The DIY Guide to Reupholstering Antique Furniture

Antique furniture holds a mysterious value that fascinates professional and amateur collectors alike. Perhaps you’ve inherited a period furniture item such as a Victorian settee, but it is in serious need of repair and maybe even restoration too. What do you do if you want to undertake the project yourself?

We’ve got all the best advice for your upholstery or restoration dreams in this easy DIY guide.

Before You Tackle the Antique Furniture Revival

Long before you dive into the business of stripping off fabric or changing out frames and springs for more modern hardware, you need to do a visual appraisal of the item. The appraisal should be in-depth, meaning, you should start with what you can see and end with what lies beneath the layers of dust and fabric. 

Visual Inspection

A visual inspection will help you evaluate the surface of the antique furniture you are considering as a DIY project. Look for signs of cracked varnish on frames, scuffed armrests, sagging padding, frayed edges, burn marks, and discoloration on the frames and on the seats. These signs are all an indication of just how much work may be involved in the process. 

Next, ask yourself if the antique furniture piece will gain in value from being reupholstered and potentially being renovated? Can you undertake this, but most importantly, do you have the knowledge, skills, equipment, and experience to remove the old upholstery and apply the new upholstery to a professional standard? 

If you feel you’re up for it, be warned that antique furniture will only gain or retain value if the reupholstery is perfectly executed and the frame is renovated to match. Should your upholstery be of the wrong fabric, with the frame not being renovated as needed, your antique could become worthless. Therefore, think before you dive in. 

Open It Up

If you still feel you’re up for the challenge, you can go ahead and open up the antique furniture item, but keep in mind that a second-hand furniture piece isn’t the same as an antique furniture piece. 

You should use care and work methodically, keeping all hardware safe when you open the upholstery. Start by removing the staples and any gimp or decorative trim by using the correct tools to leave as little damage behind as possible. 

Next, begin to loosen the existing fabric without tearing it. Using the old fabric, you can easily cut a correct pattern for the new upholstery fabric. Remove the fabric and examine the padding. Consider that some older furniture items produced in the previous century may have historically appropriate stuffing inside such as coconut fibers, horse hair, and even grass or straw. 

While you can decide you want to get rid of this old-fashioned padding, traditional padding like horse hair or fibers create a specific feel and weight to the upholstered furniture, which modern padding and foam don’t quite cover. 

To preserve the value and authenticity, you would be better served to choose a similar padding material (and yeah, horse hair padding is still available today in large sheets). 

Also, consider whether the springs would need replacement. Antique furniture has its own unique internal structure, which adds to the feel and quality. A piece that’s several decades old will likely require repairs to the padding, springs, and even framework of the piece. These are non-negotiables. 

Choose Your New Upholstery Fabric

Next, you would have to choose the upholstery fabric that will best suit the antique furniture piece. Never rush this step as the fabric needs to be an appropriate weight, pattern, color, texture, and design to match the antique frame and feel. 

While you can opt for a contrast look to create a statement, such as with a Victorian settee being reupholstered with denim fabric, this would lower the market value as the piece is no longer considered an antique. Instead, using the appropriate fabric to the era of the antique would preserve the value and status of the piece. 

It goes without saying that the fabric should be of superior quality as inferior quality upholstery won’t last and won’t match the quality of the antique furniture, making for an eyesore. 

Repairs, Reupholstery, and Further Evaluation

Once you have decided you are ready to begin the actual reupholstery, you will need to consider and implement the following:

Internal Damage and Repairs

Start by removing all the old padding and bolsters to reveal the internal frame. Once the frame is revealed, check for damage from rough handling or pests that may have burrowed into the wood frames. 

Remove broken pieces and repair or fumigate the frame to ensure it is bug-free. Repair any broken joints, and realign any tongue-and-groove or dove-tail joints that may have become damaged over the years. 

To keep the quality of the original antique design, it is best to use the same joining method as what was originally used. Try not to replace traditional joining techniques with modern hardware such as corner blocks or screws. 

When replacing sections of the frame, try to source the same wood type as what was used for authenticity. If nails had been used to secure the upholstery fabric, it is best to fill up the old holes with wood putty or wood filler as this prevents future infestations of wood-borer insects. 

Springs may be a challenge to replace as some spring types are not always available for purchase anymore. You may have to improvise and use bungee rope to create spring beds for the cushions to rest on. 

Selecting and Replacing the Padding

Using similar padding such as horsehair or coconut fibers in place of straw is a wise choice as there is a distinctly different feel to these materials when compared to foam or sponge padding. In some instances, it may be better to simply remove all of the old paddings and replace it with fresh padding as simply filling up the areas that are worn out will result in lumpy padding. 

Secure the padding with a backing fabric if needed. With coarse padding, it may be a good idea to cover the padding with a layer of batting or soft foam to ensure the padding doesn’t wear through the upholstery fabric. However, take care not to change the nature of the antique’s seating. 

A Quick Evaluation Pre-Upholstery Fitment

Before you lay out the upholstery, it is important to consider the application methods, equipment required, and workspace. 

It is not appropriate to work on the upholstery when your workshop is still full of horsehair sheets and coconut fibers as these can damage the upholstery fabric while you work, so a quick tidy-up is essential. 

Lay out your tools and hardware as you don’t want to start, only to have to stop and go look for things you may need. Place the upholstery over the antique furniture to assess the level of wear on the exposed wood surfaces. 

Do chair legs look worn out next to the bright brocade you wish to reupholster with? Perhaps you notice the armrests seem faded and dull when you drape the fabric over them? It’s time to think about refurbishment in addition to the renovation. 

Consider Refurbishing to Complement the Reupholstery Process

Refurbishment refers to the process of sanding down wooden surfaces that are visible on the outside of the furniture item. There are arguments for and against it. 

Refurbishment Pros 

  • When the exposed areas have been carefully sanded, stained (if necessary), and sealed with a quality sealant, you have an entirely fresh look.
  • Refurbished antiques may reveal unique characteristics that were previously not visible under layers of wax and patina, such as scrollwork details.
  • A fully refurbished piece will have a cleaner appearance, making the antique slightly more modern and better able to fit into the home decor. 

Refurbishment Cons 

  • Refurbishment requires special tools and training. Sanding is not simply a surface treatment. Scrollwork and delicate carvings would need specialist refurbishment work to remove the layers of years of treatments (many of which may have been inappropriate to the furniture item). 
  • Hiring an expert antique refurbisher can be costly, but you may not have the skills to do the whole job yourself.
  • If incorrectly done, a refurbishment can damage the antique furniture beyond repair, devaluing it completely. 

Final Project Thoughts

Ready to reupholster the antique? Great! The same methods and quality standards would be required to attach the upholstery to the wood frame. The most significant difference or challenge is that antique furniture tends to be heavy, so you may need help turning and lifting the piece as you work. 

Consider whether using an air-powered staple gun is appropriate for attaching the embossed velvet to the antique Chippendale sofa you are busy with. Not all modern methods will preserve the antique spirit of the piece, so you may have to dive into your toolbox for a regular mallet and use oodles of patience to attach each of the nailhead trim nails to the piece on its own. 

When you look at the finalized reupholstered antique furniture piece, it should look like it is still an antique, appropriately covered, and with the same old-world feel that attracted you to the item in the first place.

The Final Reupholstery 

A professionally (or professional quality) reupholstered antique furniture item is a true gem. The character of a bygone era can be preserved with quality fabric, authentic padding, appropriate techniques, and the upholsterer’s (aka your) care. For expert knowledge, guidance on appropriate fabric selection, padding, and local upholsterers and furniture restoration experts in your area, speak to your Kovi consultants today.

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