Introduction: How to Reupholster a Chair

About: My name is Jordan Frankel. I am the founder and Executive Director of an upstart art nonprofit called Project Create. The goal of my company is to encourage people to be creative for creativity's sake. I will …

Project Create is a nonprofit in New Orleans dedicated to promoting art and creativity in the entire community. We are raising money to open a studio where every member of the community can come in and learn to paint, sew, build furniture, or explore any creative possibility they desire. If you find this Instructable useful, be sure to check out our website: for more DIY projects. And if you are so inclined, feel free to donate and help make our dream and reality!

There are so many good chairs out there that are just plain uncomfortable in their own skin. It is time that we liberate them and give them new life! This entry is not so much an art project as it is a creative endeavor. But this does not mean that it is a simple walk in the park. Having said that, I do want to reiterate that it is surprisingly easier to reupholster a chair than you would imagine.

Here is a step by step outline of how Project Create went about reupholstering this club chair (the total cost for the project was $65, including the chair which was purchased for $25 at an estate sale):

Step 1: Choose a Chair to Reupholster

This is the chair in its original state. Awful. Seriously, this was truly offensive.

It is also important to pick a fabric. I warn you that this is a very difficult step, so you may want to shop around a bit or look at some design websites for ideas. Regarding how much fabric to buy , you have two options: 1) You can take a measuring tape to your piece and get rough estimates on how large each panel is. 2) You can wait until you have removed all of the fabric from the piece and then lay out the panels to get a better estimate of what you will need. Its always I good idea to buy a little extra "oops" fabric. 

Step 2: Start at the Bottom

When you are removing fabric and pieces, start any chair from the bottom first. Most chairs are finished on the bottom, so the best method is to remove fabric in the reverse order it was put on…this way the last pieces you will remove will be the first pieces you put back on. Here is a tip: If you bought the chair from a garage sale, buy some Lysol disinfectant and repeatedly spray the chair down while you take it apart. This will help with any odors as well.

Step 3: Remove Exterior Frame

For this chair, I needed to remove the bottom frame to get to the fabric. I used a thin flat head screwdriver and a hammer to get between the frame and the chair, then I just pried it apart. Be careful with any nails or staples that are exposed…I recommend wearing work gloves.

Step 4: Remove Your Panels in Order - Bottom First

You can see all of the staples that were used – removing these is the most time consuming part of the project. You want to be careful removing the fabric so that you can reuse it as a template for the new fabric you choose. The best way to remove these is using any method that works for you…I used a pair of pliers and a thin flat head screwdriver. For full disclosure, after I removed the first few panels by manually extracting every staple, I decided to try pulling the fabric off in one piece. This worked to some extent, but be warned that the fabric may rip easily. This isn’t a huge problem in itself, so long as you can get the general pattern of each panel.

Step 5: Label Your Steps

You will want to save the piping that you remove, as it is already cut to be the perfect length for each section. Again, just keep on removing the staples and fabric.

Make sure to label each section that you remove so that you know where they go when you are recovering. I made sure to label the section, the side it is on, and the direction it went back on.

Step 6: Pli-Grip

Ply-grip: Our worst enemy and our best friend. The sharp metal teeth you find on large sections such as the back and sides are called Ply-grip. You will want to be careful with these pieces because they are very sharp. The best way to open them is using a butter knife to pry it open (seen in the next picture). Because I wanted to keep costs as low as possible, I wanted to reuse the ply-grip, so I made sure not to bend everything out of place too badly. You can grip the fabric with your pliers and just pull it out of the ply-grip.

Using a butter knife to open ply-grip. Yes, those gloves make me look creepy.

Step 7: Completely Remove Fabric

Continue removing fabric panels until the frame of the chair is totally exposed. Be cognizant of where batting and foam pieces are – some of them need to be removed to get to where fabric was stapled in, and some (like in this picture) should be left along because there is nothing further to remove. Here is a tip: if you want your chair to be more comfortable, you can go ahead and add more batting or foam at this point. Also, if you got the chair from a garage sale, it might not smell the best, so you can remove the batting and replace with new, although this will increase the price of the project.

