how to reupholster an armchair

How to Upcycle an Armchair – Reupholstery Basics

Reupholstering an armchair might seem like something reserved for the professionals. That many staples, curves, tricky joints, and perfectly stretched fabrics can appear overwhelming when it comes to recreating it. New armchairs are pretty expensive, and if your old one has sentimental value, trust us, there is no need to replace it. If you are looking for a professional we can point you in the direction of plenty – but if you want to ‘have a go’ yourself this guide is for you.

Materials Needed:

Reupholstering an armchair will require some time. Get ready to put in anywhere between 10 to 15 hours for this project. If you only have a couple of hours to spare per day, it will take you a week to complete it.

Step 1: Choose your fabric

Choosing your new fabric is of course the most important choice you will make in preparation for your new project and its also the fun bit! It can be very expensive, especially the heavier ones which are more durable and perfect for armchairs. We recommend devoting some time to fabric hunting. Visit local fabric stores and focus on upholstery and décor fabric.  Of course you might already have a particular colour or pattern in mind in which case some internet research is probably the best place to start.

Want to go all in on the upcycle? Take the time to trawl your local charity shop (or thrift shop if you are in North America). You are still looking for a fabric on the heavier side and you’ll need to take some measurements of your chair to make sure you have found a piece that is a big enough size to work with (see below).

Above are a few fabrics we found that can be bought online to save time if you just want to get on with your project. We fully admit that it can take some time to find vintage or secondhand fabric that is the right size for your project and in a pattern you actually like!

But, how much fabric do you need to upholster an armchair? Here is a cheat sheet we found to help you estimate your fabric needs. Unfortunately it is only in yards, but if you are in the UK a yard = 0.91 metres, so if you use the same measurements in the image below you should have some extra for ‘just in case’ scenarios.

Amount of fabric for reupholstery
Upholstery Cheat Sheet

Step 2: Preparing, Labelling & Taking Photos

Take photos from every angle before you begin!

Beside purchasing a few metres/yards of fabric, you will need a few other things to start upholstering your armchair.

First, you will need to designate some space as your working area. The size of the space will depend on the size of your armchair. Make sure to have enough space to rotate the chair around its axis and enough ground to lay your fabric to easily manoeuvre and cut the pieces out. And if you are going to be doing this project in several stages then having this in a room where you can shut the door and forget about al the mess for awhile would be ideal!

See the materials list above for other items you will need, chief among which is a staple gun. If you are just starting out and you aren’t sure how much upholstery work you will actually do – go for a manual one to start off with. They take a bit more grip and effort but they do the job. If you have already caught the upholstery bug or you have any issues with your grip then an electric staple gun is definitely easier to handle and makes the whole job go a bit faster.

If you aren’t sure what size staples you need, try skipping ahead to the next step – removing the fabric – before you purchase staples for your project. You can then remove a few of the existing staples and measure the length of the pins (if you can get them out straight). There is no set perfect size for your staples though. A general rule of thumb is the thicker and heavier your fabric choice, the larger your staples should be. If you don’t already own a staple gun, check this first as different staple guns take different size staples. Don’t stress about this but it’s worth having a quick check before you buy. If you are buying a new staple gun they often come with your fist lot of staples included.

Once you are all set with your materials, the most important thing before you start your project is to take photos from multiple angles.

First, take photos of your old chair so you can see how it looks as a whole, and then take photos after removing each piece of the upholstery. These photos will serve as a digital project guide and enable you to restore the armchair properly.

Step 3: Remove old fabric

Old armchair
Take photos at every stage

Before you can start removing the upholstery, you will have to remove the legs of your chair. Some can easily be screwed off, but if they are nailed to the chair, you will have to use a flathead screwdriver to carefully remove them. Set them aside, you may want to paint or refinish them before re-attaching them. If you really don’t like them you can also buy replacements in a variety of styles.

Once you are done removing the legs, you can start removing the upholstery bit by bit.

Make sure to label each piece of fabric that you remove (this is why the sticky labels are on the materials list!) and try as best you can to take each piece off whole – so you can use it as a template for your new fabric. This way, you will know which piece goes where when you come to attach your new fabric. Labelling might feel a bit time consuming but it really does make the entire re-upholstering process a bit easier.

Besides the old upholstery fabric, there are also going to be other pieces you may have to remove either before removing the fabric – things like piping and trim, or after, such as cardboard and old tack strips. Label these as well (with the sticky notes) to know where to put them back later on – if they are in good order – or to know what needs replacing with new materials.  It will depend on the type of chair what you will find as you go along!

Once you have removed the legs, start removing fabric from the bottom up. The first piece of fabric you should remove is probably going to be the fabric on the chair’s bottom as it will be likely be the one with all of its edges accessible for removing staples or stitching.

A thread picker can help to get each piece of fabric off without tearing it. Every time you remove a piece of fabric, you will uncover additional layers of fabric that can be removed as well as batting and stuffing, preserve and label anything you can and continue to take lots of photos to refer to when you come to putting everything back together.

Once you have removed the fabric from the bottom, move on to remove the fabric on the back and side of the chair, and finally, the fabric on the armrests. 

The staples and tack strips can be removed with a staple lifter or in a pinch a flathead screwdriver. Keep the tack strips as you will need them to put the new fabric back on.  If they are really old and falling apart measure them to replace with new ones.

