Chair Upholstery- How-To

I thought it might be handy to give a how-to on upholstering that ugly old yardsale/thrift store find that needs a little rejuvination.  This is a step by step walk through is super thorough. and sure to be an aid in your next upholstery project.  Send any re-upholstery pics this way.   We want to show your fabulous work!!!

This set of chairs belongs to Julie K.W. of Amherstburg, Ontario. The fabric she chose has a very modern look and feel, including the contrast fabric on the back. To maintain this contemporary transition we chose to
eliminate the traditional gimp which is usually applied under the nail trim and covers the cut raw edge of fabric. A number of other changes were introduced and some of the lessons discussed in this project include new foam build up, nailhead trim, relief cuts and more.

Traditional gimp (trim) is seen around the edge of the frame. You can choose to finish you chair with gimp only, or you can apply nailhead trim over the gimp. The traditional method involves stapling the fabric along the wood trim, trimming the excess fabric and applying gimp or trim over the frayed fabric edge. Gimp, or any another trim is meant to cover the frayed fabric edge and keep a neat appearance.  To eliminate the need for gimp, I chose an unconventional finishing method, folding the fabric under, then stapling along the frame.

Removing Nail Trim and Staples

This chair was last reupholstered with traditional tack nails, not staples. This method is of days past, and from what I know, there are no modern day upholsters using this method of tacking. The pneumatic stapler is the fastening tool of choice. If you are removing old upholstery from a piece of furniture and you happen upon traditional tack nails, consider your self very lucky. Removing the tack nails and upholstery will be a relatively quick job. Staples on the other hand take a considerable amount of time to remove, easily up to eight hours for a sofa. Some factors which will influence the ease of staple removal are:

1) hard woods vs. soft woods

2) staple malleability. Many of today’s staples actually break under the stress of removal and you will be unable to remove the legs of the staple. Do your best to remove most of the staples with side cutters. To check for protruding staples along your frame, slowly run your hand around the frame perimeter and use a hammer to flatten the remaining metal against the hardwood.

3) the amount of staples. There can be many layers of materials and or padding and each layer is attached to the frame with its' own series of staples

4) decorative wood trim furniture, as in this example. When you remove staples from a chair with exposed trim you must be very careful not to lose control of your tools. Running either the staple removing tool or the ice pick across the wood frame will damage the decorative wood trim and extend your “to do” list with your upholstery job.Removing staples on a frame such as this will be time consuming because you must move very carefully.

The standard staple removal tool shown above is manufactured by C.S. Osborne, aU.S. manufacturer of quality upholstery tools.  Another method of staple removal involves an ice pick and side cutter, also shown
above. Burying the end of the ice pick under the nail or staple, I tap the ice pick with the cutters until the staple lifts away from the frame. I then use the cutters to lift the staple out of the frame. A specific pair of cutters needs to be assigned to staple removal because the cutter blades need to be dulled to do the job right. Unless the cutter is dulled, you will cut, rather than pry staple out of the frame.To remove staples with an ice pick, the tip must be kept sharp in order to lift the staple up. To sharpen the tip you can use a bench grinder, 80 grit sandpaper or a sharpening stone.

Upholstery tacks, the old upholstery method of affixing fabric can be seen in the top left photo.  Above top right, the arrows point to the use cotton to fill sink areas and to smooth the finished appearance. This method is used liberally throughout upholstery. Beginners will find that using synthetic fibers are easier to work with than natural fibers as they are more seamless and invisible under the finished cloth. Above bottom right, the many layers of foam padding. In this example you can see that a cotton strip that has been tacked to the front frame and glued along the foam front.

When reupholstering a piece of furniture the age and condition of the materials always dictate how much fill material will be replaced with new padding and foam. The upholstery on this chair is quite aged, but unless you know when a piece has been recovered, you will not know the condition of the foam until it has been stripped. The benchmark lifespan for foam is approximately ten years, so without question any foam which nears this age should be removed. Under certain conditions, such as direct exposure to sunlight, near a window for example, foam will age and disintegrate rather quickly. Materials that do not disintegrate, such as cotton padding or polyester batting can be reused.

