With simple sewing and no previous major upholstery skills, these 1970s French chairs got a fabulous makeover.
I am beyond excited to finally be able to share our DIY upholstered French chairs!! These little ladies were a long time in the making (okay, years…), with many bumps in the road that caused me to ignore them for months at a time. The thing that kept me from giving up on them was the vision I had in my mind of what they would look like in our living room with new paint and neutral upholstery.
Oh, and the fact that they were only $25 each and I couldn’t afford the $500 and up a piece for new chairs. Yeah, now that I think of it, that was probably more of a factor than the vision, ha!
But oh, is it a pretty good feeling to see these in our home and realize they look even BETTER than I had envisioned. I love how much lighter and airy they are than our previous over-stuffed chairs – both in their size and legginess and the light colors.
My inspiration came from a number of places, but the best is this chair from Restoration Hardware with a distressed white frame, linen interior upholstery with burlap on the outside. And a hefty $1295.00 price tag…each. Ouch.
BUT, I have never upholstered anything before. I’ve sewn a lot of slipcovers and recovered dining chairs but no upholstery. It’s one of the reasons I thought I could do this style of chair, actually, because most of the upholstery was just a matter of stapling fabric to the exposed frame. I still had to deal with the inside of the chair – but figured I’d deal with that as I came to it.
And I did – and you can, too, if you find chairs like this (with exposed frames), even with no upholstery skills and minimal sewing. I did learn a couple of things that I want to pass on to you if you’re ever in a place to redo any type of chairs, because it’s a case of “hindsight is 20-20.” So let me be your “hindsight,” okay? (Heads up: affiliate links are used where appropriate for your information)
Steps to DIY French Chairs Makeover
Look for a deal on chairs
Here’s what I started with: a pair of French-style chairs, circa late 70s, from Craigslist for $25.00 each. Score! Um, sorta…I had searched for almost a year for this style of chair with a mostly exposed frame, which seldom come up in our area, and knew this was a great price, even with the problems they had.
Fix any problems.
- The worst of the problems with our chairs was really wobbly arms which we fixed in a totally non-furniture maker way.
- The frame had been painted in such a way that it looked dirty.
- The fabric had been painted with a maroon stiff paint.
- The cushions were also super flat.
Remove the staples and fabric, keeping the pieces as a pattern for the new fabric.
Removing the staples is the worst part of this job – really. I attempted to use this cool tool, which worked on some staples, but not many because I learned that when you paint fabric (at least like these were painted), it causes the staples to rust. Every. Single. Staple. When you try to pull out rusted staples, they break in half, leaving two dangerous, pointy ends that you have to attempt to pry out with needle-nose pliers.
Every. Single. Staple.
So the removal of the fabric and staples took…years. Oh, how I wish I was exaggerating. But I would decide to tackle the job and 2 hours later would only have half of a section removed. At which point I would find other, less time-intensive projects to do. Cue the cycle to repeat over and over.
And to be honest, I might still be working on them if it wasn’t for Brian taking pity on me and spending some Saturdays last fall watching football while pulling pieces of staples out of the frame. #lovehim
You can strip the frame completely, carefully setting aside the batting pieces to reuse, as well as the fabric pieces for patterns for the new fabric OR you can do what I did and leave the batting on the insides (it fell off the outsides), painting around it. I did this because I was scared I wouldn’t get it all back in place, but it was also one less step to redo in the end.
Paint the frame.
Choose your color and paint your frame. It was a happy day when I finally was able to start painting the frames! I tried a couple of paint techniques, one being a gray-wash look like these frames, but in the end decided a distressed creamy white was going to give the best contrast with the burlap and beige linen-like fabric.
Cut fabric pieces and staple them to the inside, starting with the “deck” – the seat section.
Starting with the seat section (upholsters call this the deck), staple the front edge first and then pull back to staple under the chair back from the outside (you can see in the lower right photo the part of the frame the staples go – the back has an area like this, too, which you can see below).
