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Getting Started in Upholstery

Acquiring Skills

tear downAs in any career, developing a quality of workmanship (known as skill) is of utmost importance. Skill doesn't come quickly or easily Here are a few tips to help you along the way. Let me say, don't try to make a living at upholstery while you are getting started. You should have a day-job that pays the bills. Doing upholstery should be your second job that you do after hours. It has been said that it takes 3-5 years to get a business to be profitable. If you are wanting to go into upholstery as a profession, I'd recommend that you take this long term view of gradually working into doing it, while keeping your paying job. 

  1. Get Rid of perfectionism! Yes, you need to focus on doing high quality work, but that comes later, after you have acquired some skill. At the beginning perfectionism will kill your interest. You need to realize that your first pieces that you recover will be a mess! Your work will be very sloppy at first. Accept that fact, and persevere through it. Make the messes and have fun while you are doing it. 
  2. Acquire Some Knowledge:Knowledge can come in a number of ways. I started this trade working with my dad at the same time he started. He did not know much more than I did, so I had no one to ask how to do something. Also, there were very few upholstery books or videos available. My knowledge came primarily by doing the work. When my family first started in the upholstery business we worked mostly for poor people, working cheap, giving credit (Boy, did we get burned a lot!). But we kept going. We had to succeed, we had to eat, we had no other income. Here are some ideas of how to begin to aquire some knowledge about upholstery.
    1. Take an upholstery class at a local college, high school, trade school, etc.
    2. Read upholstery books
    3. Borrow, rent, or buy some upholstery videos.
    4. Volunteer to work at an upholstery shop free of charge.
    5. Make friends with an upholsterer, and ask if you can just come in and watch him work.
    6. Apprentice yourself to an upholsterer.
  3. Get Some Basic Tools.At first, you may still be evaluating if you really want to get started in upholstery, so you might not want to buy very much. This is very understandable. But also realize that you don't have the right tool, then the job will be much harder. Here is a list of some basic tools
    1. Sewing machine: This is perhaps the single most important, and most expensive, tool/equipment that an upholsterer needs. The best type of a sewing machine for upholstery is called a "walking-foot" industrial sewing machine. If you have committed yourself to doing upholstery, don't settle for any other type. It is understandable that someone may not want to spend a lot on an industrial sewing machine until he/she has really decided to commit himself/herself to doing upholstery. But, also understand this, not having the correct sewing machine makes everything harder. During a transition period in my life I worked with a home sewing machine for about a year. Even as an experience professional upholsterer, trying to sew heavy upholstery fabrics on that machine was a real trial. With that said, as you are starting out, you can indeed use a home machine. You just need to use light-weight fabrics that the home sewing machine can handle.
    2. A Digital Camera. If you don't have a teacher available (or even if you do), one of your important tools for learning is a digital camera.
      1. Take pictures of the furniture from every angle before you take anything apart. Then take pictures at each major step as you go. Take more pictures from more angles that you think that you will need. When you start putting the cover back on, you can use the pictures as a guide to help you remember how it went back together.
      2. If you need help, you can take pictures of your problem, and then email the pictures to another upholsterer for advice.
    3. Stapler. A hand stapler will work. An electric stapler will be better. An air stapler (providing you have an air compressor, is the best type of staple.
    4. Hand tools: hammer, screwdrivers, staple removers, ripping chisels, rulers, squares, skill saw, jig saw, electric drill, etc. (more to follow)
    5. For more information on tools, go to Basic Upholstery Tools,
  4. Set up a designated work space (that is not shared with anything else): To succeed at learning upholstery, you need to set aside, and set up, an area to work in. If you try to share a space with something else, you probably won't succeed. Every time you think about doing some upholstery, you'll see the other clutter that you first have to clean, so you won't even get started.
  5. Get Some Furniture to Practice On:After getting a few basic tools, you need a good supply of furniture to practice on.
    1. Use throw-away furniture: For your first pieces I would suggest that you get some old furniture (look in dumpsters, thrift stores, ask friends), find some furniture you can get for free or very cheap. Since you are using old junk furniture, you shouldn't feel afraid that you'll ruin it. Anything that you do will be better than it is.
    2. Do work for friends and acquaintances. Let them know that you are just practicing and you will do any simple pieces for free while you are learning. The advantage of doing the work for free (rather than using old furniture that you've collected yourself), is that the client will pay all the expences (purchasing fabric and supplies.)
  6. Get Some Fabric: On your first pieces you don't want to spend a lot of money on fabtric. You just need some very cheap fabric, the color doesn't matter. Then use that cheap fabric to cover your first piece(s). As you gain more experience, then you can purchase better fabric.
  7. Schedule your upholstery time. Put this on your calendar as you do any other appointment. Then make sure that you keep this appointment and do the work.
  8. Just Do it! The hardest part of getting started is getting started. While going to classes is helpful, it's not a requirement. Upholstery is something that you can learn just by doing it. Sometimes students may use taking classes as an excuse not to get started.
    1. Don't use endless time going to classes, reading books as an excuse not to get started. Although all these things are helpful, nothing will help you learn as much as actually getting started.
    2. You will learn more by recovering some furniture (even if you are scared and don't know what to do) than you will by reading endless books and taking countless classes. Yes it will take you a while on the first few. But you will figure it out as you go, and you will learn. Just do it and you will learn!