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How to refurbish a chair

Follow Helaine Clare’s eight-step plan to make a discarded dining chair look loved again. The simple project can be tackled over a weekend and will teach you basic upholstery techniques.

This pretty, early 20th-century dining chair was heading for the skip when Helaine Clare noticed its potential This pretty, early 20th-century dining chair was heading for the skip when I noticed its potential. To make it spick and span once more, all it needed was a fresh coat of paint and a newly upholstered seat, covered in an elegant linen fabric.

Rummaging around antiques shops and checking out local auctions is one of the best ways to come across discarded chairs. Dealers and most individuals will usually walk away from items that need money spent on them, but if the chair is structurally sound why not have a go at reupholstering the seat?

Reinventing an unwanted piece of furniture resonates with the ethos of reducing, reusing and recycling. Tackling a simple upholstery project and learning basic skills will boost your confidence before embarking on a more demanding project such as a sagging armchair.

Before stripping down the old upholstery, take a good look at the chair to estimate how much fabric you will need while it still has its original form and shape. Allow a little more to take extra stuffing into account. I chose Marney linen in black by Sanderson, £29 per metre (call 0844 543 9500 for stockists) as the top fabric, combined with a braid by Zoffany, ref TMG02007, priced at £9.50 per metre (0844 543 4600 for stockists). The chair is painted in eggshell Parsonage Cream from Crown’s Period Colours range (01254 704951; crownpaint.co.uk).

It would be best to use proper upholstery tools but you can make do with basic DIY tools for this project. Strip the chair down with a ripping chisel or similar. As you strip it layer by layer, make a sketch or a diagram to show the construction and, if possible, take some photographs. Use this stripping process to see how to put the upholstery back together again.

Any original horsehair that is still curly and springy can be reused – stuff it into a pillowcase, tie up the top, and machine wash on a quick programme at a low temperature. Add a little fabric conditioner to the water so the horsehair will be easier to work with once it is washed and dried. You may need to supplement with extra stuffing – new horsehair is scarce these days and expensive, but synthetic horsehair is available as are other animal hair mixes. Buy at your local upholstery specialist or via mail order from JA Milton Upholstery (01691 624023; jamiltonupholstery.co.uk).

You will need:

  • Tack hammer
  • Jute webbing
  • Scissors
  • Upholstery tacks
  • Hessian
  • New or replica animal hair stuffing, if required
  • Wadding
  • Large-eyed needle and twine
  • 1m upholstery fabric
  • Fire retardant interliner, if required
  • Braid
  • Studs

Fix the jute webbing

1. Fix the jute webbing: For comfort the chair’s webbing must be taut and well secured to the frame. Shave or sand sharp inner edges on the rails to avoid chafing against the webbing. To stop the wood splitting arrange jute strips in a criss-cross pattern and don’t tack too close to the frame edge. Secure webbing with at least five tacks at each end.

Attach first sheet of hessian

2. Attach first sheet of hessian: Tack a first layer of hessian on top of the webbing to prevent the stuffing dropping down through the gaps. If the wood is very hard it can be difficult to get the tacks in, so try making a pilot hole first with a bradawl; it makes the job take a little longer but reduces the frustration of bent tacks.

Place stuffing on seat

3. Place stuffing on seat: Originally this Edwardian chair would have been stuffed with horsehair. You may have been able to salvage some of the old horsehair stuffing and given it a clean (see notes, left) but if not, artificial horsehair or other animal hair mixes that look and feel as good as the real thing are available from upholstery suppliers.

Attach second sheet of hessian

4. Attach second sheet of hessian: Tack on another layer of hessian to hold the stuffing in place. For efficacy it’s important to keep the tack hammer face clean and smooth: rub it against coarse abrasive paper to lessen dents and pitting, then smooth it on fine abrasive paper. If you find small tacks tricky, hold them in the teeth of a comb as you knock them in.

Echo the Edwardian look

5. Echo the Edwardian look: To create the Edwardian shaped seat use horsehair to make an edge roll. Lay stuffing on the edge and enclose by folding hessian over. Make sure there are no lumps and that the stuffing is even and pulled up to the edge. Use twine and a large-eyed needle to sew in place. The stitches will support the shape and maintain the firmness.

Make finish smooth with wadding

6. Make finish smooth with wadding: Cut a piece of wadding that is slightly oversized. This will make a soft, smooth surface ready for the decorative finishing fabric. Hold the wadding in place with a few well-placed tacks – not too many because the tacks which will secure the top fabric will also go through and secure the wadding.

Take safety steps with fabric

7. Take safety steps with fabric: If the top fabric isn’t fire-retardant place a fire-retardant interliner beneath it or treat with a fire-retardant spray. Place fabric on the seat and ensure any pattern lines up and that the weave runs front to back. Cut into the back corners so you can pull the fabric down each side of the back supports. Secure with tacks.

Add the final flourish

8. Add the final flourish: A pretty ribbon of braid gives an elegant finish. Apply with a hot glue gun or stitch it into place. To add a little panache this braid was attached using decorative black upholstery studs. Buy more studs than you think you will need – there might be wastage if you are fixing into particularly hard wood.