Reupholstering Antique Furniture
When you are considering having a antique reupholstered, there are a number of factors that need to be considered. What is most important to you? Preserving the frame, restoring to original, just making it usable, keeping the cost down, etc.?
Recovery -vs- Reupholstery -vs- Restoration?
Some people who bring in antiques to recover just want the cover changed, they say everything else (under the cover) is just fine.
As with any other type of furniture, the padding and fabric tend to hide the true condition of the springs and padding to the client. Sometimes it is difficult for even the professional to ascertain the true condition until he gets the cover off.
As an example look at this antique. From the outside everything looks OK. When we take the cover off we can see that the burlap and webbing are severely deteriorating and would fail if not replaced. (click on the pictures for a larger view.)
Here are some general guidelines to go by.
- When you are going to the expense of having something recovered, it would generally be safe to assume that you want the springs and padding to last the lifetime of the cover. Generally you want the cover to wear out before the stuff under it.
- Unless the furniture was reupholstered very recently - AND - the springs and padding were replaced or thoroughly repaired at that time, then we would recommend that they be repaired or replaced now. Look through the Picture and Slideshow section of our website and you will see that the support structure (webbing and burlap) of many of the antiques are quite deteriorated, even when they look fine on the outside.
Especially with antiques there is often much more work under the cover than what you can see on top.
What is your Purpose?
Restore for historical value?
Make useable for household use?
Here are some questions to consider:
- If you have an antique, should you go through all the time and expense of restoring* it, or do you just want to make it usable for your household?
- What is the furniture worth?
- It a rare piece? Would it be valuable it restored? Or it is it just a common antique? Where can you find out?
- What is the history of the piece? Does this particular piece of furniture (or this style) have any specific historical value?
- If it is a valuable piece, would it make sense to lessen it's value by just doing one of the lessor cost alternatives?
- OR - If it is just a common antique, would it make sense to go through the added expense of restoring it? Would the additional cost be worth it?
What is your Budget?
This will greatly influence your reupholstery options....
Structural: Are all the joints of the frame solid, or are some joint loose or squeeky? To check, go over the furniture and try to wiggle every frame part. the frame Regluing and reblocking the frame as needed. Sometimes this might completely disassembling the frame and regluing, adding new blocks (as needed) to the corners.
Restoration: Assuming that the old finish is salvageable, leaving the old finish on and cleaning and restoring as possible. stripping off the old finish could lessen the value of the furniture.
Refinishing: stripping old finish off, staining as necessary, adding a new finish of your choice
Type and condition of existing springs. Are the old springs in good shape; are they reusable. Or do they need to be replaced. Many of the antiques used the common hand tied springs, which are still being made today.. Some antiques used unusual springs that are no longer being made. In this case, a decision has to be made to repair the existing springs (which usually costs more), or to replace the springs with another type of springs, or to remove the springs and use webbing and padding.
Here are some spring choices
- Use As Is: If the springs are in good condition, just covering over them might be a choice. But in most cases this would not be recommended.
- Re-Use Springs: reusing existing springs (replace any broken springs)
- New Springs: replace All springs with new springs
Type and condition of padding. Is the padding in good shape; can it be reused? -or- does it all need to be replaced? Do you want the same original type of padding, or do you want to replace it with modern materials.
Type of Materials originally used in antiques : Horsehair, tree moss, dried grass, cotton, excelsior, wood shavings.
Cost of materials: In the old days when the furniture was originally made, upholsterers and furniture builders probably used whatever type of materials and padding that was common and easily obtainable. Over the years since then, methods and materials have changed drastically. That which was once common place is often now rare and hard to find, and therefore expensive.
Labor for installing materials: Many of the materials used in antiques require very labor intensive methods of attaching them to the support materials. For example: horsehair
Modern materials, such as foam, requires very little extra labor to attach it to the burlap.
When having antiques recovered, many clients may not care what type of padding is used in the reupholstery process. For those clients that are concerned about the padding used, here are some padding choices to consider.
