How to Reupholster a Chair: Beginner/Intermediate DIY

It’s the time-old conundrum, when you spy an old chair that you love but that needs some TLC: Do you pass it up because it needs some work, or do you buy it and learn how to reupholster it? Let me help make the answer to that question a little easier: You reupholster it yourself.

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Reupholstery can seem very intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but with a good tutorial and some patience, you can customize nearly any piece of furniture to be just how you want it. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to reupholster a basic office chair (which is a good project for beginner to intermediate DIYers).

Note: The author is an experienced but not professional reupholsterer. Follow the steps of this tutorial with that in mind.

Materials Needed:

  • – Chair
  • – Upholstery fabric
  • – Upholstery cording/piping
  • – Staple gun & staples
  • – Sewing machine & upholstery thread

Step 1: Acquire a chair.

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I happened upon this one at a local thrift shop and immediately fell in love with the sturdy construction, the clean contemporary lines, and the $8 price tag.

Step 2a: Disassemble the chair.

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Check out the underside of the chair seat; this is where you will start to disassemble most chairs. Keep all hardware, screws, and pieces safe and, where applicable, labeled.

Tip: Take photos as you go so that you can reference them later as you’re reassembling the chair; often, something that seems obvious as you’re taking the chair apart will not seem so obvious when you’re putting it back together.

Step 2b: Take out staples.

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This is a tedious step, but (usually) a necessary one. Use a screwdriver and pliers to take out staples. Try to keep chair pieces intact, as these will serve as your pattern pieces for your new fabric.

Step 2c:Take apart cording.

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If your chair is in exceptional condition, you may be able to reuse some of the components, such as the cording. In this example, the cording was nearly new, so I reused it.

Tip: Recycling and reusing is an excellent way to help the environment.

Step 3: Use removed fabric pieces to cut new fabric.

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If your fabric will be stapled on the underside of something, such as this chair-back, cut your fabric a few inches larger on each side to ensure plenty of extra to pull taut.

TIP: Precision cuts are necessary for sewn pieces.

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Using the old fabric as your pattern, cut your new fabric exactly to size on any pieces that will be sewn. Take your tips from Goldilocks – You don’t want your fabric pieces too big, as this will result in a loose and floppy reupholstery job. You don’t want them too small, or they won’t fit at all. You want them just right so that they fit snugly and professionally when you sew them back together.

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TIP: Keep all removed and newly cut pieces organized. This organization will look different for every chair; here, I have one pile of chair seat pieces and the other pile of chair back pieces.

Step 4: Sew your cording.

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Keeping your fabric and the cord itself stretched taut, use a zipper foot on your sewing machine to sew the cording. Place the cord in the middle of your fabric (which should be 2”-3” wide and about 4” longer than your cord), fold the fabric over with the right-side-out, and sew together using a large (baste) stitch.

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Tip: Trim the raw edges of your cording to be the width of your seam allowance. Look at the stitching marks left on your old cording fabric and match the width.

Step 5a: Recover the back of the seat back.

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On this particular chair, the back side of the seat back was a separate piece that screws onto the cushioned seat back. I stapled the new fabric in the order shown on the photo – first the centers on opposing sides, then moving out to the corners. Tip: Always pull the fabric taut as you staple. I try to pull slightly tighter than I think I need to; this will ensure a snug, professional reupholstery.

Step 5b: Staple the other two sides.

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When the first two opposing sides have been stapled (up to, but not yet into, the corners), use the same middle-to-outward strategy for the other two sides.

Step 5c: Staple the corners.

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First, pull the center of the corner toward the middle and place a staple.

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Then pull the two resulting folds toward the middle and staple those.

Step 6: Trim the excess fabric.

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Using scissors, trim the extra fabric about ¼” from the staples all the way around the seat. Pay particular attention to anywhere where there are screw holes; make sure these are clear of staples and extra fabric, as this will inhibit your ability to reassemble the chair correctly.

Step 7: Staple on cording.

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Depending on the construction of your chair, this may or may not be required. I noticed, as I was taking this chair apart, that it had cording stapled everywhere where the fabric met the wood. Although in reality this step is probably optional, the cording here provides a nice professional finish to the reupholstery.

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Tip: When stapling cording, place the first staple about 1” in from the end of your cording. After you’ve gone all the way around and the two cording ends meet up, briefly overlap them and fold them down toward the middle of your board. Staple in place.

Step 8: Sew the fabric for the front of the seat back.

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Lay your new fabric down right-side-up. Place your cording on the edge of your fabric (at the center of what will be the bottom of the cushion), raw edges of the cording lined up with the raw edge of your fabric.

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Start sewing about 1” in from the end of your cording and, pulling taut, sew the cording on.

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Tip: Slow down and don’t cut corners. It is critical to line up raw edges all around the corners as much as it is down the straight stretches.

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At the ends, pinch cording fabric in on itself and line up the two ends. Sew together.

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Step 9: Sew on cushion width fabric.

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With the cording attached to the seat back fabric, it’s time to sew on the strip of fabric that goes around the seat back as the cushion width. With right sides together (and the cording sandwiched in between), sew this on, starting at least 1” in and keeping raw edges aligned.

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Tip: Trim corner edges as needed, being very careful to avoid cutting the seams.

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As you near the “start”, stop your machine, cut your thread, and pin exactly where the ends will come together. Pin this, then sew this seam together before resuming and completing your perimeter seam.

Step 10: Cover the front of the seat back.

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Pull your newly sewn piece onto the front of the seat back – the fit should be very snug. Once you’ve pulled it tight and checked the front to make sure there are no wrinkles, staple into place using the same strategy shown in Step 5. Trim the excess fabric by the staples.

Step 11: Reupholster the seat cushion.

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Following the same strategies shown in Steps 8-10, sew the fabric for and cover your chair seat cushion. Staple into place.

Step 12: Add cording to bottom of seat cushion.

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Again, this step is probably optional, but it adds such a polished look to the completed chair.

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Tip: Overlap the ends of your cording and staple into place.

Step 13: Add fray strip.

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I don’t actually know what it’s called, but it’s a strip of vinyl about 1” wide that is stapled over the edge of your cording fabric on the underside of your chair seat cushion. This keeps your fabric from fraying along the bottom of your chair and, even if it does fray a little, it keeps the strings from hanging down.

Step 14: Reassemble your chair.

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Congratulations! You did it! I hope you love the finished product…and I hope you have the confidence to tackle another reupholstery project in the future, now that you’ve gotten your feet wet.

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