There once was a very sad Louis style chair. Very beige, very neutral, very brown wood. It was French in style, and vintage, so it had something going for it, but all else was a complete bore, so it’s not even worth showing. It needed color on the outside! On the inside, it was even worse: crusty, crumbling old foam over webbing, which would never do, professionally speaking. So, off came all of its materials, all the way down to the bones, to be built back up the traditional, European, way, with springs and natural materials (no foam).
I painted it with natural milk paint in a cornflower blue hue–meant to be imperfect looking. Sealed with tung oil and lightly distressed for a casual look, the transformation had begun. Next came webbing and hand-tied springs, anchored with tacks. Although I usually tie my springs eight ways, most of these are tied six ways, because eight ways seemed like overkill on such a small seat. I daresay they’re tight and will last just as many years.
This is excelsior, or wood wool. Using traditional upholstery methods, it gets laid into bridles to be covered with burlap and hand-stitched into a first stuffing. The stitching compacts the wood wool in a roll around the top to support the second stuffing of hair.
On top of this, lots of fluffy horsehair gets bridled in to form the second stuffing. I then cover that with muslin and a layer or two of cotton before I put on the fabric. In this case, the fabric is a wonderful designer velvet that is printed with a large variety of patterns in amazing colors. Just the effect I was looking for.
With an oversized black and white houndstooth chenille in the picture frame back, and double welting made of plum purple velvet, the completed look far surpasses the original in excitement. The inside, done with traditional methods and materials, far surpasses the original in comfort, quality, and durability. This beauty is going to make a fabulous statement wherever it ends up. Check out my Etsy shop, or Chairish, to find it.
I design and make chairs to sell, or for clients based on their own desires. I have an inventory of vintage seating pieces longing for their big breaks–contact me directly to design and make a chair for you that has something to say!
Here’s a very satisfying “before and after.” These chairs arrived in my workroom in a well-loved condition. The consignment shop where I found them had slit the webbing to remove the nasty, crumbling, petrified foam that was sprinkling out everywhere. Since they were such a fine quality, there were no repairs to be made, but they needed to be sanded and painted because of 70 years of (surprisingly little) wear: dings, nicks, scratches. The before:
Although these had foam over the webbing, I replaced it with coil springs and horsehair because such nice chairs deserved the finer traditional upholstery treatment. Here’s the progression:
I chose a fine velvet from GPJ Baker called Barcelona in the Indigo colorway. It has a large repeat, which allowed me to use a different part of the fabric on each of the chairs. The fabric is vivid and bohemian in nature, with parts of it quite irridescent. I always find the finer fabrics to be lovely to work with, and this one was no exception. It went on beautifully over the scrim, or calico, (as they say in the U.K.) layer.
These turned out so well, and happened to sell right away, so I’m going to be looking out for more to transform!
I have discovered that I love making upholstered furniture. Not, by the way, with foam stuffing. Using traditional methods of upholstering furniture is like sculpting with stitches. You are not at the mercy of the materials, but the materials are at the mercy of your hands. Horsehair, cotton, and coiled springs–a great combination for truly stylish, refined furniture with longevity. Kind of like putting yourself out of business!
These began on a Craigslist whim, as most of my purchases do. I loved the curve between the front legs on these antique mahogany chairs. I knew the frames would look amazing in black, topped with some velvet. And pink. Pink was required. They were so sad and neutral. See:
Since my new favorite thing to do now is upholstering, I knew that six of these babies would provide me with adequate practice to get it right, and they did. After ripping out the old guts, including the old zig-zag “springs”, sanding, and repairing every lose joint, I painted them black and put a satin topcoat on them. That was the easy part! To upholster, I did them in phases, perfecting my technique: webbing, springs, burlap, horsehair, muslin, cotton, velvet. And the seat backs: fabric, stuffing, support, stuffing, fabric. I’m really having a hard time preferring any other way to spend my time!
Some highlights of the process:
The pink floral seat backs got tightly woven burlap to keep their shape, and layers of cotton. This floral fabric has a very linear weave, so it was important to keep the weave straight, and tight as a drum.
Yards and yards of double welting made from the velvet brought the whole look together. I was actually sad when they were done. But they made someone in Kentucky very happy!
A few years ago, I began to be attracted to lovely photos of creatively upholstered furniture. I looked at them with an aim to recreate them myself, and with my creative skill set, I knew I could do that, albeit not without a struggle. I found these old French chairs, which are slightly different, but both in need of serious reconstruction.
These were found at two different places, and were in equally horrible condition. Both were stuffed with crunchy old hardened foam. My aim was to bring them back to fine antique condition, which entailed learning a whole new skill set: traditional upholstery. Techniques used in this method of upholstery involve no foam. I had to learn how to tie springs by hand, stuff with excelsior (wood wool), stitch with twine into burlap, pound tacks, arrange horsehair, and tuft, tuft, tuft.
This sort of trade is disappearing. It is time consuming and takes much practice. It is expensive. However, the finished product is sculptural and long-lasting. It will never harden or crumble. It is authentic. It’s also a bit of a hunt to find someone who will teach it to you. I could go to the UK, where the craft is very much alive, and is taught many places, or I could go to Nebraska. I was referred to a master antique upholsterer there who was willing to have me spend a week training in his workshop, so I went.
