Horsehair and Burlap: Vintage French Upholstered Chairs

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.

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Seen better days…

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.

French Shield Back Chair Fronts
French Shield Back Chairs with Velvet Tufting and Linen Seats
French Shield Back Chairs Backs
French Shield-Back Chairs with Tufted Pink Velvet, Printed Linen Seats, and Hand Stitched Cording

Here are a few progress shots so you can get the idea of all the steps that were involved!

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The “tacking-down” phase, over sculpted wood wool and hand-tied springs on webbing.
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Blind stitching to sculpt the first stuffing of wood wool. Left chair has two rows of blind stitching and one visible row at the edge, while the right chair has one blind stitch row and two visible rows. The right one is the correct way, but it was fine to leave the left one as-is; the structure is essentially the same. I got a little tired of ripping out by then, so I left it. The tufting on the right chair had the wrong proportions, so it came out later to do over.
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Lots of horsehair for the second stuffing of the seats! It is held in place by “bridles”, believe it or not. Neigh. You can see the stitching lines that sculpt and firm the first layer of stuffing–the wood wool. In future projects, I hope to get those straighter and more even. Details count.
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Horsehair second stuffing of the seats is now tamed. The horsehair tufted backs are not even–I ripped out the right one yet again after this photo to restuff so the fabric would fold better in the diagonals. You can see the nice, firm, sculpted edge that gives the chair its structure and shape. There will be no sagging of the front here when you sit!
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After getting the tufting right, this is what the backs look like. I ended up using seat webbing because I was unhappy with just sagless burlap to hold the tufting. Now it’s really secure and firm. Makes me happy, even though no one will see this. By the way, I switched to staples at this point because even purists have to take an acceptable shortcut in the interests of time and frustration. As an amateur, I needed three hands to complete this with tacks, and I only had two.
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Here’s the fitted back being hand stitched to the cording. The back got some cotton stuffing in the void and sagless burlap, another layer of cotton, and this pretty fabric. Stitching is fairly therapeutic for me, and curved needles are a necessity. The cording is tightly twisted, so it was tough to put the needle through, making this a not-so-quick process.
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After stapling the cording on, I had to snug it up to the edge of the chair for the best look. This entailed more hand stitching, and removal of the cording lip around the legs. The brighter pink wool seat back here was one of those steps that got redone because I didn’t feel it was stuffed properly. After removing it, it had too many tack holes in the back and had been trimmed already, so I really couldn’t put it back on easily. I switched to the velvet at this point.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

South Beach Inspired: The Blue and White Dresser

Okay, so I may not know when to say when. I probably held on way too long to the pink and orange color combination that I loved so much. No one else did. 😦 Actually, I should say that it was favored many times on Etsy, and got many nice comments on the original post and on facebook, but remained unpurchased. That is the telltale sign. I finally got it.

I thought this would be a great color combination. No one else did.
I thought this would be a great color combination. No one else did.

So, after a trip to Miami, I was inspired by the sun-bleached colors and the architecture of the South Beach area to repaint this pink piece blue and white. Now it’s a soothing, glossy, sea blue and white piece with the great original knobs.

How do you like me now?!
How do you like me now?!

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South Beach Dresser2

This piece is available in my Etsy shop.
The painting is by me.
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Tur-key to Tur-quoise: Antique Oak Dining Table

My husband comes up with most of these titles. He’s quite punny.

This table was part of a package deal. A buffet I spotted on Craigslist that had me salivating came with this non-matching beat-up table. I always think it’s odd when sellers refuse to separate pieces (and risk losing a sale), even though the buyer might have no intention of keeping them together. I tend to wonder if the seller intends to visit his pieces someday to make sure they are still keeping each other company.

I agreed to this arrangement because the table had lots of curvy legs that I thought might look good in a wild color. First thing I had to do was remove the 1/8 inch thick layer of gloppy ambered polyurethane that had accumulated over the years on the tabletop. Here’s the before, under the shroud of shame (paint stripper cover):

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Since I didn’t have the leaves, the sliders were useless, so I removed them. This made the table a little lighter and easier to manipulate. When I put the two halves back together, they dowel into each other and lock with a lever.

Milk paint was the perfect treatment for this piece. The legs were not oak, and had a finish on them that might resist, so they were rubbed with deglosser. The newly stripped top was very dry, so I smeared tung oil on some of the edges and spots that I hoped would then resist and chip. For once, milk paint did what I told it to do. The legs chipped a little and the paint resisted soaking into the oiled spots! This is, to me, the perfect level of natural looking wear.