Upholstery Layers

The photo above illustrates the amount of stuffing and padding that can be found in older furniture. The layers and fill weight in modern day furniture is significantly lower than in this example, and I will make many adjustments during the reupholstery process. The original foam and padding height on this chair is 3”. If you refer to the original front view of this chair you will see a dart in the seat corner. The foam height creates excess fabric in the corner and necessitates either a dart, pleat or gathers.

Another method of fitting a seat top with a substantial foam height can be seen on the original cotton seat underlining. The seat top and seat band are cut separately. The addition of a seat band, a dart, pleats or gathers are all options in eliminating the excess fabric in the corner.

The addition of a cotton cover or underlining smooths down the padding layers and simplifies the upholstery process, making the final fabric layer easier to affix to the frame. For the majority of fabrics an underlining will not be necessary, however it is an integral step when working with lightweight fabrics such as silk. Underlining will give your upholstery a more substantial and polished appearance as some lighter weight fabrics will be prone to dimple when under pressure. For lighter weight fabrics it can also more difficult to gauge the appropriate tension when stapling. An underlining will be of great assistance to gauge and achieve an ideal "fit".

The old seat padding was a very dense combination of foam and cotton layers and the core piece of foam had a hollow grid on the underside, similar to a waffle pattern. When you combine this hollow feature and the ½” drop in the seat frame (pictured below), it is easy to understand why the seat surface was destined to become uneven and lumpy. This imbalance was corrected to ensure that aesthetic appeal would be maintained for the maximum amount of time possible.

Glue Up

Before you reupholster check for loose screws, cracked frames or dried glue. I was able to pull apart this frame with my bare hands, so quite a lot of gluing was necessary. If you are able to pull apart your frame, you must scrape away all of the old dried glue from the dowels and the frame. To remove the dried glue you can use a chisel or 80 grit sandpaper. Once all of the old glue is removed, re glue your frame with carpenters
glue and tightly clamp the frame during drying.

If you cannot pull apart a loose frame, a specialty product such as Hot Stuff by Lee Valley will do the job perfectly. This glue is applied using a syringe, allowing even the tiniest cracks to be repaired.

Above left, look closely and you can see the old foam powder (disintegration) along the frame edge. This 1/2" drop from the frame edge was filled to ensure a maximum lifespan for the upholstery. Right, the clamps are in place.Take a note of the inside back, above right, and make a reference to the other chair frame. Are they the same? Take note of the seats on the two chairs shown above. One seat bottom has corner blocks, the other does not. The frames of these two chairs are made differently, both on the seat and the inside back. This is not uncommon, and thus you should not use one frame as a reference to cut multiple foam pads for
example. When all of your pieces are stripped and you will have a good understanding of the tools and materials needed to proceed.

I filled the ½” discrepancy on the bottom of the seat frame with ½” closed cell foam which is a dense stable foam. This area was filled to prolong final product appearance, avoiding foam sink with wear. You can use scrap plywood to fill this area, just remember that you will add a substantial amount of weight. Whichever method you choose, if you are short of material, it is not necessary to fill this space to the edge of the frame. The prime objective is to fill the seating area which would be prone to sink over time.

Replacing the Inside Back (IB) Foam

The old IB foam was ½”thick, which is the exact depth of the frame inset.  Because I wasn’t reusing the old foam, I decided to replace the IB with 1” foam to ensure al little more life and spring when reclining in the chair. Refer to the photo above right, and you can see that replacing the IB with 1" foam will require an
adjustment because it protrudes over the frame. Once the foam height and width has been determined, on one side you will cut a path, approximately 1" wide on an angle, as is shown in the photo above left. Cutting out foam will allow the edge to be pressed into position and blend seamlessly into the edge of the frame. To make this alteration use an inexpensive electric bread knife, which will cost approximately $10-$20 usd. The foam will be trimmed away on one side only, and the cut side will be placed against the IB.

