Antique Reupholstery

Reupholstering Antique Furniture

setteeSee the original article at Winters Sewing

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.?


Reupholstering Antiques

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. To be blunt, they don't really know what the insides look like. In addition to that, the average person doesn't really look at their furniture. It's often been with them for many years and they just (want to) assume that everything under the cover "is OK". Quite often, by the time that the furniture is brought to us it has already been recovered perhaps several times. Each time before the client may have told the previous upholsterers, "Just put a new cover on it, everything else is "just fine". However, the padding and fabric tend to hide the true condition of the springs and padding to the client. Over the years the fabric, padding, support linings, springs, and webbing have been slowly aging.

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 is severely deteriorating. (click on the pictures for a larger view.)

Warman arm burlap


Warman burlap









Here are some general guidelines to go by.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Recovering (just putting a new cover over the existing springs and padding), is only an option if the frame is rock solid, if the springs and padding are in excellent shape. If the frame is even a little wobbly, or the springs are weak, then you would at least go for the reupholstery option.

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 usable for household use?

Here are some questions to consider:

  1. 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?
  2. What is the furniture worth?
  3. It a rare piece? Would it be valuable it restored? Or it is it just a common antique? Where can you find out?
  4. What is the history of the piece? Does this particular piece of furniture (or this style) have any specific historical value?
  5. If it is a valuable piece, would it make sense to lessen it's value by just doing one of the lessor cost alternatives?
  6. 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 Condition is the Furniture in?

Much of the time when clients ask us about recovering their antiques, they see their furniture in their minds as it was quite a few years ago. They see their furniture as they “want to see it”, not as it truly is today. The sofa or chair may have a fabric that is in relatively good shape where a previous upholsterer just covered over the previous upholstery. So those customers often say, “I just want it recovered. The rest of the chair is in good shape." However, the question is, have you actually thoroughly inspected your furniture? Have you tried to wiggle all the joints of the legs, arms and backrest?

Once we get the cover off, and open up the padding, then you can begin to see the true condition of the sofa or chair. When you have an antique estimated, you must have the awareness that it will cost you more than you think. It probably needs more work than you expect.

When determining how much work needs to be done, we go by the condition of the frame, springs, support linings, and the padding. We will not cover over the internal workings of a chair that is falling apart.

How can you tell what the true condition of your furniture is?

  1. First and foremost, pretend like you don’t own the furniture (or have someone else inspect it) and are inspecting it to see if you want to purchase it. Look it over very critically. Your job is to find everything wrong with it that you can. (Much of the time when client’s inspect their own furniture , they look at it through rose-colored-glasses. They don’t want to see anything wrong with it.)
  2. Firmly hold onto and wiggle all the major areas of the furniture (arms , back, legs, etc). Are the joints rock-solid, or do the the joints wiggle?
  3. Look under the furniture. Is the webbing still tight, or does the webbing bulge down quite a bit?
  4. When you sit on the furniture, does the seat give you good solid support. As you press down firmly all around the top of the seat, is it all firm, flat, and level, or are uneven or hollow spots.
  5. How long has it been since the chair has been reupholstered.
  6. At the time that it was done, were the springs reties, were the support linings replaced?
  7. If it has been more than possibly 15-20  years since the insides have been rebuilt, then there is a good chance the chair or sofa will need much work.

Upholstery Cost is Higher

Reupholstering antiques usual cost more than upholstering modern furniture because:

  1. The frames on antiques have had much more use and have been around longer than modern furniture. Unless the frames have been reglued lately, they may need to be glued. The frames are usually more brittle and we often have to reglue frame pieces that are loose and are coming off.

  2. The springs and padding usually need attention or repair.

  3. Antiques usually have wood around the edges and bottom of the furniture. The means:

    1. we have to work slower and be much more careful when tearing off the old cover and putting the new cover back on.

    2. Attaching fabric around the decorative wood involved extra work of attaching the fabric and then having to apply the trim over the fabric edges.

I've heard many times, when someone wants to have a antique recovered, "I only want the cover changed. Everything else is in good shape." The truth is that no one can see what the frame and springs look like under the cover. The fabric and padding hide the true condition of the frame. A high percentage of the time, when "recovering" antiques, I end up having to strip the furniture to the frame, removing the burlap, webbing, padding, and springs, then having to rebuild everything from the frame up. Sometimes I also have to take the frame apart and reglue it.

What is your Budget?

This will greatly influence your reupholstery options. If you are on a tight budget, then I would suggest that you either put the furniture away until you can afford to have it done right, or, perhaps sell the furniture, or give it to another family member, who can afford to have it done.

Things To Consider About Your Antique(s)

Although you see your antique as a single piece of furniture, it is actually composed of numerous elements. In reupholstery you need to consider each part.

The Frame

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.


Cleaning: Over a period of years dirt, grime, and wax may have built up on the woodwork of your antique.

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

  1. 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.
  2. Re-Use Springs: reusing existing springs (replace any broken springs)
  3. 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.

Padding Methods:

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.

Re-use existing Materials:

With any of these options, new padding is added over the top of existing padding if or as needed.

  1. 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
  2. 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 outer-linings as needed to hold the padding in place. Add new padding on top as needed. (This is our most common option)
  3. 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)

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:

  1. Common Modern Padding: Padding replaced with new common materials, such as polyfoam, cotton, and other readily available materials
  2. 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)
  3. 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 Upholstery Tacksa tack hammer. Some of the drawbacks about using tacks is they  damage the frame. Upholstery tacks are, in a small way, shaped like the splitting wedges that are used in splitting  wood. When the furniture was new, and had just one cover put on, and splitting damage wasn't noticable. But, when the furniture has been recovered numerous times using tack, this results in many tack holes in the same area. This can result in the wood in that are begin to have tiny splits in numerous areas where the tacks have been. Over the many  years I've done upholstery I've seen a few furniture pieces where the wood had been damaged so badly by tacks that that wood had to be repair or replaced before it could be upholsterered. 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 & Tacksstaples. This is a very easy and cost effective method.
There several types of staples. The type that many upolsterers use, including me, is like at very thin wire, which does almost no damage as it goes into the wood. Unlike tacks, the thin legs of the staples leave the wood almost undisturbed.In the picture at the left, compare the thickness and shape of the shaft of the tack and the staple that goes into the wood. The thinner the shaft, the less damage to the furniture frame.

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.