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Simple Steps to Reupholstering Dining Room Chairs

Updated on July 17, 2013
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Jeanne Grunert is a full-time freelance writer, novelist, and garden communicator. She lives and works on a 17-acre farm in Virginia.

Repaint and Reupholster Dining Room Chairs

My husband and I inherited his grandparent's 1950s dining room set. We liked the beautiful cherry wood finish on the china cabinet and dining room table, but the chairs had seen better days. They were upholstered in a gold nubbed silk fabric that had accumulated every bit of dirt, food stain and pet hair you can imagine. The chair legs also had rubs and scrapes on them from numerous moves. We didn't want to get rid of the entire set, but the fabric-covered chairs were really beaten up. We thought we would refinish the chairs and reupholster them. However, the glossy stain on the wooden chairs would not come off - not with all the sanding in the world! We tried every paint stripper, stain remover and sandpaper imaginable, but it wouldn't come off. We came upon this solution quite by accident and it has worked out well for us. We repainted the chairs black, and recovered the backs with upholstery fabric remnants that we bought that echoed the Chinese style in our dining room. The results are chairs we love, and chairs we can enjoy for many decades to come.

Books and DVDs to Reupholster Furniture

Before starting your project, you may want to read or watch how to instructions for reupholstering furniture.

Dining Room Chairs: Before

Here are the chairs in the dining room on Thanksgiving Day, 2007. This is the "before" picture. Note the nubbed gold fabric. It looks better in the picture. Maybe it's the fancy china and candles!

Cautions and Considerations

Before embarking on your own furniture painting or reupholstering project, be sure you have the proper equipment and supplies. Also be sure you aren't ruining a good piece of furniture by changing it. Some antiques become worthless or worth less money if you change them, so when in doubt, consult an expert. Use my ideas here at your own risk and responsibility, please.

  1. If you're not sure whether you should refinish, repaint or upholster an old piece of furniture, have an antiques expert evaluate it first.
  2. Assemble all the tools and supplies you need before you start your project.
  3. Work in a well lit, well ventilated area.
  4. Use appropriate safety gear - gloves, mask, eye protection if necessary.
  5. Test paints and stains on a small spot underneath furniture to see how they look and how well they take to the original finish.
  6. Consider hiring an expert if you're not much of a DIY person.

Choose the Fabric

The first step is to choose the new fabric for your chairs. Select a heavy upholstery fabric that can withstand the years of people sitting down and moving about on the furniture. You'll also want to choose paint for the chairs. We chose a red Chinese-inspired damask fabric that has beautiful chrysanthemums on it. I love gardening, and the Chinese theme carried through with the faux Oriental rug in the dining room and some ceramic Chinese horses and riders I found at a garage sale.

We estimated how much fabric we'd need by measuring the seat and back of each chair. We multiplied this amount by six chairs, then added on one more chair's worth just in case we made mistakes.

We found this fabric at a fabric store that catered to home decorating needs. It was a remnant, the end of the bolt, and cost under $10 a yard.

We chose black paint instead of trying to match the cherry finish of the original wood for several reasons. The rug has tints of black in it, and we felt that the black set off the rich red fabric. It also blended well into the entire set after we placed a test chair next to the table. You could choose any paint color that complements your décor. The paint is a simple black glossy enamel purchased from a home remodeling store.

Use the Old Panels as Patterns

We used the old panels for the front and back of the chairs as patterns or templates to cut out the fabric. First, remove the cushioned seats and backs from the chairs. This took some strength. Be careful, too. The fabric tacks were very rusty! Danger!

Once the fronts and backs popped off the wooden frames, we removed the fabric tacks and threw them out. They were in bad shape. We used fabric chalk, the kind you buy in a sewing store, to mark each set of seat and back fabric panels with a number. We then chalked the chair with the number. This was done in case there was any different between the factory made chairs.

We used the fabric chalk to trace around each of the gold panels onto the new red fabric. The fabric itself provided a seam allowance of about one inch all around, which was just right for the chairs. We cut out each panel and placed them in sets, with a chalked number on the back that corresponded to the chairs.


Some fabric ideas for inspiration.

Paint the Old Chairs

We also painted the wood on the old chairs and let them dry for several days while we worked on cutting out the fabric. The backs and seats of the old chairs were made of plywood with foam on top, covered by fabric. The foam was in fairly good shape for being 60 years old, but we tacked some of it back onto the plywood using craft glue.

Affix the Fabric onto Seats and Backs

This was perhaps the hardest step of all because the backs of the chairs have a curve to them. We had to fold the fabric in several places to make it fit onto the backs. The important part was to make the fold in a consistent place on the chair back so that each chair had a little fold in the same spot. We used a staple gun to affix the fabric to the wooden seats and backs. The areas where the staples show on the back of the padded and upholstered seat and back does not show once it is in the frame.

We then used tacks and small nails to replace the seats and backs.

Enjoy Your New Set

Looks like new, doesn't it? Here is the set, finished. Because this was an inexpensive set, we weren't afraid to innovate and get creative with our solution. We did, however, have the dining room set evaluated by an expert before we set about refinishing it. Antiques can be devalued if refinished, so when in doubt, consult and expert before refinishing, painting, or changing an old piece of furniture.

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