, so of course it was Brocante Market weekend! One of the lovely oldies that came home with me this month was this very utilitarian-looking office chair.

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Ever since I re-covered my dining room chairs…

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and got a tutorial in sewing piping from my mom…

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I had been itching to try to reupholster something a little bigger. This chair was a good size, was very comfortable, and felt pretty sturdy. Sean (one of the owners of Brocante Market and Paper Street Market), told me that it was their chair and that they had done a repair on the leg to stabilize it. For $29 I thought it would be a good one to tear apart. All of the following steps took place over one week’s time.

Step 1: Take photos of the chair from every angle.

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The vinyl was in really good shape over all. No rips or holes. There were some worn spots along the back top piping, where you would expect it to have gotten a little beat up over the years.

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The legs were a little banged up and the whole thing was a tiny bit paint-spattered.

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I loved the tidy, tailored shape of the cushions and armrests, and just wanted to refresh the whole thing and make it more comfortable to use as a side chair in our den.

Step 2: Remove the outer-most layer, which in this case was the very fuzzy, fairly gross mesh covering the bottom. My tools for almost all of the demolition was a thin flat-head screwdriver and some small pliers.

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At this point I could see that the springs looked awesome and I could see where the legs had been repaired.

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I could also see that this chair used to the be Property of Dr. Dr. & Mrs. Jim Lancaster.

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I can see this chair in a doctor’s waiting room, or possibly as a guest chair flanking a desk in a doctor’s office.

From here I could see that the back panel was the next layer and that the bottom flap of it was stapled underneath the chair.

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Take more photos than you think you will need. It is very helpful when reassembling the chair. Take photos in the order that you are doing things, then you will have a roadmap for reassembly when you get stuck. I really tried to take photos of how everything joined and overlapped.

Step 3: Remove the next layer…in this case the back panel.

I removed the staples along the bottom flap of the back panel, and then pried up one edge to reveal a scary looking metal tack strip.

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I tried to pry it up slowly and carefully and not bend it too much in the process. At the top corner the metal tack strip ended and a cardboard tack strip rife with staples presented itself.

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I pried out the metal tack strip on the other side and then flipped back the back panel to reveal the cardboard staple strip.

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Somebody went all staple psycho here.

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It was serious overkill.

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Once I had the whole back piece off I wrapped up the painfully pokey tack strips and hid the thing away where hopefully no one would poke their eye out with it or impale their foot.

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My collection was growing.

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Step 4: Remove the next layer…in this case it was the long strip of piping that ran all the way around the bottom of the seat and all the way around the back of the chair in one continuous piece.

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I made note of how the corners were stapled.

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Step 5: Remove the legs and arms.

There were several stripped screws in the legs, which made this loads of fun. Luckily the worst-stripped screw was not fully sunk, so I was able to laboriously screw it out using a pair of robo-grip pliers. If it had been fully sunk I would have had to try to saw it or something. Or have just given up.

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But I kicked this screws ass.

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The construction of the chair began to reveal its secrets.

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Ugly exposed staples underneath the arm rests, with just raw-edged vinyl covering the bottom.

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Dowels (unglued, thank goodness) supporting where the front legs attach to the seat.

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Dowel ends attaching the front legs to the armrests (only lightly glued and easy to remove):

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Step 6: Remove upholstery from armrests.

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This is best done while watching HGTV or the DIY network.

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Step 7: Label everything so you will remember what went where and what goes with what. Bundle things together to keep all the pieces organized.

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Step 8: Skin the back cushion, documenting how everything was put together.

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At this point I could see that there were mesh tails sewn onto the vinyl to allow the cushion covers to be pulled tight and stapled underneath.

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This is where the back and seat cushions met, and where 50 years of dirt had accumulated. Any spare change was long gone.

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Chewie supervised the whole operation.

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Step 9: Skin the seat cushion.

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Success! No more staples (for now)! The foam and batting were in good shape.

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Step 10: Separate the side pieces and piping strips from the main pieces of the seat and back cushion covers. Label everything.

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Step 11: Clean all vinyl piping with a damp micro-fiber cloth.

I decided to re-use all of the original vinyl piping to save time and costs, plus I liked the idea of reusing part of the original chair in the final look.

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Step 12: Buy fabric. Yes, I completely demolished the chair before I had any fabric to re-cover it with. I couldn’t wait.

I found this fabric in the remnants at Joann’s for only $4.50 a yard (on sale for 50% off $9) and bought 2 yards.

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It was a steal, as it was really thick, nice quality wool chenille. I wanted to do an accent fabric on the back panel, and found this pattern that I thought coordinated well with the cheap remnant.

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This fabric was normally expensive at $45/yd., but it was also half off and I only needed 2/3 of a yard, so it was less than $20.

I laid the pieces on top of each other to get the idea (not sewn or assembled here):

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While I was at Jo-Ann’s I also bought a roll of new cardboard tack strip so I was able to use my 30% off coupon (when did Jo-Ann’s go from 40% off coupons to 30% off????). I also bought a yard of the mesh fabric that covers the chair’s nether regions.