*Padding Note: a. When working with antiques, rebuilding the padding using the original methods and materials can be more expensive than the rest of the reupholstering process. b. The original methods, while common to the time period, were very labor intensive. Similarly, while the original padding materials were common to the time, nowadays, many of those materials aren't as common or as readily available today, so they very expensive as compared to today's padding materials.
With any of these options, new padding is added over the top of existing padding if or as needed.
- Leave Existing Padding in Place: Assuming that the furniture has been reupholstered recently (with new burlap and new webbing), leave all padding in place, as much as possible, and put the new cover over the top of the existing padding
- Re-use Existing Padding & Add New Supports: Carefully remove the padding materials (cotton, hair, dried grass, excelsior, moss, etc.) off the furniture, as needed, and replace the existing supporting materials (webbing, burlap, etc.). Then re-attach existing padding materials and handworked areas mostly undisturbed to the frame. Add new outerlinings as needed to hold the padding in place. Add new padding on top as needed. (This is our most common option)
- Refresh Padding: same as 2. above, except old padding is removed, taken apart, fluffed up, and restitched, as necessary, in place. New interlinings added as necessary. (see Padding Note b. above)
B. All New Padding:
As in 2 & 3 above, the supporting materials are all replaced with new. In addition the padding is also replaced with new padding, with one of these options:
- Common Modern Padding: Padding replaced with new common materials, such as polyfoam, cotton, and other readily available materials
- Common Antique Padding: Padding materials are replaced with padding materials that are commonly used in antiques. This may be the same, or different materials that are currently in your furniture. This choice will be determined by what type of padding materials are in your furniture compared to what type of padding materials are readily available to us from our suppliers. (see Padding Note above)
- Same or Similar Padding as Original: As much as possible, padding materials are replaced with the same type or similar to the existing padding materials. (see Padding Note above)
Attachment: Methods and Materials
Tacks: Most of the fabrics on antiques were commonly fastened onto the frame with upholstery tacks and a tack hammer. Some of the drawbacks about using tacks is they damage the frame. The frames of antiques can become very dry (the result of many years in a warm house) and are very susceptible to splitting, especially with furniture that has been covered many times using tacks.
Nowadays, with the coming of the staple guns, fewer and fewer upholsters use tacks very much.
Staples: most upholsterers and furniture manufacturers attach the upholstery fabric to the frames using staples. This is a very easy and cost effective method. Unlike tacks, the thin legs of the staples leave the wood almost undisturbed.
Cost: Unless an upholsterer is very proficient at spitting tacks, using tacks adds a significant amount of time to the upholstery process. So using staples is also a cost saving feature.
Preserving the Frame: An important point to remember that with antiques preserving the quality and stability of the frame is much more important that "how" the fabric is attached to the frame. While using tacks might be more "historically" true, using staples is less damaging to the frame.
Antique Upholstery Theories
Restoration: Restore as close to original as possible using the same types of fabrics, supplies and attaching methods as the original. (This can have various meanings depending upon the specifications of the client, the availability of materials, and the skill and knowledge level of the upholsterer. If you are considering having an antique restored, be sure to talk over specific concerns or wishes you have with the upholsterer before the price is given and the order is written.)
Here are some articles on Furniture Restoration:
To Restore or Not to Restore Some points to consider before refinishing an antique.
Reupholster Using Common Materials: Since the original makers of the furniture used the common material they could easily find, have the upholsterer likewise use the common materials that are available today.
When you own and care for an antique, you are steward of a relic of the past. What are your responsibilities to the past and to those who will own the furniture in the future. The basic premise of an antique is that it had a life (of sorts) before you owned it and it will probably have a life after you.
Restoration: There are various levels of restoration from reusing the existing materials to complete replacement. Also different upholsterers with different backgrounds and skill levels will do the job differently. (see Upholstery Theories above.)
Recovering: taking the old cover off and putting a new covering on.
Reupholstering: Often used synonymously with Recovering, but in a deeper sense, can be defined as doing a more thorough job, include frame rebuilding, retying springs, adding new padding, etc.