The Only Tools You'll Need for DIY Upholstering
Our Resident Design Wiz, Nicole Crowder, shares her must-haves for tackling chairs, ottomans, pillows—you name it.
Over my years of working in upholstery and furniture design, I have pulled together a finely-honed set of tools that I need to ensure the best results. When approaching DIY upholstery, remember that you don’t need to acquire every tool in the shed all at one time—or even use all of them. While the tools you will need will greatly depend on the level of difficulty of the project or the technique needed for the particular item that you’re working on, my best advice is to acquire what’s useful to you and build your repertoire as you go along.
You don’t need expensive equipment to achieve a clean and well-done finish, either. There are so many industrial supplies and equipment that I have chosen not to acquire because they are cumbersome, expensive, and take up quite a large amount of space. Also of note: when it comes to specialized DIY tools, you can also often rent them for your projects.
So, here are 10 of my essentials; I hope they will be everything that you need for your-at-home upholstery projects, whether you’re a beginner or more advanced.
1. Professional Shears
First up, and probably at the top of the list, is a good pair of shears—I always equate the importance of a good pair of shears to a good chef’s knife. It’s the difference between ripping through the threads of your expensive fabric and achieving a clean cut that preserves the integrity of the material. It’s also the difference between struggling with your fabric and gliding through it with ease to make your work more efficient. I have different shears for different thicknesses and weights of fabric, but I swear by the Guggenhein IX Professional shears for many projects because they glide right through leather, cotton, polyester, and even silk without causing the fabric to fray. Gingher scissors is another classic shear that is great for all fabrics, including heavier ones like wool or jacquard.
2. Measuring Tape
A measuring tape is crucial because that old adage of “measure twice, cut once” is never more true than when you’re trying to preserve as much fabric as you can on a chair or a pillow or an ottoman. I have about four different measuring tapes between my studio and my apartment!
3. Tack Strips
I like to call metal tack strips my necessary evil because they’re crucial for creating a seamless edge when you’re trying to finish a chair and make sure that no staples are visible, but the jagged metal teeth are sharp and will definitely prick your finger if you’re not careful. While there are a few different types of metal tack strips, I prefer a pliable tack strip found here that can bend and curve to accommodate chairs with rounded edges.
4. Fabric markers
Fabric pens or pencils are also crucial. I typically keep a few of these in various colors around my studio to help mark fabrics. These pens are great to note where you should cut fabric or create a stitch. Chalk is also great because you can easily brush it off your fabric without leaving marks.
5. Sewing essentials containers
A sewing notions container has been a saving grace for me; I used to have all of my threads and bobbins and needles stored haphazardly in a plastic sewing bag. That’s dangerous for a couple of reasons, including making it very easy for you to prick your finger when you reach into the bag to pull something out. I recently purchased this stackable sewing notions container so now, all of my thread is neatly stored on the top and there are clear drawers for me to see—and get to—my needles, bobbins, thimbles, and scissors. The practical design also makes it easy to transport.
6. Compression gloves
For years, I never used gloves because I couldn’t find one to fit like a second skin. With upholstery, it’s difficult to stretch the fabric and really get into the intricacies of stapling if your gloves are jumbled up around your fingers. I’ve tried many different types of gloves including biker gloves and gardening gloves, but it wasn’t until I found this pair of brown compression gloves from Joann that I was finally able to call off my search. Although they’re fingerless, they provide both stability and protection for my hands, and keep them from getting stapled or pricked from the sharp objects that are strewn about the studio. And because they’re compression gloves, they keep my hands from swelling after using pliers, scissors, and staple guns all day.
7. Needle-nose pliers
A pair of needle-nose pliers are also very helpful when stripping a chair. I like to get a pointier nose because it helps me to get closer to the fabric and the staples when I want to pull them out cleanly.
8. Glue gun
A glue gun is wonderful for applying piping to the trim of a chair for the final finishing touch. I’ve tried multiple guns over the years, but a glue gun that gets up to 140 volts or so is my sweet spot. I like using this Gorilla glue gun because I have found that the glue lasts longer and stronger over a long period of time. Just make sure that you’re not applying too much for it to seep out around the edge of the piping when you press down.
Whether you call it well cording or piping, this is the finishing touch to upholstering furniture. Piping comes in lots of different weights, thicknesses, and materials, and can be purchased at any craft store where upholstery tools are sold. There are two common types: single and double. Single-welt cording is a single strip of piping that you typically see along couch or chair cushions. Double-welt cord piping is where you have two pieces of piping cord that have been sewn around a piece of fabric and is typically glued around the trim of a chair to provide a clean finish.
10. Staple gun and staples
I often use a handheld T21 staple gun when I’m working on smaller projects. Buy one that feels right in your hand and allows you to grip and maneuver it easily. The small T21 staple gun works great for me—just make sure to get staples that are compatible with your particular staple gun or they could potentially jam it up.
In terms of staple size: a 6 to 8 mm staple works great for smaller projects, while larger or heavyweight fabric like velvets or leathers typically require 10 mm staples. For those doing multiple projects, a pneumatic staple gun and air compressor will allow you to work more efficiently and quickly without applying as much pressure on your hands.
See what other Food52 readers are saying.