Reuse, Recycle and Reupholster Your Old Furniture

Traditional upholstery techniques stuff new life into old furniture.


1. Starting with a solid wood skeleton, upholsterer Tim Newman makes minor repairs to the frame and finish.

Photography By Joe Coca

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Each year thousands of chairs, couches, and other pieces of furniture are left at the curb. In the United States, discarded furniture ranks as the fourth-largest contributor to landfills. “The sad thing is that much of that could have been saved,” says Tim Newman, owner of Finishing Touch Upholstery in Lafayette, Colorado. During his forty-year career, Tim and his wife, Mimi, have resuscitated thousands of pieces that otherwise were destined for the dump.

When dealing with old furniture, Newman points out that appearances often deceive. “It pains me when people trash an old piece because they don’t like the color or it’s developed a smell,” he says. “They don’t realize that these problems are easy to fix. Most old furniture was made to be recycled.” Unlike the bargain-basement variety, older furniture was constructed with hardwood frames and solid wooden joinery—rather than wood chips, screws, and metal brackets—so that it would last for generations. Having furniture reupholstered may cost more than a replacement up front, but you’ll wind up with a higher-quality piece that will look and feel good for years. Another advantage is that working with an upholsterer gives you control over what goes on and into the final product.

This Victorian rocker is a perfect example of a piece in need of a face-lift. Serving as a comfortable retreat for several families for at least four decades, it was starting to show its age. At the owner’s request, Newman restored the chair using hand-dyed cloth, natural padding, and traditional upholstery techniques. Newman admits that using springs, cotton, and cow hair is more labor-intensive (he estimates that the job took twice as long as an upholstery job using foam padding), but doing so eliminates the possibility of introducing unwanted chemicals that can exist in synthetics.

Starting from scratch

Newman began by stripping away the old fabric and examining the chair’s frame. Old joints that were once held together with hide glue (an adhesive made from animal skins and hooves) sometimes fail, especially if the piece has been in a humid environment. Fortunately, a few drops of fresh glue reactivated the old glue for a seamless repair. For other repairs, such as the nail-riddled tack strips, Newman could have used an epoxy consolidant, but instead he cut out the old wood and grafted in new wood using ordinary white glue.

After the frame is repaired, most restorers then strip and refinish the wood—a two-step process that relies on several extremely toxic chemicals. Instead, Newman revitalized the walnut with lemon oil, a less toxic finish made primarily of mineral oil. “Lemon oil makes the wood look good without destroying the patina,” he says. “Old furniture shouldn’t look brand-new.”

Filling out the frame

The chair’s curvaceous shape began with a crisscross pattern of jute webbing stapled to the seat and back. Next, Newman clinched the original metal springs to the new webbing. “Springs were made to be recycled. Unlike foam, they don’t wear out,” he says. However, springs can shift or fall over. To prevent this, Newman tied each top coil twice from four directions, for a total of eight knots per spring.

Once he tied the springs, Newman covered them with burlap. The coarse cloth helps establish the seat’s shape and prevents stuffing from falling into the springs. Next, he hand stitched and stuffed a small burlap pocket to the front of the seat to form a front lip to the cushion. Newman then added bulk hair and cotton batting for softness. Finally, he tacked on a muslin undercover to consolidate the shape and hold the padding in place.

At last, the chair was prepped for its final covering. Because even natural fabric can retain traces of chemicals used during the processing of the raw material or the dyeing process, Newman used a hemp-silk grosgrain dyed in natural plant extracts (see “Dye One On,” page 62).

As a finishing touch, Newman attached a strip of fabric to conceal the staples, then tacked a piece of cambric, a light cotton fabric, to the chair’s underside. “Granted, the hand stitching and stuffing takes longer than using foam, but the good thing is that we know this chair has another forty years of life in it,” he says. “And at that point, the owner, or the owner’s children, can bring it back to us for another face-lift.”

Pick the perfect padding

Furniture was traditionally stuffed with natural materials such as cotton, hair, sisal, and moss, but before the era of government inspections and regulations, it also contained whatever else may have been swept up from the shop floor that day. Upholsterer Tim Newman says he frequently finds debris—including raw bark, sawdust, and even old cigarette butts—stuffed into the seats and backs of heirloom-quality pieces.

