A few months ago, I decided I would try building a desk. I needed one so that I could work from home some days, and I had a specific style in mind. I wanted a leaning ladder desk, which encompass a minimalist style that doesn’t take up too much room. Perfect for me, as I don’t have a lot of extra room for a desk, what wasn’t so perfect, however, was the price. I found the perfect desk at West Elm, but it would cost me about $400 with shipping, and as a poor, recent graduate, I do not have that extra cash at my disposal.
Being the crafty, and perhaps a bit cocky, person that I am, I decided I could make it. As leaning ladder desks are indeed minimalist and not made of many parts, it turned out that I could make it, and I did. Using Ana White’s plans for a leaning ladder desk, it only took me two weekends to finish it, and a lot of the time was waiting for the stain to dry. Of course, this project wasn’t easy, and the desk didn’t turn out perfectly, but it turned out. It stands, it holds everything I need it to, it hasn’t collapsed (so far), and it looks beautiful.
Once finished, my DIY inflated ego decided to take on another project: a chair for the desk. Simple enough, right? I started searching for the best place for a young, college graduate to find furniture to furnish her apartment, Craigslist, for chairs that had the right frame for what I was planning. After searching for a chair that would match my desk with no results, I was determined to find one that would work. I ended up with a tall chair completely covered in ugly blue and white fabric. It was obviously an older chair, at least a couple decades old, but underneath the fabric was solid wood, and that was all I needed.
I thought taking the fabric off the chair, sanding and staining it, and adding new fabric to it would be an easy task. I thought it would take me half the time, or less, it took me to complete the desk — after all, the desk I had built from scratch, and the chair was already built. I could not have been more wrong. Giving this chair a makeover was the most difficult DIY project I’ve ever undertaken, and it took me months to complete, in part because I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and in part because it was seriously hard.
Staples, Staples, Staples
And more staples. That was the first few weeks of this project. I really knew nothing about upholstery coming into this project, but I never would have imagined there would be so many staples. Without exaggeration, I removed at least 1,000 staples from the chair. All the staple removers I had weren’t capable of removing these tough staples that were not only heavy duty, but were also sunken into the wood, meaning I had to dig many of them out.
Whoever upholstered this chair in the first place clearly didn’t care about the markups the staples made on the wood since it was covered fully in fabric, but I did. My vision for the chair was that it would be mostly wood with just the cushion on the back and the seat covered, so the staples were especially frustrating not just because it took so long to remove them, but also because they left significant dents in the wood.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect
I spent way too long trying to smooth out the wood. The dents were just large enough to require more than sanding, but not large enough that filling them with any material would have made a difference. However, I found a cool trick online to get such dents out of wood. You put a paper towel over the wood, add water, and iron it out. The wood absorbs the water and the heat from the iron makes the wood expand, removing the dent.
While this method did work remarkably well, it ultimately did not remove all the dents. I did try this a few times where I would iron the chair, and then sand it. I got it to smooth out quite a bit, but it never filled out like I thought. This was discouraging to me, as it seemed like I would not be able to get it right ever. I was hopeful though, that the stain would make the imperfections unnoticeable, and this was ultimately true. I went with a dark walnut stain, same as the desk. Now, you can’t really notice the dents, and you can only see the holes from the staples if the look closely, and they really just look like intentional accents.
I learned the same was true when it came to the actual upholstering, which was its own level of difficult. The best hack with upholstering — besides not using unnecessary staples — is that you can hot glue trim to the edge of the fabric to cover up the staples. This means that, if you’re a self-taught beginner, you can forego fancy folds and tricky piping. Plus, it adds a nice final detail to the chair to make it look nicer.
Here, you can see how rough the staples looked on the chair. The next picture was taken as I was glueing the trim onto the chair. I was worried that it wouldn’t cover the all of the staples as I had a rough time keeping the staple gun straight, but it worked well. It covered up all the staples and gave it a finalized look.
Upholstery Is HARD
And expensive. Besides buying the tools for staple or tack removal and a staple gun, you need to buy the fabric and the cushion. The cushion is typically made out of foam that will cost you at least $20 per yard and more, depending on the thickness and quality. I used a 3 inch foam and was able to get it for 40 percent off, but it was still a lot of money.
I Did It!!
All in all, I was happy with my decision to undertake this task. It was challenging, it took me months of on and off work to complete, and ended up costing about the same — or even more — than a new chair would have cost me. While it didn’t exactly fit in with my plan to save money by DIYing, I ended up with something that has my personal style on it: my chair with ED by Ellen Fabric, the same stain as my desk, and a bit of knowledge in a craft that was completely new to me before. That being said, here are a few tips I will keep in mind for next time and that anyone starting out in upholstery should also keep in mind.
Tips for Next Time
- Find out what type of chair it is before you buy it. This project would have been SO much easier if the cushion of the chair was attached to a piece of plywood at the bottom, as many are. Since I drastically changed the design of the chair I was unprepared for this detail. It was fun taking on a challenge and figuring out how to make it how I wanted it, but I would have saved a lot of time by buying an easier chair to reupholster.
- Don’t worry so much about the small details, like dents or holes from staplers. Do spend time trying to level it out, but don’t fixate on it. It will likely turn out fine in the end, and you can always come up with a plan to fix it if it doesn’t turn out how you wanted it to.
- Really stretch the fabric. This part is probably a two-person job that I should have asked for help with, but in my stubborn dedication to get it done myself, it turned out a bit looser than desirable.
- Extra cushion is always better. While I did spend a decent amount of money on the cushion, adding a bit more would also have helped with the the fabric not ending up so loose.