19th Century Cornelius V Smith armchair with blue velvet material, wooden legs and castors

The biggest beginner upholstery mistakes (and how to avoid them)

I’m ALL for people having a go at upholstery themselves and as with most skills, much of it you learn through trial and error. But, if you’re an absolute beginner, I do have a word of caution: “don’t bite off more than you can chew”. If you choose an achievable transformation, you’re more likely to grow in confidence, get familiar with the basics and build up to something more complex when you’ve become more capable. My advice is to start small, get to grips with the techniques gradually and you’ll be tackling all kinds of projects in no time.

There are two main reasons this subject springs to mind right now. Firstly, I was contacted recently by Emma (and by the way, I have full permission to share her story here). Like many people, she found herself a bargain buy on eBay and decided to have a shot at a DIY transformation herself. It didn’t go well and I’ll explain more in a moment.

The second reason is that since the launch of my guide to getting into upholstery; Virtual Vintique: Upholstery Uncovered, the private Facebook group has been buzzing with beginner’s stories of which projects they’re tackling and the conversations in the group are so inspiring.

There have been some incredible transformations, but by far the best is always the simplest. It’s like I said before, start small and master the basics – it’s the best way to grow and learn.

Common Upholstery Mistakes revealed

1) Do your research

So, back to Emma’s project… She had come across two smart chairs on eBay almost 10 years ago. I have to say she’d bought well and spotted the potential in what are actually very desirable pieces. For just £100, Emma picked up what she thought was Parker Knolls. While this is a good, solid name in itself, the reality is way better. I happened to notice an engraved marking on the back leg when I gave them an inspection. Further investigation (and a little help from Matt Dixon at Tall Boy Interiors) revealed that they are in fact late mid to late 19th Century Cornelius V Smith chairs. I mean, wow!

19th Century Cornelius V Smith engraving

Pieces from this eminent London cabinet-maker usually come with a much higher price tag. And, more to the point, if restored well, Emma’s £100 chairs could be in the realms of fetching over £2k. The lesson here is that, as a beginner, do you really want to risk making rookie mistakes on such a high-value item? Thought not. So, as well as choosing a practical project, you might want to consider the inherent worth in your piece too. In other words – do your research!

19th Century Cornelius V Smith with worn material

2) Don’t overstretch yourself

From decorating a cake to building a house, it’s all too easy to think that YouTube can teach you anything. But when it comes to upholstery, nothing beats the hands-on training you get from a professional course or class. There is all kind of dimensions involved in stripping back an item of furniture then essentially rebuilding it. And every piece is different. Traditional upholstery is a whole new realm and you’ll want a qualified tutor showing you how each step is properly achieved before having a go yourself.

The best way to learn upholstery is by enrolling for some training, then gradually developing your skillset by tackling more complex projects over time. If you’ve got something exceptional that you’re dying to revamp either wait until you’re more skilled or get expert advice and leave it in the hands of a specialised and qualified upholsterer.

3) Don’t throw anything away

It’s so important – especially as a beginner – to keep every single element of what you strip away. Everything you take away provides a reference point and almost a road map for when you’re putting it back together. I also advise taking pictures at every stage so you can replicate important details and finishes. You may think you’ll remember, but often the nuts and bolts get forgotten once they’re taken away.

“Not every chair needs its guts ripped out. As you become more accomplished, you’ll know when to leave things alone.”

It’s worth knowing too that you don’t always need to strip everything back to its bare bones. With Emma’s chair, not only had she thrown everything away, but she’d also probably removed far more than necessary, which gave her an even bigger challenge than she’d expected. Not every chair needs its guts ripped out. As you become more accomplished, you’ll know when to leave things alone.Base springs of 19th Century Cornelius V Smith arm chair


4) Do choose the right materials

There are so many upholstery sundries and supplies to get your head around when you’re first starting out. From webbings to horsehair, foam and fillings, trims and tacks, there’s a huge choice and they all do different things. No wonder this is an area where some of the biggest mistakes happen. In this case, the webbing Emma had selected wasn’t strong enough for the size of the seat and not applied correctly on all webs, and to make matters worse, the tension wasn’t strong enough. She made a great attempt at tying the springs, but sadly no tension on the springs and the wrong cord meant the seat was like a trampoline. To be fair, that’s the kind of stuff you only really learn through hands-on tuition.

Equally, fabric choice can be a minefield and it can be years before you’re deciding with confidence. Emma selected velvet, which is a tricky material to start with – you have to factor in the lay of the pile and it’s not as forgiving as some other textiles. At £18 a metre, the velvet Emma chose was the too low budget for the task in hand and it wasn’t an ideal match. In isolation, there are many things Emma did well, but others – way beyond a beginner’s capability – let the overall finish down.

19th Century Cornelius V Smith arm chair with blue velvet material

5) Do respect the heritage

Over time you get to learn the things that are intrinsic to a piece’s design and the aspects that preserve its heritage. In my opinion, you should never change details that are linked to a piece’s provenance. There are always reasons why things are designed a certain way and you shouldn’t mess with that. Of course, there are things you can adapt to, but knowing when, where and why is a skill that is acquired over time. The risk with Emma’s piece – such a special chair with a real sense of history – is that you can scrap any value by adjusting a tiny feature.

Ask an expert

You may have already guessed, but the story of Emma’s chairs ends with her bringing them to me to be fixed. I admire her for having a go at upholstering them, but by her own admission, they were beyond her capability. The good news is that by having a go, Emma has decided that she wants to go and get trained properly. She signed up to my Virtual Vintique: Upholstery Uncovered guide and it’s given her the spark to continue. Just next time on something a little more straightforward!

(This blog post is published with thanks to Emma for allowing me to share the story of her chairs).

Find out more about Virtual Vintique: Upholstery Uncovered here.

If you need help with a simple or perhaps more sophisticated upholstery project, drop me a line for an initial, no-obligation quote by filling in the online contact form. Alternatively, you can email me directly at sharon@vintiqueupholstery.com or call me on 07764 182 783.

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