5 Tips You Need to Know Now Before Reupholstering Something You Thrifted

published May 7, 2023
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living room with wood floors, peach/pink velvet sofa, plants, large windows, wood shelves, white walls and white beamed ceiling
Credit: Erin Derby

After a successful score at the thrift shop or flea market, you’ve found yourself back home with a new-to-you armchair or sofa that’s just begging for a makeover. Before you drop a piece off with an upholsterer, though, you need to make several decisions about fabric selection, your budget, turnaround time, and much more. How do you know what type of material to buy, and how much will you need? And what will reupholstering that $20 find ultimately cost? I turned to Christina Kim, founder of Christina Kim Interior Design in Manasquan, New Jersey, who weighs in with her top reupholstery insights below. You may even want to read through these tips before you even go furniture thrifting so you pick a suitable piece for reupholstery in the first place, but more on that below.

First, decide whether a piece is structurally sound.

Unfortunately, not every piece of furniture is worth reupholstering. After all, you probably don’t want to spend money reviving an accent chair that won’t last for more than a couple of years. “I always look for good bones, an interesting shape to the frame, or any standouts that would make it worth going through the trouble of reupholstery,” Kim says. “You have to make sure the frame is sturdy.” 

In the case of sofas and chairs, hardwood frames with some heft to them are best. Look for clues, like brand tags or markings, to determine whether you have something solid and well-crafted on your hands from the likes of a major manufacturer, like Henredon, Century Furniture, or even Ethan Allen, as examples. Kim adds, “An eight-way hand tied sofa will be worth reupholstering, but a fast-fashion type sofa will not.”

Choose a suitable fabric. 

Not all fabrics are equal in the reupholstery world. However, you still have plenty of options to choose from when embarking on a project. Kim recommends honing in on materials with a high thread count known for their durability (think: woven fabrics, mohairs, velvets, and wool blends). Performance fabrics are also good choices, she adds, noting that, “It’s important to check if the fabric feels soft and not scratchy.” 

Whether you’re sourcing your fabric in person at a store or shopping for styles online, it’s smart to purchase a small swatch that you can review in the comfort of your home. This way, you’ll be able to assess its color during different times of the day and develop a clear sense of how it will look and feel before making a major commitment.

Credit: Anna Spaller

Estimate how much fabric you’ll need — and then pad your order. 

It’s crucial to understand how much fabric you’ll need for your project early in the game so that you can budget accordingly. That $200 per yard fabric you’ve been eyeing may be stunning, but if your project requires 14 yards as opposed to two, it might not be a feasible option. Kim suggests using online yardage charts as a guide for estimating ballpark costs, but notes that speaking directly with an upholsterer will yield the most accurate results. “I always ask my upholsterer for the quantity, including any extra yardage we may need — especially for a patterned fabric, which always requires more,” she says. 

Why must you pad an order more for certain printed fabrics, you ask? Like wallpaper, some patterns have more complicated repeats to match up for a seamless end result. All that aside, it may be a good idea to order a few extra yards any time you’re attempting to reupholster something. You never know when a material or colorway will be discontinued, and if you do end up having to order more fabric down the line for a project, that’s not only going to delay your wait time for the piece, but it could also create issues with color if the fabric dye lots are slightly different from run to run.

Be mindful of the time involved.

When working with an upholsterer, exercising patience is key. From her experiences with reupholstery, Kim says the pros usually need at least a week or two to complete a project. That said, it’s best to budget for some extra time in case of unexpected issues. “I always allow for at least a few weeks or more depending on how busy they are and the size and intricacy of the furniture piece,” she says.

Credit: Erin Derby

Understand that reupholstery can be expensive. 

Sure, you only spent $50 on that fabulous chair with great bones, but the cost of having it professionally re-covered is going to be a lot higher. Generally, you can expect to pay several hundred dollars, if not more, in reupholstery costs — not including the price of any fabric you need — Kim says. “There is a huge range for pricing, but an armchair can cost from $900 to $1,800, a dining chair from $150 to $400, and a sofa from $2,800 to $4,500 for labor only,” she says. “This can be much higher if your project involves leather, is super-detailed, or oversized,” she adds.

To set yourself up for success, you’ll want to budget for reupholstery projects ahead of time and gather a range of quotes to avoid sticker shock. Always remember that if a price sounds too good to be true, that may be a reason to avoid working with a certain pro over another. Additionally, hidden costs may emerge during the reupholstery process. “Does the piece just need some batting, or does it need completely new cushions and foam?” Kim says. “Does the frame need to be structurally re-supported in any way?” These are just two issues that can arise once an upholsterer starts the job and really gets into the insides of a piece. Kim herself prefers down cushions, which can cost more than other options. It’s a good idea to do some additional research to see what kinds of things the upholsterer may ask you as far as your preferences go and where it may be possible to cut a corner — or two — to keep costs down without compromising the integrity of the overall reupholstery job.