Do you have an old chair around your house that you would like to refinish? It may feel like a daunting task, and difficult to know where to start. But it can be rewarding to learn a new skill. Join me here as I remove old upholstery and prepare a chair to be refinished.
I have an old chair that’s been waiting for a makeover for a few years now. By searching pictures online, I’ve decided it was made, roughly, during the Edwardian (1901-1910) era or around that time. From what I have read, at that time in history, furniture was being increasingly mass produced for the middle class. My chair is very old and authentic, it has all the signs of being a very old chair, but more of a middle-class quality.
Chairs during this time would have had the ornate carving of Victorian times, without the bulk. Also, chairs were lighter in weight, making it easier for them to be moved from room to room, than chairs from the Victorian era. My chair has some carving on it, and it’s quite lightweight.
I’m going to show you how I prepare a chair to be refinished, going through all my steps.
Assessing The Work
My chair had been stored in a shed for a few years and was dusty, so first I wiped it down and ran a shop-vac over it.
There is an upholstered section on the backrest, the back side of the backrest, and the seat cushion. So all of that fabric needed to be removed. However, I was unsure about the state of what underneath the fabric. It seemed likely that I would feel a need to replace it all based on how dusty the chair was. In addition, the fabric on the bottom of the chair was ripped and there were springs hanging loose. That would be an interesting challenge!
I haven’t collected any upholstery tools yet. So for removing the fabric and trim on this chair I used tools I had on hand already. It worked fine for me-a flathead screwdriver, a lightweight hammer, and a pair of needle-nose pliers.
It’s a really good idea to use a plastic container with a lid, like an old yogurt container, for putting the nails into. Store them as you work, and then dispose of them carefully when you’re finished.
Removing The Upholstery Nails On The Backrest
My chair had an upholstered part on the back side of the backrest. A braid trim was tacked in place with tiny nails.
I pried the nails out with a screwdriver and a hammer. Placing the end of the screwdriver against the edge of the nails, but angling under it, I hammered the end of the screwdriver. This pried the nails out very successfully. The pliers were handy to pull the nails out of the fabric. A lot of them were rusted into the fabric, but some flew out onto the ground, so I was careful to pick them up immediately and put them into my old container. I was working on my porch and my kids were around in bare feet. It’s great if you can find a separate workspace where you don’t need to think so much about this.
It was an interesting surprise to find that the fabric had once been orange and green, not orange and gold.
Unfortunately, this step was tedious and went slowly, I took breaks and returned to it repeatedly.
After removing the back fabric, there was a layer of burlap that looked like it was still in good shape. I saved the old fabric to use as a pattern for the new fabric, preventing the extra work of measuring and fitting later.
Next, I moved on to the regular part of the backrest of the chair. On that side, between the burlap and the fabric were layers of cotton padding and perhaps a type of hay, or dry grass. When I researched what this was likely to be, I found this article about antique furniture stuffings. Based on the photos, I think it is straw inside my chair.
Removing The Upholstery Nails On The Seat
Next, I started removing the fabric on the seat of the chair. A faux-nail metal trim was attached along the edge of the fabric. That was easier to remove because it came off in larger pieces.
After I pried out the nails holding on the metal trim, there was a row of nails holding on the fabric along the edge of the seat. Additionally, extra nails were attached further in, on the corners, where the fabric had been tucked and mitered.
Removal of the seat fabric was a slower process because of the extra nails.
Components Of The Chair Seat
In the following two pictures you can see that there is a cotton layer, and beneath that is a layer of straw. These layers were resting on the massive structure of springs, jute webbing, and burlap that was attached to the chair frame.
Removal Of The Chair Seat
For this last step, although I was working outside, I wore a dust mask. There was a crazy amount of dust and debris under all the layers of the seat cushion. It’s always a good idea to avoid inhaling anything airborne from a project like this.
I turned the chair upside down to take out the nails on the bottom. There was a piece of fabric that ripped off easily, it was falling apart. Under the fabric were strips of upholstery webbing, a lot of that just ripped off as I was removing some of the nails.
When the webbing was removed from the chair frame, the springs released and I could see that they were tied down with string against the underside of the cushion. They were also tied onto a single wire frame that was attached to the chair.
In order to get the cushion and springs out of the chair, I cut the string wherever I could reach. This step took longer than I expected it to, everything was thoroughly attached to the chair frame.
This is the entire cushion from the chair:
The stuffing inside the seat cushion above appeared to be straw. The workmanship of this is amazing to me. The sewing and fastening of the springs were still strong and intact. The only weak parts were the fabric and webbing dry rotting and falling loose on the bottom, and the burlap falling apart around the edges!
My Chair Is Ready For A Fresh Start!
My Final Thoughts
I’m pleased to have finally started to work on this chair. I didn’t expect the work of how to prepare a chair to be refinished, to go so smoothly. My next step will be to paint my chair, and then my final step will be to reupholster.
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If you enjoy projects that update old things and bring new life to them, check out these two posts. This one will inspire you to repaint little thrift store houses. And this one shows you a technique for painting baskets to make them fit your home.