Put down the needle and thread; back away from your sewing machine. DIY upholstery, a simple technique that will have you re-covering chairs, benches, headboards, and even box springs with your own two hands, requires only one tool, and it’s a staple gun. The method is not unlike wrapping a present, and the results are more professional-looking than you can imagine. We spoke with Ana Verdi, the designer at Thompson Fine Home Renovation, to learn what crafty beginners should know before tackling their first DIY upholstery project.
Verdi’s rule of thumb: “Anything with straight lines” can probably be upholstered successfully by a beginner. (Side note: Here’s how to know if you’re out of your league.) “Once you get into any sort of curved arm, the process can be trickier if you’re not confident making a pleat,” she explains. The square seat of a dining room chair or a rectangular bench top are the obvious contenders for a first project, but Verdi says bigger isn’t necessarily more complex: “You can upholster a box spring and screw legs onto it so it looks like an upholstered bed.”
What Tools Will I Need?
- Fabric: Upholstery-weight will work best for any high-wear situations like seating, though Verdi says that you can get around that by having a less durable fabric backed by a seamstress, or by laying down a piece of canvas or muslin underneath it.
- Batting: Inexpensive, puffy sheets of cotton wadding that create the cushy puff under the fabric.
- Staple Gun: A hand staple gun will get the job done, though investing in a pneumatic model (not too much pricier) will save you quite a bit of labor.
- Hammer: For tapping in flourishes like nailheads or grommets. “An easy trick is to wrap your hammer with batting and secure that with a rubber band,” says Verdi, which will protect those accents you’re hammering in from scratching.
- Upholstery Tack Strip: Essentially a long, skinny strip of double-stick cardboard, tack strip is used to create a clean finished seam on straight-edged upholstery. Here’s how you use it.
How’s It Done?
The basic process for DIY upholstery is this: First, remove the piece you’re upholstering—by flipping over a chair and unscrewing and removing the seat, for instance. Cut a piece of batting to the size and shape of the seat and lay it right on top. Lay a large piece of fabric over that, so that there’s plenty of overhang, and then flip over the whole seat-batting-fabric quesadilla. Pull those loose edges of the fabric taut and staple them to the backside of the surface to trap the batting inside. There are endless tutorials on YouTube for this process; here’sa simple, straightforward one.
In many cases, this stapled side can be left messy—you won’t see it on the underside of a chair seat or a bench—but if you want to cover it neatly, reach for the upholstery tack strip, another piece of fabric, and your staple gun.
A rectangular bench top would be simple to DIY upholster, too. Matthew Millman
Any Other Tips?
When reupholstering an old piece, Verdi says, you might be able to salvage the old batting if it’s been kept in a temperate, dry location (like your parents’ house). So long as the old fabric isn’t darker than your new fabric, you can even upholster right over it. But “if you found something at a flea market, where it might have been left in the rain at some point, you probably want to strip it down to the wood and replace the batting,” she says — as there would be nothing worse than going to all this trouble only to realize your chair is molding from the inside out.