The week I spent with Kim Buckminster, of Buckminster Upholstery, was eye-opening. There wasn’t nearly enough time to learn everything, but I got started on one of these chairs. He taught me many different techniques that I could apply, but most importantly, I learned the FEEL of good upholstery, and that details matter. I left with an awe of his talent and techniques, and a vow that I would do this.
Over the next year or so, I worked on these chairs, off and on. I read old upholstery manuals found at thrift shops and traditional upholstery tomes that aren’t even in print anymore, found on Amazon. I did, undid, and redid many of the steps along the way, because they did not meet the standard I was looking for. Tufting was the hardest. It was like an instructor put the same inside back in front of me every day, and I had to strip it at the end of each day until I got it right! But all that was practice, and actually very satisfying, because in the end, I got two skillfully upholstered chairs in the traditional method. And it was my kind of fun.
Here are a few progress shots so you can get the idea of all the steps that were involved!
This is not a tutorial. It is my attempt to shed some light on the upholstery trade I admire. I see so many upholstery tutorials in blogland made by people who don’t do upholstery very well, and shouldn’t be telling other people how to do it. The “looks okay to me” style of upholstery, with crooked box cushions and loose, wrinkled fabric causes people to be fine with a lower standard. I have found that most people don’t even know what their furniture is stuffed with. Some think that quality upholstery is “too expensive”, so they buy at mass-market low-grade furniture stores. Not surprisingly, those pieces have very short useful lives when the foam disintegrates or sags, and are not worth recovering.
Personally, I look at furniture differently now. Foam has its place, such as in contemporary or mid-century modern pieces, but it also has different levels of firmness, quality, and longevity. I am a firm believer that you get what you pay for! These chairs will have a long life, and when the fabric wears a little, you’ll only need to take the finish fabric covers off and replace them. The guts will stay in shape for the next 50-75 years!
I’ll be attempting more traditional upholstery projects. I’ve started on a set of six antique French dining chairs and they won’t take me as long because there’s no tufting, and I know what I’m doing now!
These cuties are for sale. Contact me directly, or go to my shop. I have a lot of beautiful, skillfully done, one-of-a-kind vintage furniture pieces for sale there.
So, this potentially great piece was at my local Habitat Restore. It’s from the Lotus collection, by Kent Coffey. Very vintage. I looked at it for several weeks, which was a long time for a dresser to sit at that place. It needed a LOT of work. In addition to missing drawer runners, someone had begun to deeply carve one of those “I love…” hearts in the top (and left us in suspense), with some extra scratches for good measure. But the wood was good, veneer intact, and it had sensational solid brass pulls and plates. Here’s how it looked:
The whole piece, you can’t see, was brushed with someone’s idea of a refinish–drippy, sloppy varnish. It all had to be scraped and sanded, and well, de-browned. So, I did. Here:
The plates and pulls were delacquered, polished, buffed, and relacquered to make them gleam against the bright blue. I used the bright blue because it made the brass hardware look really really good. And I used the gloss finish because just about everything looks great with gloss.
This makeover is so me. It was a great price at the thrift store, so even though it was monstrously heavy, I could see it finished in my mind, so it came home with me. This is what it looked like:
Very brown. Very dull. Only one flaw–the exposed wood under the chipped carving on the bottom left door–an easy fix.
Prep was time consuming, though. All the glass panels had to come out, piece entirely sanded–all the grooves and carvings, inside and out. I sprayed the beautiful gray, then hand painted all the gold accents, and then sprayed a nice glossy finish. Replacing the cleaned glass panels meant making new painted wood stops, mitred and tacked, for each panel inside to replace the old brown rubber stops. But the result? If you like vintage furniture, Hollywood Regency style, it’s really breathtaking.
Such a satisfying a result. Such a nice piece. It’s in my Etsy shop.
Just for fun, while I dragged my heels finishing up some tedious touches on one project, I did a (supposedly) quick project. I had previously stumbled upon, and brought home, the perfect dresser for some milk paint, which I have been yearning to use for some time. This one was in great structural condition, so all it needed were cosmetic improvements. Here it is:
I always sand and prep every piece carefully. I didn’t want any chipping with this one, so I also added the bonding agent. I’m convinced that this material is just watered down polyurethane, but I’m not a chemist and they don’t list the ingredients on the bottle.
I used Peacock, from The Real Milk Paint Company. I enjoy the lights, darks, and striated colors of milk paint mixed from pigments and powders. When I have an actual antique (not just vintage) piece, it’s my paint of preference.
It took many coats because I mistakenly sanded through the finish down to raw wood around the original pulls, which had cut large circular patterns in the wood that I knew would show when I used different pulls. When you don’t sand evenly with milk paint, it soaks in differently and becomes very obvious. Drat. At one point, I had to cover the whole thing with flat polyurethane to get an acceptable even finish with several more coats.
When the piece looked done, I coated the whole thing with tung oil. This brings out more color in the paint, and enriches it. The drawers were sanded and sealed inside, and the great steel casters were rubbed with a little gold wax. Then I put on the jewelry: green and yellow agate pulls from Anthropologie. Those are what this piece is about, anyway.
See the striations? That’s what I like about Milk Paint.
A few spots did chip, so I ended up sanding those back a bit and reapplying the paint and the oil. It’s a very relaxed, very livable look with a pop of glam in the fascinating brass mounted agate pulls.