how to upholster a kitchen chair finished set

How to upholster a kitchen chair (& restore vintage chairs)

Let’s chat about how to upholster a kitchen chair.

Once upon a time my Great Grandma had a beautiful red ice formica table and chairs. I sat around those, learned to pull strudel standing at it and had many many home cooked meals with little burned bits with lots of love.

One day I vowed if I had a chance I’d pick up a table like that and make my own memories at such a table. 10 years ago, such a table came my way except it was AQUA. My color!

10 years of kids loving my chairs covered with already vintage fabric and it was showing its age.

If you have such a table, or if you’re looking for a way to revitalize a set of kitchen chairs, this post is for you.

You’ll learn how to upholster a kitchen chair. We’ll run through the supplies you’ll need, some fabric recommendations, then I’ll show you how to recover your chair step by step.

So roll up your sleeves and grab a staple remover and let’s fix your chair.

P.S. There’s a lot of pictures here, so when the actual kitchen chair reupholstery steps come up, there’s a slideshow. Just so you know. Enjoy!

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finished chair (left) and the ugly before (right)

How to upholster a kitchen chair: supplies

Where to find upholstery vinyl

Before we get into how to upholster a kitchen chair, let’s talk fabric. It may be difficult to find good upholstery fabric that’s appropriate and long lasting in a regular fabric store.

Upholstery fabrics are different beasts altogether with special coatings and fibers that make them long lasting. Shoot man, if you’re going through the trouble of reupholstering a kitchen chair in the first place, buy quality fabric that’s going to last!

So where do you find such a thing?

To be honest, I have great luck online. I picked up my glitter vinyl from Fabric Warehouse.

But in general, search for upholstery vinyl or Naugahyde and you’re likely to find a shop that specializes in upholstery fabrics. Better yet, you can order swatches from nearly all of them for free or a very low cost. With a swatch you won’t waste tons of money picking out something you’re ultimately not crazy about.

Buying swatches is one of my favorite pro tips from 16 tips for better fabric shopping online.

How swatches saved me: I loved this Naugahyde, but I ultimately chose the glitter vinyl because it had a little more visual interest.

3 shops for awesome upholstery fabrics:

  • Sailrite: great selection of Naugahyde and other upholstery fabrics appropriate for boats and RVs.
  • Fabric Empire: excellent selection of all manner of upholstery fabrics. Their glitter vinyl selection is impressive!
  • Modern Fabrics: the place if you’re looking for designer upholstery fabrics at a good price. If you want something fresh and funky, this is it.

You can find more upholstery fabric shops inside the Ultimate Jumbo Mega Guide to Online Fabric Stores.

Enough fabric talk, let’s get into breaking down your chair and moving forward with this vintage chair restoration.

Breaking down a kitchen chair for reupholstery

First things first, use your screwdriver to unscrew the chair’s seat and the chair’s back from the frame.

Be sure to set aside all the screws in a cup. If they’re in good enough shape to reuse, you’ll want them handy at the right time. On the other hand, if the screws are rather rusty and have seen better days, you’ll still want to have the old ones so that you buy the right size replacements.

With the chair pieces off the frame, let’s dig into all the gritty staple and tack removal.

How to remove staples from the chair bottom

First, flip your chair bottom over.

Grab your staple remover and slide it under a staple so that it sits inside the little slot on the tool. Twist the tool to remove the staple.

If you have a pesky staple that breaks off, grab the staple’s end with needle nose pliers to twist out the extra bit.

One in a while you’ll get a staple that breaks off and the leftover bit is too small to get out. In that case, give the staple nubby a few whacks with a hammer to flatten things out and get the pokey bits out of the way.

Continue to remove staples all the way around the bottom.

When you’ve gotten all the staples out, use a damp paper towel to wipe down the wood.

What’s up with the blue fabric?

You can see I have the original fabric on mine. I’ve left it like that on purpose for historical sake (my chairs are from the 1930s). If I wanted to I could remove that fabric too, but it’s not necessary.

The padding from the original upholstery was also in good enough shape to leave it alone. Sometimes on really old upholstery you’ll find messy innards made from very fine but not modern materials. It’s my usual m.o. to leave them alone if they’re in good shape.

If you’ve got an old chair and you really want to get into dealing with the guts of it, the Spruce Upholstery book is an excellent primer.

How to remove upholstery tacks from a chair back

Slide your tack lifter between the back fabric and the covered back. Wiggle the tack lifter back and forth to pop out a tack.

You can also slide the tack right under the tack if you’d rather. That works great too!

Take out all of the tacks just like this.

Use your staple remover to remove all of the staples just like you did for the chair’s bottom.

When you’ve gotten all the staples out, use a damp paper towel to wipe down the wood.

Add wood filler to the chair backs

Don’t skip this step. Our chairs had this pesky problem of the screws just popping out randomly. You’d be walking by the kitchen table and see a screw just hanging out the backside. Not helpful! Here’s how to fix this.

Work some wood filler into the holes on the chair back. The end of a match works well or anything you have.

Fill each hole well, then set aside the chair to dry for at least 24 hours. Sand off any extra.

How to upholster a kitchen chair

Fabric time! The most important thing to remember as you recover a kitchen chair (or any upholstery project for that matter) is to keep the fabric taut. If you can bounce a quarter off it, it’s good.

If it’s soft across the surface, it’s going to look schlumpy. Know that if that happens you can always remove staples and try again. Your staple remover is like a seam ripper if you sew!

A little slideshow to walk you through the whole process:

Reupholstering a seat bottom

First, put your chair seat on top of your fabric. Rough cut around the seat, leaving about 2″ on all sides.

You won’t need that much fabric, but it’s always better to have a little extra so that you can get a nice tight cover.

If you’re using a pneumatic gun, hook your staple gun up to your air compressor.

Wrap the fabric around the seat bottom, drive 2 staples into one side. Press down well before you pull the trigger so that the gun drives the staple into place. All staple guns have a certain amount of recoil. That can lead to some funky staples that aren’t really holding down the fabric.

Next, pull the fabric as tight as you need so that it lays taut on the opposite side that you stapled. Staple a couple on this side, always pulling so that the fabric is taut.

Work your way from side to side adding staples, always pulling the fabric taut between the sides you’re working on. If you have an extra set of hands, this helps tremendously. I often pull while my husband staples or vice versa.

How far in should the staples be?

This is going to depend on your chair, but about 1″ in from the edges is a good rule.

Rounding the corners

The corners are the toughest part of recovering a kitchen chair. See how they’re rounded? You have to do this in a couple steps to round the corner without creating extra bulk.

Your goal should be to get a smooth corner without seeing any folds on the front side.

Pull tight in about the center of the corner and staple.

Distribute the other fabric near the corner so that you can see no gathers or folds. Add several staples to hold the corner in place.

Trim the extra fabric away

Trim away the extra fabric about 1/2″ in from your staples. Pay close attention to the corners, trimming out as much as you can.

Reupholstering a seat back

Now that you’ve got the bottom of the chair ready to go, it’s time to tackle the seat back.

There’s two pieces on a chrome chair like mine. The main part and a covering that’ll get tacked into place to hide all the staples.

Stapling the seat back

Lay the seat back on top of your fabric and rough cut around it, leaving about 2″ on all sides.

Because the seat back is curved, make sure that you stretch the fabric even more than you think you need to to keep it taut.

Staple the fabric in place just like you did for the seat bottom. Staple working from side to side, pulling the fabric taut between the sides of the seat back.

If you notice that the fabric is wrinkling or not tight, use your staple remover to take out a few staples. Try again, pulling taut as you staple.

Spend a little more time on the corners, making sure you’re not seeing any folds or pleats on the right side in the corners.

Trim away the excess fabric about 1/2″ past your line of staples. Trim out as much excess fabric as you can from the corners.

Make a chipboard template?

On my chairs the back covers are wrapped around a piece of chipboard. That’s evidently the original material. If there’s a better, flexible material you find to cover over that’ll give the chair back some shape and the fabric something to sit on, by all means use it.

I was able to reuse the original chipboard. If you can’t with your chair, use the old chipboard as a template to cut a new chair back cover. Place it on a sheet of chipboard, trace around it with a pencil and cut out with paper scissors.

Covering the back cover

From here, lay your chipboard down on your fabric. Rough cut around the piece leaving about 1″ on all sides.

Lay your fabric right side up against the chair back, letting the extra fabric hang off all sides. Fold back the top edge so that it’s even with the chair back.

Next flip the fabric away from you so that you’re looking at the wrong side of the fabric but also so that you’re holding onto that fabric you folded over.

Line up the chipboard with the top edge of the chair back on top of the chair back fabric. Staple through the chipboard and the fabric across the top.

Fold the rest of the fabric over the chipboard, folding the raw edges around the chipboard. Cut away any excess fabric in the corners if necessary.

Adding the tacks to a chair back

Starting in the bottom center, grab an upholstery tack with your needle nose pliers. Hold it near the edge, then hammer it into place.

Hammer 2 tacks in each corner, folding fabric under and keeping the fabric taut across the back. Hammer in tacks about ever 2″, spacing them evenly.

Cleaning up your chair frame

Scrub the frame of your chair with damp steel wool. Get into all the cracks as best as you can and scrub off any rust.

Take a piece of dental floss and thread it between the crack where the frame pieces come together to clean out any old gunk.

Finish off cleaning up your chair frame with a scrub pad and some chrome cleaner. You don’t have to do this, but it really shines up things and removes everything that the steel wool couldn’t.

Wipe down the frame with a damp paper towel to get off all the cleaner.

Reassembling your chair

Have someone sit down on the chair. Line up the old holes with the frame holes and screw the chair seat back in place.

For the chair back, feel with your hands where the holes are. Mark one of the top holes with an awl through the chair back. Place the screw through the frame and into the back and screw into place.

Using a level, mark the second top hole with your awl. Screw the top hole into place.

Now that you have the top holes finished, mark the other two holes with an awl and finish with those screws.

So that’s how to upholster a kitchen chair. Enjoy your restored chrome chairs!

If you liked learning how to upholster a kitchen chair, check out these other DIY projects:

How to take a basic storage bench and make it custom with this basic upholstery tutorial

Quick sewing + a fabulous scarf = almost instant art

Want to try upholstery? You’ll need these tools.

6 thoughts on “How to upholster a kitchen chair (& restore vintage chairs)”

  1. This is REALLY a great job! I have only covered less curvy chairs (taught by my mother-in-law in 1959 (!), and have done many since then, but none as nice as yours. Congratulations!

  2. I have rounded backed chairs like you show, but as taut as I pull…even with hair dryer making flexible to pull, it still doesn’t form to the curved back! Considering gluing that part.. I have reupholstered 6 dinette sets, but this is the most difficult

    1. I would get a helper before you give up. That is most definitely the toughest part. With my husband pulling and me stapling, we were able to manage it. Sometimes curves are a beast with upholstery!

  3. Hi, The chairs you show are identical to the ones I’m hoping to reupholster. What was the specific website and material that you used? There seems to be lots of choices and I’m hoping to get just the right material thickness, etc. Thanks for all your great advice!
    Sincerely, Glenn

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