A beginner’s guide to upholstery

During the past year, many of us have tried out new hobbies, and if you’re still looking to get creative, why not think about learning upholstery? As well as being fun, upholstering is a really useful skill to have, and can save you money as well as help you live more sustainably. Many of us have a piece of furniture we love that’s looking a bit tired, and learning to upholster allows you to breathe new life into your favourite pieces. Or maybe you have a chair that doesn’t go with the decor in your room? Upholstering it can give it a brand new look. You can also snap up bargains that are a bit of an eyesore and transform them into stylish and unique new pieces.

If you’d like to find out more, here’s our beginner’s guide to upholstery.

1. Learn the basics

One of the most important things to know about upholstery is that it’s often a lot easier than it looks. You might have seen people on TV or online effortlessly reupholstering furniture, and transforming dowdy old chairs into trendy seats in a matter of minutes. But upholstery is a skill, and like any other skill, it takes time to master properly.

But with a bit of patience and practice, anyone can learn how to upholster furniture. There isn’t any special skill you need to already have to get started – and you don’t need to be especially crafty, or have any experience with DIY or art. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can start practicing on more complex pieces, but it’s always best for beginners to start small. Trying to tackle a full armchair or sofa on your first attempt isn’t the best idea. Instead, start off with smaller, simpler pieces and work your way up to more ambitious projects.

So what are the best pieces for beginners to start with? Anything with straight lines is always a safe bet – things like footstools, ottomans, bench seats, dining room chairs, and headboards. With curved pieces of furniture you’ll need to make a pleat to tuck the fabric in, whereas with straight lines you usually only need to fold the corners over in a process that’s similar to wrapping a present. Once you’ve got to grips with the basics and have reupholstered a few simple pieces, as well as learned how to use your tools, you can branch out and experiment with bigger challenges.

According to many experts, one of the best things to practice upholstery on is a dining room chair pad. This is an easy project that doesn’t require many tools – just some fabric scissors and a staple gun. To see how simple reupholstering a dining room seat can be, have a watch of the video below.

2. Purchase your tools

If you decide you want to pursue upholstery as a hobby, there are lots of specialised tools you can buy – but if you’re just starting out, it’s best to begin with the basics. While upholstery involves a lot of pulling and stapling, sewing is sometimes involved as well, so if you do any sewing you may well have some of the tools needed at home anyway. The tools most upholstery beginners will need are:

  • Staple gun. This is an essential tool for any budding upholsterer, as it allows you to fix the fabric to the furniture frame quickly and easily. This Tacwise staple gun will save you a fair bit of work – but any high-quality staple gun will do the job. If you decide to continue on your upholstery journey, you might want to think about investing in an air stapler and compressor, which uses air pressure to achieve much greater force – very handy if you’re stapling into a hard surface like wood. Remember to buy staples if your gun doesn’t come with them!

  • Fabric scissors: If you don’t already have a pair of these in your sewing kit, you’ll need to pick up sharp, good quality fabric scissors. Bear in mind that using these scissors to cut other materials can make them blunt, so try to keep them only for cutting material.

  • Rubber mallet: You may have a rubber mallet in your toolbox already, and they come in very handy for upholstery. You can use them to hammer parts into place without damaging the furniture frame or fabric. If you move onto more complex upholstery, you’ll need a rubber mallet to knock wooden frames apart and to tap in flourishes like nailheads or grommets.

  • Staple removers. Some staple guns come with staple removers, but if yours doesn’t, you’ll need to purchase one. They’re essential for pulling staples up and removing old fabric.

  • Soft tape measure. Having a soft tape measure is valuable as it allows you to take precise measurements around the curves of furniture in a way that hard tape measures can’t.

  • Fabric. Choosing the colours and patterns of your fabric is always fun. It’s usually best to opt for a thick, durable fabric that can handle a bit of wear and tear – particularly if you’re going to be sitting on the furniture. Because you’ll need to pull the fabric tightly around the frame, non-stretch fabrics are best. It’s best to buy fabrics in-person, so you can actually feel the material in your hands, but if fabric shops are closed, or you can’t get to one, there are plenty of online fabric shops too – have a browse at Fabricland, My Fabrics and Minerva.

If you just want to try out upholstery to see if it’s for you, then you’ll probably be able to get by with just a staple gun, fabric and fabric scissors, as long as your project is very simple. To find out more about the different upholstery tools, have a read of this article by Sail Rite, or watch the video below.

3. Brush up on your upholstery knowledge

Truly getting the hang up of upholstery hinges on plenty of practice, and probably a lot of trial and error too – but taking some time to learn about the art of upholstery can make a big difference to how quickly you get the hang of it. It can also give your confidence a welcome boost too. So what are some of the best ways you can learn more about upholstery?

Read an upholstery book

If you enjoy reading and learning from books, you might want to think about buying an upholstery book. The Beginner’s Guide to Upholstery by workshop teacher Vicky Grubb uses plain English to show you all the simple techniques needed to create beautiful pieces of furniture. The book also contains ten projects, including a simple stool, a dining chair, a patchwork armchair and a fluted headboard, so once you’ve mastered the basics there’ll be plenty of more challenging projects for you to tackle, too.

Or you might want to pick up a copy of The Upholsterer’s Step-by-Step Handbook by Alex Law. Known as a ‘one-stop reference for the amateur upholsterer’, this book contains all the tips and tricks needed to begin your upholstery adventure – and with clear descriptions and plenty of illustrations, you’ll be able to work on each piece with confidence. From assessing the job, to estimating your materials and planning the order of work, you’ll learn how to apply logic to get the job done smoothly, no matter how big the project is.

