How to Strip Furniture for Upholstery

The difference between a good and great upholstery job often comes down to initial preparation. Here's how to prepare your furniture for an upholstery job that will last for years to come.


By: Amanda Brown

When rejuvenating furniture, take the time to remove everything down to the wooden frame. Start with a clean slate and replace dusty, disintegrating, and flattened innards with fresh padding. Your upholstery job will look better and last longer.

Materials Needed:

  • goggles
  • gloves
  • staples remover
  • pliers
  • wood glue
  • painter's tape
  • fine-grit sandpaper
  • furniture polish

Getting Started: Keys to Success

Before you start stripping, take several photos of your furniture to reference later. Take overall shots of the front, back, and sides and detailed shots of joints. Connections between seats and arms and the arms and inside backs can be tricky areas that are easier to problem-solve with a reference photo.

Furniture-Stripping Safety
Furniture collects a lot of dirt and dust, including other unmentionables. Always strip furniture outside or in a well-ventilated space that is set up to get dirty. Wear goggles, a dust mask, and protective gloves, and get your tetanus shot updated in case you puncture yourself with an old staple or tack. Stripping furniture can be a laborious process, so wear comfortable clothes and closed-toe shoes with thick soles to protect your feet.

What to Keep and Toss
If you’re changing out the fabric on a new piece of furniture and you’re happy with the comfort and styling, you can keep virtually all of the padding, provided it doesn’t get damaged during fabric removal. Always keep coil springs and marshall units (bound units of springs often found in inside backs and cushions), and leave sinuous springs and steel webbing attached to the wooden frame. Other quality materials, such as down and horsehair, can be cleaned and reused to save on material costs, especially if you’re attempting to restore an antique or heirloom piece to its original condition.

Old pieces of padding and fabric, if intact, can help with determining how to put furniture back together. Keep any parts that may be of use during the upholstery process and toss after your piece is complete. Foam eventually disintegrates and loses its ability to bounce back, so it’s best to replace it and all other padding while the furniture is apart rather than taking the chance of it wearing out before you’re ready to upholster again.

Tips for Assembled Furniture
If you’re having a hard time finding where fabric connects to a piece of furniture, the staples may be hidden between separate pieces that bolt or screw together. Dining and office chairs are the most common types of furniture that assemble, but any piece, from armchairs to sectionals, can be made up of individual parts. When taking assembled furniture apart, label all parts carefully and take plenty of photos to make reassembly easy. Clearly mark screw holes so they’re not covered with padding and fabric, and make notations on the frame about where padding starts and stops and how thick it is. For sets of dining chairs, mark the chair and the removable seat with coordinating numbers so you can easily match the pairs when putting them back together.

Start With the Bottom of the Furniture Piece

In general, furniture comes apart in reverse order from how it goes together. Start by flipping the piece of furniture upside down on sawhorses.

We’ll remove the dustcover and all staples and tacks on the bottom of the frame first. With your nondominant hand, hold the staple remover and place the prongs under a staple or tack. Use your dominant hand to hammer the end of the staple remover with the pliers. When the staple remover is nudged under the staple or tack, roll it back to lift the staple or tack out of the frame.

After you’ve lifted a few feet of staples, go back with the pliers and remove them completely from the frame. With the pliers gripping the staple, roll the nose of the pliers back against the frame instead of trying to pull the staples straight out of the wood.

There will be several layers of materials attached to the bottom of the frame such as welt cord, fabric, and webbing. Continue stripping until you’re down to bare wood.

Strip Outside Back and Outside Arms

After the bottom is stripped, remove the outside back and outside arms. If you’re not keeping the fabric and padding, try ripping off multiple layers to remove several staples at once.


Strip Inside Back and Arms

Once the outside back and arms are removed, it’s often easier to work with the furniture upright. To remove the inside back and arms, you’ll need to release the fabric pulls. Most of the time, the pulls are attached beneath the back and arms and between the back and arms. After releasing the pulls, remove the tacks and staples for the seat fabric, since they’re usually attached to the same location.

With all of the staples and tacks removed, pull off the inside back, inside arms, and seat (or deck.)

If your furniture has springs, cut off the old twine and remove any coil springs from jute webbing.

Repair Damage and Prep for New Upholstery

Stripping can be rough on furniture. If you chip off wood in the process, use wood glue to attach it to its original location and use painter’s tape to hold in place as it dries.

With the frame completely stripped of fabric, padding, staples, and tacks, use a fine-grit sandpaper to buff finished wood, and apply furniture polish to bring out its original luster.

Check the frame for loose joints and water or termite damage and make repairs as needed. If you’re planning on refinishing the piece, paint or stain before starting upholstery.

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