You’ve upholstered a few private projects, have rave reviews from happy clients, and now you’d like to open up your own upholstery shop. Kitting out your upholstery shop is first on your agenda, but it’s not easy knowing which tools are best to buy or how to determine the best layout.
Whether you are working in your garage or have leased a shop, you should keep efficiency, tools, and workspace in mind. Luckily, we have the best advice right here.
Planning Your Upholstery Shop Layout
Your upholstery shop will likely have a showroom section and a workshop where the magic happens as you upholstery furniture. In the showroom section, you can display a few choice sample pieces you’ve done. You can also lay out some files with photos of past work, so prospective clients know what they are getting when they request work from you.
Space or Traffic Flow
The space or traffic flow of your workshop is essential. Have predefined spaces for different projects, areas to store your tools, and a specified place for waste disposal.
Having good quality lighting will help you see better while working, which is also of great importance. Should you work in a dark and dingy workshop, you can expect to miss staples, nail fabric on the skew, and generally have shoddy work.
I like to use track lighting with LED lights, which provides all-around lighting for my workpieces. Each of my worktables has its own lighting system, and I also have several emergency lights in case of power outages, as I can still work then.
Having great lighting in your showroom area is also of vital importance as this will show off your work to its full potential.
The Top Upholstery Shop Tools and Why You Should Get These
Upholstery Work Table
Believe it or not, the upholstery table is a vital piece of equipment. The setup of the table will help or harm your workability.
A table that’s too short or too narrow will make it difficult to measure work and have space around the workpiece to effectively attach upholstery. Yet a table that’s too large will mean you can’t get up close and personal with the work you do.
Choose your table according to the size of your workpieces. It may be best to have a large table and a smaller table to work on, meaning you can work effectively on smaller side pieces and also manage a large sofa back or headboard.
The size of the table isn’t the only consideration. Strength and the ability to bear weight are also important. You may need to place a heavy item on the table as working from the ground with a Victorian chair or chaise is not ideal for your back.
In some instances, you may also have to get on the table to work on the top of an unusual upholstery item – this means you need a really strong table with great legs. A large table should have six or eight legs, instead of the usual four legs.
Additionally, your table should be a well-appointed workspace in itself. Consider having power cord hooks to keep your power tools neat and out of the way. Also, the addition of drawer or “under-desk” baskets for tools like hammers, punches, and files is ideal.
A good upholstery table is one with a padded top. Having a firm but padded top protects your work and minimizes scratches and scrapes to the wood insets of chairs and sofas.
A good-quality staple gun is a must-have. When you start out, you may prefer a manual gun as this may be all you can afford at that time. This is also okay, just make sure it’s a high-quality tool that will provide enough leverage to punch staples and nails through fabric, foam, and wood.
Buying a reputable brand will help you with repairs and spares, while the nails should also be top-quality to prevent nails rusting in the fabric if you live in a damp climate or sea-side town.
Look for a comfortable grip as hand strain is a real issue when you do a lot of upholstery work.
When you are ready to upgrade to an electric staple gun, an air staple gun is ideal as it really makes your work a breeze and ensures a smooth staple process, limiting the risk of staples bending.
With upholstering comes the task of removing old upholstery, and a great quality staple remover is non-negotiable. Having a sharp-tipped staple remover will ensure you can effortlessly lift staples without damaging the wood frames. Choose a quality remover with a comfortable grip that can accommodate a mallet or hammer to unclench old staples quickly.
Another important tool is a heat gun. Upholsterers use it when fitting upholstery plastic for commercial projects where a layer of clear plastic is applied in addition to the upholstery fabric. Clear upholstery plastic provides a clear, wipeable surface to protect fabrics, but it is also a difficult material to work with as plastic tends to twist, stretch, and make unanticipated pleats.
A heat gun can also be used on vinyl upholstery to ensure tight edges and corners on chairs. Use the heat gun in a zig-zag pattern to ensure the vinyl doesn’t burn or melt.
Using a heat gun, you can straighten out any creases and rebalance the surface of the plastic or vinyl to minimize a poor fit. The different nozzles of the heat gun direct the heated air to shrink plastic to size and ensure a better fit.
Be sure to practice with a heat gun if you’ve never used one before as it can take some getting used to, and at top temperature settings, you can potentially burn your upholstery or set fire to the work!
The heat gun can also burn you, so wearing heavy-duty cotton gloves will help protect your hands.
The Upholstery Sewing Machine
Your sewing machine is the lifeblood of your upholstery shop. Again, a sewing machine from a reputable brand will be a good investment, and if you aren’t able to service the machine yourself, you should build strong connections with your local repair shop.
If you have staff working with you, be sure they are trained in which tensions and needle sizes to use for different fabric and sponge types.
Yeah, the first time I heard that an upholsterer uses a bazooka, I was utterly stumped. I mean, really? A bazooka is a specialized airflow system that uses compressed air to pump foam flakes or shredded batting into a cushion or upholstered piece.
A bazooka can be made using PVC tubing, a container for the sponge chips, and a compressor. It helps to ensure a great fill and keeps your workspace free of foam chips, which are the devil to pick up!
Getting padding into different fabric channels for shaped upholstery means you need a way to slide the padding into the upholstery without getting your hand stuck down a fabric tube.
There are metal channel stuffers available through upholstery supply merchants, but you can also use a cardboard tube that you cut in half with a saw. Laying the padding on the tube, you can then easily stuff it down the fabric tube, filling it effortlessly as you withdraw the tube.
The great thing about cardboard tubes is that you can cut the size you need and even create custom sizes as needed.
The fabric steamer has been very underutilized, in my opinion. Not only can you use a fabric steamer to shrink fabric slightly, but you can also use it to loosen old glue from the frame, remove folds, and stiffen fabric slightly.
A steamer can also shrink and expand foam that has been compressed by use.
How to Choose Your Upholstery Tools and Hardware
There are so many different upholstery tools on the market, and if you have a large budget, you can go to town and buy all the tools your heart desires. However, if you don’t have all the money to buy quality machines, air-powered tools, and large desks, you may need to decide on what is needed for the immediate orders you have booked.
Here are some considerations to keep in mind:
- Make a list of which machine you use every day; also list how multifunctional it is. Can you purchase a quality manual staple gun that can also staple in nails instead of needing an air-powered nail gun too?
- Do you need a rotary cutter, or can you get away with a good pair of scissors for now?
- If you can’t buy an expensive industrial sewing machine, can you get away with a smaller home-use machine and limit taking on work by customers who want heavy use fabric sewn?
- Should you not have the budget for a compressor, can you potentially make a homemade setup where you use a hairdryer or garden blower to push air into the tube and blow your foam chips down the bazooka pipe?
(I’ve even stopped with my little truck at the gas station and used the air hose for the tires to fill up a baffled chair. The manager was equally baffled and had no idea how many bars of air I would need to fill the chair.)
- In a pinch, you can pull out staples with a punch and hammer if you don’t have the budget to buy a quality staple remover.
- Using a steam iron can also help you with fabric upholstery, but don’t use it on plastic upholstery. If necessary (and especially for darker colors), use a handkerchief in between the fabric and the iron.
A Final Guide
When work starts pouring in and you get really busy, be sure to keep your tools in the same place, tidy up your workshop at the end of each day, and put the offcuts in a central place for disposal. No amount of decent tools will benefit you if your tools are scattered about the space.
If you keep every tool in its place, you will always be ready to work, never waste time looking for it, and you’ll be more productive too. Be sure to choose the right industry partners, as referral business will help build your customer base better than any advertising ever will.
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