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Anatomy of a Healthy Re-upholstery Project

As I laid out my tools to start my latest re-upholstery project, they reminded me of a surgeon’s set of scalpels. I often think that re-upholstery is a bit like surgery. You take a piece of furniture that has a lot of life left in it, but it just isn’t functioning properly. You open it up, check out its innards, and replace everything carefully. Then you staple or stitch it back together, usually grafting on new skin, and it’s good as new again. So, with that slightly disturbing image in mind, I give you…

The Anatomy of a Healthy Re-upholstery Project

Re-upholstering a Bench

Sometimes you score a great garage sale or thrift store find, but sometimes you have a piece that already belongs to you that needs some new life breathed into it. This time for me, it was a bit of both. This little bench has a lot of sentimental value to me. A few years ago I was with my friend Jana at a second-hand sale and she said, “Look at that bench. You could do something really nice with that.” Well, I looked at it and just saw a lot of work. I was torn because you know how I love a good project, but I just didn’t want to put the work into this one. It was an oriental style bench with hideous cheap black imitation-silk embroidered fabric on it. I don’t have a speck of oriental style in my house, so I passed it by. Later she went back, rescued it, and recovered it for me in a fabric that matched my bedroom. She gave it to me for a birthday gift, and I loved it, both for its new style, and for the thought and effort that went into it.

Bench Before

Fast forward a couple of years, and now I’m redoing my bedroom. (More on that later.) The little bench, as beloved as it was, just didn’t fit anymore. So rather than give it up, I decided to redo it again. I believe it’s on its fourth life now, based on all the layers I discovered when I pulled it apart.

Past Lives of a Re-upholstered Bench

You can see a little of the original cheap black embroidered fabric here.

Here’s what you need to know, if you have a piece of furniture that needs a little surgery.

You’ll need:

  • A piece of furniture with appealing style and solid construction
  • Upholstery fabric (this could mean lots of things, but usually a heavier or more durable fabric)
  • Paint
  • The right tools

Tools: Sanding Block, Paint, Scissor, Locking Pliers, Staple Gun, Staples, Screwdriver

Step One: Deconstruction

First, cover your work area with a drop cloth. You never know what kind of a mess you’ll make when taking apart a piece of furniture. Turn the piece upside down and check out its construction. In my bench’s case, I just needed to remove some screws that were holding the seat to the wooden frame. I was dismayed when I saw that it was held together with square recess screws, but after a little experimenting I discovered my normal phillips head screwdriver worked just fine.

Screws Collage

While separating the seat from the frame, I found that someone along the way had stapled fabric to the underside of the frame itself, and left all the staples in after ripping off the fabric. Not a big deal, but since I was trying to do this “right” I decided to take a few extra minutes to pull all those staples. For pulling staples, I like to use locking pliers . They grip better and you can use the rounded part to lever the staple gently from the wood, instead of trying to pull it out with brute force (I’m not known for my upper body strength).


Next up is to remove the existing fabric from the seat. You want to do this gently and carefully so that you don’t break anything in the process and create more work for yourself, and so you can re-use any parts that are still in good shape. I was lucky that everything was usable on the inside of my bench, but be prepared to make trips to the craft store once you get your piece open. Often the foam needs to be replaced, depending on the age of the furniture.

Removing Fabric Carefully to Preserve Parts

Step Two: Preparation

My bench is similar to most re-upholstery projects, a two-in-one deal. There’s the work associated with the frame, and the work associated with the seat and fabric. Always prep the frame first, so that the paint can be drying while you’re working on fabric. In my case, the frame required very little rehab work, just a good sanding, and then several light coats of spray paint. If you’re wondering when to use spray vs. brushable paint, here’s why I used spray paint on this one:

Spray paint is the best for getting into small spaces

Way too many little nooks and crannies to try and get a brush into!

For a tutorial on sanding and spray painting, check out my earlier how-to on this Bar Cart .

Step Three: Re-upholstering The Seat

Gather your fabric, scissors, staple gun, and 1/4″ staples. First we’ll cut the fabric to the right size. Rather than measuring and adding inches and so forth, I just used the previous fabric piece as a template to cut the new one. (Less math is always a good thing!) If you can’t use your previous fabric for a template, be sure to add a few inches on each side to wrap around and staple through.Use the old fabric as a template to cut the new piece

Then I laid the fabric on the floor, face down, and laid the seat on top of it, also face down. Now for the stapling. There is a right way (and several wrong ways) to do this part. First, if your fabric has a pattern on it, make sure your pattern is square with the seat. Do not let your pattern wander off into a corner. Check several times during stapling to make sure your fabric is lined up correctly. (See how much restraint I’m showing by not attacking you with exclamation points, even though I really want to?)

Take time to line up fabric correctly before stapling

Follow these steps for evenly stretched fabric:

  1. Set a staple in the middle of the longest side.
  2. Pull the fabric gently across the seat and staple directly opposite the first staple. Second staple opposite the first
  3. Repeat for the short sides.
  4. Turn the piece over to make sure everything is lined up.
  5. Pulling gently on the fabric, put staples halfway between the first staples and the corners.
  6. Turn it over and check again. You’ll see that the fabric looks a little unevenly stretched, as some parts aren’t stapled yet, but the pattern should be lined up in the corners and stapled points. 

    Checking the fabric

    You can see where the staples are pulling the fabric slightly. This is OK for now, but by the end, you should have no more of these.

  7. Pulling gently on the fabric, fill in staples about an inch apart between the existing ones all around, but leaving a few inches open on each corner.
  8. Pick a corner and gently pull the fabric in a “v” shape on the back. The straight sides should be able to tuck under the “v”. Staple the straight edges under the “v” and then put a staple on the top. Add more tucks and staples as needed to get a smooth corner on the front. How to get perfect upholstery corners
  9. Repeat step 8 for the other three corners.
  10. Turn over and check to make sure everything looks even.

Yay! The hard part is done. Now, you just have to wait to make sure the paint is dry. (I like to let mine cure at least overnight.) Then reattach the seat to the frame, using the screws that you’ve cleverly stored in a ziploc baggy nearby. (Probably should have mentioned that earlier!)

Just like new!

Give your new and improved piece of furniture a throw pillow or some accessories, and sit back and enjoy.

My bench is comfy in its new room

Are you inspired, or do you need help on a project? Leave me a comment…


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Saturday 15th of March 2014

Great question Suzanne. I was afraid I may have oversimplified a bit. I realized when I was doing the part about the corners that I could probably do a whole tutorial on just corners, so I think I will. When are you thinking of starting your project? I'll make sure to do it before then. Also, this bench's corners were pretty sharply square. Are your chairs more rounded? That requires a few more tucks and staples to get an even look.

Suzanne Fluhr

Saturday 15th of March 2014

I am now totally inspired and reassured about starting an upholstery project for a set of eight dining room chairs. At the risk of sounding totally dense (OK, I actually am dense, have never done this before and am petrified of DIY), do you think you could spell out that doing the corners part in a little more detail? I'm definitely adding this post to my pinterest board for DIY projects. In fact, this will be the first pin!


Creating a color-filled life. Conquering my little world one DIY project at a time. With lots of coffee and chocolate. Albuquerque NM. Pinterest ~ Instagram ~ Facebook