The interest in furniture upcycling and upholstery has increased dramatically over recent years. 10 years ago I would never have thought I would be doing this full time and even teaching others about it! Now, more than ever, it has never been easier to give it a go and take up your tools to restore or reinvigorate your old furniture. And I'm here to pass on a little advice for you to think about before you get started.
Before you begin, it is important to plan your work. As a messy, gung-ho individual it has taken me a while to get this into my head. The methods, materials and overall choices you make to complete your project will ultimately decide the timings, cost and desired finished look of your piece. These are subjective for each person and furniture item, however, are there certain choices we have no option but to make?
The aim of this blog post is to simply raise points for consideration and discussion for all budding restorers, upholsterers, upcyclers and anyone keen on getting their hands dirty with furniture! These are my personal opinions so please don't fret if you think differently or send me angry anonymous emails disputing them. Given my tardiness for admin I'll never probably see them anyway. :P
First of all, don’t get personal.
When producing an estimate for restoring a piece of furniture (or even simply reupholstering it), part of my job is to review and assess the current state the item is in. A conversation needs to take place as to what the customer requires and how they wish their item to look. One thing I have learned from this job is that my personal preference and taste should go out the window.
One thing you must do, in order to run any business, is aim for customer satisfaction. Which means even if I do not like the colour or design of the client’s choice of fabric or finish, it is not mine to make. However, as I can safely assume that they are coming to me for my expertise, I have a duty have to highlight the possible limitations behind their choices should there be any. This can range from difficult fabrics choices or any long last damage to the item, as I’ll explain later on.
The same can be said for any items for sale. No Nicola. That chair might not sell instantly in lime green leather with gold legs. What is more likely to sell or appeal to the larger market can often be completely different from my own choice of finish. And for me this is often the case.
How much should I be restoring? Or should I be conserving only?
It is not two topics most people would ever assume go together but if you consider the idea a little more than you will be able to see that ethics is clearly linked to furniture restoring.
The answer of this question can be quite subjective depending on your personal preferences but here are a few points to note.
Restoration is returning the antique or period property interior to a previously more acceptable condition; Conservation is retaining or securing what is already there
Should I be restoring back to its original glory? Of course if an item is broken then I should be fixing it to bring it back to its original purpose. However, how far do you, or should you go back to? Do you see perfectly restored ‘new looking’ pieces in stately homes? Also should you correct that mark on the antique chair that was made during an important event by a significant historical figure or by a beloved friend or family member?
If the state of the chair is acceptable then it might best to retain it’s current state and avoid over restoration by conserving the piece. There is an idea that you should be conserving not only the item but also the history and sentimentality behind the item.
What tools and materials should be used?
For my work, the customer needs only see the final piece. Most likely have an idea in their mind of what they wish their final product to look like and may even have a photo. However, it is important to ensure that the methods and tools used to complete the project are fitting and sympathetic to the style of chair. For example, you wouldn’t (or shouldn't) staple an antique chair frame and vice versa may not spend time hammering upholstery tacks into modern furniture. Ultimately you should be suiting your methods to the chair. For older pieces this most likely leads to a higher estimate, as you would be carrying out more labour intensive work. It is also worth highlighting this to your customer as the reason why your cost is so high.
Should I paint an item of furniture?
Now this is a subject that can divide a room. There are a variety of pros and cons behind painting of furniture and sometimes I am tied between my preference and practicality.
As a matter of personal preference I prefer to French polish furniture to see the grain. Painting doesn’t fit into the aesthetic I prefer but I say this knowing I have the skills to French polish and revive timber that not everyone does. However, the trend in furniture painting is accessible to all. It does require skill to get a perfect finish but ultimately anyone can grab a brush and start working on their furniture. Painting furniture has become an easy and accessible way to divert items from landfill and go on to help the environment. Most items that are to be painted have actually lasted many years to get to that point. They will be sturdy and durable so why not change it’s look to allow it to last another decade?
But there is also an ethical dilemma behind this question. Should we be painting over quality craftsmanship or antique furniture? I am sad to say that I have seen some disastrous paint jobs over beautiful pieces of furniture. In contrast, I have seen some wonderful paint jobs over old furniture that has been given a new lease of life. This trend really has its advantages and disadvantages so with each job take the time to ensure your next step benefits the piece and causes no lasting and irreversible damage.
Fabric choice, Be careful.
One of the best parts of upholstery is deciding upon the fabric and imagining the final look of your item. It is extremely important that your choice is the right one. Using the wrong type can add hours and extra costs onto your project or be detrimental to the longevity of the final piece. Work with sturdy upholstery fabrics or if you choose a thinner one back them with Calico. This will make your life so much easier! I have made some horrific choices in this department and I have learned my lesson the hard ways.
Furthermore, knowing where and what the item will be used for can be helpful in making a decision. For example, if I know a chair is to be used as part of a dining set, and is likely to be used heavily, then is white cotton fabric really the best choice? As mentioned prior, it is not my right to make a decision for my customers but it is my job to give them advice and highlight potential issues for their choices. If you plan to sell your upholstered item, you also should consider the veritable minefield that is fire retardancy of which I will attempt to inform you of later in this post.
How much fabric should I buy?
Take your time to measure up and always be considerate of your pattern repeat and pile! If you are buying 1 metre of fabric, you will be most likely be buying 1m x ~1.4m and your pattern and pile will normally run from top to bottom of your width of fabric. Most often the pattern should translate onto the furniture in the same direction: top to bottom with the pile running smooth in that direction. If you plan to upholster a sofa with a patterned fabric and it is wider than 1.4m then you will have to stitch two pieces of fabric together with a resulting join on the final product (Fig. 1). Some companies do offer the option of railroading patterns where the fabric runs the length rather than the width of a fabric (Fig 2.). This must be requested in prior to ordering.
Another point to note is where your normal size armed bedroom chair may need only 2m of plain fabric to completely cover it you must remember to buy extra material if you choose a patterned fabric. The pattern should flow both vertically and horizontally through the chair.
Remember the legal bit!
For your own personal projects there are no legal obligations, however, if you plan to sell your work or services then you must ensure that you are adhering to the appropriate regulations (Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988/1989, 1993 and 2010). The regulations apply to the manufacture and re-upholstery of furniture that was made after 1st January 1950. This is a minefield for upholstered items where you are changing the fillings and supplying materials for the customer. If you are simply recovering for the customer and they are supplying their own material then parts of the regulations do not apply except when it comes to work for commercial work where you MUST use contract FR materials. To cover myself, I always advise customers of existing non fire retardant fillings and limitations of their fabric choices. More importantly if they wish to go ahead without your advice ALWAYS get it in writing that they acknowledge you have notified them and they decided to go against it.
If you do plan to sell your work then please take the time to research the regulations linked above and keep abreast of any changes in the future. It is tedious, and likely to make you cry with boredom, but it is important to cover your ass.
A little food for thought...or wish I hadn't started?
These are just a handful of some of the things to think about when working with furniture. the choices you make are yours to do so. But it is food for thought, should you override your personal preference & style for the benefit of the item? A true furniture lover might consider doing so.
If you have any comments, want to add anything I have missed or just want to chat all things durniture then please do not hesitate to get in touch via the website or firstname.lastname@example.org.