Where there is a will there is a way

Monday, September 7, 2015

Upholstery Bootcamp Weekend

My friend Eilidh (said Ay-Lee) sent me a text one day - she had bought some old  manky chairs on a  impulse while having drinks at the pub.  Was I able to help her reupholster them?  They smelled like old people's wee! she moaned, and wasn't sure she should have taken them on. 
Sure, I said. That sounds fun. 
But I didn't really have the time (or energy) needed until more than a month later, after a holiday.


Eilidh and I made a date to fix the chairs.

Did we know what we were doing?  No.  That's what made it so fun!

We problem solved all the way, and felt really proud of what we'd accomplished by the end - as a team it was easier than tackling such a thing oneselves.

One huge thing I can say about projects - they create great good energy in your life, and those around you too.

the smelly chairs

As the weekend rolled up, my (sometimes grumpy) husband Shane said it would take all day and night and he might just book himself into a hotel.  Of course I said, nah, we'll be done by the end of the day.  Eilidh sent me photos of the chairs as the weekend came closer.  They were apparently from the 1920s.   
I looked at the photos.  They didn't look like chairs that would be done by 5pm.  Eilidh started worrying about what she was asking us to taken on, and told me, "one of them is broken in half"! 


I googled the method a little, then knew I was looking for upholstery foam  Fabric would be a lot easier to find.   And now I knew what the chairs looked like, I could begin to guess on amounts.  Eilidh looked on pinterest for inspiration, and was wondering how we would figure out how to do this.  "We'll just follow in their steps", I said - meaning see how they put it together as we took it apart.


I then supported my friend by researching from work where the best place to get foam was.  I was also driving around looking at op shops (Savemart) at the chance of scoring a secondhand foam mattress (no go), and material, even old blankets for covering them  (no go, she should spend the choose herself, and also spend money on that special part, if any).

I lived in an industrial area that had lots of factory stores, so looked up upholstery stores in my area.   Dunlop, the maker of the foam, had a caution on their website search engine TRADE ONLY.  Too intense for two ladies doing up two chairs.  I next phoned one of their distributors, a marine upholstery and fabric shop in my area called Reid and Twiname.  You could get various thicknesses and prices but it seemed like too huge of a piece that they sold (2m by 2m). 

Then I went to Spotlight - which was dismal for upholstery foam, a few cushion sized thin layers packaged in plastic bags each marked CUSHION FOAM, $20.  Got a tip from a Spotlight employee about a place called Para Rubber which cut the foam to size.  I phoned them up - they did cut foam to size, but you paid for it by the square meter and it wasn't cheap. 

The best was the marine upholstery distributor, Reid and Twiname - Eilidh agreed to pay for the medium thickness (25 mm for $80)  and having seen the chairs, I didn't think it was an excessive amount!  If it was too thin, we could layer it.  I also had some useless sleeping bag foam to contribute - so this was, in my opinion - the start to the success of the project.  Investing in the right material for the job, I mean.

The shop also turned out to be only 1 block from my work - which was in an industrial area.  The salesman was really nice and gave me a discount for no reason, so it was about $60.    It was really fun checking out the bits and piece the boat upholstery shop sold too - grommets, glues, vinyls for outdoor furniture, foot grippy mat... buckles - you never know when you'll need something like that.   I put a gigantic roll of foam in my car for her to pay me back. 

the project

Eilidh stayed over Friday night, we just had drinks and kicked back, with Shane.  Eilidh read an amazing Scottish story to Troy and Lucan, which was really cool - in her Scottish accent and all, about Robert the Bruce, who never gave up protecting his country from invasion.    6 times he failed in battle against the English.  He was staying in a cave, feeling hopeless when he observed a spider weaving her web.  She threw her silk thread rope across the cave several times, failing each time.  6 times she failed, but on the seventh, she succeeded.  Robert the Bruce observed that she didn't give up, and wove her web in the end.  He gathered his troops and went to battle, and the 7th time he succeeded.

10 am
Nonavee's house

Saturday morning we started.  I gathered every possible tool that could have been of use, and organised them on a table for use to use.  Shane was enjoying having Eilidh around, and so decided to be super supportive,  had cleaned us a workspace in the garage, and took Troy and Lucan for a drive so we could concentrate. 

We did not use the crowbar.  We did use:
  • craft knife
  • scissors
  • multi-screwdriver with various ends (we needed a good flathead screwdriver for all the old style flathead screws)
  •  a large good file
  • needle-nosed pliars
  • heavy duty pliars
  • electric drill with full assortment of bits
  • 2 hammers
  • metal thingy with a flat wide metal end that we were able to drive with a hammer and get the flat under the edges of old rusty metal upholstery tacks to chip off heads, or help to pull them out 
  • white PVA glue
  • staple gun!  (or you could use upholstery tacks)
  • very rough sandpaper, a belt from a belt sander that we used by hand to get the varnish off (palm sander would have been great too)
  • Several large rubbish bags for all the disgusting broken down old upholstery after you rip it out!
  • handbroom and pan
  • vaccuum
  • a camera (on our phones)
  • Even a jigsaw, for when I had to remake the two wood corner shapes that I had ripped out instead of unscrewing (but if you are not careless, as I was you probably won’t need it)
  • music (on our phones)
  • tea (for us)
  • linseed oil

Braving removing the manky old disintegrated upholstery, and taking the chairs apart.  We kept some sample tacks in a plastic container - and all the screws. All were rusty on the surface - but for next time, keep all till you're done.  The old tacks were cool - like pure sharp wedges of iron, brittle and almost seemed handmade as you could see several sides  - compared to the mass produced perfect ones of today.

