The couch is finished! After a couple of rounds of the wrong staples (see #3), my husband and I pulled a late night finishing everything off. I’m really glad I went for the contrasting fabrics. They both have such unique texture and they match the bookcase well. The couch has really started giving me a good kick in the pants to organize my whole sewing room.
Rather than boring you with the nitty gritty of staples and how to place piping, I wanted to write about odd things you learn when you upholster. I’m a novice upholsterer here. I have no dreams of opening up my own upholstery business or trolling estate sales for quality pieces to transform, but I do have a few pieces in my house that I’d love to recover. I could send them to someone–my Mom has an upholstery guy who does beautiful work, but it’s just no fun (and expensive) to hire someone. I’d rather get my hands dirty, use some specialized tools and cover something myself in a fabric that I love.
Surprising Things About Upholstery
Like all do-it-yourself projects, doing your own upholstery is chock full of experiences that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought you’d ever run into. Here’s my list:
1. Doing arm workouts before upholstering will inevitably lead to “jelly arms”…and I’m not talking about flab here. Upholstery is really hard physical work, and your arms really have to work hard to pull and heave and tug and yank to pull fabric taut as you staple and it takes a lot of effort to pull out staples when you’re stripping a couch. (I can’t feel my arms!) Give your arms a breather and don’t go to the gym before you upholster.
2. All couches have random junk in them you wouldn’t imagine. My couch bought for me in high school has been home to dead spiders (ew!), research from my master’s degree, an old concert ticket, bobby pins, an invitation to the reception of an unnamed wedding, receipts, a mandolin pick, wood scraps, dust bunnies, a cable tie, a mancala marble that’s been lost probably since college (which was ironically lost again before I could take this picture), and a granola bar wrapper. After you’ve spent a long time ripping out staples, what you find in the nooks and crannies of a piece of furniture can be highly entertaining.
3. Staples! Besides random junk, couches are mostly full of staples. A million of them. A million of them that could easily end up being stepped on. We carried a tin can around and plunked the old staples in them as we pulled them out.
Speaking of pulling out staples, if you upholster, do yourself a solid and invest in a Berry staple remover. It’s designed in a way that the little notches fit directly under a staple, and the little grooves can help get some torque when you happen upon a staple that either breaks off or won’t come out. I cannot imagine trying to do the same work with a butter knife or a screwdriver. I seriously think you’d end up in the ER with puncture wounds.
Also, a pnematic stapler makes much easier work of stapling. A pnematic gun is connected to an air compressor and pressurized. When the trigger is pressed, the staple is driven into your piece with the pressure. The alternative to a pneumatic gun are the traditional hand staplers or slightly better electric staplers. These kinds of staplers are okay for small jobs like dining room chairs, but they require a lot of pressure to be applied to the stapling surface in order for each staple to be driven in properly. These kinds of staplers have recoil too, so you have to keep the stapler very steady. Between having to keep your fabric taut and having to apply extra pressure to counteract the recoil, what inevitably happens is that you will end up with staples that are only partially driven in, forcing you to take them out and try again or hammer them in. For each of our dining room chairs, we had to fix maybe 30% of the couple hundred staples. On the couch, with the pneumatic gun, we had to hammer in maybe 10 staples total for all of the several thousand staples in the couch. That’s a HUGE difference. Yet, despite the incredible ease of pneumatic staplers, there is a caveat I must give…
4. Staple gun manufacturers have a wide range of measurements. “3/8 crown” can actually mean somewhere between 3/8″ wide to 5/16″ to a fat 1/4″. Only after we ordered the second round of specialty 1/8″ leg staples to finish off some really thin areas did we figure out that whatever mythical “3/8” measurement company x uses, those very mislabeled staples only fit in company x’s staple gun. You cannot use company x staples in company y’s gun unless it’s specified. Mostly, if you find yourself ordering staples, take very literally the advice of which gun the staples fit into.
5. Upholstering is actually easier than sewing slipcovers. Why is that? Slipcovers really need to be cut pretty precisely to avoid that shlumpy couch look. Your sewing then also needs to be pretty accurate too. Ah, but when you upholster, you can really drape the fabric where it needs to be draped, and staple along the way, cutting away what you don’t need.
And because stapling takes the place of most of the sewing and each staple can be pulled out and done again, upholstering is a very forgiving process. It is true that you can’t just pull off the cover and toss it in the wash as you can with a slipcover, but you’ll never have to fight with a cover shifting as you sit on it.
While there is some sewing required for upholstery jobs, it’s often simple and minimal, and precision may not be necessary in some areas. For my couch, there were new cushion covers to be sewn, a few bits of cambric that had to be sewn to larger sections of upholstery fabric, 6 yards of piping to be made, and some basting stitches that secured the bottom skirt pieces to their respective sections of interfacing. In all the hours it took to complete the project, I spent maybe 3 hours total sewing.
But with all of the sweat and jelly arms that you suffer through, you end up with a unique piece of furniture customized to your own decorating style that will last for a long time. You will want to do more projects after you start!