How I Saved $1400 by Upholstering My Chairs

Have you a well loved chair that needs a bit of TLC? Perhaps you recently inherited an heirloom antique from a family member (like that old love seat from the 1900’s), or maybe it is a chair you bought when you married and it has sentimental value. Maybe it is just something you found at a sale that doesn’t quite match your decor.

You think, it just needs a new covering, no problem – right? Well, maybe so but then again, you might want to think twice about it. Upholstery work is expensive and hard, but if you do tackle it yourself, you can save big bucks.

By tackling my 2 wing back recliner chairs I saved $1400 over the cost of replacing them with new chairs and probably about $1500 over the cost of hiring someone else to recover them. But, I will never tackle another upholstery job!

My experience.

I own a condo at a local lake that came furnished. Two heavy wing back recliners were among the furnishings. The color was all wrong for the decor and the fabric was getting a bit ragged looking.

As part of an ongoing redecorating project I decided that something needed to change about those chairs.27

So, I went on some exploratory shopping trips.

First I looked online to see what the average cost of re-upholstery services were. I found that it could easily cost hundreds of dollars or more, not including the fabric.

Next I visited the local furniture mart to see how much a new, comparable chair might cost. Ours had wing back recliners (although not as heavy as mine) for around $750 each. To be honest, I was really shocked at how much they were. Other, non-reclining, much lighter wing back chairs sold for a couple hundred dollars.

Then I visited the local fabric store and a hobby store to see what upholstery fabric selections there were and how much it ran. The fabric alone ranged from the $20 mark up through $70 or $80 a yard (54″) – averaging around the $35 a yard mark at the time I looked.

Along the way, on one of my garage sale shopping expeditions, I stumbled across a matched pair of wing backs (non-reclining) for $20 each. I snapped them up, thinking maybe I could just switch out the old chairs for these newer, nicer looking ones.

I discovered, however, after lifting the chairs into my car to take them home, that they were lightweight and decided that these would not be appropriate for a place where I had multiple paying guests coming through.

After poking around on You Tube, looking at how-to videos on re-upholstery, I decided that, hey, I could do this. This 23 part video was especially helpful to me.

To estimate how much material might be needed, I went to the condo with a measuring tape and measured each part of the chair – outside of the back, inside of the back, seat bottom, foot rests, arms and etc. After adding it all together and plugging in a margin of safety, I had my estimate.

I then comparison shopped for the kind of material I wanted (heavy duty fabric without a pattern in a neutral color that would match the current and any future decor). I was able to find the material for one chair on clearance – for $40 total and on sale for the other. All told, I think I paid about $100 for the material for both chairs.

Once at the condo, with the material, the sewing machine, pinking shears, scissors, thread, tools (staple gun, staples, knives, screwdrivers, tack hammers, mallets, utility knife and etc) I set out to re-do my first chair. I had a solid week by myself and thought this would be plenty of time.

Before starting I took numerous digital pictures and loaded them onto my pc for later reference. As I deconstructed each piece of fabric on the chair (following the order recommended in that video above), I took before and after pictures of each part and wrote paper/pencil notes on what to do when replacing the fabric.

While working, I found that the previous upholsterer had taken the chair apart. The back and bottom came apart from the arms and base. That was a surprise, but it was easier once the chair was apart.

At times, I felt like I was doing gymnastics with that chair – rolling it around, flipping it over, lying on the floor peering up at it and etc to get to the areas required.

Immediately after removing each piece, I labeled it and placed it and any related pieces together in one of the bedrooms. An example of related pieces – the chair outside back had two metal strips with sharp tack like extensions that were used to fold fabric over and press into the wood. Another example was the inset piece, made of cardboard and with some tacks in it which pressed into the front of the arms to hide where the arm fabric came together in front.

After all the pieces were off, I rolled out my new fabric in one big long piece on the floor and started putting the old pieces on top as patterns to cut the new pieces. Although I had no patterns (plaids, lines, etc) , I did have a slight nap to consider.

I also sanded down the wood parts and re-stained and lacquered them while the chair was bare.

Most pieces just stapled back on but there were a couple that I had to use the sewing machine to stitch. Pieces like the piping that goes on the edges and the seat bottom (to sew the seat to the drop on the sides).

It took a full 7 days of 10 hours a day working on that chair to take off the old upholstery and recover it in the new. I was stiff and sore from all the floor gymnastics and my hands were stiff from the hard stapling for days.

Each chair is different. The second chair I hauled home so I could have more time to complete it. Although the same basic shape, I found that the prior upholstery job had been done slightly differently and had to accommodate those differences.

What I learned.

Upholstery is hard physical work.

Re-upholstering a chair takes time.

Creative judgment is required to complete an upholstery job.

Don’t recover existing piping – get new. On the first chair I just applied new fabric over the old piping. It made the material too think to staple through. I found some at Walmart for less than $2 a package.

Use new cardboard to support the piping. Cardboard strips are stapled by the side of the piping to stiffen and support it. You can cut new strips from the back of a spiral notebook.

Use longer staples. On the first chair I just used 1/4 inch long staples and a utility staple gun. The staples weren’t long enough to penetrate all layers of fabric and cardboard to get into the wood.

Use a staple puller. On the first chair I pried out the old staples with a screwdriver. It was hard. I bought a $4 staple puller for the next job and it was much easier.

Take more pictures from every angle than you think you need. On my second chair I ended up with a piece I didn’t know how to put back and had no picture to guide me.

Take movies and talk about what you are doing as you remove the old stuff. It is easier than taking notes and much more helpful – just be sure to capture what you are talking about in the movie.

Never re-upholster a cheap chair. Just buy another cheap chair instead.

Don’t buy cheap material. The job is a lot of hard work and time, do not do it on the cheap.

Don’t skimp on the amount of upholstery material you buy. You might not be able to match it later if you run out in the middle of your job. Luckily I had enough.

Why I will never re-upholster another piece of furniture.

Aside from re-covering the seats of dining room chairs (which is way easy if you’ve never done it), I don’t plan on trying to re-upholster any more furniture. Why not – you ask – you saved so much money.

Here are my reasons.

I’m 68 years old and it is hard on my body.

While I did a good enough job to suit myself, a professional would make them look even better.

I can afford to hire someone else to do the job.

There is currently only one other piece of furniture that might need re-covering. It is a family heirloom piece I inherited from an aunt who in turn inherited it from my maternal grandparents. I want it to look good enough for my grown children to want to have.

Although I could list going out to buy a new piece of furniture as a reason, I’m not. Furniture made in the past 15 years or so is of poorer quality than earlier pieces.

Have you ever re-upholstered a piece of furniture? Would you do it again?


How I Saved $1400 by Upholstering My Chairs — 3 Comments

  1. BRAVO…I’ve always wondered how hard it would be to re-upholster a “cherished” piece of furniture…and you have answered that question. We have a unique chair that we bought over 30 years ago as part of a set. The Sofa and Love seat are long gone but we still have and love that chair and ottoman. DW (who is a genius) looked into re-upholstering the chair and decided to pass. Instead she went to Home Depot and bought heavy duty drop clothes for painting and made “slip covers” with Velcro fasteners so that they can be removed and thrown in the wash. It worked so well she did the same for the existing love seat and sofa. I realize this wouldn’t have worked for your recliners but perhaps it would for other pieces. As for a new furniture…save your money…I have taken newer furniture apart to repair and was amazed at the materials or lack there of….A lot of the structure is made of plastic and “pallet lumber”…Pretty shabby IMHO.

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