How to Reupholster an Arm Chair

Upholstery can be an intimidating project, but it seems more complicated than it actually is. A thrift store arm chair with simple lines, a sturdy frame and good padding makes a perfect subject for a novice upholsterer.
Upholstered Chair After

Upholstered Chair After

Tip: Chairs that have panels of fabric surrounded by exposed wood frames are a simpler project for beginning upholsterers. More complicated chairs may involve tack strips and other materials to hide raw edges. Examine the chair closely before purchasing to make sure it's a good candidate for your abilities.

Tip: Chairs that have panels of fabric surrounded by exposed wood frames are a simpler project for beginning upholsterers. More complicated chairs may involve tack strips and other materials to hide raw edges. Examine the chair closely before purchasing to make sure it's a good candidate for your abilities.

Materials Needed:

  • arm chair with exposed frame
  • approximately 2-4 yards upholstery weight fabric, depending on size and complexity of chair
  • sewing machine (may be required for certain chairs)
  • staple remover/puller
  • wire cutters
  • gloves
  • protective eyewear
  • sharp scissors
  • seam ripper
  • pins
  • permanent marker
  • iron and ironing board
  • pneumatic upholstery staple gun
  • 1/4" - 1/2" staples
  • air compressor
  • approximately 4-6 yards gimp trim
  • high temperature hot glue gun and glue sticks

Strip Chair

Using a staple puller/remover, gently remove fabric, staples and trim from chair (Image 1). Wear gloves and protective eyewear during this step. Label each piece of fabric removed with a permanent marker and take notes on how chair was assembled and where each fabric piece was secured (Image 2). If panels were stitched together, use a seam ripper to separate panels and make notes on how they were attached. Remove padding that would restrict access to frame where fabric needs to be secured. All other padding, webbing and springs can remain in place. Set aside pieces of cardboard, burlap, webbing, padding, etc. that can be reused. Once stripped, go back over frame with staple puller and remove any staples that would interfere with new staples when chair is reassembled (Image 3).

Cut Fabric Panels

Pin removed panels of fabric to new upholstery fabric (Image 1). Make sure both pieces of fabric are facing the same direction, so they are an exact copy, not a mirror image (Image 2). Cut new upholstery fabric to size using the old fabric as a pattern (Image 3). Repeat this process with all panels. If a panel needs to be pieced together on a sewing machine, sew those pieces at this step.

Upholster Chair

Remove pins and old upholstery from each new fabric panel right before using it, so there is no confusion about what piece goes where. Most chairs should be assembled starting with the inside back, arms and seat. This chair required the back side of chair to be assembled first, followed by the inside back, seat and arms and then outside arms. Secure each panel with one staple to secure it in place and then a staple on each side to make sure panel fits properly and isn't pulled in one direction or another. Make sure staples are in a straight line that can be covered by a piece of gimp trim (Image 1). Staples should be approximated 1/2" apart. Seat backs should always be supported with burlap, cardboard or webbing and padding (Image 2). Tip: Don't try to upholster a chair with an electric or manual staple gun. They are too bulky and not powerful enough for a project like this.

Upholster Chair Back

When upholstering inside of chair back, spread fabric panel over chair back, making sure fabric pattern is lined up, if necessary. Place one staple at the top to hold panel in place. Tuck fabric through the back of chair frame and gently pull tight (Image 1). Pull fabric through sides and staple to frame to secure in place (Image 2). Be sure to not pull fabric too tight on one side to make pattern crooked. Once fitted and secured in a few places. Go around panel and insert staples every 1/4" (Image 3). Leave bottom of seat back unstapled until fabric panel for seat is in place.

Upholster Seat and Inside Arms

Place seat fabric panel on seat and spread out. If a pattern needs to be lined up with inside of back, make sure it is lined up. Pull seat fabric through sides and back of chair. Once seat is in place, staple to frame. Follow your notes to see where to staple, tuck or fold fabric. Secure all pieces in back of chair to frame. In the case of this chair, the very back panel was stapled over the inside back and seat once those were secured to the frame. Repeat that process with inside arms.

Reupholstering Chair

Reupholstering Chair

Upholster Outside Arms

Replace any padding that was removed to access frame (Image 1). Staple outside arm panels in place. Tip: Small arm chairs are a great way to use fabric remnants. Use one fabric for the inside panels and another for the outside (Image 2).

Trim Fabric, Apply Trim

Cut off excess fabric with a sharp pair of scissors. The fabric should be cut as close to the staple line as possible (Image 1). Apply a line of hot glue along staples and press gimp trim into it (Images 2 and 3). Hold in place until glue is cool. Work in small 6"-8" sections to prevent glue from cooling too quickly. Where trim ends meet, cut trim to size and secure ends together with hot glue (Image 4). Apply trim where needed to cover staples. Trim threads and remove glue gun strings before enjoying your "new" old chair (Image 5). Tip: Don't wash fabric before use. Most decorative upholstery weight fabric is treated to resist staining. If fabric is washed prior to using it for upholstery, that protective treatment will be washed away.

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