Reupholstering a Chair, Part 1: Stripping

Here are the other parts of this series: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 For about as long as I’ve written this blog, people have been asking me for tutorials on reupholstering furniture. I’ve kind of held off because every piece of furniture will require a slightly different approach. I am in no way a professional upholsterer,…

Here are the other parts of this series: Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

For about as long as I’ve written this blog, people have been asking me for tutorials on reupholstering furniture. I’ve kind of held off because every piece of furniture will require a slightly different approach. I am in no way a professional upholsterer, so if you are looking for advice on your upholstery project, I suggest checking out this great book, taking a class (sometimes local fabric stores will offer these for free!) or calling a real professional. I wish I had the time and skill to help you all with your individual projects, but it’s better for both of us for you to pursue advice beyond this tutorial elsewhere.

It’s worth mentioning that all the pieces I reupholster myself must meet a couple criteria, otherwise I call up my upholsterer and fork over the cash:
1) Must be a simple piece with not a lot of complicate sewing required
2) Can’t be of special value or worth (no real antiques or family heirlooms)
3) No using super expensive fabrics

Also, let’s be really clear here. The reason upholstery services are so expensive is because even small projects are very time consuming and pretty labor intensive (read: not so fun). I like the last steps a lot actually, when I’m stapling the fabric in place. That part goes quickly for me and it’s fun to see the piece coming to life again. But the beginning steps are absolutely (and sometimes literally) painful for me. I really hate pulling out old staples, of which there are approximately 109,457 in each of my chairs.

And, another point of clarification, I’m pretty cheap and foam is expensive. So if the insides of a piece are in good shape (like the horsehair, webbing or foam), I reuse. Obviously though, if it’s at all gross looking, I replace everything. In most projects I replace any cotton batting and then line it all with fresh muslin. It’s a preference thing, but thought I’d mention that before we got started.

Alright!! Now that that’s all out of the way – Part 1! Stripping down the chair.

For this portion of the show, you’ll need only a few tools:

1. Standard flat head screw driver
2. Needle-nose pliers
3. Tiny flat head screw driver
4. Bowl for discarded staples and tacks
Not shown: Camera
Optional/probable: Gloves, bandaids


Photograph every angle of your chair. Take close ups of tricky curves and trimmed out areas. You’ll use these photographs for reference later. (One time I didn’t photograph a critical part of a settee and I totally screwed up the arm portion and wasted about $50 in fabric. It was a bummer. Learn from my mistake!!)

As an example, I took these close up photos so I could remember where to start/stop the welting.


Use the bigger, standard flat head to pry loose the cording at the start/stop point. Most trim is either epoxied or stapled into place. I was bummed to discover that my double cord welting was tacked down with mini staples, but for the most part I was able to pull off the trim using just my needle-nose pliers. I basically sat on my couch, pushed my feet up against the chair and pulled on the pliers really hard in the opposite direction. A very technical maneuver.

Always keep your camera handy. Here I took a photo of how the last upholsterer left the trim basically loose when they wrapped it around the arm part. No glue or sewing necessary here, I guess.


Once all of the cording is off, you’ll have access to all the many, many staples that are keeping the fabric and batting taut against the frame.

This is when you’ll probably discover you’ll want bandaids and possibly gloves. (Maybe make sure you’re current on your tetanus shots?) :)

I usually work in 4-6″ segments where I quickly wedge my mini flat head under each staple and pry it up a bit (not all the way) and then I come back with my needle-nose pliers and pull them all out quickly. A little trick that will save you lots of energy: use the frame of the furniture as leverage whenever possible. Rather than pull a staple out straight using just your force, put some Physics 101 into action. Don’t damage the frame (you use a little piece of cardboard to protect the frame if you want), but rest your pliers against the wood, pinch the staple and roll back. The staples will break a lot less and they’ll come out much, much faster this way.


Usually each layer of fabric, burlap and batting will have its own staples. Try your best to not rip the layers as you remove them. If you can save the insides like I mentioned earlier, great! More importantly, they will act as a template for your new fabric, batting, etc. So try to minimize damage.

Under the first layer of fabric was this webbing and burlap.

Followed by cotton batting,

and then another piece of fabric that was the back face of the chair. See all the staples in my bowl? That’s just one half of one chair.

By the end of the day we were able to get both chairs stripped of their backing and all the cording. Because the new fabric I’m using is dark and thick I decided it wasn’t worth it to pull off the bottom part of the old chair fabric, especially because I wasn’t really sure how structural those sewn-in seams were and I didn’t want to mess up the shape. This part goes under the chair cushion (not pictured), so this seemed like a good short cut for me. I’m thinking I’ll Fabritac the new fabric into the sewn-in seams you can see below and maybe hand stitch a few of the corners down for reinforcement and then staple it all down right over the old cream moire fabric.

Next up — Step 2: Painting the chair frames!
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61 thoughts on “Reupholstering a Chair, Part 1: Stripping

  1. This is great. I’m doing an old Eastlake chair that has similar areas of wood and upholstery. I LOVE the way you list the tools needed and tips about keeping track of what you’re doing. I’m going to read through all five instruction pages (very unlike me – usually dive in head first!) to minimize screw ups. Here’s my Facebook page to give you an idea of what I do with old things. Before this, I’ve mostly reupholstered dining room chairs (seats only). I DID do a couch once, but my grandma (an experienced seamstress) helped me.

  2. It’s interesting to learn that when it comes to getting a chair upholstered that there are somethings that we need to think about before having it done. I like that you mentioned that this process is expensive due to how time consuming and how much labor is put into it. This is something that we will have to remember so that we are able to get things done right.

  3. Hi! For all those DIY upholsterers out there I found a great source for upholstery supplies on Etsy. It’s called UpholsteryMania. They have the good batting, a great staple puller and the dust cover cloth.

  4. I have a chair that’s in great shape and relatively new, but I tried to remove some stains and accidentally discolored it. Would it work to just take off and replace the outer later of fabric?

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