Vintage chairs and sofas continue to be featured prominently in interior trends, especially when reupholstered in bold, modern prints. And thanks to online retailers like Chairish and Etsy, it’s easier than ever to score a great vintage piece. But how do you know it’s worth the investment? And how much work will be required to bring it back to life? If you restore a chair yourself, it’s a serious time investment, and if you hire an expert, the cost can be high. That’s why you want to shop wisely. Look past the fabric; it is the frame and inner workings that determine whether you should buy a vintage piece—or just walk away.
A Lumpy, Low Seat
Always sit on a vintage chair or sofa. Seems obvious, right? However, it’s easy to become fixated on the look and forget this step entirely. If the seat of a Mid-Century piece is lumpy, it means the foam is breaking apart and will require complete replacement. If you sink far into a chair, the springs have been disturbed. Check under the seat to see if they are protruding. Most well-loved chairs will require springs to be re-tied or fully replaced before upholstery.
Wooden chair frames of any age become loose over time. Stand behind the chair or sofa, place your hands on the back and twist. Does the piece give in to your manipulation easily? Does a leg lift off the ground? Does it moan and creak? If so, the joints need to be re-glued before you can reupholster. And the more the piece moves in your hands, the bigger the job. To do right by the chair, it is recommended to steam all joints open and re-glue throughout. If it only squeaks slightly, you can get away with small dabs of wood glue in the corner connection points.
Overly Heavy Modern Pieces
It should not be a struggle to lift a Mid-Century side chair. If you can barely pick it up, this may be a sign the piece has been exposed to the elements. Foam was the first choice for stuffing seats and backs post-1920’s, but it can swell and retain water if exposed to a lot of moisture (think flooding, rain or extreme, long-term humidity). If this is the case, the foam will not be usable and will crumble to pieces when you remove the existing fabric. New foam will be required, and you should probably check the wood frame for signs of rot, as well.
Very Light Antiques
If a piece has all the hallmarks of the Rococo or Neoclassical style, it may well be a high-quality 19th-century antique—or it might be a mediocre reproduction created in the 1980s. If you are unsure if a piece is a true antique or a recent reproduction, give the piece a lift. Old chairs are significantly heavier than new. Unlike a Mid-Century piece, antiques should be extra hefty. Reproductions from the last few decades are rarely made to exacting design standards or with high-quality materials. A chair this new may not be worth the time and money you will invest. Wing backs and dining chairs notoriously knocked off.
A Frame Alone
While it seems counterintuitive, a chair frame stripped to the bones will make for a more difficult upholstery job. Each existing piece of fabric attached to the frame acts as a template for your new textile. Without this helpful aid, your upholstery job will demand more trial and error.
Holes in the Frame
Inspect any exposed edges where fabric meets wood. Are there many small nail or staple holes close together? Or larger chunks of wood gone missing? If so, it means the piece has been reupholstered several times before, and not necessarily to the highest professional standards. Removing fabric is stressful to an old chair, with each nail pulling and breaking off small sections of wood, and the integrity of the frame may be at risk. You may have to reinforce or rebuild from the frame up, which is expensive.
Beware an overly tufted sofa. These pieces make a bold statement in a room, but they demand a great deal of extra upholstery work and lots of extra fabric. While it can be tempting to do away with the tufting entirely to create a flat back and seat, you’ll be removing the most stylish aspect of the piece.
Caned Backs, Seats or Sides
Inspect a caned chair carefully. Professional caners are few and far between these days, and this is a skill that is difficult to teach yourself. Be particularly wary of colored caning because a painted piece will relax and stretch out over time, and the paint will chip. Such a chair will require regular repainting to maintain its look.
All Can Be Remedied
Of course, all chairs that stand on four legs (and even some that don’t) can be brought back to life. Do not despair if you already own a chair with problems. Just know you will need to spend more time, effort, and money to create a beautiful piece.