How to reupholster furniture as a beginner
Sat., Feb. 25, 2023
Nicole Crowder sitting on one of her modern furniture and upholstery designs. (Danielle Finney/Handout)
One of the fun things about being an upholsterer is that I get to play around with switching out the fabrics on my furniture at home whenever I feel in the mood for change, and dining chairs happen to be one of the easiest targets for a transformation. Their seat cushions can be reupholstered in just about any iteration you can think of. In fact, if you have a set of four or six or eight, you can do them all in various fabrics to complement your room’s color scheme and vibe – the possibilities abound!
A dining chair is also a perfect project for a first-timer, since tackling a single seat is a lot simpler than making over, say, an entire settee or living room chair. If you’re ready to try your hand at upholstering, follow along as I demonstrate, step by step, how to transform a basic dining chair into a totally unique piece.
Get these tools and materials
These can be found online, or at your local hardware or craft store.
• Staple gun and staples (I like to use 8 millimeters.)
• Staple remover
• Flathead and Phillips screwdrivers, plus an Allen wrench if the screws on your chair require one.
• Fabric scissors
• Needle nose pliers
• Measuring tape
• Dust cover fabric
• Fabric of your choice (You should need only 1 yard for a dining chair with a single seat cushion.)
• Foam (the standard for a dining chair is 1 to 2 inches thick.)
• Adhesive glue spray
Strip the old upholstery
• Unscrew the seat from the chair frame using your screwdriver or Allen wrench. (On dining chairs, I like to call the seat a “pop cushion” because once you unscrew it, it pops right off.) Now flip your cushion over.
• Before you can remove the old fabric, you’ll have to take off the dust cover on the underside of the seat. Lift up the edge with your pliers and Phillips screwdriver. From there, you can just rip it off.
• Now use your staple remover to loosen the staples securing the old fabric around the edge of the seat, then pluck them out with your pliers. When stripping the fabric, be careful to preserve the foam padding underneath so you can reuse it. (If the foam is worn down or crumbling, you’ll need to replace it. To avoid this, pay close attention while shopping for your secondhand chair. I recommend pressing your hand down repeatedly on the cushion, on all sides, in addition to sitting in the chair, to make sure the foam feels full and firm. Also keep in mind that if the fabric has an odor, the existing foam likely will, too, in which case you’ll want to replace it.)
Optional: Replace the old foam
• If the old foam is unusable, pull it off the seat by hand. (It’s likely just glued down.)
• Trace the old foam onto your new foam to create the accurate seat shape. Cut it out with your fabric scissors.
• Secure the new foam to the seat with adhesive glue spray. You’ll want to spray about one to two inches back from the foam, then press the adhesive side onto the wood chair frame.
Measure and cut your fabric
• To measure for the new fabric, turn the seat foam-side up, then measure the width and length. Be sure to wrap the measuring tape underneath the bottom of the seat by about two inches on each side, so you’ll have enough fabric to staple to the underside of the seat. It can also help to use the fabric that you removed as a pattern for cutting the new fabric.
• Roll your new fabric out on a clean surface, giving yourself enough space so that it lays completely flat. Measure it to match the measurements you just took of the seat.
• If you’re working with a repeating print and want it to line up a particular way on the seat, be sure to give yourself enough material to center the design as you prefer it.
• Use your fabric scissors to cut the fabric. With most fabrics, you’ll want to cut along the grain to get a smoother tear with your scissors and prevent fraying.
Time to upholster
• Lay your new fabric on top of your seat cushion to make sure that it fully wraps around the seat. Flip the seat over so the wood side is now facing you.
• While holding the fabric taut, put a staple through the fabric in the center top edge and center bottom edge of the seat. (I typically staple about 1 inch to 1.5 inches away from the edge. As you sit on the chair over time, your body weight pulls the fabric inward and it can become loose if it was stapled too close to the edge.)
• Flip the seat over to make sure your fabric is centered the way you want it. Flip it back over, so the wood side is again facing up, and begin stapling your edges all the way around.
• If you’re working with a round cushion, create small pleats or folds as you go to gather the fabric into a smooth edge.
• For squared corners (like the ones on this dining chair) you’ll want to fold the fabric the way you would a gift, or as you’d create “hospital corners” while making a bed.
• Add a staple to hold the corner in place. Complete the same process on the remaining three corners.
• Once your seat has been reupholstered (yay!), trim any excess fabric just below the line where you stapled.
• Now you can add a dust cover – a thin black material – to the underside of the seat. You can find this fabric online or at craft or hardware stores. Just trace your chair’s seat onto the material to cut it into the right shape and size, then staple it on.
• Flip your seat over, and using the screws that came with the chair, screw it back onto the frame. Snap a photo (or several) and show off your masterpiece!
Nicole Crowder runs Nicole Crowder Upholstery in Minneapolis, where she revives secondhand (or just boring) furniture pieces with modern, one-of-a-kind reupholstering. Her work has been featured in Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Domino and other leading design publications. In 2022, she released a furniture collection with World Market.
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