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DIY: Reupholstering a Recliner

So I’m not sure this was exactly a trip down the rabbit hole in the search for information sense, but I definitely learned a lot when I decided to reupholster our Queen Anne style recliner.

The first thing I learned was that it is really expensive to have something reupholstered. I called two businesses in our area and both said it would cost $1,000 to reupholster the recliner. Yikes! I looked in some local stores and on line and found that I could buy a new one for $600. So paying someone to reupholster the chair was not going to be an option.

Though $600 is a big savings compared to $1,000, it was still more than I wanted to spend. And I knew I could probably get all the fabric I’d need for about $200 (Of course, I could also get fabric for $200 per yard—but that would defeat the purpose of doing it myself!). So I decided to give it a try. Even if I failed, adding the $200 in wasted fabric to the $600 for a new chair, I’d still be ahead $200. So it seemed like a win-win.

The first thing I did was to take the chair apart—it was actually three pieces bolted together: the back, the seat and the legs. I was really careful to take pictures of everything I could think of along the way. Once I got the main parts apart, it was time to start taking the fabric off. I needed to be careful because I wanted to be able to use the existing fabric as a pattern for cutting the new fabric.

The chair in pieces.

Finding new fabric, was a bit of a rabbit hole. I did look at our local JoAnn’s, but their selection wasn’t big enough. I had a particular color in mind, so it ended up being easier to look online. I ended up ordering swatches from JoAnn’s and I highly recommend spending the $3-$7 per swatch because photos of fabric just can’t give you enough information; for instance, even if the color is accurately depicted online, you can’t get a sense of the feel of the fabric from a photo.

Taking all the fabric off of the chair was pretty straight forward—but not easy. Staples are a pain to remove. As I removed each piece, I pinned a piece of paper to it with a label so I’d know what part of the chair it had come from. 

I was surprised by the way some pieces were partially sewn together. I tried to take detailed photos of how they were attached, so that I’d be able to figure out how to replicate them later. For instance, the arm had the welting and the front panel sewn along one side, but not both.

These three pieces were not sewn together here but were as they went around the curve of the arm.

One challenging part in removing the fabric, was the exterior panels below the arms: along the front edge, the fabric was secured by a flexible metal strip that had been stapled into place; the back edge had a rigid metal strip with some fierce looking spikes, called a tack strip. The upper edge, directly under the arm, was wrapped around a piece of dense cardboard that was cut to the shape of the arm. I took lots of pictures of this because it seemed that the order of operations was important here. 

Flexible metal strip.

I was hoping I could remove the metal strips in a way that would allow me to reuse them, but it didn’t work. I don’t know if it’d be possible to remove them without warping them, but I sure wasn’t able to do it. So I had to buy new ones, and fortunately they were neither hard to find, nor terribly expensive.

Once everything was removed from the chair, I used a seam ripper to take apart the pieces that had been sewn together, again being careful to label things. Another thing I did was to save the original welting cord, so after I could reuse it.

Another minor rabbit hole I went down was foam. I didn’t replace all of the foam on the chair, but I realized I really had to get new foam for the seat cushion and the seat back when it started crumbling as I removed the fabric. The chair is about fifteen years old, and it turns out most upholstery grade foam lasts anywhere from 7-15 years depending on the quality. So that foam’s time was definitely up!

I had bought some foam for a window seat about ten years ago from a local upholsterer, and as I recall it was quite expensive, so I decided to see if I could find a better deal on line. I started out looking at Amazon, but the prices there were only good if you were buying in bulk. I eventually found an website for an upholstery foam company, and I was able to order exactly the sizes I needed for what seemed like a reasonable price. Phew!

After I carefully cut the new fabric to match my “pattern” pieces, I sewed together anything that needed sewing—the welting, the seat cushion, the arms, and some small pieces that attached to the seat back.

Then it was time for the real challenge: putting it all back on to the chair. I spent a lot of time scrolling through the photos I’d taken, trying to see how it had been done originally. Of course, I discovered along the way that I hadn’t always gotten the right pictures. But usually, there was a way to get an idea of what I needed to do—usually by zooming way into the background of some picture that was close. 

One thing that was a bigger issue than I’d have thought was how squishy the foam is. I don’t have a pneumatic stapler, so I had to really put my weight into it when I squeezed the staple gun’s handle. But with the foam—the chair pieces wouldn’t resist, they’d just move with me—very frustrating. At times it felt as if I pulled out more misfired staples than I put in correctly. For some of the pieces, I enlisted my husband to sit on them for me!

The hardest part to put on was that exterior piece below the arm—the top edge that had the shaped piece of cardboard. It took me about three tries on both sides to finally get it. But I did it, in the end.

This was the hardest piece to get on correctly.
But I finally got it!

It took me two months to complete, but I only worked on it a couple of hours a day, and not everyday, either—If had put in full days, it probably could have been done in a week, maybe two. It may not be a perfect job, but I’m happy with it—I think it looks good. It’s actually way better than I feel I had any right to expect. And I’m proud of myself for setting and meeting this challenge. So I won’t be buying a new chair anytime soon!

Yay! I did it!

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