Follow this how-to guide for reupholstering a chair and keep your sanity! I’ll show you exactly how I gave these old dining room chairs with curved backs a beautiful makeover.
I dumpster dived…
Made a complete fool of myself…
And am so happy about that…
I gave two chairs of my mother’s dining room set a makeover with vintage mailbags. I learned so much from doing this DIY upholstery project myself, and I am here to show you all how you can tackle a DIY project like this too.
When I got the chairs they looked like this.
It’s how I remember them from my whole childhood. They were part of the dining room set of my parents. They had these from the day they were married back in 1953.
The table and the chairs were part of the ‘good furniture’, the ones that were there to look pretty and only to be used on special occasions. My mom loved this set from the day she married to the day she died. She took such great care of it. After my mom died and my dad got really old, he moved into a retirement apartment. He took the table and three of the chairs with him, but his apartment was too small for the full set.
Not long after, I and my siblings had to empty out the old house. And there they were. Three single dining chairs without a table, they were old, old-fashioned and so not in style anymore. None of us wanted them. So out they went into the back of the truck, to be taken to the dump.
And as soon as I saw my brothers drive out of the street, I got this big lump in my throat and a stone in my stomach…
That was my mother’s beloved furniture that she loved so much and took care of every day. I couldn’t stand the thought of those pieces ending up at the landfill. My sister saw my tears, pushed me into the car and we raced after my brothers…
At our trash and recycling drop-offs, the rule is, that you can’t take anything out once it is in the dumpster. We really had to hurry and get there in time. I was so happy we got to the dump not a minute too late, I was able to catch up at the exact moment my brother was lifting the first of the chairs into the dumpster.
I have never seen faces more surprised…
My brothers thought I had gone off the deep end…
I guess I am a really sentimental twit…
Anyway, the chairs came home with me and were later reunited with the ones my father used.
And now they got a makeover because they really needed new upholstery.
DIY Chair Reupholstering Tutorial
To give my chairs a makeover I used Dutch postal bags (mailbags) my friendly postman left at my door. He gave me a whole bunch of old and really old bags.
The vintage mailbags have the text ‘eigendom PTT post’. Eigendom means property of, PTT stood for Post Telephone and Telegraph and used to be our States’ postal service. Then we got TNT for a while. And now the company has a different name again.
The slightly less old TNT bags were used for my second chair.
Let’s get on with my guide on how to reupholster a chair.
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Before you start the chair makeover
Tools you’ll need
- Screwdriver (works) or an Upholstery Staple Remover (works sooo much better), pliers
- Hand stapler (works) or an Electric Staple Gun (way better), staples (order more than you’ll think you need)
- Bread knife (works) or an Electric Knife (easier to use)
- Optional: painting supplies
Materials you’ll need
- Durable fabric of your choice (measure the current material, add at least 20% and you’ll know how much fabric you need. Add a bit extra if you are working with patterns).
- If your chair has springs you’ll need upholstery grade burlap
- Very sturdy cardboard or plywood if you need to replace the curved backing
- Foam rubber padding (thick and dense)
- Medium density upholstery foam
- Upholstery grade batting
- Spray adhesive
- Upholstery tacks, jute rope, piping, twine or trim
Choosing your fabric
Seat covers have to endure a lot of wear and tear. Unless you are planning on giving your chairs a frequent new look, it really pays off to use upholstery grade fabric for recovering the seats and back of your chair.
Fabric stores and upholstery stores generally have a nice selection. But you can also different types of fabric that are sturdy like grain sacks, drop cloth, denim, or as I did vintage mailbags.
To resolve any confusion of the non-Dutch readers of this blog.
This is what I mean with a mailbag:
It is not the bag that is used to deliver the mail to your house, but they are bags that are used to collect the mail from the public mailboxes and to transport it to the distribution centers. The one you see here is another vintage mailbag I have and intend to use on another chair.
The material of these old bags is kind of a crossover between very sturdy linen and softish burlap. I imagine it is like a canvas drop cloth.
I washed it twice before using it and I needed two bags to cover a chair.
* Check this out
On Songbird we share lots of DIY projects that are always totally doable, mostly easy, and often cheap. If you like my style of DIY projects you should check out some of my other furniture makeover projects. For starters, check out some of our top DIY posts: how to make a reclaimed wood headboard, — Ikea TV stand makeover,– from an indoor dining table to outdoor garden table.
