Introduction: Reupholster an Office Chair
On any given garbage day I can walk around my neighbourhood and find at least one, if not two, discarded office chairs within a few blocks of my house just waiting for the garbage pickup. It's such a shame; in most cases the upholstery has worn but the chair itself is still rock solid.
I'm a messy worker so my office is always in a state of disorganized chaos. My chair was in no better shape and when the tear in the seat looked like it was trying to run right out of the office, I knew it was time for a makeover. I didn't want to be one of those people that kicked their chair to the curb because of an upholstery failure! I relocated it to my craft studio to give it the Cinderella treatment.
For those of you that are afraid to try upholstery, a dining room chair is a great way to start to get your feet wet. That was the extent of my upholstery experience before I dove right in to doing this office chair, so if I can do it, you can too!
The best part of the project is that I reused every bit of original trim that was on the chair (and also used leftover material from another project) so there was very little waste.
Step 1: You Will Need
Since I’ve never reupholstered an office chair before, this was uncharted territory for me. There’s nothing more fun than a challenge and learning a new skill! I was interested to learn just how it had been professionally done at the factory so I could try to duplicate it as best I could.
For this project, you will need:
- sewing machine,
- airgun with staples (both light and heavy weight),
- pin nailer with 1″ pins,
- staple puller,
- eye protection and heavy gloves (to wear while stapling or nailing),
- upholstery weight fabric (find something heavy that will be durable),
- needle nose pliers
- steam iron
- blunt sewing needle
- thread, and
I also used brown packaging paper to make a pattern for the backrest and panel. You could use a regular staple gun but I find it too difficult to squeeze; having a compressor with a pneumatic stapler is a real hand-saver!
Step 2: Break the Project Into 3 Stages
I broke the project down into 3 stages: the seat, the back panel and the backrest. If you break it down in this way, it won't seem so insurmountable to complete such an ambitious project for the first time. You can set a goal to do each phase over 3 days or even 3 weekends for instance - it's up to you how you want to pace yourself. I guess it also depends on how fast you need your chair back :)
Step 3: Stage 1: the Seat
First, I turned the chair onto its side to explore how it all comes apart. Looking at all the levers was a bit daunting, but I noticed 4 large screws in the centre and removed them.
I thought the arms of the chair had to come off too, but it wasn’t necessary at this stage. I removed one and left the other one on so I could prop it up to get some leverage (and a better picture) once it was in my work table (I did finally removed the other arm so I could maneuver the fabric around once it was replaced in Step 6).
Interestingly, there weren’t too many staples holding the fabric on around the perimeter of the seat. All the work in gathering up the fabric was done by a black grosgrain ribbon tape with cord running through it; such an interested way to do it!
Step 4: Reuse Whatever You Can!
I decided I would reuse the ribbon again; you have to be careful not to let the cord slip out of the slots as you remove the staples.
I removed all the staples using my upholstery staple puller (shown in the second picture). Tie a knot at the ends of each cord before you remove the staples holding the cord. This will prevent the cord from accidentally slipping out – trust me on this, you don’t want it to unravel or you will have to feed it back through the teeny tiny slots in the ribbon and that won’t be fun!
Luckily the manufacturer left enough of the cord to work with before cutting it or I would have had to replace it. I did a quick Google search and couldn’t find anything comparable online so I don’t have the faintest clue what it’s called or where I might be able to buy it again (if anyone knows, please leave me a comment)!
To save the ribbon, I had to use a seam ripper to cut through both straight stitching and serger thread holding it to the fabric. It was a bit time consuming so I just cranked up the music and chilled while I was at it. To break up the monotony, I would leave it every once in a while and then come back to it. When it was finally released from the fabric, I pick out all of the loose threads from both the ribbon and fabric and set the ribbon aside.
Step 5: Cut the Fabric
Now it’s time to cut new fabric; I used the old fabric as my pattern. If you have a directional pattern as I did (shells), ensure that all your pattern pieces are placed on the fabric in the same direction. I wanted the fat end of the shells pointing downward (as you’ll see later in the finished chair).
I folded the new fabric right side in, put the old fabric on top of it and pinned around the perimeter (my antique irons helped hold it down).
As I only discovered after I cut the fabric, the old fabric had stretched out of shape so it was now bigger than the length of the ribbon; I had to adjust and re-cut the fabric so the perimeter was the same size as ribbon. This part was a bit of trial and error.
After the fabric is cut, make sure to iron out all the creases with a steam iron – otherwise they’ll always be there in your finished chair. Don’t get lazy and skip this step!
Step 6: Sew the Ribbon
Pin the corded ribbon around the perimeter and sew it on using a 1/4" seam allowance (don't accidentally sew over the cord, or you won't be able to pull it through). Because I re-used the ribbon and it had already been gathered onto the seat cushion, you will have to straighten the area you are sewing so there are no gathers, then push the gathered section ahead into the area you just sewed so the next section is smooth. It sounds confusing but it will make sense once you get to this stage.
Once the ribbon is stitched, I also serged around the edges. Again you’ll need to move the gathers around so you’re stitching on ungathered fabric as you serge. Once that’s done, you can pop the new cover onto the seat cushion.
You’ll need to pull it tight as you go to get it evenly distributed.