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Before Hemp Oil Finish
Before Tung Oil
After Hemp Oil Finish
After Tung Oil

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The finishing touch was tung oil, which actually gives the top some water resistance. More than that, though, it mellows the color and deepens it, darkening the wear spots as well. Makes it look like it’s always been this color, and certainly not a turkey anymore.

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Mirrored Bar Cart: A Reflection of Hospitality, Beauty, and Time

Picture yourself at a party. There’s the hostess, with a smiling bright face, leading you to a cart brimming with luscious cool drinks and adult beverages for you. Picture a big lucite ice bucket with silver tongs. Lemonade in a big pitcher. Then look down at the cart.

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Yuk. You suddenly lost your desire to partake of anything on that cart. But wait! You whip out your mitre saw and your paint and your glass cutter, and, in no time at all, you have this!

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Ha! I wish I could have waved a magic wand and mirrored all those panels in an instant. Cutting mirror, I discovered, is not as easy as it looks! It takes a lot of cutting to get just the right size panels. You think you’ve measured, but your hand moves, just a bit. Ooops. Start over.

And what’s with that fake-slate formica under those hinged top panels? Can’t keep that. Rip those off. Take more time. Need to build a new top–mitre the wood, with ledges and gallery rails. More time. Oh, and paint it aqua! Yes! Many coats for perfection. Done!

Longest running project ever, but it turned out so pretty. Put an ice bucket on it now! Better yet, a glass of wine will do nicely.

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Antique Chest: Tools to Turquoise

I had the urge to go hunting for treasures one day a few weeks ago. So I went to a favorite thrift store, walked in and saw a man bending over a large, old wooden box right in front of the cashier. I was crestfallen, gasped, and said, “Oh no! I’m too late!” You see, in addition to bun feet, curvy legs, and Italian 60’s furniture, I also love boxes. And this was a very cool one, a chest, with many old tools inside. The man straightened up, and I noticed his name tag. Name tag! He worked there! He told me that the chest was just brought in and they had just priced it. “Sold!” I said. To me.

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In this chest, when I got it home, weere so many amazing things from the past–a vintage task light in a cage, hand drills, wooden handled screwdrivers, Ford Model T tools (pliers, socket set and screwdriver), a hammer set of three sizes with matching heads, early wrenches, a blue painted oak level, large tin snips, lots of metal files, solder, and many other items that indicated that the former owner was very, very productive.

But the really nice thing about this chest is the condition. The inside was totally unfinished, surprisingly clean, and had a sliding tray that rested on ledges inside. However, someone had taken the original lock off and put an ugly galvanized padlock loop on it that was causing the trim to split, as well as more modern galvanized handles on the sides. I cleaned it up, removed the ugly galvanized hardware, sanded it just to get the rough parts under control, stained the lid and trim, and washed it with my favorite turquoise so the wood and grease stains still showed through.

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And now it’s gorgeous. It doesn’t belong in a garage anymore. It belongs at the end of a bed, or in front of a sofa, with books on it. Maybe books on auto mechanics or woodworking!

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This humble chest went to the Vermont lodge of a high-end home builder. What a great fit for this terrific piece.
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Diamond Dresser Redo: Soulless to Striking

I spied him from a little ways away. I approached. My heart started beating a little faster. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed his brother lurking in the corner, and my blood pounded in my ears. They did not notice me. In fact, the taller one seemed to be soaking in some attention from an older woman poking and prodding him. “Get away from him,” I thought. “He’s mine. So is his brother.” She left abruptly, so I hurried over to check him out. He looked so fine, even if he had a yellowish aged pallor! Tall, well-built, and nicely cut, he and his shorter, wider brother came from a fine house: Fancher Furniture. And they were waiting for me at the thrift shop! I was giddy with visions.

dressermergeI took their tags over to the counter and paid. These boys were mine! Perfect specimens for remaking! Scratched and dinged, bland coloring, fine bones. I would take their soulless bodies and make them sing! Well, one of them, anyway. The other one is still waiting for his makeover.

Here is the tall one. He has such striking brass hardware all polished up that I needed to paint him a color that would highlight those handles. I named him Midnight Diamond Tall Dresser, and he is really fantastic in person. You should meet him!

Midnight Diamond Tall Dresser Front

Midnight Diamond Tall Dresser drawer pullMidnight Diamond Tall Dresser InsideMidnight Diamond Tall Dresser ring pullMidnight Diamond Tall Dresser SideI think he’ll get along great with so many people. What do you think?