Step 13: Lay out all pieces on main fabric.

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I used my cast iron birdies as fabric weights. Those are not dead birds in my dining room.

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Determine where you need to leave a seam allowance and where you do not, and where you should leave extra fabric to help with stapling. I picked a sort of all-over patterned fabric, but I also took into account how the pattern ran so that the seat and back cushion would be aligned the correct way. If you are using a print, definitely take into account how your print will be aligned on the finished pieces.

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Step 14: Cut out all pieces.

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Step 15: Reupholster the armrests in a need for some instant gratification. I didn’t take many photos of this step in my haste to see something pretty. Basically I just stretched the fabric pieces I had cut out around the arm forms and original foam and batting and stapled as neatly as possibly. I tried to make pretty folds on the corners and make them as non-bulky as possibly with trimming. I stapled the piping back on exactly the way it had been previously. The vinyl “remembers” where it was bent previously, so working with the old piping was the best.

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Rather than have ugly exposed staples underneath like the original, I decided to make a pretty cover for everything. I traced the shape of the piped arms onto my fabric, and cut them out. Then I sprayed the back with spray adhesive (outside) then turned over all the edges. I then hot-glued the final piece on to cover all the staples.

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Better than the original, no?

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Re-using the original piping was key for maintaining the original shape of the chair and made everything so much easier.

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So pretty.

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Step 16: Sew the piping onto the main piece of the seat cushion cover, making sure that you are putting the piping back on exactly the way that it was on the original so the corners will look right. I just maintained an even seam allowance (3/4”) and used a zipper foot to sew as close to the piping as possible. I like to use LOTS of pins when I sew. I pin and pin and pin. I get stuck a lot. I think meticulous pinning makes for the cleanest end product. If you have never sewn piping before and don’t have an awesome Mom to show you how, then I would watch a YouTube tutorial on sewing piping. I used a heavy-duty upholstery thread and a heavy-duty needle.

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My mom’s biggest hint about the corners was “do the best you can with the corners”.  I would definitely agree with this. Also, snip the seam allowance a couple of times at the corners to help them lie flatter.

I literally take the corners one stitch at a time, manually moving the zipper foot by hand-turning the machine. I lift the zipper foot after each stitch, and slightly move the fabric/piping around in the curved corner shape while the needle is in the plunged position. Just go stitch by stitch through each corner and do the best that you can. Miraculously, it came out awesome.

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Step 17: Sew the side piece onto the seat cushion/piping piece. It’s easiest to sew the piping to one piece, then add the third piece rather than trying to sew all three pieces together at once. Again, I just maintained a consistent seam allowance and tried to sew as close to the piping as possible with my zipper foot. I did the best I could with the corners. Watch a YouTube tutorial on sewing piping and what to do at the corners.

Step 18: Sew the piping onto the back cushion main piece.

Step 19: Sew the side piece onto the back cushion/piping piece.

Step 20: Use scraps of the old vinyl to sew the “tails” onto the seat and back cushion covers that will help with stapling later on. Originally these were mesh, and I tried it with some new mesh and it just ripped when I tried to pull the seat cover taut. So then I got the brilliant idea to reuse the vinyl for this. I was done with the old vinyl pieces as patterns at this point, and this was pretty nice vinyl. It was very thick and sturdy (unlike a lot of modern vinyl that I have looked at) and not-rippable. I like knowing that more of the old chair is still in there, in the innards.

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Step 21: Try everything on for size.

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Then take everything back off because it needs more oomph.

Step 22: Add another layer of batting over the seat and back cushions. I decided that the old batting had become a little beat up as some of it came off when I removed the vinyl, so I returned to Jo-Ann’s to buy more batting. It was also 50% off, and I got a twin-bedspread sized piece of 3/4” batting for about $11. I only used a small piece of it so I can use the rest on my next re-upholstery project.

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Step 23: Staple back cushion cover and seat cushion cover over foam, batting, and chair frames.

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I referred to my dis-assembly photos many times when reassembling the chair. It was so helpful when trying to remember how this or that overlapped or went together.

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Chewie was so impressed with my progress.

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Step 24: Mark holes where metal tack strips will go on the back of the back rest. Move staples as necessary. Obviously I was back-tracking a little here when I realized I needed to be able to line up the tacks with the old holes for reassembly.

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Step 25: Staple old piping back to the chair exactly the way it was originally. I used an awl to poke through each tack hole in the piping and then into the matching hole in the back frame and held it there while stapling the piping.

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I did this for every single tack hole because I knew that exact alignment would be necessary for the back panel later.

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This was the long continuous piece of piping that went all the way up around the back and then down around the bottom of the seat. This piece made the chair look so tailored and done.

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It was like eyeliner for the chair. I used a black sharpie to touch up those few spots that looked worn (where you could see white poking through the black vinyl). I’m so glad the piping was in good condition.

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I got very excited whenever I finished a sort of “milestone” with the chair.

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Sorry I sent you so many process pictures, Mom and Leigh Ann.

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Step 26: Sand the legs. I couldn’t put it off any longer. The legs were the next step.

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I used a palm sander ($23 at Ace Hardware) and it worked really well.

