Today we’re talking all about the essential tools you need to get started in DIY upholstery.
We’ve all bought or inherited furniture with drab or worn out fabric. The cool thing about DIY upholstery is that with a few tools and some awesome fabric, you can fix that situation.
I like to think of upholstery as a sewing adjacent hobby. Sometimes there’s sewing, but mostly, there’s a lot of fabric wrangling and shaping that goes into it.
And weirdly, it’s not as difficult as you think. With a few tools, you can take that snore inducing old footstool you’ve got and turn it into a showpiece.
So grab your staple guns and let’s talk DIY upholstery tools!
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Teardown tools for DIY upholstery
Before your beautiful upholstery fabric finds a new home, you have to take everything apart.
You can think of upholstery as a reverse engineering sort of process. As you take things apart, you’ll get rid of the old, take note of what needs to be there and then slowly put things back together.
When you’re in the teardown phase, here are 3 essential upholstery tools you’re going to need.
Staple removers are the #2 most important tool you will use in your DIY upholstery projects. You will remove dozens upon dozens of staples, and being able to do that safely and efficiently is key.
I remember my Mom breaking down our dining room chair seats multiple times with nothing but a butter knife or screwdriver. Needless to say, the work was slow, and there was more than one time she hurt herself.
You would think I’d have learned from this, but adult me totally did the same thing.
A small puncture wound later, I got a proper staple remover.
This style of staple remover is a tremendous upgrade from a dang old screwdriver.
To use one of these, wiggle the point under a staple so that the wire is between the small slot of the prongs. Twist, and remove the staple. It’s that easy.
But just for kicks, try to remove a few staples with a flat head screwdriver, then try it with a real upholstery staple remover. You will appreciate this tool so much more!
You might be thinking, tack lifter sounds a lot like staple remover, and you’d be right. You can actually use tack lifters to remove staples, especially larger staples.
There’s a small difference here. The shaped head of a tack lifter can also pry off old tacks.
This is great for popping off decorative tacks without damaging any wood as you’re breaking down a piece.
Sometimes old furniture just needs a little TLC to look its best. In this case, use a tack lifter to gently remove damaged tacks and replace them with fresh ones.
You can either wiggle a tack lifter underneath a tack or wedge it between layers of fabric to ease out the tack.
A tack lifter like this can make quick work of taking out old tacks.
Needle nose pliers
My husband and I have worked on enough upholstery at this point that we’ve seen some funky old staples. Rusty, long, short, a million in two inches and everything in between.
However you slice it, sometimes even a great staple remover or tack lifter cannot remove all the metal bits. This is especially true if you’re removing very old or rusty staples. They’re a pain.
In that case, get a pair of needle nose pliers, grip the offending staple shard that’s sticking out and twist out of the wood.
Like needle nose pliers, sometimes a hammer can really help you with uncooperative staples.
If you’ve tried getting out all the staples with all your other tools and there’s still a little tiny shard poking out, just whack it with a hammer.
Hammers will flatten any sharp points during breakdown and any errant staples as you’re upholstering later on.
You’ll also need a hammer for tapping in tacks.
If you’d like, you can get fancy and pick up a tack hammer just for tacks. They’re designed for such work, though it’s not 100% necessary to have one.
I already told you not to use a screwdriver to remove staples, but truth is you need a screwdriver for DIY upholstery.
You need a screwdriver, wait for it,
for removing screws. Revolutionary!
A basic flathead or Philips screwdriver will get you through removing most screws in any piece you want to upholster.
Make sure you save all those screws in a little cup so that you can pop them back into place when you’re finished.
Staple guns for DIY upholstery
A staple gun is your most important tool for DIY upholstery. A good gun will make your upholstering life rainbows and sunshine. You’ll start looking for old chairs to fix up, stools you can add funky fabric to.
There’s a caveat here.
More power is better.
The thing is, if you’re not quite sure that you’re really interested in learning how to upholster, you might not want to invest in a pneumatic staple gun.
So I offer 3 tiers of options here for staple guns: manual, electric, pneumatic. Let’s break down the advantages of each.
Hand staple gun
This is the kind of staple gun I grew up with in my house. Manual staple guns are really all you need for working on a basic upholstery job like recovering dining room chairs.
They’re cheap, and you can find them in any home improvement store.
It does take a fair bit of hand strength to squeeze the mechanism on a hand staple gun. Note too that you’ll have to apply some pressure to your surface before you pull the handle.
That’s because there is some bounce back. If you’ve noticed that your staples aren’t really getting driven into the wood of your project, pressing down before you staple will help.
Also a second pair of hands will help. A helper who can stretch and position the fabric while you staple is invaluable.
Electric staple gun
If I had to recommend a beginner staple gun, an electric staple gun would be it.
Electric staple guns have a little power, making it easier to staple, but they don’t require hooking up to air like a pneumatic stapler. You’ll lose less effort driving in staples, and you’ll have fewer that you need to pound down with a hammer.
They’re also just a fraction more cost wise than a manual staple gun. You can pick one up, use it and not feel like you’ve shot the wad if you don’t become the Rosie the Riveter of upholstery.
The one thing I really don’t like about electric staple guns is that their cords are pretty short. Plug this guy into an extension cord, and you’ll be in business shortly.
Pneumatic staple gun
You can try other staple guns, but the day you get a pneumatic staple gun will be a good good day.
Stapling with a pneumatic staple gun requires almost no effort. The air compressor you hook your gun up to does all the work.
Simply press down the stapler where you want a staple, pull the trigger and boom, perfectly driven staple.
When we switched to an air gun we went from having to remove or hammer about 35% of the staples we put in to almost zero.
If you’re working on a big upholstery project like a couch where there’s a lot of staples involved, this is an amazing tool. The speed at which you can zip through a section of your piece is astonishing.
Pneumatic staple guns aren’t terribly expensive, but know that you’ll have to have a separate air compressor to hook it up to. I’ve had my Surebonder for several years now and it’s gotten us through a couch, multiple chairs, footstools and more without a hitch.
For the air compressor check the particular air pressure specifications on your gun and wear safety glasses!
Sewing tools you’ll need for DIY upholstery
As I said, upholstery is a sewing adjacent thing, so there’s several tools that work in a sewing room that work for upholstery too.
A good pair of sharp shears will get you through any upholstery project.
Not sure what’s best for you, check out The Best Sewing Scissors for You.
The Best Sewing Scissors for You
Comparing several popular sewing shears to help you find the best tool for you.
Many upholstery projects require nothing more complicated than straight lines. Use a ruler and make things nice and pretty.
This 3″x18″ O’Lipfa ruler will do just about everything you need it to.
If you want a slightly larger ruler, this Omnigrid 8.5×24″ ruler is fantastic. I use both these rulers on a daily basis in my sewing, and they’re perfect for upholstery too.
Essential measuring tools for sewing
Keep it accurate with these tools for measuring
Fabric marking tools you should try
Chalk, surprising cheapies and everything in between
You’re going to need a way to mark your fabric, usually the backside when you’re working on upholstery.
The next time you’re thinking about a fun DIY upholstery project, be sure to grab these tools. They will definitely make your job easier and help you get great results.
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.