How to Reupholster a Chair So You Can Revamp Rather Than Replace
Plus the best fabrics to start with.
Published Feb 24, 2022 4:48 PM
Sprucing up your space doesn’t always require a complete furniture overhaul. If a seat’s fabric has seen better days but the silhouette is still perfection, why not just learn how to reupholster a chair? It’s easier than it sounds, especially with expert advice from Kaitlin Madden, cofounder of on-demand interior design service The Finish, and Nicole Crowder of Nicole Crowder Upholstery. Your weathered piece (and your room) will feel like new in no time—read on for their tips.
The Easiest Chairs to Reupholster
Start with a straightforward project like a wood-framed dining chair. “You take the seat off, recover it with fabric, and use a staple gun to reattach it,” explains Madden. “That’s something that pretty much anybody can do.”
She also suggests working with newer chairs because the insides are generally in better shape than antiques. Beginners should generally avoid cushions with a lot of details like tufting or curves—fitting fabric over them is far more challenging.
The Best Fabric for Reupholstering
“It depends on your lifestyle,” says Madden. A performance fabric or anything made of polypropylene will be durable enough to stand up to kids and pets. Look for a high “double rub” count, a measurement of the strength of the fabric that’s used commercially. Heavy canvases and velvets fall under this category.
Don’t worry if you planned on using a more delicate material like silk or linen, Madden adds. Use them on the seat back and go with a sturdier fabric for the seat cushion.
Solids are easier to cut than repeating patterns, but Crowder has a tip for that: Label the middle of your fabric with a marker or chalk, then measure out from the right and the left of that point to make sure your design is centered. Madden’s general rule for newbies: Stay away from stripes, which can easily appear warped on curvier silhouettes.
Common Chair Reupholstering Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)
Not Taking Safety Precautions
Wear gloves and safety goggles and work on a smooth, clean surface like a hardwood floor. “Staples react differently to different types of wood. Some of them spring up and pop off,” says Crowder. If you’ve only got carpet, put down a tarp to protect it from debris.
Skimping on Replacement Materials
“There is no sense in reupholstering a chair if the cushion isn’t of great quality,” explains Madden. Beware of crumbling, wet, torn insides, or a seat that’s too thin or uncomfortable to sit on. If that’s the case, Crowder recommends buying new foam.
Not Considering Pattern Placement
“Make sure that the fabric lines up properly so you don’t have different parts of the pattern at a seam,” says Madden. “That’s going to just look weird.”
Measuring Your Chair Cushion Without the Foam and Batting
Without accounting for the amount of fabric needed to conceal the padding, you risk not cutting enough to cover the entire chair.
How to Reupholster a Chair
- A wood-framed dining chair or armless lounge chair
- Camera or phone
- Box cutter
- Bread knife
- New batting and foam (optional)
- Fabric-cutting scissors
- Fabric markers or chalk
- New upholstery fabric
- Staple gun and staples (6 to 8 mm)
- Hammer (if your chair seat is nailed to the frame)
- Upholstery nails
- Cambric fabric (the black cloth on the underside of the cushion, also known as a dust cover)
Step 1: Photograph the Chair
Take photos from a few different angles (including from below) to use as a reference for fabric and staple placement when you’re ready to reattach the newly upholstered cushion(s) to the chair.
Step 2: Dismantle the Old Cushion(s)
Turn over your chair and use a screwdriver to pry out the staples and nails holding the old cambric fabric to the frame. This will give you access to the seat cushion’s innards. Flip the chair upright and remove the fabric on the seat and back (if it’s upholstered). A box cutter comes in handy when separating the fabric and batting from the chair itself. “Sometimes the foam is stapled onto the wood frame and sometimes it’s been glued with adhesives or a spray glue,” Crowder notes. Keep the original fabric to use as a pattern.
Step 3: Replace the Foam
Dealing with an armchair? Check for damaged cushion springs that may need to be replaced at this point. If you’re discarding the foam, use the bread knife to cut out new pieces to fit the back and seat. If you’re reusing it, place it back on the chair frame.
Step 4: Cut the Batting
If everything looks good, use your scissors to cut enough batting to fully cover the foam pieces.
Step 5: Cut Your New Fabric to Fit
Either use your old fabric as a guide or take brand-new measurements of your chair. “I typically like to start fresh because you never know how the previous person reupholstered,” says Crowder.
Place the padding material on the chair, then measure from the widest point, going 2 to 3 inches underneath each side of the chair for extra fabric allowance, especially around the corners, which need more material for ample coverage. “If you have a round seat, measure it at the center straight across to get the diameter,” adds Crowder.
For the seat back, you’ll need two patterns, one for the front and one for the back. Note the width and length of both sides, adding a couple inches so that you’ll have enough fabric to connect the two pieces of fabric later on.
After taking your measurements, lay the fabric on top of the batting and foam, and mark where you plan to cut the fabric with chalk or a fabric marker. Finally, lay it flat and cut out the pattern(s) with scissors.
Step 6: Staple the Pattern(s) to the Chair Frame
Turn the chair upright if it’s not already. Crowder prefers to secure and center the seat cushion fabric first with one staple in the top and one in the bottom center of the wood frame. Then she staples the fabric around the perimeter of the underside of the chair, pulling the material taut—but not so tight that it compresses the foam and batting. “Over time, sitting pulls the fabric away from the edges, and you don’t want the material to fray,” she points out. Tuck any excess fabric in on itself (this typically happens around the corners) and staple it to the bottom of the frame.
For the front of the seat back cushion, line up the pattern on all sides before anchoring the fabric with a single staple at the top center of the frame. Then staple around the perimeter, keeping the textile taut. For the back side, you’ll again want to match up the pattern before stapling the fabric into place, following the silhouette of the chair. For extra clean seams, fold the fabric edges in on themselves before stapling them. Once the fabric is taut, hammer in upholstery nails over the head of each staple.
Step 7: Adhere the Cambric Fabric
Trim a large enough piece of cambric fabric to cover the underside of your chair while still leaving an inch border (use the old one as a reference if you can). Carefully staple it to the bottom of the chair, following the perimeter and making sure to conceal any springs or raw fabric edges as you go. Cover each staple head with an upholstery nail if you wish. Now you’re sitting pretty.