Do not worry about cutting a perfect consistent path, as it will not affect the outer appearance. Once the IB back foam has been cut, spray a small amount of glue in the center of the IB chair, and a small amount on the center of the IB foam piece. However, generous amounts of glue will be applied along the cut path of the foam and along the inset depth of the chair frame. The foam can be inserted and pinched into place after
some dry time, approximately five minutes. You can place the foam in position when the glue no longer feels wet to the touch, and feels sticky. Insert the foam into the inset space and pinch the edge of the IB foam against the frame edge. The outer edge of the foam and the edge of the wood frame should meet seamlessly.
Trimming out foam, as was done here with an electric bread knife, is a common upholstery practice used to achieve a uniform, smooth rounded finish.

The IB is now ready for fabric. As shown in the photo below, mark the center of the IB foam at the top and the bottom of the insert. Using these center marks as a guide, place the center of your fabric pattern over these indicators. If your fabric is a solid it is not necessary to indicate the center of the frame. To secure the center of the pattern you can spray a small amount of glue, one quick spray, on the IB foam. Glue can be used to position foam and batting, but it never used to affix textiles. Of course, some exceptions exist, such as an upholstered egg chair or car headliners, but glue is never applied on the back of textiles in general furniture upholstery.

After stabilizing the IB fabric at the center, gently smooth the fabric to the outer edge and staple along the frame. It is not necessary to staple excessively, as the nail head trim will secure the fabric. However, your fabric will dictate and guide the necessity of staple application. The more stable a fabric is, fewer staples will be required to maintain a smooth consistent appearance.

As mentioned previously, I decided on an unconventional finish, folding the fabric edge under to eliminate the need for gimp or trim. Folding the fabric edge may be difficult with some fabrics, and after a trial, you may decide against using this method. You may find that bulky, thick or stiff fabrics will have to be cut along the frame edge and covered with gimp or trim in the traditional method.

Gimp or trim is also necessary when working with vinyl, because when cut, the scrim (knit backing) is usually white and will show along the edge of the frame. Gimp or trim is not necessary when using leather as the cut edge will remain clean.

The foam is glued into the frame inset, with the trimmed side faced down.  If you are working with a pattern that needs to be centered, mark the center of your chair and place the center of your pattern over these marks.  Once the IB is upholstered, you can reference the IB center to gauge the center position of the pattern on the seat.

 Seat Foam

Although this chair is an adult chair, its' frame is on the petite side. To keep the seating position comfortable and the inside back position relative, I decided to adjust the seat padding to a 2" foam height.  Once a foam block has been cut with the rough perimeter of the seating area, carefully begin to cut away at foam so that it can be placed into position. These cutouts are made in increments, cutting the corners one at a time, and then the arm cutouts. Once the foam can be placed onto the seat, use the electric bread knife to trim along the perimeter of the chair frame. Holding the bread knife In the vertical position, with the blade up, run the knife along the edge of the frame to trim away the foam. As shown above, I also cut away the foam that sits over the leg post, to ensure a level, smooth, top appearance. Any hollow areas, such as around the arm can be filled with foam (cut to shape) and secured into place with glue. Once the seat foam has been cut and trimmed to size, you will cut a path approximately 1" in width, this time on the top side. Trimming the foam will eliminate the square edge and give the upholstery a smooth, rounded professional appearance. Because this seat foam was cut on the top side a layer of batting is necessary to conceal the uneven cut edge.

When foam is manufactured and shaped in a mold with a rounded soft top finish, the layer of batting can be eliminated. Batting is commonly used In upholstered furniture, except for bar stools or dining chairs, for example.  Dependant on chair type or frame, the 1" foam cut path can be placed on the underside, eliminating the need for a layer of batting while creating a rounded smooth top edge. This will be demonstrated on future projects.  Keeping the cut path on the top, as shown in this example maintains a larger flat surface on the seat top.

To secure the closed cell foam in place just a small quick spray of glue is necessary on the seat bottom. In
contrast, the application of glue on the bottom of the seat foam can be more liberal. The glue application is most important around the frame edge, and both the frame and wood edge should be sprayed to secure the seat foam into position.Before finalizing the application, the glue needs some dry time and the glue should be sticky rather than wet.

As shown above, this method of smoothing fabric front to back and from side to side is the single most important technique to achieve a professional upholstered finish. Your foam and batting quality will greatly affect you finished product, and the foam density will determine the amount of tension needed to create a
smooth taut seat top.

