A deep magenta tufted piece of furniture.

Five Things to Know Before Starting a DIY Upholstery Project

Good quality furniture can last a lifetime, but sometimes the upholstery might get a little beaten down. Heavy use from children or pets can cause stains. In a busy home, the fabric will eventually get thin from use or faded from sunlight, and the padding may get compacted, making the seat less comfortable.

The good news is, reupholstering can bring new life to an old chair or sofa! High quality furniture is expensive and old family heirlooms may have nostalgic appeal, so you might be considering reupholstery before tossing that chair or sofa. If you’re considering DIY reupholstery, here are some things you should keep in mind before you get started.

Do your research

While many aspects of DIY upholstery are skills anyone can learn, you don’t know everything that you need to know right now. In addition, there are many steps to the process. Devote some time to reading everything you can find on the internet (and remember, not every piece of advice is going to be reliable, and there are often multiple ways to do each step of the process). In addition, your local library probably has an extensive collection of books about various handcrafts, so check the catalog or ask your librarian to help you find a published book that you can refer to as you go.

It’s more expensive than you think

Upholstery involves a lot more parts and pieces than you might think, so it’s good to make an extensive list of tools and other findings. Many parts of your furniture may be reusable, so also check stock of what you might NOT need—but prepare to make some extra trips. (Note: if your town has a makerspace, you might be able to rent or borrow specialty equipment, and your local colleges or universities may have extension courses that would get you access to a fuller shop. Don’t have a sewing machine? Many libraries have them available for borrowing!)

Some things you might not think about:

Sewing supplies: if you are sewing removable cushions, you may need new heavy-duty sewing machine needles and upholstery thread. If your cushions have piping, you might need a special foot to accommodate that shape

Upholstery stapler (and staple remover!): your office stapler isn’t going to cut it. There are manual and electric or air-powered options that have their upsides and downsides. Unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of time removing the old staples, consider investing in a staple remover, which will go MUCH faster and with less frustration than using pliers.

Foam: Most modern upholstery uses foam, which comes in various thicknesses and firnesses. While you may not need to replace all of the foam, there’s a good chance that what’s in there has a lot of dirt that has made it through the fabric over the years, so it can be really nice to replace it all if you can.

Start Small

If your goal is to reupholster something big (like a couch) or something with lots of emotional attachment, consider starting with something like an old stool, ottoman, or upholstered dining room chair. Another popular item is an upholstered headboard, which can be a great project for any home! This smaller project will help you to get comfortable with many (though likely not all) of the skills you’ll need for the larger project. 

If you have major mistakes that you have to redo or minor mistakes that make the finished object less than perfect, you will also be less frustrated. Consider it part of the learning process!

Choose and order your fabric before making other decisions

If you’re picky about your fabric, make that decision before you do anything else! Supply chain disruptions mean that certain fabrics may be backordered for months, and you don’t want to find that out after you’ve ripped your old sofa down to the frame! While you’re at the research stage, you can visit fabric stores and order samples online, make lots of measurements to make sure you know how much you need, and make the order. Once your fabric has arrived or at least been shipped, you can start thinking about disassembling the piece.

Measure twice and order extra supplies!

Take measurements. Measure again. Couldn’t hurt to measure a third time. Don’t forget about seam allowances for cushions and larger allowances for stapled pieces. Taking on tufting? Remember that you will need more fabric in both directions to account for those tufts!

Upholstery fabric can also come in slightly different widths depending on the manufacturer, so make sure to check the width of the fabric you’ve chosen. You can find estimates for fabric needs based on what type of furniture you’re working with, but don’t rely on that, as your item may be different. Get out some graph paper and plot out everything you’ll need (again: DO NOT FORGET EXTRA FOR STAPLING!). This stage is a little like tetris, but as a bonus, you’ll end up with a handy road map for cutting your fabric.

In addition to all this planning, make sure to round up by at least a couple yards. Fabric from different dye lots may look odd if you have to order more (and again, if you have a big backorder, you may have another long wait at that stage).

Give yourself time

If you are reupholstering a central piece of furniture like your living room sofa or all of your dining room chairs, this is NOT a project to start two weeks before a big family get-together at your house. You may end up having to order more supplies, or just get frustrated and need to give the piece a time out while you reassess. If you’re working within your home instead of in a garage or shop, this also means that you may have a bit of chaos to work around for a while. Luckily, even partially finished pieces can still be usable in a pinch with throw blankets, but it’s not ideal. You don’t want your project to stretch out forever, but you also don’t want to feel rushed.

It won’t be perfect

While it will probably impress most of your friends and family when you show off a new skill, there are going to be little things that a professional upholsterer would never do. And since you’re up close and personal with this project, you will probably be super aware of those mistakes every time you look at them. Try to embrace them as things that help make your piece truly unique! There’s nothing wrong with an imperfect piece that was made with love and care.

With time, patience, and planning, you can have a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture that will be the talk of every get together at your home!

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