Step 8: Pay Attention to How the Manufacturer Created Smooth Edges

This is a (not very good) picture of the back of the chair. I wanted to point out how it was attached to the frame: the manufacturer did not use ply grip here. Instead, the panel was apparently attached on the top edge first, with the two sides having the ply grip. This may make more sense later on, but it is important that you keep any foam backing or cardboard lining so that you can reuse them to keep your edges smooth.

Step 9: Removing Cushion Buttons

This chair had buttons in the upholstery that I think looked awful. This picture shows where they were attached in the back (the strings were stapled to the frame). I made sure to remove these, so that when I put on the new fabric, the batting would be nice and smooth.

Step 10: Cutting the New Pattern

When you have the fabric completely removed, you can start cutting our the pattern in the new fabric. Here you can see I laid a piece of the old fabric (face down) on the back of the new fabric. This way, when I cut out the new fabric, it will be facing the correct way. If you are using a patterned fabric, be cognizant of where any images will be centered when you attach the fabric.

After I cut out all of the new fabric, I began attaching. Remember, You will be replacing the fabric back on in the opposite order that you removed it. This bottom pieces was the last part that I removed, and thus the first to be replaced. All you need to do is put the cut fabric back on, tuck it back into the places it was tucked, and then re-staple it in the same places it was stapled before.

Step 11: Piping

You will attach the piping in the same reverse order that you removed it. This cannot be explained exactly without looking at the actual chair you are working on, so only you will understand the order it was attached. If you saved the original piping, you can use a seam ripper (or scissors) to open the piping and take out the cord. To make the new piping, cut our a 1.5-2 wide strip of your fabric in a length 2-3 inches longer than the cord. Then use a sewing machine to sew the piping. Here is a tutorial.

Step 12: Address Your Woodwork

Before you attach any woodwork, think about whether you want to paint or stain it. You will want to do any of this work before you attach any new fabric. I chose to spray paint the wood black for a modern look. If you are staining the wood, make sure to sand it down appropriately. Most stains have instructions for what grain to use. The spray paint did not require sanding. 

Even though this is an indoor chair, I also wanted to protect it from spills. The spray paint I used did not have a sealant, so I went ahead and used polyurethane to protect the wood. Polyurethane is is just a clear finish that I applied with a foam brush. This gave the wood a nice smooth finish, and now I know if it gets wet, the paint won't lift.

Here is a tip: When you go to the home improvement store, you should definitely speak to a staff member. They are paid to know what they are talking about, so they should have some good suggestions on how to choose appropriate paints and stains. There are a ton of options (i.e. natural wood colors, glossy paint, matte finish, etc.), so it would behoove you to do your research. 

Step 13: Tuck in Your Fabric

Make sure to tuck in all of your panels and staple where appropriate – remember that you should never see staples exposed on the finish product.

Step 14: Make Your Cushion Cover

I didn’t take an image of when I made the cushion, so I used this one to show you what you need: a sewing machine. Using a basic pillow cover strategy, I just sewed a cover for the cushion that was already on the chair. This is another opportunity for you to add batting – but keep in mind that will change the size of the pillow cover. Here is a tutorial.

Step 15: Don't Give Up - Finish That Chair!

Well that pretty much sums up the basics for re-upholstering an old chair. There are going to be lots of roadblocks in your chairs, because every chair is different. Just remember to document the steps and order in which you remove parts, and you should be just fine. My chair took about 6 hours to complete, but yours may take longer. No matter how long it takes, be patient. Remember that at the end of the journey, you will have an amazing new chair for a fraction of the price!

Here is a tip: Spray your new fabric down with Scotchgard or a similar product to protect it from spills and stains. It isn't easy to clean an upholstered piece of furniture, so you should do what you can to protect it before stains happen. 

Don't forget to check out our website to find more DIY projects and our donation page!

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