You can begin by inserting a staple along the center front and center back to gauge the amount of tension needed.  At this point you will also determine where the poly batting will be cut. It is important that the batting does not come into the stapling area. The transition should be smooth and it should be seamless without adding bulk along the wood trim. In the traditional method when the fabric is cut along the wood trim, if the batting is too close to this edge the polyester fibers will jut out. Cleaning up the tiny fibers afterwards can be very time consuming, so it is best to determine the cut length of the batting very carefully.

Relief Cuts

Precise relief cuts are critical to create a polished, professional piece of furniture. If you uncomfortable cutting into your final fabric, use a less expensive remnant with qualities that are similar to your final fabric. Fit and staple the remnant to the frame to gauge your fit. Remove the remnant, lay it over your fabric and transfer the relief cut positions with chalk. You can now return the final fabric to your chair to begin the process over.

In the top left photo, a straight cut has been made a safe distance from the arm, at least one inch, and then a "V" has been cut toward the outer edge of the arm.

Above Right, the relief cut should run right into the corner. Always keep a good distance from the frame, folding the fabric over to check the depth of the relief cut. If you cut too far, you will expose the inner padding. If you do not cut far enough, your fabric will not lay flat but will cause a little bubble. Make your relief cuts in increments testing them often and your job will turn out just right.

Above Left. When the seat has been stapled into position the excess fabric can be cut off. The orange line represents the new cut line, you can then fold the remainder under and staple the fabric to the frame.

Below.  The seat top has been stapled and the chair is ready for the final trim.  Because this fabric allowed it, I was able to ease the excess corner fabric along the frame without creating a corner pleat. However, in most
instances a front corner pleat will be necessary.

On the outside of the arm, two lengths of narrow trim were positioned to fill the gap. (one stacked over the other)The nails were hammered in the center of the two strips

Hammering nailhead trim with a regular hammer would dent the nail surface. You must use a hammer with a nylon tip such as the one shown here by C.S. Osborne, USA. If you wish you can use a nail spacing tool as a guide. I actually prefer to hammer one nail at a time.

The head of decorative nail trim is made with a degree of flexibility so that the nail can be coaxed into
position. If your nail is not heading in the right direction you can tap it into place with your hammer.

When a chair is recovered several times, especially with traditional tacks, you can encounter holes or hollow
spots when applying nailhead trim. This can be seen in the photo to the upper left. Because the nailhead allows for some flexibility, do your best to coax the nail into an area of wood that "bites". Any nail that does not "bite" runs the risk of eventually falling out.

Previously the outside back was lightly padded with a thin quilted layer similar to a paper towel.  If you look closely at the back frame, the upholstered area does not recess but it is completely flat. This makes
the application of a welt trim, as shown below, impossible.

This back was covered with 1/4" foam, then the final fabric was folded and stapled into place. Gimp or trim is a finishing option, with or without the addition of nail trim.

How many decorative nails are on EACH chair?

Answer =280

The sofa shown above, was upholstered in silk, and as discussed above, an underlining was applied before the final upholstery was affixed.This frame is finished with a self covered piping cord, you can learn this finishing technique on the upholstery tips page.

Double welt is another trim option for furniture with exposed wood trim.This finish can be seen on both furniture and window dressings. The double welt cord is produced using a special sewing machine attachment. This decorative finish will be discussed in a future project.

Project Checklist

2" foam
1" foam
foam glue
carpenters glue
poly batting
staple removal tool
electric bread knife
fray stop
decorative nails
gimp or trim
nylon tip hammer
80 grit sandpaper

For gimp trim
high temp. glue gun
heavy duty glue sticks
see upholstery tips for
"how to" instructions

* Article from here.


Pretty Neat Designs said...

WOWZERS! I have a whole new appreciation for upholstery. It looks like a challenge, but one with a great reward at the end. Thanks for providing a how-to - I love these type of posts. And your chairs are beautiful (as is all of your work)!

Cinnamon said...

Great information! Thanks! I'm wondering if I can do the same thing with my headboard. I'm tired of the fabric.


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