At this point you will have a good view of the stuffing/padding in your armchair. If it is in good condition just leave it alone. And if you are a beginner we would suggest starting with a piece that you are pretty confident sill has good cushioning and padding as replacing this to the needed density is a bit trickier than just replacing the upholstery fabric but can be done by using poly fibre filling/stuffing with a layer of quilt batting on top to give a more even finish. If you think you might ever sell your chair then you should look up the fire regulations in your country. If you want to sell an upholstered piece of furniture in the UK for example you need a fire label and there are other requirements about types of fabric to use both inside and outside your chair.

Step 4: Cut your (new) fabric to size

Photo: Vola Flaxeco

Cutting the new fabric is relatively easy once you remove the old fabric from your armchair. Lay the new fabric on the ground and arrange the pieces of the removed fabric on top of it. Make sure to arrange them to make the best use of your new fabric. 

Pin the pieces of removed fabric to the new one and start cutting carefully with fabric scissors to get exact replicas of the fabric for your armchair.   Try not to loose any of your labels in the process.

Old fabric as template
Place old fabric on top of new to cut

Step 5: Putting it back together

Photo: Jose Aljoven

The reupholstering process should be done in reverse order. What does this mean? The first piece of fabric that you’ve removed is going to be the last piece you put back, and the last piece you removed is going to be the first one on your “put back” list. 

This is where the labels and photos come in really handy. The trick is to attach pieces of fabric exactly as they were attached previously. Use your staple gun and tack strips accordingly. If there were pieces stitched together, you will have to use the needle and thread to sew them back together. Another tip from one of the members of our Facebook community group Upcycle My Stuff – Share My Stuff is to use fabric glue in the areas where staples won’t reach.

When attaching the tack strips, you want to measure how long they need to be by aligning them with the edge of the armchair, exactly where you want to install them – if you aren’t sure check the photos you took when you were taking everything apart and re-measure the strips you took out.

Once you cut a tack strip, you want to fold the fabric about 3cm back along the armchair edge frame. Then you should carefully unfold the fabric and push the prongs through it. 

Then you fold the fabric, only this time to the inside, by making sure that the fold is aligned with the fold on the armchair frame. Tap the nails with your upholstery mallet until the tack strip is in. This will help you get the new fabric nice and tight across the armchair sides without any metal showing on the outside. A mallet is used instead of a hammer so as not to damage fabric or delicate pieces of the chair, but if you only have a hammer and you are using a tougher fabric don’t worry about this too much.

It is difficult to describe some of these techniques so we found a couple of videos which we’ve embedded below where experts are demonstrating the use of metal and cardboard tack strips. Some chairs will have both and some may have only one.

When it comes to the seat cushion, you will have to leave the staple gun and do everything manually with the help of a needle and thread or sewing machine. Some armchairs may have wooden seat bottoms which will make re-upholstering them much easier – because you can use the staple gun, but this isn’t the most common design. Generally an armchair’s seat cushion is completely soft with nothing for staples to attach to, so you will want to do the same as you did with the other pieces of fabric and unpick it to cut replacement pieces and then sew in a copy cat manner to replicate the old cushion cover.

In our opinion this is the most difficult part of the job if you are not a confident sewer already, so take it slow and don’t be afraid to unpick it after your first attempt if you end up with wavy seams or an otherwise uneven finish. If your armchair is for your own use and not for re-sale we suggest re-using the existing zipper if their is one as you will know it is exactly the right length (and usually it isn’t visible when the seat is in use). If you intend to sell your finished piece, obviously you will want to buy a new zipper in the correct colour. Also please refer to our note above that if you intend to sell your chair on you need to be confident that you have conformed to the fire safety regulations in your country.

Step 6: Trim & Dressing

One thing that you will have to most likely sew is any replacement piping. It is usually found on the cushion and armrests, but sometimes it is also placed along the seams all over the chair – especially in wing back chairs. Replacing the piping is of course optional, but for beginners pipping or nail trim can be a great way to disguise a less than perfect finish with your staples! Piping or trim also tends to give a more professional look to your chair so it is worth attempting.

You may be able to cut through the fabric on the existing piping to pull out the chord and use it as the basis for your new piping by wrapping matching or contrasting fabric around it. Alternatively you could try to replicate the existing piping by using new cotton piping to wrap your fabric around or buy some ready made piping. It comes in different colours thicknesses.

A perfectionist’s must-have for the final phase are new armchair legs. But of course there is new and there is new. You could make your old legs new again by sanding and repainting or staining them as well. Make sure whatever you choose for the legs that they complement the new design of your armchair.

Finally consider the material you have chosen for your chair and whether it lends itself to scotchgarding to protect it from spills.

Step 7: Sit back and relax in your new from old chair

reupholstered armchair
Photo: Mia Mossin

This is of course a beginners guide and it is difficult to generalise when it comes to reupholstery as every style of chair will vary somewhat in its execution. We hope this guide has given you a flavour of the process and wet your appetite to find out more tricks and tips. If you have some tips to share we’d love you to leave a comment or pop over to our Facebook page to join the chat.

Looking for more inspiration for your armchair makeover? Head to our Armchair Makeover Inspiration article.

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What would you like to Upcycle Today?
What would you like to Upcycle Today?