I get a lot of questions about upholstery, so I thought I would write a post consolidating some of the advice that I’ve shared in various posts and tutorials into one place. Before I share some upholstery tips for beginners, let me share how I started.
My first upholstery job (and I use that phrase loosely) was a ratty hand-me-down sofa that was given to me in college. One of my classmates was moving out of his apartment and offered his sofa to us. It was a small, gold, midcentury loveseat that had probably been passed around from one college apartment to the next for years. It had good bones, but the fabric looked like a sofa that had been passed around from one college apartment to the next for years! So, I bought some lightweight cotton fabric (a blue & green plaid) and tucked it into the seams with a butter knife. I didn’t even remove the old fabric. So professional.
Believe it or not, it worked and the sofa looked half-decent with a throw over most of it! It even lasted for two years until I passed it along to the next college student who needed a couch.
I used this technique on a 1980’s hand-me-down chair a few years later before I actually read a book on upholstery and started working on thrift store and yard sale finds. I learned on every piece I did until I felt confident enough to tackle more challenging pieces and even start to sell them.
Upholstery isn’t my favorite DIY project, but I love the result and the fact that I can change the look of upholstered pieces, which can typically be found at a good price when the upholstery is dated or has cosmetic defects.
So, here are some things I learned along the way…
upholstery tips for beginners | one | the inside matters more than the outside
When you’re looking for a good candidate to upholster, a prime option is one that isn’t pretty to look at! The upholstery might be dated and stained, but the bones and guts are in good condition. Especially if you’re first starting out, you do not want to get into tying springs or cutting foam. That is a recipe for having something languish in your garage for a few years. Sit on the piece, give it a wiggle, and make sure that it’s sturdy, solid, and it feels like everything is in good shape on the inside.
If the foam is hard as a rock, you sink almost to the floor when you sit in it, or it shimmies when you push against the frame, that should be a hard pass on that piece. I would also avoid anything with a strong odor like smoke or pet urine. Those smells are almost impossible to remove from all of the padding.
upholstery tips for beginners | two | choose your fabrics wisely
When you have a good piece selected, it’s just as important to pick the right fabric. Good upholstery fabric can be stretched without tearing and is heavy-duty enough that it’ll stand up for years of rubbing. In my early days of upholstery, I used a lot of thin, cheap fabrics that were not well-suited to upholstery and I bet a lot of those pieces have had to be redone! I know that dropcloths were a popular upholstery fabric for a few years, but it’s really better for slipcovers, since it will tear when you pull too hard on it to lay tight and flat.
I prefer using heavy linens, cotton twill/denim, and heavy hemp fabrics for upholstery.
upholstery tips for beginners | three | start on something cheap/free/small
I know it’s tempting to buy a really cheap chair, but if it’s beyond your abilities, it might turn you off to upholstery for a long time. Do yourself a favor and start with a footstool, simple ottoman, dining chair, or even a headboard. While headboards are large, they are just flat panels that are very easy to upholster.
And, if the piece is free and you use an inexpensive fabric, like cotton twill, it’ll take the pressure off. Any mistakes you made aren’t a big deal and it’s all a part of learning.
upholstery tips for beginners | four| have the right tools
I cannot stress how important it is to have the right tools! I tried to get away with a box electric staple gun that I bought at a yard sale, but it wasn’t powerful enough and it was way too bulky to fit into tight spaces. When I finally bought a pneumatic staple gun that was made for upholstery, it was a game-changer. Everything was easier and my work started looking neater and more professional.
These are the tools I use most when working on upholstery…
- Pneumatic staple gun – This has a longer nose on it, making it easy to fit into nooks and crannies.
- Compressor – Unfortunately, you need one of these to operate the gun, since it’s pneumatic. You can always rent one if space is limited or you just working on one piece.
- Staple remover – I’ve tried a lot of different tools for pulling staples when stripping upholstery and this one is definitely the best.
- Good scissors – I like THESE for getting into tight spaces and THESE for just cutting fabric
- High heat hot glue gun for trim
- Upholstery Sewing Machine – I use a Sailrite Ultrafeed LS-1, but I didn’t make that upgrade until my regular heavy-duty machine couldn’t handle all of the layers. If you work with fabrics on the lighter end, you might be able to get away with a heavy-duty machine. And upholstery machine is worth purchasing if you plan to do a lot of home decor sewing, because it’s great for pillows, slipcovers, curtains, etc.
And, if you’re doing tufting, make sure you get an awl! I tried to work on this tufted sofa without one and it was nearly the death of me. True story.
upholstery tips for beginners | five| you can always do it again…in a few years
Your skills will improve with each piece and you can always reupholster pieces again when you’re better! I have redone several pieces over the years, because I know I can fix my mistakes and make the piece look more professional.
If you acknowledge that the piece can be redone down the road, it might make you more willing to give it a try. It’s not permanent and making cosmetic changes to a piece of upholstery will not ruin it (especially if it’s dated and/or stained.)
So, just relax, and give it a try!
Not only is upholstery a great DIY skill to have in your repertoire, but it’s a skill that’s in high demand. If you end up having a knack for it and really enjoy it, it might be the start of a new business.
You can find all sorts of upholstery and slipcover tutorials and posts HERE if you’d like to get started.
And, if you’re looking for a good book on upholstery, THIS one is my favorite.