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I originally set up on the patio behind our house but I kept getting rained out by passing storms (Florida summer). Finally I wised up and moved my operation to the front porch which is covered.

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Here’s a peak at my Fourth of July decorations.

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The wood was so pretty once all the old dark stain was gone. The legs were made of some kind of very dense wood. I used 60 or 100 grit with the palm sander, then went over them by hand quickly with 220 grit. Then I wiped them all down really well with a lint-free cloth.

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Step 27: Paint the legs with pre-stain wood conditioner.

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Maybe not necessary, but if I’m in for a penny…

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I set up my staining studio in our guest room.

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Step 28: Apply first coat of stain/polyurethane. After waiting at least a half hour, but no more than 2 hours, I applied the first coat of stain/poly blend.

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Step 29: Allow to dry over night.

Step 30: Sand all pieces by hand with 220 grit sand paper and wipe with tack cloth to remove all dust.

Step 31: Apply second coat of stain/poly blend.

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I was having trouble getting these guys to stand up until I devised this ingenious drying method.

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Step 32: Allow second coat of stain/poly to dry overnight. So pretty and smooth.

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Fondle them a little.

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Step 33: Re-attach legs and arm rests.

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I reused all the original screws that weren’t stripped, and replaced the stripped ones. I also used wood glue where the back legs attached to the frame and where the front legs attached to the arm rests. I did not use glue on the dowels that help attach the front legs to the seat frame.

Whoa, it’s a chair again!

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But you can still see it’s privates.

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Step 34: Disassemble tack strips from back panel. Expect some pain.

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Step 35: Straighten out the metal tack strip and the individual tacks as best you can.

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I tried to remove them carefully, but they were slightly bent and some of the tacks were also bent.

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One tack was sacrificed in this process.

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When I was trying to straighten it it came through the tack strip and could not be replaced. R.I.P. little tack. We’ll make do without you.

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Step 36: Attach back panel vinyl piece to new fabric with spray adhesive.

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I decided to do this for several reasons. First, I figured it would make the back panel sturdier, rather than just being a piece of fabric stretched across the back. Second, it would allow me to make the back panel EXACTLY like the original panel by lining up all the tack strip holes perfectly. Third, one of the metal tack strips had some rust so I figured the vinyl would protect the nice fabric from the rust.

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I used the adhesive spray outside, and very carefully aligned my new fabric up correctly before attaching the two so that the pattern would be displayed the way I wanted it on the final product.

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Step 37: Use an awl to poke through each hole of the vinyl and through the new fabric on both sides

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Step 38: Carefully re-insert tack strips into the holes on both sides and fold over. Lay new cardboard tack strip over the (visible) space where old cardboard tack strip was.

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Step 39: Dry-fit this back panel over the back of the chair and get excited.

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Step 40: Staple cardboard tack strip as close to piping as possible along the top of the back of the chair, making sure that it is centered properly between the two sides.

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Flip the back panel down. Carefully fold in the corners and trim excess to reduce bulk.

Step 41: Carefully pound the tack strips back into place using a rubber mallet.

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Line up the first tack with the first hole, and work your way down. I did a couple on one side, then a couple on the other side, and worked my way down going back and forth…pulling and pounding carefully so that every tack went back into it’s original hole.

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At the bottom I folded, stapled, and carefully trimmed around the legs and then stapled the tail underneath the bottom frame.

Step 42: Cut out new mesh bottom cover. The old one was all fuzzy and gross.

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Step 43: Staple mesh cover onto bottom. I started with the front edge, stapling underneath and flipping it over so that this row of staples would be hidden.

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I got kind of perfectionist with this VERY LAST STEP.

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I just trimmed and folded to carefully work my way around the back legs. These are the only exposed staples on the whole chair, so I wanted them to look good.

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Tada!

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I’m pretty proud of my first upholstery project (other than a chair seat cover).

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Cost breakdown:
Chair $29
Fabric $9 (main fabric) $18 (accent fabric) $2 mesh for bottom
Total: $58

Other items I bought but only used a portion of, and non-consumables used:
Batting (used 1/4 of an $11 twin size blanket sheet)
Wood conditioner $5 (only used a tiny bit of the can)
Wood stain/poly combo $2.80 (or something. It was less than $3 and only used a tiny bit of the can)
Cardboard tack strip $7 with a coupon at Jo-Ann’s and only used 17 inches of a 20 yard roll
Wood Glue
Spray adhesive
Staple gun and various size staples (1/4 inch, 3/8 inch, and 1/2 inch)
Hot glue gun
Palm sander and various grits sand paper
Scissors
Straight pins
Upholstery thread
Sewing machine
Drill
Screwdriver
Pliers
Awl
Rubber Mallet
Tack hammer, or regular hammer

Time: one week, usually a couple hours a day working on it every day here and there, some days more than others.

Other costs:
obsessive thoughts about chair
pin pricks in every single finger and gouges in a couple of fingers
food preparation and house cleaning suffered during the chair’s surgery

I’m thinking it will be a while before I reupholster anything else 🙂

Cya.

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