Strange stuff underneath - it was wiry, like hair - but possibly rubber fibres? 
Don't think plastic was invented yet.

12 pm

 Every spring was well fastened at the bottom - and we didn't make ridiculous work for ourselves by trying to remove just to get rid of the old fabric trapped between the wood and the bottom (see photo below).  However we did remove the top burlap stuff, cutting the springs free.   Later we placed new cotton calico over them where the burlap was (above), and sewed them to the cloth just the same - in 3 places on the top of each spring.

Looked like cotton waste made into a stuffing.

Great moment!  The pulling of the frame completely out of the chair.  We have done it.

Ew!  Think this foam is from the 1920s.  The yellow part was actually crumbling into powder.

The curved armchair piece (upholstery fabric and foam fasten onto and is removable) was delaminating (spliting into layers) so I put white glue in it, and set it this way to dry with hammer so both ends were compressed!  

4:30 pm

Eilidh hand sanded the wood frame for hours (finding red Rimu wood) - although arms were a different kind of wood

All the parts to the chairs, after upholstery removed and chairs taken apart
 9 pm
Eilidh had found the perfect chairs - even the one that was in pieces had only a few dowels to drill out, and replace.  Some new dowels, glue, and hammer it together - sand away hammer marks. 

We were glad for Shane's skilled help - he helped up remove a screw that was broken off into the only screwhole used to attach arms to the chair - and then made perfect dowels for attaching to rest of frame (we didn't have the right size dowels, so we were filing down the sides of some fatter dowel pieces with our big file, until they were the right size)

12:30 am - 6 am

It would have been lovely to stop here and do the stapling fabric to the frames another day - but this weekend was the only time I had to give to this project.  So we worked through the night.  This was where music, and sneaking up without waking the family to get some tea, was crucial to keep us going.  We still only got them 95 percent before she left in the morning round 6 am, but enough was sewn or pinned so Eilidh had a path.  And some Inuit sewing inspiration (non-fussy, basic and simple, functional - not overcomplicating with fancy stitch styles).  I like thinking of the Inuit and how they made the clothes of their hunters, their own needles out of bone - resourceful.

2:30 pm Sunday
Eilidh's house

(after some sleep she is still into finishing the project!  Impressed.)

Eilidh texts me a photo of the amazing tool, the electric screwdriver we did not have...wonderful thing look at that - it is a drill with an attachment

 The linseed oil reveals the beauty of the wood

Super cool!  (Be


Lessons learned from
upholstery bootcamp weekend


 I learned to...

1.  Save the old tacks

2.  Have all tools ready before u start including an electric sander, sand paper of all varieties and a decent staple gun staples fabric and foam!

3.  Check where all old screws are to detach parts of chair

4.  Replace mangy stuff but make use of stuff that can be re-used

5.  Mixing the sawdust with the glue makes great filler

6.  Use a good screw driver

7.  Get all technical drilling screwing sanding varnishing done before fabric

8.  Think about where the screws are before putting stuff like the back straps in the way of them

9.  When something looks wrong or has went wrong spend the time going back to fix no matter how tired you are or how much you'd rather move on! When things go wrong, fix and move on.

10. Sweep and tidy up between phases

11. Have a sister to help you.


1.   Look before you rip

I couldn’t figure out how to remove the seat frames that sat in the chairs, so I just pulled the first one out and destroyed the corner pieces the seat was attached to at the front – when I could have just removed 2 screws! As it was, I had to measure and cut two new pieces in replacement!

2.   Most of process upholstering does not involve upholstering.

Most of the time is spent removing screws and tacks, repairing, sanding. Then a small amount of time cutting foam, cloth, stapling cloth, re-attaching, sewing.

3.   Careful how deeply you drill!

I drilled through the most special parts, the arms, while drilling out broken off dowels from their holes. The good and bad side about a creative go for it type person.

4.   Electric equipment is a good thing. 

Like electric screwdrivers, electric palm sanders.  Sore hands, wrists! Takes more time to do it by hand too.

5.  I have learned this lesson over and over again my whole life.  Working with others is actually fun – the most fun you can have with others – and the most real too.

Things we did right when re-upholstering for the first time (not knowing what we were doing).
Sign-on from supportive partners
who knew what to expect, took the kids off for a drive while we concentrated and figured out how to take upholstery off chairs and fix them too (one was in pieces).  (And who even contributed help later.)
We had lots of tools
 – so we were able to find ones we needed to solve our problems.
We didn’t waste our time and energy in our decisions – so we could finish in good speed
 We did want the finish to be of a high quality, but if it would cause more problems than it was worth, we didn’t do it.  Like not removing the springs which from the base.  We also just hammered in various tacks that were hard to get out. But we did pull out every bit of nasty upholstery hair, and we did the best we could.
Most importantly do it with people who care about you more than the chairs! Who are understanding when you screw a big hole through their feature piece of their antique find?  

Don't worry - you will be making mistakes!


No comments: