DO | Updating Classic Side Chairs

Side Chair Main

I love Mid-Century Modern furniture. When my friend offered up 4 of these lovely side chairs for FREE, I jumped at the chance to have them. They were in need of a little TLC, and Husband didn’t necessarily see the value in them, but I did, and schlepped them back to our townhouse so I could tackle them once we made our cross-country move.

Before I got to them, they were covered in (what I think was) the original fabric – a woven, orange, burlap-type fabric that had faded, was speckled with stains and spots and needed to be removed. The wood was a little beat up from years of use, dogs, and kids.

I wanted to give them a new look and use them in our living room. I found some linen fabric I liked (an easy-to-match wheat color) and a darker stain for the wood to give a bit of a contrast from the floors, but light enough to blend in enough with the style of our decor.

GETTING STARTED

I’ve refinished wood before, so I wasn’t too worried about that. I’d never reupholstered before, so I did it in the best way I thought possible.

  • Remove old fabric, keeping a close watch on what went where and how it was assembled.
  • Use old fabric and padding as templates.
  • Reassemble using my mad puzzle skills.

MEASURING FABRIC

First, determine what kind of fabric you’re using, and if it will have a pattern or not. I chose a light colored linen-type fabric with no pattern. If you choose a pattern, you’ll have to make sure to give yourself extra fabric to ensure you have enough to run the pattern the correct way. Also, whichever fabric you use, make sure you give yourself a lot of extra when you cut. That will help when you’re stapling. You can always remove the extra. You can’t go back and add an inch if you don’t have it.

I used the old pieces from the chair as a pattern. I gave myself what I thought was enough extra for seams and edging, but it was barely enough to get it together and stapled. I wish I’d given myself a lot more.

*mid post lesson*

I must admit, I definitely measured the fabric wrong. I first measured the chairs briefly, then came up with how many yards I thought I’d need on my own. I bought that and brought it home.

Then, once I’d disassembled the chairs, I measured the pieces of old fabric generously and gave myself double what I thought I’d need for a seam.

Luckily, while showing a friend the fabric I was going to use, I realized I had a LOT of fabric. Much more than necessary.

Before cutting it, I took it back to the store and had them cut it in half. Luckily they did this for no charge.

Main point: I did this by guessing. Don’t guess.

Measure, measure, measure before you cut anything. That means before you go to the store to have them cut something, and before you cut anything at home. Turns out, I must be a wizard because the amount I brought home the second time was quite literally “Just Enough.” All I had left were scraps, and on the edging on one of the seats, I had to sew two pieces together instead of using one long piece. I was kind of panicking because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find the same fabric if I needed more.

*end lesson*

Once I got home, before I cut a darn thing, I drew the layout of the pieces/sizes on a piece of paper so I could work it out before I wasted the fabric. Then I drew the pattern in pencil on the fabric itself. Luckily with this fabric, there was no “right” way, so I could turn these pieces as strangely as I wanted to make sure I utilized every bit of fabric I could.

TAKING THE CHAIRS APART

Materials Needed:

  • Staple Remover/Flathead Screwdriver
  • Phillips Head Screwdriver
  • Gloves
  • Any other tools needed for your particular chair

I started with one chair and once I got the hang of how to take it apart, I did the other three in succession.

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In this photo, I’ve removed the seat, and the back piece of fabric and foam on the back rest.

I used a high-tech staple remover called a flat-head screwdriver. I bought an actual staple remover, that looks like a bent fork-toothed screwdriver, but because these staples were so invested in the fabric, the thinner the “blade” the better in this case, and that happened to be one of our screwdrivers.

Once I had removed the seat and the fabric from the frame, I stripped the wood of the varnish.

REMOVING THE STAIN

Materials Needed

  • Stripper/Stain/Varnish/Finishing Material
    • Jasco Varnish & Stain Remover
    • Kleen-Strip Mineral Spirits to remove dirt and grime/bits of finish after using the stain remover
    • I used a Minwax stain/polyurethane combination. I normally like to do things the hard way, so I was going to get the stain and poly in separate containers. My husband showed me how much cheaper it was to do it this way, so I gave in.
    • You’ll also need steel wool pads in varying degrees of roughness. I used Homax brand (though I don’t know if this is better/worse than anything else) “0000″ very fine grade steel wool.
    • Credit card or plastic scraper to remove the varnish once the remover does its job
    • Old rags to apply the mineral spirits
  • Respirator to save your insides from dust and fumes
  • Eye Protection – the ones that look like sunglasses are fine, but I prefer these

Be sure to work in a well-ventilated area and wear your respirator. This stuff can be potent!

Follow the instructions on the can/bottle of the varnish remover. Once you’re finished, the wood should look kind of dry and definitely have less pop of color than it did before (See photo below).

REPAIRING

Materials Needed:

  • Wood Glue
  • Paintbrush
  • Tape/Bungee Cords
  • Any additional pieces that are missing (like button plugs to cover screw holes)

After you strip the finish, and before you waste time staining the furniture, be sure anything that needs to be repaired is taken care of. These chairs had a bit of wiggle, and some of the pegs were visible between the pieces.

