How to Reupholster a Chair

Anyone can make a nasty seat nice in just a couple of hours. Here's how to do a first class DIY chair upholstery job.

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Step 1: Chairs are not all created—or upholstered—equally

Here we’ll show you how to reupholster a chair with a “drop-in” or “screw-on” seat—a style shared by many benches and stools. Seat bases can be constructed from a variety of materials: solid wood, plywood, pegboard and others. The seats are normally screwed on but can also be glued on or dropped in. The cushions can be foam, cotton or other natural materials.

Which stapler works best?

All the staplers shown will do the trick. The question is: How hard do you want to work—and squeeze—to “do the trick”? Your stapler buying decision may also hinge on a few other factors, including how often you’ll use it, what else you might use it for—and whether you need a good excuse to buy an air compressor.

Hand Stapler:

It will give your hand a workout, and you may have to occasionally use a hammer to drive the staples all the way in, but you can still get good results. Make sure you hold the nose of the stapler firmly against the seat base when you pull the trigger.

Cost: $15 to $30

Electric Stapler:

We used one for our project and it worked flawlessly. You still need to firmly press the nose against the fabric and plywood to get a well-seated staple—but it’s way easier on the hand. As a bonus, some models also shoot 3/4-in. and shorter brad nails.

Cost: $25 to $75

Pneumatic Stapler:

If you’re going to be stapling for hours on end, invest in a pneumatic stapler. These drive the staples flush with the pull of a finger and allow you to be extremely accurate in the placement of your staples. Some tools also drive brad nails up to 1-1/4 in.

Cost: $40 to $150 (plus air compressor)

Step 2: Round up your materials

When you shop, buy “upholstery grade” fabric for its strength and stain resistance. Fabric prices vary wildly; you might find something for $5 in the bargain bin or spend 10 times as much. We bought our fabric, foam and batting at a fabric store. For the dust cover, we used landscape fabric from a home center.

Step 3: Remove the old and get ready for the new

If you’re re-covering more than one chair, number each chair and seat; that way, the screw holes will line up properly when you reinstall the seats. There are special tools just for yanking upholstery staples or tacks, but you can get by with basic hand tools (Photo 1). Tip: Old, dull side cutters are perfect. They grip staples well but don’t cut them off.

Remove the padding and inspect the seat. If the wood base seems solid, reuse it. If it’s cracked, use it as a template to make a new one (Photo 2). We used a sander to taper the edges to match the profile of the old one. Plop the seat on top of the foam and outline it with a marker. Use a serrated bread knife (Photo 3) to cut just inside the line.

Step 4: Install the new fabric

Place a section of batting—4 in. wider in all directions than the size of your chair seat—on a flat work surface, then set your foam and seat on top. Lightly stretch the batting and drive one staple (Photo 4) along each edge.

Flip the seat over, then center your material on top (Photo 5). Cut the material so you’ll be able to wrap it up onto the chair bottom at least 4 in. in each direction. With the seat facing up and the front edge overhanging the work surface, drive one staple through the bottom to hold the material in place. Rotate the seat 180 degrees, then tack the back the same way.

Check your pattern alignment one more time, then flip the seat upside down. Starting at the front middle staple and working toward the corners, use the palm of your hand to lightly stretch the material, then drive a staple every 2 in. (Photo 6). Keep the staples within an inch of the edge, and secure the batting and fabric at the same time. Use your entire hand, not just fingertips, to tighten the material. This way you’ll avoid little dips and puckers in the pattern.

Repeatedly flip the seat over to check the pattern for straightness; it’s easier to keep flipping and checking than to go back and pull staples. Our expert flipped the seat over and checked the pattern a dozen times while stapling each edge. Stop stapling 2 in. from each corner. Secure the back edge in the same way, stretching the material lightly as you work. Then complete the sides, again repeatedly checking the pattern.

Step 5: Corners are the key

You can make simple, single-fold “hospital corners” if the edges of your seat are concealed by a frame. But in most cases, the front corners will be exposed and will look better with a “butterfly corner.”

Remove excess batting and material from the corners (Photo 7) then flip the seat right side up and experiment with a few corner tucks. Fold the center inward, then overlap each side onto that fold (Photo 8). When the corner looks symmetrical and tight, flip the seat over and staple the folds in place.

When the corners are done, flip the seat over and cut off the excess material. Staple on a dust cover (Photo 9).