How to reupholster a vintage chair. Costs, fabrics and tips

How do you reupholster a vintage chair? What are the costs, is it worth the effort? What are the best fabrics to use and can you do it yourself? Today I am sharing some tips on what to do when you find a gorgeous vintage chair in need of new upholstery.

So you walk into a charity shop or second hand store and spot a beautiful old chair. Or you inherit an old armchair from your grandmother and have grand visions of it looking totally cool again. It can be a bit daunting, the prospect of doing it yourself.  Even if you have the skills. And what does it cost if you find someone to do it for you? What fabric is suitable and what will look nice?

how to reupholster a chair
A vintage Lloyd Loom chair I transformed for a customer, using Farrow and Ball paint and a gorgeous piece of purple and grey patterned fabric.

DIY it or hire someone? The pros and cons

I have revamped a number of chairs for customers and to sell in my shop. In some cases I did it totally myself, when it was the more straight forward type of seat. In other cases I would come up with the design and hand the actual job over to a professional upholsterer. It is amazing to see a smelly and tatty old chair being transformed into a fabulously stylish piece. My advice? Go for it. There are just a few things to keep in mind.

What to keep in mind

There are pros and cons to tackling a project like this yourself or getting someone else to do it. If you have no money but lots of time, it might be worth-wile learning how to do it yourself. There are plenty of books and Youtube videos out there. It will be a fantastic achievement and something to be really proud of.

On the other hand, especially when you have little patience, some things are better left to people who make a great job of it. It is worth every penny to spend that little bit extra to get the result you are after. After all, ask yourself how much you would spend on a new chair in a high street store. Probably not even of the solid quality of your old vintage find.

how to reupholster a chair
For a more complicated vintage wing back chair I selected the fabric and designed the new look and asked a professional to reupholster it for me. I painted the feet in a graphite chalk paint to match the fabric.


What does it cost to reupholster a chair?

People are sometimes surprised by the cost of getting a chair reupholstered. It is however a mistake to think that just by buying a second-hand chair that needs new covers, you are going to save lots of money. Apart from the amount of time and material it takes to bring a chair back to life, it’s not about saving money really. It should be regarded as an alternative option. A different, far more interesting and exciting option. Plus you are saving something from being thrown away by giving it a new lease of life. That is worth something as well.

Here’s a quick comparison of doing it yourself versus handing the job over to someone else:

Doing it yourself:

  • Pros: you will be learning/practicing new skills, potentially saving some money, get a feeling of great achievement and have a fab creative project to work on.
  • Cons: it will probably take you a long time to do, it is quite technical when trying to tackle a big chair such as a wing back. You may not get the professional looking result you were aiming for.

Paying a professional:

  • Pros: they know what they are doing, using the right materials (fire retardant etc) and make your chair look amazing. They have the knowledge and expertise to advice on fabrics. They work a lot faster than you!
  • Cons: it is more costly than doing it yourself.

How to find an upholsterer

You can of course google upholstery firms in your area. But great upholsterers often work for themselves, running their own little businesses. It is worth around in your networks for recommendations or post the question on your local Facebook pages. There’s bound to come some names out of the woodwork!

how to reupholster a chair
An old rocking chair I revamped using Ikea fabric, which is now living in the Dell of Abernethy holiday accommodation in the Cairngorms!

Practical Reupholstery tips

1. Reupholster a chair: Choosing fabric

When choosing fabric for an a chair or sofa, make sure it is suitable for upholstery. For smaller seats such as kitchen chairs it is OK to use curtain material or fabric you would use for making cushions, but for the bigger chairs it needs to be suitable for upholstery and fire retardant. If in doubt, ask a specialist fabric retailer.

There are of course millions of fabrics to choose from and it is totally up to you whether you want to go wild and patterned or choose a more classic and timeless fabric such as plain wool. I love the furnishing fabrics at Ikea. They are fun and inexpensive and most are suitable for (light) upholstery. Ideal for a quick makeover of kitchen chairs or box cushion seats. John Lewis also has some great fabrics, ranging from around £11 per meter for some of their printed cottons to well over £50 per meter for a quality wool. Keep in mind that for a wing back chair you will probably need around six meters of fabric, so the fancier your material, the more costly your project.

upholstery fabric for chairs
I love the fabrics by Scion (Harlequin), which come in fabulous graphic patterns. This is Scion Axis Tangerine.


Other sources for finding fabric I have used are good old eBay (you can often find some good value remnants of wool, linen and other quality materials) and Fabric Rehab, a great website with beautiful patterned fabrics, which you will love if you like the Scandi look like me. Always try and get a sample if you can when buying online, to prevent getting a roll of fabric that is not what you were after.

2. Reupholster a chair: Webbing and foam

Mid century armchairs, including those made by Ercol, often have rubber Pirelli webbing rather than traditional webbing, which is fairly easy to replace, using the metal clips that come with it. The rubber straps are quite costly, so make sure you measure up how much you need before ordering. Pirelli webbing can be found on eBay or online shops specialised in upholstery.

Furniture from the 1950s and 60s also often has foam blocks inside the seats (as supposed to horsehair filling used in traditional, antique furniture), so this is another thing that is pretty straight forward to replace. You can get foam in various thicknesses and density. For an armchair seat I usually buy a 4″ thick block, for a kitchen chair 1″ or 1.5″ is often enough. A useful website to buy foam from I find is Easyfoam.

reupholstering midcentury furniture
Two Pirelli webbing projects I tackled myself: a small sofa and an armchair
Greaves and Thomas armchair
A gorgeous mid century armchair by Greaves and Thomas I replaced the Pirelli webbing and box cushion for.
reupholstering midcentury furniture
The small vintage mid century teak sofa, with new webbing and grey linen box cushions

3. Reupholster a chair: Paint or strip?

Then there is the question of what to do with the woodwork. Strip it, paint it, leave it the way it is? I stripped a chair once (see picture below) and it was a LOT of work. I was super pleased with the result, yes, but it is not something I would want to tackle every week. Still, much better than the horrible shiny mahogany stain it had before. Painting is an option if you really don’t like the look of the wooden frame, but if it is a nice oak or teak then it is best to just give it a good oil or wax and polish and it will look just fine. (Please don’t ever ‘Annie Sloan‘ a mid century piece!)

how to reupholster a chair
A £12 vintage find at an auction, stripped bare to a beautiful light wood, oiled and reupholstered in a black Marimekko fabric.


A unique chair with a story to tell

Conclusion? A revamped vintage chair is money and time well spent. A chair with a story to tell beats any mass produced seat any day. Whether you do it yourself or ask a professional to do it for you, the choice is yours. You will have a unique statement chair for years to come, that’s for sure.

Book tip:
The Beginner’s Guide to Upholstery : 10 Achievable DIY Upholstery and Reupholstery Projects

This is not a dry, highly technical professional upholstery manual, but a bright and accessible book that presents 10 simple projects using modern methods that are quick and easy to achieve. Readers are taken step-by-step through the process of how to upholster desirable pieces of furniture – using items found at antique markets, street sales and thrift stores that are designed-up and given a modern twist. Readers will learn about fabric choice and other materials, discover essential upholstery techniques and then embark on the projects.

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