I used some wood glue and a paintbrush to get into those small spaces, and then used bungee cords and tape to hold the chair together while it dried.

I also tightened all of the screws.

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STAINING

Materials Needed:

Once the chairs are repaired to your liking, you can get to staining.

Follow the instructions on the can/bottle.

Be sure to use just enough stain to cover the wood, and not so much that it drips and dries in a glob because you’ll have to sand that off later. You can also do parts of the chair, then go back and flip it over to do other parts to make sure you get every edge but don’t have any drips. Try not to rush.

After your first coat of stain has dried, go over it with the steel wool. I did the first “sanding” kind of hard to make sure it did its job. It may leave some fibers in the stain, so be cautious of that before you put the next coat on. For the record, I only put one coat on the button plugs.

One you’ve done 2-3 coats, if you’re using this stain-poly-in-one stuff, you don’t need to steel wool over the last coat.

Let the stain dry completely before moving the chairs otherwise you’ll end up with some fingerprints in your hard work.

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See the difference between a stained and stripped chair? I didn’t stain the back because that will be completely covered in fabric. Also, notice I numbered the chairs. This was helpful when replacing the bases for the seats because the screw holes matched up exactly.

CUTTING/SEWING FOAM AND FABRIC

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Materials Needed:

  • Fabric
  • Matching thread
  • Foam
  • Straight pins
  • Tailor’s flexible measuring tape
  • Fabric scissors
  • Piping (natural fiber or plastic)
  • Pencil (for drawing on fabric)
  • Sharpie (for drawing on foam)
  • Electric knife (don’t use the same one you use at Thanksgiving!)
  • Sewing machine + accoutrements

CUTTING FOAM

Materials Needed:

  • Sharpie (for drawing on foam)
  • Electric knife (don’t use the same one you use at Thanksgiving!)

Yet another time I flew by the seat of my pants:

I had never cut this type of foam before, but I saw someone at Joann’s do it with an electric knife. After trying for quite a while to find one in the middle of the summer (turns out they’re much more popular around November), I found one at Kohl’s. Thank you, Kohl’s.

I traced the old pieces of foam on top of the new foam, realizing that after 30+ years the old foam had compressed a bit. This didn’t change the perimeter shape, but I kept that in mind when shaping the edges. I didn’t cut it down to be the exact shape of the old foam because if I did, in 10+ years these chairs would have very thin seats after this current foam compressed.

When cutting foam with an electric knife, do so deliberately and as quickly as you feel comfortable. If you go too slowly or too quickly, it may make the knife jump a bit and then you’ll have jagged edges which are not simple to fix.

A tip I learned after I did these chairs – If you want more rounded edges on your furniture, cut the foam slightly smaller and then add a layer of batting to the top. This will give you the sturdiness of the foam seat but the soft edges you’re looking for.

ASSEMBLING FABRIC

While drawing the fabric patterns onto the fabric I was going to use, I made sure to label each piece with which chair it belonged to. That way, once I cut the pieces from the fabric puzzle, I could easily put everything for each seat in its own pile.

I had the following pieces for each seat:

Fabric for:

  • top of seat
  • edge of seat
  • top piping on seat
  • bottom piping on seat
  • back of back rest
  • front of back rest
  • piping around arms

Foam for:

  • seat base
  • front of back rest
  • back of back rest

Piping for:

  • top of seat
  • bottom of seat
  • around back of back rest
  • around arms of chair/back rest

I started by sewing the fabric around the piping. Then I assembled the seat pieces. I fitted this over the foam for the seat to make sure it fit, and to make sure the foam looked ok under the fabric.

ATTACHING TO THE CHAIR

Materials Needed:

  • Fabric, foam, piping
  • Upholstery Staple Gun (I used a pneumatic one which made my life much easier. When it got jammed (which it did often), I tried my hand staple gun and it was miserable and wouldn’t put the staples as deep.)
  • Staples – make sure they are the right width across the top, and the right depth so you can get through the fabric, foam, and wood
  • Flathead screwdriver (to remove your mistakes and un-jam your staple gun)
  • Phillips head screwdriver (to attach the seat base)
  • Air compressor/accessories (I read the directions every time I use this because I always feel like I’m going to blow up the garage)
  • Decorative nailheads 
  • Curved upholstery needle (this was only used because I didn’t cut the back fabric piece big enough, nor did I nail it down far enough along the sides. Once I used the nails I had little bits that weren’t tucked under anything, I sewed those stray bits into the back of the chair.)

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Each chair will vary, so I’m not going to go into too much detail about putting these together. I simply put them back together in the opposite way I took them apart. It wasn’t easy, and they’re not 100% gorgeous, but they are functional and I’m definitely happy with the work I put in!

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Spend more time fixing the chairs – this might mean taking them completely apart.
  • Light colored/linen fabric shows wrinkles and mistakes. Next time, I would use a darker, less-wrinkle-prone fabric, and possibly a large, bright pattern.
  • Know your tools before using them – that would have saved me time and frustration with the staple gun.
  • I might use plastic edging instead of natural fiber because it would give it more structure.
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