TIP: I highly recommend using a compressor and pneumatic gun. Rent or borrow if you can’t afford one (or check out Harbor Freight’s prices!) – it makes projects like this go 2-3x as fast. I used a pancake compressor and pneumatic gun with an extended tip (a must for getting into tight corners) using 3/8″upholstery staples. Actually, I wish I would’ve used the 3/8″ – I used 1/2″ staples and they were horrible to remove when I stapled in the wrong place (it happens…). Learn from my mistakes!
You’ll notice that many chairs use a different material on the deck since it won’t be seen – it’s a way to use less of the more expensive fabric. I used drop cloth for the deck, because I didn’t have enough fabric and I wanted everything I had to be used where it was seen. (This is another thing to learn from my mistakes: you’ll be investing a LOT of time into this project – buy quality fabric and enough of it!)
The front section is seen, of course, so I sewed burlap to the drop cloth – this was the only sewing needed besides the cushions. I used a curved upholstery needle to attach the seam of the burlap-drop cloth piece to the underside of the seat to make it tighter (also, the original fabric was sewn here, too- it’s a professional technique).
Which leads me to my biggest upholstery tip I’ve used on all our projects, from dining chair seats to these chairs: to achieve a professional upholstered look (or as close as you can get):
Pull the Fabric as Tight as Possible
It really makes a difference! So pull the fabric tight and staple away on the rest of the inside pieces. The corners will be a bit tricky, but pulling tight will really help them to come together.
Staple outer fabric pieces to finish upholstering.
Replace the batting on the back and outside arms sections before stapling the fabric to the edges. Take your time and pull evenly tight. I had to really be aware of this with the burlap, since it’s a looser weave.
Trim fabric, if needed, as close as possible to the staples and wood frame.
All that’s left after trimming is to cover up the exposed staples to finish the chair frame. There are a couple choices:
- gimp braid in a coordinating color (usually white or off-white)
- cording – applied singly or double (either handmade or decorative cord)
- other type of fabric trim (get creative – anything that can be glued down)
Apply trim to cover staples.
I chose to go a creative route, since I wanted the trim to help coordinate the burlap and linen colors. I found this thick 4-ply jute cord that matched the burlap color perfectly and helped to tie the colors together that I glued over the staples (if I hadn’t found the thicker jute, I would have just glued down two rows of thinner jute).
Use a hot glue gun to apply your chosen trim. Alternately, you can use upholstery tacks and a tack hammer to nail on top of a flat trim for a different look, but it’s more time-intensive. This type of upholstery tack strip may make it go quicker.
Sew the cushions, building up foam as needed with batting.
This is the only real sewing needed. I sewed the cushions similar to these cushions (minus the extra fabric for the edges), using the original fabric pieces as a pattern, but added a zipper at the back for easier cleaning.
I wanted an over-stuffed look, so I wrapped the well-used cushions with extra-loft batting and even added old feather pillows for a plush look (this is one of my favorite tricks when updating old cushions- I added feather pillows to the seat and back cushion on our couch that you can see below).
I wished I had enough fabric for piping along the edges, though – another reason to spend the money to get enough fabric! They just look a bit unfinished to me.
And with that, all that’s left is to enjoy them in your home. I love, love how these chairs look in our living room! They are light and airy with the exposed feet and I like the elegance of the shape contrasted with the nubby burlap.
They really are even better than I always pictured in my mind! I’d love to hear what you think – leave me a comment and be sure to pin this project if you’re wanting to do something similar.
Let me recap my biggest take-aways from this project in case you are thinking of tackling a similar one:
- It will take TIME. You will sweat, and there may be blood and tears (there were all for me).
- Because of #1 – invest in the right amount fabric and good tools! You will not regret it.
And, let’s just take a look at the before and after again:
Pretty cool, right?
Interested in more furniture transformations?
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