This upholstery project is something like 11 years in the making. I’ve owned this 50s rocker since before I was married. My Mom and I found it at a sleepy antique store in eastern Colorado buried under linens. It was just $35 and aside from the red vinyl in good shape. I liked the clean minimal lines, the good solid bones, and the fact that it’s a rocker that doesn’t look like it was made for Whistler’s Mother.
Once we moved into our house, the red has always been out of place in our living room which is populated mostly with teals and aquas. Through 8 years of kids, the vinyl which already wasn’t in the best state had now deteriorated.
I’m an admin in the Sew Much Talent group on Facebook and August’s monthly challenge was home dec. I try to keep up with the challenges and this was the perfect chance to finally tackle a total redo of this chair.
I’ve dithered for so long on the fabric on this chair. There are aqua samples of vinyl I carried around for years in my purse just waiting until I could muster up the nerve to take this thing apart. I researched heavy duty machines so I could sew the vinyl. I talked to my machine repair guy about my Singer 221 and could it handle vinyl (yes). When it came down to it though, my Mom and I just went to JoAnn and I found this perfect teal velvet like fabric.
It’s a similar weight to my vinyl samples but it’s so so soft. My 2nd son was with us and kept putting his cheek up against it in pure joy. We’ve loved the red vinyl to pieces, but it’s never been cozy. The teal was going to make for a cozy chair.
You know how demo day on HGTV is so fun? So it is with upholstery. There’s something fun about taking everything apart and uncovering the history of the chair. Plus, inevitably, you find odd things INSIDE old pieces of furniture. Where else can you find a tiny axe?
This was an interesting chair in that it didn’t have staples. It was made with little nails and tacks. I don’t know if that speaks to the era or this particular maker from Missouri. After taking everything apart, I used the original pieces as pattern pieces which wasn’t difficult given that everything is a rectangle here. I traced around everything with 2″ extra. I should have added even more because there were definitely spots where we were pulling, heaving, tugging, and yanking to stretch the fabric enough to cover everything.
Under the vinyl there was a good layer of cotton padding. On a more modern chair, there would be foam. I was pretty relieved to find the cotton as old cotton doesn’t break down as hideously as old foam which yellows flakes off disturbingly. The cotton was mostly just compressed. To add some more cushion to the cotton and to cover the parts of the chair that had no padding at all, we decided to add Dacron under the outer fabric.
The legs and arms were painted?
As the arms came off and I started sanding things down, I discovered that the arms were not indeed the light colored and stained wood I always assumed them to be. Instead this unnamed maker from Missouri had painted this dark beautiful wood with a yellow beige paint. It was definitely oil based and it was covered in several coats of varnish originally too. Perhaps it was the style in that time, but my husband and I were totally puzzled as to why you would ever paint such nice wood. And if you were going to paint nice wood, why on earth would you go for a yellow beige?
Stripping and staining the wood
Stripping the old paint off the arms was a nasty, slow, sticky, stinky process. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I would hit the wood once or twice a day with CitriStrip, let it sit, and then scrape off the paint. I used odorless mineral spirits to clean up everything when I got down to the bare wood. Eventually, when I got down to the wood I started staining it with Minwax cherry, only to realize that I hadn’t stripped off enough paint. So more time stripping the wood. When I finally finished staining round 2, all the wood got several layers of polycrylic to protect the wood.
This fabric was so so easy to sew and there’s really not a lot of sewing on this chair. I used a heavy #16 topstitching needle and upholstery thread. The piping went in between the seams. I did have to redo the seams on the vertical pieces so that they would extend down to the bottom of the chair and cover the side pieces. The original notches on the vinyl were either not in the right place or the upholsterer had a lot more extra fabric that he was working with before it was trimmed away. Unstitching upholstery thread is not fun work because the thread cannot be ripped or pulled out due to its strength. I had to cut each thread one by one. Still, there was only about 20″ on either side so it could have been worse.
My husband and I definitely did ourselves a solid when we got the pneumatic stapler. It’s so fast and easy to staple all of the dacron and fabric down when all that air is propelling the each staple into the wood. You know how in tornadoes you get weird things happening like pieces of straw being shot into wood fences? It’s like that. We’ve used hand staplers for our dining room chairs and an electric stapler for our kids’ Lego table and the difference is night and day in the ease of use and of the time needed. Good tools really really help you. It took us one night plus a couple of hours on Labor Day to finish putting it all together.
Upholstery is a hobby that my husband and I work on together. For this chair, he really gets most of the credit for all of the nice clean edges. Though he doesn’t work with fabric or sew in any capacity, he has a natural knack for knowing exactly how things need to be stapled and how we need to stretch the fabric to get a clean finish.
The original chair had back nailhead tacks put in really not very well. They weren’t terribly evenly spaced and there weren’t that many of them. As I tried to put single tacks in myself, I quickly stopped criticizing the original upholsterer’s skill. The tacks are so hard to put in straight and even. I tried making a jig as in this post which did not work at. all. In the end, I remembered that I had something like 10 yards of nailhead trim in my upholstery supplies. This stuff is great. The trim has faux nailheads and every few, there’s a hole for you to add a real tack. We would have labored long and hard to get trim that ended up looking this nice.
We had an ottoman from the same era covered in a similar cherry vinyl. As it turned out, I had enough of the teal fabric leftover to recover the ottoman as well. When I went to break down the ottoman, I realized that the inside is covered in a layer of thick coir which is packed solid with sawdust. There was no chance I was going to take that mess out of the protective vinyl that was keeping everything intact. The sawdust made such a mess as it was. Instead, I simply covered straight over the vinyl.
Overall, I’m glad we finally took the time to do this project right. Our chair looks way more natural in our house and it’s become the cozy chair we always wanted it to be.
Have you ever upholstered anything? How did it go?