My step-by-step guide for reupholstering chairs
Step 1 Remove the fabric
Removing the old fabric is the logical first step when recovering a chair. Start with visible upholstery tacks and move on to nails and staples. It might be tempting to try to rip them out by pulling on the fabric but trust me, those nails and staples are much more resilient than your fabric.
Besides if you can get the fabric piece more or less intact, this will come in very handy in a later stage because you can use it as a template for your new layers.
I used a screwdriver and pliers when I removed the fabric from the first chair. It made the job really hard, tiresome, and actually painful.
When I did the second chair I had invested in a specialty upholstery tack remover. It is still a hard job to get all those pesky nails, staples, and tacks out, but the proper tool makes it a lot easier.
I documented the first chair only, so follow along with my reupholstery journey as I learned as I went.
It took me about half a day working non-stop on nail removing to get the chair to this point:
There was a layer of old fabric underneath the outer fabric. I had a vague recollection of the chairs being red once.
This old fabric was not attached anymore (thank goodness) but it still worked to keep the innards of the chair in their place.
And the inside was quite impressive:
The stuffing was some kind of seagrass, and underneath I found a little surprise from the upholsterer before me.
The burlap that covered the springs apparently was torn even then so he put a piece of carpet over it to cover it. But even with the carpet that burlap was beyond rescue. So it had to come off.
Which meant more nails…
A lot more nails…
But I got angry and I got them out.
This step is optional. I removed the cardboard that covered the curved back too. I wanted to paint the chairs and this made that much easier. If the cardboard (or plywood) on the back is in good shape and not in your way, you can leave it on.
Step 2 Refinish the chair.
With all the materials removed from the chair, you are left with the bare frame. This is the time to reassess what you have to work with. If armrests or legs are wobbly this is the time to repair them. If the chair needs repainting this is also the moment to properly paint the chair.
I opted for painting my chairs. The dining room chair with armrests got a nice white makeover, and the other one was painted black. At this step, my chair looked like this: a bare frame with fresh paint.
I consulted an expert for the next step. I bought all my reupholstery materials at a specialty store and the owner was kind enough to tell me exactly how to do it and he even drew me a little sketch and gave me lots of tips.
Step 3 Rebuilding the chair seats
Covering the seat springs
My chairs were old and had springs. So I really had to work my way up to rebuilding all the necessary layers of the seat. If your chair is more modern and has a wooden base, you can skip the first burlap layer and go straight to layer two.
But I had to first cover those zig-zag springs with new burlap. I used the old seat fabric as a template to cut it to size.
With a little seam, we stapled the burlap to the chair.
When stapling any layer make sure to take care that it is tight and taut.
This first layer is stapled really close to the inner edge. We needed a bit of free wood on the outside edge for subsequent layers. If any of the tacks don’t go in straight, use a hammer to hammer them in.
Layering the seat cushion
To make the chair comfortable you’ll need a very thick and dense layer of foam. Make sure you ask for firm furniture foam, especially when you have a seat made with springs.
To cut the new foam to size I used two steps. First I cut it roughly to the right size using the old fabric as a template. Then I put it on the chair to make markings for the precision cuts.
The upholstery pro tip number one is to use a big marker and run it along the outside on the sides of the seat. This way the cutting line would be about half an inch wider than the chair itself which meant that there was just the right allowance for the curved seat.
Luckily enough I had not thrown out my mother’s old electric knife, because it was perfect for cutting this thick foam.
I used spray adhesive to attach the foam to the burlap seat. But not before I had used the foam to draw the template for the next layer, a thinner and more pliable foam.
This layer was cut a small half-inch bigger than the big foam and also attached with spray glue.
I forgot to take a picture of the last layer before the outer fabric but it was upholstery padding. It is a polyester wrap that looks a bit like fiberfill. This layer was actually glued just to the edge of the chair, almost over it.
Recovering the chair
I knew I wanted the new fabric to go just over the edge of the seat. Originally it covered all the wood on the seat, as you can see in the before picture, but I wanted to show more wood.
So I taped off the edge with adhesive tape to make sure I would have a straight line to follow.
You can see it shine here.
I cut the fabric based on the measurements of the old fabric. I tried out the old fabric to see how much smaller I needed to cut to give me the coverage that I wanted. I cut the fabric with a seam allowance to fold in.
We first stapled the seat cover.
This picture is obviously taken later in the process but shows what I did.
Fold under the edge and staple really close to the edge. I followed the line of my sticky tape to make sure I went in a straight line.
To make the corners in the fabric I made small pleats. In order to make sure I could round the corners nice and tight, I carefully cut away some of the excess fabric with scissors.