Step 7: Staple
Put on some eye goggles and gloves. Where the cords cross over, add staples in a zigzag fashion as shown in the first picture to hold them in place (I forgot to get a shot using the actual fabric; this is a before shot).
I used a pneumatic staple gun with my air compressor to place staples around the perimeter. I found it hard in some places to stretch the fabric over the sides so do your best to get it evenly distributed.
Turn it over and admire your work!
Step 8: Stage 2: the Back Panel
Now on to the back panel and backrest of the chair. I wasn’t sure how to take it apart but I noticed a seam running all the way around, so I inserted my staple puller and gave it a little tug around the edges. To my delight – and relief – it popped right off.
Step 9: Remove Pin Nails
The panel had been held together by small head pin nails. They were shot right through the fabric of the panel into the backrest and because the heads were small, they sunk right through the fabric; brilliant!
I made note of how close to the edge the pin nails were placed so I could reverse engineer it again when I was putting it back together. I also noticed that this time, there was no ribbon with cord gathering up the slack. Instead the manufacturer just simply serged around the edge of the fabric and inserted a cord right along the serger thread! Again, I decided to do the same thing.
Remove all the pin nails with the needle nose pliers.
Step 10: Make a Paper Pattern
For the back panel, I didn’t bother to remove the fabric so I made a paper pattern instead. Roll out some brown paper and place the panel on top. Mark the top and bottom, then roll the panel to the right side as you trace the outline. Roll to the left side and trace the other side.
Measure with a ruler to see now much allowance you’ll need to add onto the pattern for the edges.
Add the seam allowance onto the pattern . I added 1 3/8″ around the perimeter. Cut the pattern out.
Before you pin and cut the fabric, make note of the direction you want the fabric to run. If your fabric has a pattern or nap you’ll want everything running in the same direction. Put an arrow on the paper pattern in the direction you determine to help you remember - and be consistent with your other pieces (I did do that but forgot to photograph it in the last picture).
Step 11: Serge and Add Cord
Once the fabric is cut, serge around the edges and then feed a cord through the serger threads using a blunt needle (I used some rayon knitting yarn I had left over from another project).
Start the cord at the centre of the bottom and make sure you crisscross the yarn once you’re back to the beginning so the two threads overlap – it’s easier to pull them tight in the opposite direction when they’re crossed over.
Lay the panel onto the wrong side of the fabric and gather up the fabric by pulling the cords until it’s neat and tight around the panel.
I used some lightweight, shallow staples to hold the fabric in four spots, plus another few to zigzag the cords as I did with the seat cushion to hold them in place. The last picture shows the finished back panel. Note that the shells are running in the same direction as the seat cushion. I could have ironed it a bit better (I can still see a faint crease)!
Step 12: Phase 3: the Backrest
The last piece is the backrest; the light at the end of the tunnel!
The backrest was held onto a metal brace with three screws; once the panel was removed the screws were exposed and could be unscrewed.
Again, I decided not to remove the fabric and made a new paper pattern instead, as I did with the back panel. Using the directions outlined previously above, make a paper pattern and cut out the fabric (in the same direction as the other pieces).
Serge around the edges, insert the cord, put new fabric onto the chair backrest and gather up the fabric.
Flip it upside down and then staple around the perimeter in the same manner as the back panel. I used a heavier gauge staple for the backrest than I did on the panel because of the difference in the depth of the material and the amount of use it would get.
Step 13: Bringing the Back Rest Together With the Panel
As an extra precaution, before I pinned the back panel back onto the backrest, I marked with some pieces of green tape where the staples were (only if they were an inch from the edge – which is where I was going to pin). By knowing where the staples were, I could prevent some potential ricochet off the staples when I pinned on the back panel.
I also dry fit the back panel on and did the same thing with the green tape to mark potential hazards where there were staples.
At this point, I needed an extra set of hands and my husband jumped right in to help. He held the back panel in place and squished it all together as I pinned 1″ in from the edge around the perimeter of the panel. It probably would have been a good idea for him to be wearing gloves just in case, but he was careful to keep his hands away from the target area as I moved the nail gun around. I should also mention that we were both wearing eye protection – you can’t be too careful.
Step 14: Hide the Nail Heads
Remove the green tape. Most nail heads will have penetrated right through the weave of most fabrics. But if necessary, ease off any fabric that may have caught in the nail heads using a blunt sewing needle so you can’t see any puckers - or the nails. All the nail heads should be just under the fabric so they disappear.
The picture shows an example of a nailhead that needed to be fixed (this is how you don't want it to look).
Step 15: Please Vote!
Here she is all done up in her new red dress. Now that it's done, you can sit right down to take a load off and finally try it out!
The chair looks so great with all the red accents in my craft studio that it’s going to be hard to put it back where it belongs in the office upstairs! I think I’m going to have to search out another second hand chair that’s the same model. They don't make them like they used to either: this one was made in 1998 by the Global company and I was impressed with the construction (as you saw in the before picture, it has gotten a lot of use over the years!).
This is the second in a series of 3 chairs I’ve done in my new craft studio. The first one was the drafting chair you see in the last picture. If you want to try an easier upholstery project to start, check it out on Birdz of a Feather (and subscribe if you're interested in DIY projects in and around the home).
If you enjoyed this project, please vote!