Alternatively, check out Beginners’ Upholstery Techniques by expert upholsterer David James. Packed with plenty of inspirational ideas, this comprehensive guide provides readers with a wide range of techniques and plenty of detailed instructions. By breaking down each stage of upholstery, the book teaches you how to pick the perfect fabric and choose the right tools and materials, as well as get confident with the upholstery process itself.

To find out more about the best upholstery books for beginners, check out this article by Book Authority.

Watch YouTube tutorials

One of the best ways to familiarise yourself with upholstery is to watch some of the many free tutorial videos on YouTube. You might want to start off by browsing some of the most popular channels, like Kim’s Upholstery, ALO Upholstery, Artisan Upholstery Studio and FaceLiftInteriors. These channels have lots of informative videos, so if you find a presenter and teaching style you like, you can browse through their content and see what jumps out.

Aside from watching videos that go over the different upholstery tools and techniques, it’s also very beneficial to watch several videos of an upholstery project. Even if the project feels too ambitious for you to tackle straight away, you’ll be surprised at how much you can pick up just from watching someone reupholster an old sofa. Plus, it’s always good to look forward to some of the more challenging projects you can attempt once you’ve acquired a few skills!

The first project you attempt, however, should be a small one, like a dining room chair – and if you’re feeling a little daunted about actually applying what you’ve learned and getting that staple gun out, have a watch of the video below to see how simple the process actually can be.

Think about signing up for an online course

While going to a physical upholstery class isn’t a possibility right now, that doesn’t mean you can’t still benefit from taking a class or course. If you’re happy to pay a fee, there are several online upholstery classes that promise to take you from amateur to confident upholsterer. One of the most popular classes on Udemy is The Ultimate Upholstery Guide: Recovering Dining Room Chairs, which teaches you how to upholster three different styles of chair, and in the process, seriously boost your skill level.

Alternatively, head over to Upholstery Skills Online and have a browse of their courses. There are two free courses you can begin with – Upholstery Materials and Tools and Techniques – and if you’re happy with what you see, you can pay for additional courses. The Upholstery Foundation Level One course is best for beginners, and will teach you how to make pleats, prepare stuffing, cover with fabric, and ensure a professional finish every time.

4. Familiarise yourself with upholstery tips

Before you clear some workspace and lay your fabric out, it’s helpful to familiarise yourself with some of the most important upholstery tips. This way, even if you have detailed instructions to follow, you can ensure you’re starting off on the right foot.

  1. Start small. We know we’ve said this a few times – but it’s one of the most valuable upholstery guidelines to follow! It can be tempting to start off with a more challenging project, particularly if you have an old sofa just itching for a new covering – but the risk with beginning with a bigger project is that something could go wrong. Not only might this ruin your furniture, but it could also knock your confidence and take away some of your excitement. Starting with something small and simple, like an ottoman, stool or dining room chair will help you perfect your technique – and there’s also more room for error.

  2. Choose the right fabric. It’s important to think about more than just aesthetics when it comes to choosing the right fabric for your upholstery project. The fabric should be thick enough to pull firmly without ripping – and it should be cheap enough that you can buy extra (to hide any errors) without it causing any issue. Cotton velvet fabric is a smart choice for furniture, as it’s durable enough to be pulled firmly, and also gives you pieces a stylish and luxurious look and feel.

  3. Take the existing fabric off carefully. No matter how much of an eyesore the current fabric is, and no matter how keen you are to get it off, try to remove it gently and carefully, in one piece. That way, you can use the old fabric as a template for the new covering and skip the job of measuring the fabric.

  4. Pull the fabric tight. One technique it’s essential to get right early on is pulling the fabric tightly enough. If there are the smallest wrinkles or bulges in the material, you haven’t pulled it tight enough. Remember that properly upholstered pieces should look professionally done, even when you’re just starting out, and not pulling the fabric tightly enough is one of the most common reasons some upholstery projects have that distinct ‘DIY’ look.

  5. Don’t rush. When people first start upholstery, it’s normal to underestimate how much time a project will take, and many people imagine their time will go a lot further than it does. As a good rule of thumb, you might want to double the amount of time you think a job will take you – so if you think you can do up a dining room chair in a couple of hours, it may be wise to set aside four hours. That way, you can take your time and enjoy the process rather than worrying because it’s taking longer than you thought. And if you have extra time at the end, you can use that to add the finishing touches to a piece of furniture – for example, giving it a lick of paint, so it looks brand-new, authentic, and professionally done.

Final thoughts…

Upholstery is creative, enjoyable and relaxing, and it’s also a great way to upcycle and repurpose old furniture that’s looking tired. Plus, browsing second-hand shops (when they’re open again), buying shabby pieces of furniture for a few pounds and revamping them entirely is incredibly rewarding. Do remember though, that while it’s absolutely worth the effort, getting to grips with upholstery for the first time won’t necessarily be quick or easy, so be kind to yourself. If you make a mistake, remember that’s all part of the learning process – and if your hands or eyes are becoming tired, take a break. The process of upholstery should be fun, so go at your own pace and enjoy the journey.

Have you tried upholstery before – or are you keen to try? We’d love to hear about your upholstery experiences! Leave us a comment below or join the conversation on the Rest Less community.

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