Upholstery work is something that most woodworkers and do-it-yourslefers generally avoid. Working with fabric is just different enough, that it feels like a foreign world. It also requires different tools and techniques than most of us are used to. But that’s not to say that we can’t do it, if we decide to. I’ve done a number of simple reupholstering projects, and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
Probably the simplest reupholstering job you can find is that of reupholstering formal dining room chairs. These usually have a thin pad attached to the seat, covered in whatever pattern you might want. There is no upholstered back, no upholstered arms and no upholstered base to work with. Nice and simple. You don’t even need a sewing machine, as there’s nothing to sew.
There are a few special tools you’ll need:
- An awl or narrow-bladed screwdriver for removing staples
- Diagonal cutters and needle-nose pliers for the same reason
- Staple gun or pneumatic stapler that uses ½” crown staples
- Sharp scissors
- Straight edge
- Phillips head screwdriver
As for materials, you’ll need:
- Upholstery fabric; roughly 2/3 yards per two seats (or 1/3 yard per seat)
- Dust-cover fabric (usually only comes in black)
- 1” to 1 ½” thick high-density upholstery foam rubber
- Polyester quilt batting
- ½” plywood (only if you need to replace it)
- ½” long, ½” crown staples
- Spray adhesive (best to get one specifically made for upholstery foam)
Upholstery fabric is different than fabrics used for making clothing, mostly in that it is thicker, made from a thicker yarn. You could use a thinner fabric, but it would not last. Cheap sofas are often made with thin fabric and low-quality upholstery foam. The fabric wears out quickly and the foam loses its shape, compressing and flattening. It is worth it to spend the extra money on quality material.
Preparing the Chair
The first thing you need to do, in order to reupholster a dining room chair is to remove the seat pad from the chair. This is easily accomplished by flipping the chair upside-down on the table. There will be two or four screws, going through the chair frame and into the bottom of the seat pad. Remove these screws and save them for reuse later.
The fabric on these chairs is not sewn, but merely stapled to the bottom of the chair pad. Using the awl, diagonal cutters and needle nose pliers, remove the staples holding the black dust cover and then the fabric upholstery from the plywood seat. These can be discarded. Check the integrity of the plywood seat, as well as the upholstery foam and the batting covering it. If they are still good, you can immediately move on to recovering the seat. If not, you may need to make a new seat pad.
Making the Seat Pad
If the plywood seat pad is still good, but the foam or batting is damaged, you can replace just these, removing the old foam and batting from the seat and attaching new foam and batting. However, it may be easier to just cut a new piece of plywood, as the foam is probably attached to the seat with adhesive, making it virtually impossible to remove it without leaving some foam behind. This remainder will make it hard for the new foam to stick in place.
If you need to make a new seat pad, the first thing you’ll need is to cut a ½” thick plywood base. While cabinet-grade plywood is often used for high-quality furniture, you can use construction grade plywood just as well. The plywood is not going to be visible anyway, so there is no concern about its appearance. Avoid particle board or chipboard, as they can weaken with time, especially if they get wet.
You can use the old seat pad as a pattern to make the new one, being careful to trace it exactly. Cut the plywood with a jigsaw and file off any splinters around the edges. It would be a good idea to sand the edges smooth as well, with a power sander.
The 1” thick upholstery foam is attached to this plywood base with spray adhesive. Any spray adhesive will work, although there are special spray adhesives which are made specifically for upholstery work. Since this is foam rubber that you are attaching, it would be best to use one of them. If you can’t find spray upholstery adhesive, you can also use rubber cement. Cut a piece of 1” thick high-density upholstery foam, slightly larger than the seat pad. Spray the adhesive onto the plywood seat and lay the foam onto it, rubbing it down, working from the center outwards, to ensure good contact. Once the adhesive has had a few minutes to dry, cut the foam flush with the edges of the plywood.
To round the edges of the foam, spray the top edge of the foam. Then push the foam down and slightly outwards with one hand, while the other hand sticks the top edge of the foam to the edge of the plywood. This layer of foam is then covered with a single layer of batting, which acts to keep the foam and the upholstery fabric from sticking against each other. By allowing them to slip, rather than stick, this layer helps prevent wrinkling of the fabric and puckering of the foam.
Cut an oversize layer of the batting that is at least four inches larger than the seat, all the way around. Lay the seat pad on this, foam side down, centering it on the batting.
The batting is attached to the seat by stapling through it into the plywood on what will be the underside of the seat. You will want to start from the center of each side and work your way outwards, stretching the batting as you go and stapling it about 3/4” from the edge. If the batting is not stretched tight, it will wrinkle, creating an uncomfortable ridge in the fabric. Excess material can be cut from the corners, when you get there. Once the batting is attached all the way around, cut off the excess that is past the staples.
Upholstering the Seat
It is possible that you may only need to replace the batting, leaving the original foam in place. If you do, it can be attached right over the existing batting, unless the existing batting is torn or worn through in spots. If it is torn, it will eventually fold under, causing ridges in the fabric.
The upholstery fabric is also stapled to the bottom of the seat, much like the batting layer is. Cut a piece of fabric that is four inches larger than the seat, all the way around, just as you did with the batting. You don’t have to worry about it fraying, as upholstery fabrics don’t fray easily. Mark the center of the fabric and the center of the seat pad on the front and back sides, so that you can center the upholstery fabric on the seat.
Just like the batting, you will want to start stapling the upholstery fabric in the middle of each side, working your way towards the corners. It is critical that you pull the fabric tight for each staple, being cognizant of the fabric’s design. If it has stripes or any other geometric design elements, you want to be sure that you don’t pull them crooked.
It is best to staple the upholstery fabric slightly inside of where you stapled the batting, so as to avoid the staples running into each other. When you get close to the corners, stop and fold the fabric, so that the fold line is directly on the corner, not on the front or back; then staple it.
Trim the excess fabric, leaving about ½” of fabric past where the staples are.
The bottom of the seat pad is then covered with a dust cover. This is a thin, somewhat gauzy material, whose main purpose is to cover up the bottom of sofas and chairs, to keep dust out. The edges of this fabric are folded under and it is stapled to the bottom of the seat pad, stapling it close to the edge.
Finally, the last step in the process is to reattach the seat pad to the seat frame, using the same screws that you removed earlier. Be sure to use the same screws or ones the exact same length. It doesn’t take much longer for the screw to poke through and be felt when you are sitting on the chair or much shorter for the screw to be too short to fasten the seat pad to the chair frame.