Home Decor

You (Yes, You!) Can Reupholster a Chair at Home

Home52's Resident Design Wiz, Nicole Crowder, takes us through the motions—staple-gun novices welcome.

December  6, 2020

Follow the Pattern is a brand new column from furniture maker and upholstery expert (and Home52's Resident Design Wiz), Nicole Crowder. Nicole is here to show us how to breathe new life into old furniture, reuse and repurpose materials, take chances with color and pattern—and develop a signature aesthetic. Today, she guides us through stripping a chair down to its bones and reupholstering it, right in your living room.


Have an heirloom chair that’s been sitting in your garage for years, and that you’ve been itching to reupholster? Find a mid-century armchair while vintage-shopping and want to swap out the fabric to suit your décor—but unsure where to start? With falling temperatures and shorter days forcing us (further) indoors, this could well be the perfect time to take on that upholstery project you’ve been shying away from.

I’ve been a furniture upholsterer for nearly eight years—with a signature style of mixing vibrant prints and contrasting colors—and during that time, I’ve had the pleasure of repurposing everything from accent chairs to benches, ottomans, even nine-foot sofas, many of which I’ve tackled in my 700-square-foot apartment. My motto with upholstery has always been: if the bones of the piece are in good shape, everything else is cosmetic, and therefore, can be changed.

One of the joys of my work is being able to demystify it for those who are new to upholstery—and it’s one of the many reasons I began teaching upholstery workshops. So, whether you are a seasoned DIYer or have never touched a staple gun, I want to offer both the guidance and the confidence to help you navigate your project smoothly. Remember: Almost everything you’ll need, you’ll likely have at home, or can purchase at your local hardware store.

One of my favorite chairs in general—but to reupholster specifically—is the classic Hans Wegner Shell Chair, designed in 1963. While the original is beautiful, I’ve worked on a lot of (more affordable) look-alikes, and have found it to be a wonderfully accessible style if you are new to upholstering, and want a smaller project to get your feet wet. The chair has what I like to call a “pop cushion seat,” meaning when you take the screws off, the cushion pops right off the frame and can be reupholstered independently. Genius!

My advice? Go one step further and mix up your textiles on the seat bottom and back to add contrast. Or reupholster the chair in a bright fabric and add a single welt cord around the trim in a different color. However you decide to style it, remember to have fun.


What you’ll need:

Photo by Nicole Crowder
  • Staple remover
  • Staple gun
  • Staples that are compatible with your staple gun
  • Screwdriver or Allen wrench (depending on the screws you need to to remove and replace)
  • Fabric scissors
  • Box cutter
  • Measuring tape
  • Fabric(s) of your choice

What you’ll do:

Disassembled parts of the chair Photo by Nicole Crowder
Stapling fabric to the back of the seat Photo by Nicole Crowder
  • Using a screwdriver, remove the screws from your seat and back cushion. Put the screws aside for safekeeping, and lay out all the parts of your disassembled chair, as well as all of your tools.

  • Taking your seat bottom cushion, begin to strip the fabric off. You can take up the staples using your staple remover and then pluck them out using your pliers. When stripping the fabric, be careful to preserve the foam padding underneath. Repeat this step for your back cushion.

  • If the foam is worn down, crumbled or not salvageable, you’ll want to replace it by using a fresh piece of foam. Standard foam for a dining chair seat is 1”-1.5” thick, depending on how high you want to sit. When cutting new foam, use your cushion form to trace the shape and outline.

  • Roll out your chosen fabric on a clean surface, giving yourself enough space so that it lays completely flat. You can use the fabric that you removed as a pattern for cutting, or, you can measure for the new fabric that you will need. With your measuring tape, measure the length and the width of your seat cushion, making sure to measure across the widest and the highest points. I like to add an extra two inches so I have enough fabric to wrap around all sides of the seat

Note: If you are working with a repeating print and want it to line up a certain way, be sure to measure so you have enough fabric to center your design the way you want.

Nicole with one finished seat. Photo by Nicole Crowder
The underside of a newly upholstered seat. Photo by Nicole Crowder
  • Lay your newly cut fabric on top of your seat cushion to make sure that it fully wraps around your seat. Flip the seat over and, while holding the fabric taut, place a staple through the fabric in the center, top, and bottom along the rim of the chair frame. (I typically staple about 1-1.5” away from the rim, because over time as you sit down, you are pulling fabric inward.)

  • Flip your chair seat over just to make sure your fabric is centered the way you want, and then back over to begin stapling your edges all the way around. You might have to create tiny pleats under the bottom of the chair if the seat has rounded edges. Pull your fabric so it is taut but not too tight.

Note: For more angular or squared corners, you’ll want to fold the corners the way you would the corners of a wrapped present or hospital corner: fold one flap down, and fold the other corner down over it and add a staple to hold in place.

  • Once your seat has been reupholstered (yay!), trim off any excess fabric just above the line where you stapled. At this time, you can add a dust cover, which is typically a thin black material that prevents dust from collecting, to the bottom of the seat as well to create a cleaner finish. I like to add a fabric with a little pop of color, almost like a Louboutin shoe. Repeat these steps for the back cushion of your chair.

  • Flip your seat over and using the screws that came with your box, screw the seat back on and reassemble the chair.

  • Take photos and pop a squat!

The finished chair! Photo by Nicole Crowder

Have you tried your hand at reupholstering before? Tell us how it went in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ruth
    Ruth
  • M
    M
  • Nicole Crowder
    Nicole Crowder
  • Hotboy504
    Hotboy504
  • Kitty
    Kitty
Nicole Crowder

Written by: Nicole Crowder

Nicole Crowder is a furniture designer and upholsterer creating custom one-of-a-kind pieces. She has a lover of mixing vibrant color and bold textile patterns. Nicole and her work have been featured in design publications, including Architectural Digest, Domino, Martha Stewart Living, and Better Home & Gardens.

6 Comments

Ruth December 7, 2020
Where do you get your foam? And what kind do you use? Thanks
 
Author Comment
Nicole C. December 8, 2020
Hi there! You can buy foam from many different online retailers or from local fabric stores. If you have a Joann or Michael’s nearby, will carry small amounts of foam for seats. And Amazon, of course, will carry options.
 
M December 6, 2020
Would love tips for picking proper fabrics and reupholstering larger items that cannot be taken apart. I have a solo-love seat that's been waiting to be rid of awful 70s fabric for years.
 
Hotboy504 December 6, 2020
Is that right...
 
Author Comment
Nicole C. December 8, 2020
Hello! For higher traffic seating like sofas and loveseats and dining room chairs, I recommend going with fabrics that are heavier duty. You can choose from chenille to polyester to heavy weight linens or polyester and cotton blends. There’s also canvas fabrics that are really great for loveseats and offer a wide variety of options of prints and patterns if you don’t want to go with something that is a solid color.

Fabric usually has what’s called a double rub, and that refers to essentially the thread count on fabric. Higher rub counts (anything that is 100,000 and higher) are pretty ideal for furniture like loveseats, etc.

And coming up in the new year I actually going to share a video where I show you how to reupholster a sofa from the living room. The steps are very similar to doing small chairs, only you will be cutting larger pieces of fabric and wrapping them around more layers of foam and cotton and Dacron.
 
Kitty December 17, 2020
I have 4 kitchen chairs I want to recover, the chairs are on wheels and swivel !
I’m not sure if I recover them myself, I’ll do enough pulling to make sure the fabric won’t loosen! I’d like to send a picture, but not sure how to do it !
If anyone has any suggestions
I’d really appreciate it !!
Thank you for your time and help !!