DIY reupholstering a couch

DYI reupholstering a couch

I never thought about DIY reupholstering furniture until my dogs completely ruined the upholstery on my cheap but beloved armchair I used as my office chair. I found an upholstery shop, emailed them a picture of the chair and asked how much it would be to reupholster it in leather. I was totally clueless how much it could cost. They probably laughed hard when they saw my email. I never got a reply. Then I did a research on reupholstering prices, said “Oops!” and decided I would do the job myself. Nothing to lose, really.

And so I did. It was a good learning experience even though I made quite a few mistakes. I still use the chair. In fact, I am writing this blog sitting in it. But that’s not the point. The point is that this random DIY reupholstering exercise put a bug of confidence in me that was just waiting for the right moment to surface again. That moment came soon enough, because I needed a new couch. The old sectional made it’s way down to the basement. My daughter said it was not terribly inviting, she was right, so it had to go. Down there, in the library, it’s plenty inviting and cosy for me to plump down in front of a TV. But it was too low to the ground for guests to sit at ease.

I got onto sourcing the couch. It had to be a leather thing because of all my cats and dogs. I checked Overstock, Ikea, other furniture stores. Nothing really jumped out. That was the time for the bug to come out of its hiding place. “You don’t want to buy a bland, mass-made couch for $1,500-$2,000,” said the bug. “Just search the Craig’s list for an antique couch. You can reupholster it yourself! It will be totally unique and yours!” That is how I came across a listing for a Duncan Phyfe sofa and a loveseat. I so loved the Empire style shape and curves, I just had to have them. Of course, the upholstery was atrocious. Here is the sofa on the day I got it. Styopa, my German shorthaired pointer, fell in love with it at the first sight, too. Great minds think alike!

duncan phyfe sofa

On to tools and supplies then!

DIY Reupholstering Tools and Supplies

  • I decided to go with leather. I measured the square footage of all surfaces to be covered and ordered two matching cow hides in silver grey with a total sq. footage of 105 from Ebay. $200 for both.
  • Since I wanted just one big seat cushion instead, I got a 4-inch foam slab at JoAnn Fabrics. It’s expensive but there are always 30%-50% off coupons you can pick in store. I also got 1-inch sheets to replace the foam on the arms and the back. I thought the arms were somewhat overstuffed for the style. The total cost was about $80.
  • I also bought a few more things at JoAnn’s – a hot glue gun and a 1/2 inch, double-fold bias tape in light grey color. I really don’t like the way gimp (upholstery tape used to cover edges where fabric meets the wood) looks. I understand it has to be the way it is to be able to stretch any way possible, but all the same, it just looks so-o-o outdated. I wanted a clean, plain looking tape. I also bought snipping scissors that proved invaluable for trimming excess material after stapling.
  • There is a great online store called DIY Upholstery Supply. That’s where I bought a box of 1,000 pewter trim nails for $28 (can’t beat the price, they cost a fortune at JoAnn’s) and a nylon tip hammer for $30.
  • Now, the absolutely critical tool is the stapler. I had a cheap electric staple and I tried to use it. Complete fiasco! The staples will not go into the wood. The stapler was also flat-nosed so I couldn’t push it into crevices. If you have a pneumatic stapler with a compressor, it will do the job. For me, however, it was not an option. I actually got a small compressor and a pneumatic stapler for about a $100. But the compressor was very noisy and not very powerful, so I couldn’t stand the set up and just returned it. Instead, I spend a little more money and got a Ryobi’s AirStrike stapler that just hit the market at that time. It was a little heavy for my old hands when held in awkward positions, but, boy, did it do the job! I highly recommend it. I am sure you will find tons of uses for it around the house.

The Process

This section is going to have a lot of ugly pictures :).

Before I started, I read anything I could find about DIY reupholstering. Some were helpful, some not. My humble advice learned from the process:

  • Start removing the old upholstery from the bottom, then going from the front to the back: seat, arms, front of the back, then back of the back. Take copious pictures as you go so that you have a record of how you are supposed to put it all back together.

removing old upholstery

documenting the process

documenting the process

My silly puppy boy was with me through the entire process of decommissioning the old upholstery. He just didn’t want to part with the sofa!

taking down old upholstery

  • When using the old fabric as template, make ample allowances for the new material, at least two inches on the outer edges, three is even better. The old fabric is stretched and distorted, so the template is not very precise. I read an advice in one of the articles to make a 1-inch allowance and that was what I had. That caused me grief more than once.
  • Even if you plan to reuse seat padding, remove it completely before starting to reupholster back and arms. You will have a much clearer picture of how the frame is laid out and where to staple the new upholstery pieces.
  • Also, in one of the articles I read, the recommendation was to staple from the edges toward the center. It absolutely did not work for me. In fact, the opposite produced much better results.
  • When reupholstering, do it in reverse order: front of the back first, then the arms, then the seat, then the dust cover on the bottom.
  • With these words of caution, here are the resources I used: Mother Earth News, WikiHow, and Better Homes and Gardens.
  • After I was done with the stapling process, I used the snipping scissors to neatly cut the excess leather, glued the bias tape with the hot glue gun to cover the edge, and then used the trim nails to cover the tape. The tape served as a guide for the nails as they were the same width. 800 nails later, I was done with the frame and only had the seat cushion to finish.
  • Here is a good guide on how to make a seat cushion from Pretty Handy Girl. I didn’t do piping because I was working with leather and my ordinary, old sewing machine would not have handled more than 2 layers. Oh, well. Hecho a mano (Handmade).

The Result

upcycled Empire sofa

The Afterword: Hecho a Mano

A few years ago my daughter and I made a trip to Spain. We rented a car and drove from one beautiful town to another. Unforgettable times. It was in Granada. My daughter was resting in our hotel. I went to roam around the neighborhood and stopped by a tiny jewelry store. It was a storefront of a silversmith’s shop and his wife was selling the goods. I picked a pendant that draw my attention, she looked at me and said with such pride – “Hecho a mano!” (Handmade). I bought the pendant and I totally bought into the concept of “Hecho a Mano.” There is an unsurpassed beauty in handmade things. Little flaws and imprecisions are what makes them special. Things I make may not be perfect although I am trying hard for them to be. But whenever I finish a project, step back and find a flaw (believe me, I always find flaws in my projects even if they are not obvious), I then say to myself – “Hecho a mano.” And I am good with that.

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