If you are working with a fabric with a pattern you have to take extra care that your fabric goes on straight. Take your time with this step.
When stapling the outer fabric to the seat this is the order to follow:
Notice that staple number two is not centered on the side but at the point where the armrest is attached to the seat. This is an important instruction for when you are reupholstering a chair with arms! Staples 3 and 4 are exactly where the back is attached to the seat.
When you have these first staples in, it is time to fill all the gaps with lots of staples. Lots of staples! You really will need an electric stapler for this. Stapling through several layers of fabric into the wood is tough and hard work.
How to reupholster a curved back chair.
Now that the seat is done it is time to recover the back of the chair.
The back of the chair is actually a lot easier and requires fewer layers and steps.
The backside of the chair back got only covered with fabric, so after painting the frame I just reattached the cardboard and stapled a layer of fabric to the back (I used the cardboard as a template) with folded in edges.
The front of the backside got one layer of the middle (whitish) foam cut the same size as the cardboard and glued on.
Upholstery Pro Tip Number Two
The order to staple the fabric to the curved back is different than the one for the seat. Because the back is curved you’ll need your fabric to follow that curve. So here is a diagram for stapling the fabric to the curved back, working top to bottom.
Of course, once you have these initial staples in place you’ll need to fill in all the gaps with more staples.
Keep an eye out for the pattern in your fabric, you want it to be straight. My mailbags didn’t have a pattern but they did have text. I took care to center and level the text on the front and back of the chair.
Adding the finishing touches to your chair
Now that all the real work is done the final and most fun part of the whole chair reupholstering project can begin. You’ll need something to finish off the edge of the fabric.
Originally they used a row of upholstery tacks. I like that look and now that they sell upholstery tack strips it isn’t even that hard to get a neat straight line with them.
But I felt my vintage mailbags needed a bit more rustic look. For the white chair, I used a very thick jute rope to cover the edges. I attached the rope with fabric glue. I went around twice.
For the black chair, I glued on a black decorative ribbon to finish the edges.
This held up really well. (I did this project about ten years ago and the chairs look as good now as they did then).
I did a little distressing on the white chair and that was that. She was finished!
And here is one more before and after look of my chair makeovers.
The mailbags I used for the second chair are a little less vintage than the other ones. In fact they are quite new. But I thought they would be perfect in my craft room. The material is a kind of plastic/ canvas mix and I am hoping that I can wash stains right of and I’m sure threads and floss will not stick to it.
Funny, in the Netherlands TNT could call themselves a Royal company for a while.
Since this chair will stand in front of my desk, I made the back extra special. Quite the makeover isn’t it?!
One more finishing touch…
After the basic reupholstery of my postal bag chair was done, I had some material left. So I decided to add one more finishing touch to my chair.
I made a postal bag for my postal chair…
I used leftovers to sew a basic bag, added a little pocket and freehanded a postal stamp on it. I think it turned out really cute.
I hang the bag on the armrests of the chair with hooks. I really like how these hooks look. They are the original hooks that were on the bag. They are used to hang the bag on the post-box so that the postman can empty the box hands-free. The strip is a seam I cut off and attached to the chair with Velcro. This way I can easily take the bag off.
Professional praise for my chair reupholstery project.
My chairs have been published! My mailbag chairs are featured in a real, hardcover, done-by-a-professional book about upholstery. In the book, Contemporary Upholstery by Hanna Stanton my chairs and their history are presented on pages 134 to 137.
I am so proud. And I know that my mom, who loved these chairs would be even prouder. I can just about imagine here dragging this book all over town and showing it to everyone.
I don’t have to carry it with me to show it off, I do that online 😉 .
The book is really good. It is the kind of book I wish I had had before I started on my upholstery project. It would have saved me a lot of headaches and worries. The book really takes you by the hand and shows you the ins and outs of upholstery. It is as if you have your own teacher by your side so it is the perfect beginner’s guide to upholstery.
The upholstery book is a testament to the fact that with the right kind of upholstery any old chair, couch, or bench from the thrift store can look fab and totally contemporary again.
But we bloggers (and blog readers) knew that already, didn’t we?!
Marianne Songbird is the founder of Songbird, where she hopes to inspire everyone to create a home they love, one DIY project at a time. She shares anything from craft ideas to home decor inspiration and from DIY projects to decorating hacks. Originally from the Netherlands Marianne and her husband Lex are currently renovating a 250-year-old farmhouse in Germany.