Wind your way through the mod-print sectionals, blond wood consoles, wicker bar sets and other midcentury treasures at Home and Closet in Lincoln, Nebraska, and you’re likely to find owner Clinton Collins getting a piece showroom-ready. Two years ago, a regular customer watching Clinton work in his back-of-store upholstery shop said, “If you offered a class, I would take it.” So he did. The workshop sold out quickly, and Clinton has held them regularly since.
Attendees are diverse (men, women, millennials, retirees), and so are the reasons for coming. Learning a thrifty life skill. Seeking a creative outlet. Connecting to the past. Many students bring a family heirloom to restore, and, Clinton says, “Everyone has a grandmother who used to upholster. I always hear that.” Whether you do it to save green or be green (or because you want to ditch Grandma’s avocado green!), fixing up furniture always feels better than throwing it out.
After (above): Hello, pattern! A new coat of paint was a bonus, but the real wow comes from the upholstery refresh. Before (below): Nice lines and a wide seat attracted us to this thrift-store chair.
Let’s get started
Good news: You probably already have many of the tools you’ll need.
Pliers or staple/tack puller
Replacement underlining and padding
Hand staple gun
1 Flip chair; remove screws holding seat.
2 Iron new fabric on low, if needed. Use seat as a template to cut new upholstery, keeping pattern orientation in mind and leaving a 6-inch border.
"Every chair is different," Clinton says. Snap pictures as you go to remember how the padding was set and how fabric folds on corners.
3 Use pliers or a staple or tack puller to free underlining and old upholstery. Save underlining to trace a new piece with marker.
4 Replace worn foam with padding no more than 2 inches thick. (Clinton likes NuFoam Densified Polyester.) Attach to seat with spray adhesive.
5 Check frame for breaks and loose joints. Fix with wood glue; clamp and let dry overnight.
6 Starting at the seat front, staple new upholstery to seat underside. Pull it up and over the padding and staple tightly to the back. Repeat on sides. Trim excess material. (Smaller hands? We love Fiskars' new DIY tool line. The staple gun is especially comfy to use.)
7 Staple underlining next, folding it under as you go to create a tidy hem and cover the fabric edge.
8 Set chair frame on top, lining up the screw holes. Replace screws.
Clinton shares a few buying tips for best results.
Old is Gold l Pieces from the ’60s and earlier are the most sturdy and simple. Try a small ottoman or bench, a dining chair, or an open-arm chair with a padded seat and back. Skip anything with piping or seams.
Tools of the Trade l Ordinary household tools work, but if you sense a hobby brewing, Clinton recommends the C.S. Osborne Starter Upholstery Kit, with specialized tools like curved needles and a tack claw.
Material Gains l Choose thick upholstery-grade material. Small patterns are easiest. Skip unforgiving vinyl or leather. Check out clearance bins or shop online; Clinton loves modern-fabrics.com.
Seconds, please l Many of us buy secondhand because we like a certain historical period or we love the thrill of a bargain. But there’s a huge environmental benefit, too. Shopping on Craigslist or at an antiques store or estate sale keeps bulky furniture out of the landfill. Also, because you didn’t buy new, you’ve likely saved a tree, some electricity, transport fuel and more. But wait—there’s more! Many thrift stores provide employment training or raise funds for drug and alcohol rehab, veterans, or hospitals. So pat yourself on the (chair) back: Your good find is also a good deed.