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14 reupholstery tips from a pro

By Matthew Haly, Real Simple
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Wed April 18, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • If you replace your cushions, ask the upholsterer for 60% down and 40% feather
  • A good upholsterer should be willing to say no if your choice isn't right
  • If you want to take a big design risk, do it with throw pillows and keep the sofa basic

(Real SImple) -- How long have you been in this business?

My first job, at 15, was at an upholstery studio in New Zealand, where I grew up. So I've been at this for 25 years. I've had my own studio [furniturejoint.com] for 12 years.

How can someone tell if a piece is worth reupholstering or not?

There's a lot of furniture today that's not built for a second life -- it's not structurally sound enough to invest in. If you have a piece with a well-made frame, it's probably worth it. Older furniture tends to be higher quality -- something that was your grandmother's in the 30s or 40s is more likely to have dowel joints than be glued together. That's worth investing in.

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Why is reupholstering so expensive?

It's a time- and labor-intensive process that involves specialized skills. A well-done job can include stripping a piece to the frame, reinforcing the frame and the joints, replacing coil springs and zigzag springs -- and that's all before the cost and complexity of fill, padding, and fabric. The most common misconception is that reupholstering is just about fabric.

Is there a cheaper way?

If the springs, padding, and frame are in great shape and all you're looking for is new fabric, it's a lot less expensive. But in my experience, by the time people are ready to have something reupholstered, it's beat up on the inside.

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Any tips on cushions and filling?

There's a huge difference when it comes to price. A down-and-feather sofa cushion costs about $650; foam could be $75. Down is very comfortable, but it compresses fast and doesn't hold its shape for long. It needs constant refluffing to look good. That's why a combination is so popular: A foam core with a down-and-feather wrap is soft and keeps its shape.

Is there some magic ratio of feathers to down in good sofa cushions?

This is important. For both seat and back cushions, the ratio should be about 60% down to 40% feathers. A too-high percentage of feathers is bad -- they'll poke through the fabric. If you're not sure what percentage your existing cushions have, unzip the covers and read the tags. Cushions could be labeled "down and feather" and actually have a ratio of 5 to 95. If you replace your cushions, ask the upholsterer for 60% down and 40% feathers.

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What's a common mistake people make when shopping for fabrics?

Picking stripes or patterns for rounded pieces. The stretching of the fabric required for proper application will pull the stripe or pattern out of whack and you'll end up with crooked stripes or a warped pattern. A good upholsterer should be able to tell you what will work -- and should be willing to say no if your choice isn't right.

Is any fabric resistant to kids or pets?

Unfortunately, dogs love every kind of fabric. In my experience, though, cats don't like mohair, and they stay off it. As for kids, I have two -- and, yes, upholstery is going to get damaged with little kids around. There's no way to avoid it.

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How do you know you're paying the right amount for reupholstering?

Get a bunch of bids. If you're hearing $3,000 from five places and then someone says $1,200, run the other way. That's what I call a chop shop. They're not going to do a good job.

What constitutes a bad job?

When upholsterers put the new fabric right on top of the existing fabric with a layer of cotton in between, instead of stripping away the old stuff. Most people can't tell right away, but in a couple of months they'll feel the cotton bunching up on the back of the piece.

Thoughts on slipcovers?

No matter what your upholsterer tells you, wash the fabric before you have slipcovers made. I promise you: It will shrink massively. Otherwise, the minute you take the covers to be dry-cleaned -- which involves liquid -- they won't fit anymore. And if the upholsterer says you need 10 yards of fabric, buy 15.

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Is there a way to know if re-covering a flea-market find will be affordable?

The main thing to pay attention to is the spring action. If you hear an eee-eee-eee noise when you sit down, that's not good. And it will cost you.

How do you care for upholstered pieces?

Don't sit on them. Seriously, though, I don't do anything special -- I've never vacuumed my sofa.

What's one request that doesn't sit well with you?

Two-tone upholstery. Like a sofa where the front and the back are different colors. You might be sad that you did that in a few months. If you want to take a big design risk, do it with throw pillows. Keep the sofa basic.

Any last words?

Sometimes people come to our studio wanting to preserve things for purely sentimental reasons. And that can be perfectly valid. In a time when so many of us live far from our families, and when so much is disposable, it's nice to have a really personal piece of furniture in our homes.

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