Reupholstery Guide: Deconstructing an Antique Chair

Oct 1, 2008 by

Many readers have emailed me regarding the appropriate means in which to “take down” or “rip out” the old tacks and knots to prepare an antique chair for reupholstery.  This process is one of the best ways to learn about reupholstery — especially regarding your specific piece.  However, before you begin the deconstructing process, do you need to rebuild the structure and stuffing, or can you simply recover your antique chair with new fabric?  You can ascertain this by conducting the following inspection: (read the rest of the reupholstery guide after the jump)

  • Place your hands on the upholstery to feel for firmness.  Make sure it does not sag, especially near the front of the chair.  If you find that one of the edges can be flattened, then you will need to create a new edge.  Next, you want to look on the underside of the chair.  Through the webbing and springs, how does the burlap look?  Can you see fraying, especially along the edges?  After this inspection, if you find that all of the edges and pressure points look to be secure, then you may only need to recover with new fabric — leaving the structure intact.

Keep in mind that not all stuffing is created equally.  Here is a guide to evaluate whether you need to replace the existing stuffing in your antique chair:

  1. Horsehair: This type of stuffing found in many antique chairs can be used for decades to come.  If your antique chair has a horsehair pad, it is highly likely that you can reuse it, as long as the pad itself looks to be smooth.  Even if you find that the pad has lumps, you can tease the stuffing.
  2. Wood shavings: Some antique chairs may have been stuffed with wood shavings, and in the vast majority of cases, you will need to create a new pad.  The same goes for sea grasses used for stuffing.
  3. Foam: More recently constructed chairs may utilize foam.  Look at the pad to see if there are areas of indentation or flaking.  It the foam pad does not seem to be smooth, then you may want to use a replacement pad.

Once you have ascertained the condition of your stuffing or antique chair pad, you can begin deconstructing the piece.  By carefully deconstructing the layers, you can see exactly how your chair was constructed, and this will help when you add your own reupholstery flair.

Tools Needed:

  • Ripping Chisel
  • Mallet

To take the tacks out of the existing frame, the appropriate tools make life much easier.  Under the head of the tack, you will want to lodge your ripping chisel, and then use a mallet (or hammer) to wedge out each tack.  Make sure you are striking in the direction of the wood grain, as this minimizes the strain and potential splitting of the frame.  Start by working with the tacks underneath the seat, and then begin working your way around the front and along the arms (if applicable).

Stay tuned for additional DIY reupholstery guides!  As always, I would love to see before / after pictures of your reupholstery projects!

Photo Credits (from top): Oliver Hare International; JA Milton Upholstery

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  1. This is really helpful. You should totally post more about this subject. Thanks for the info.

  2. It’s so nice to see this posted! I still have a couple of chairs that need re upholstering, and maybe this will help motivate me to get going.

  3. Grace

    Thank you Rachel and Jessica! :) It is my pleasure to share, and I will be doing so more frequently now with your encouragement!

  4. This is a super helpful post. I recently acquired a neat old chair but the upholstery leaves much to be desired. I’d love to redo it myself- both for the fun of the project but also because I’m on a budget–but I don’t even know where to begin! I look forward to more on this subject…

    I’ve got a picture of the chair here- do you think it’s something I can do myself?

  5. Life is too short to do anything for oneself that one can pay others to do for one.W.SomersetMaughamW. Somerset Maugham

  6. Grace

    Life is too short to not create a work of art through your own hands 😉

  7. I am a self taught upholster, go to my website to read my story, click on the about me page. Good luck with your transformation pieces. Enjoy……

  8. i have an antique settee that i need to reuphoster. I have removed everything and am down to just the wood frame, which my husband has reglued. Help!

  9. I think that is an interesting point, it made me think a bit. Thanks for sparking my thinking cap. Sometimes I get so much in a rut that I just feel like a record.

  10. So not really on the same topic as your post, but I found this today and I just can’t resist sharing. Mrs. Agathe’s dishwasher quit working so she called a repairman. Since she had to go to work the next day, she told him, “I’ll leave the key under the mat. Fix the dishwasher, leave the bill on the counter, and I’ll mail you the check. Oh, and by the way…don’t worry about my Doberman. He won’t bother you. But, whatever you do, do NOT under ANY circumstances talk to my parrot!” When the repairman arrived at Mrs. Agathe’s apartment the next day, he discovered the biggest and meanest looking Doberman he had ever seen. But just as she had said, the dog simply laid there on the carpet, watching the repairman go about his business. However, the whole time the parrot drove him nuts with his incessant cursing, yelling and name-calling. Finally the repairman couldn’t contain himself any longer and yelled, “Shut up, you stupid ugly bird!” To which the parrot replied, “Get him, Spike!”

  11. What a good way to discuss

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