Today, most new furniture features foam padding because it establishes the seat’s shape and provides cushioning in a single step. The foam is made by forcing a blowing agent such as a gas or a volatile liquid into a liquid plastic. The gas forms bubbles in the plastic, which create a breathable cellular structure when the foam hardens. Although the foam itself is basically inert and hypoallergenic when cured, trace levels of hydrazine or formaldehyde may still exist. It also might have been installed with an adhesive containing isobutane, hexane, and cyclohexane.

Natural products aren’t perfect, either. Although the material is sterilized, natural padding can become a home to insects and other microscopic organisms such as fleas or dust mites. Regular vacuuming and storing unused furniture in a cool, dry place can prevent unwanted critters from inhabiting your favorite easy chair.

Those who are chemically sensitive have two options. First, consider natural products. When ordering sisal or hair, make sure to specify bulk, or loose, padding. Otherwise, you may get the form of sisal or hair that is rubberized and sold in preformed pads. If you suspect that you’re allergic to natural products or to the chemicals used in their processing, ask about low-emission foams such as latex. Derived from the rubber tree, latex is a natural, biodegradable material that inhibits the growth of mold, mildew, fungus, and bacteria. Basically, the more information you can provide your upholsterer with, the better. “There are hundreds of products available to accommodate allergies or sensitivities,” says Newman. “No one should have to sit on a hard chair.”

Dye one on

Although some manufacturers are taking steps to produce “greener” synthetics, most manufactured fibers require more energy and chemicals to produce than their natural equivalents. The chemicals emitted by the fabric and dyes can contribute to a variety of sick-building-related ailments.

The simplest way to avoid this witch’s brew is to return to the source. Instead of synthetics, the Victorian rocker featured on previous pages was upholstered in a hemp-silk grosgrain. This blend of fibers is not only earth friendly, but extremely practical. “People aren’t aware of the strength of silk,” says Gail Denton, owner of Sacred Mountain Dye Works in Boulder, Colorado. “The fabric doesn’t spot, can be washed with soap and water, and, in time, wears like an old pair of jeans.”

To add color to the putty-hued cloth, Denton and her partner, Donna Brown, used a combination of organic dye extracts, including quebracho, a red pigment harvested from the bark of certain rainforest trees, and cochineal, another red dye made from cactus-feeding insects that live in the deserts of Mexico, Chile, and Peru. Denton points out that the sustainably harvested pigments provide needed income for developing areas that previously relied on slash-and-burn farming for survival. Despite their organic origins, the dyes are as vivid, colorfast, and available in as wide a palette as their synthetic competition. And, Denton points out, they’re safe enough to mix up in the kitchen and use in the backyard.

To create the chair’s leaf pattern, Denton and Brown used a rice-paper resist. After dying the fabric in the base color, they smeared on a gloppy rice paste through a stencil. Once the paste was dry, the duo pulled the fabric taut so that they could brush on the darker dye. The paste prevented the dye from reaching the fabric. Cycling the fabric through the washing machine rinsed off the paste and revealed the pattern beneath.

Although it can be difficult to find naturally dyed fabric, Denton says the process is simple and safe enough to do on your own (see “Color Cuisine,” page 63). “Just don’t use your good cooking pots,” she says. You will also need to allow for shrinkage. Denton suggests checking with your upholsterer first to determine his or her needs, then adding an extra 10 percent.

Color cuisine

Dyeing natural fabrics with nature’s colors can be as safe and easy as cooking up a pot of soup. Wool and silk are the best fabric choices; cotton and linen do not take color well without more complex preparation. Common kitchen ingredients yield a lovely warm and varied spectrum; here, we’ve used onion skin, coffee grounds, and turmeric for shades of peach, gold, and taupe. Carrot tops, tea bags, and parsley are worth a try as well. It’s this simple:

Prepare your fabric

Wash in hot water and mild detergent to remove sizing, or purchase unsized fabric. Each of the recipes below will dye about a yard of silk or lightweight wool.

Dissolve 1/4 cup pickling alum (available in grocery stores) in a gallon of warm water in a nonreactive pot. Add up to 3 yards of fabric and bring to a simmer. This step is necessary for the fabric to take up the dye and hold its color. (Most dye books recommend potassium aluminum sulfate, available from chemical supply companies; but alum is a safer, non-chemical alternative, which gives somewhat yellower colors.)

Prepare the dyepots

For each color, mix 2 quarts water with one of the following: 5 or 6 generous handfuls of the papery skins of yellow onions or brown shallots; 1 cup coffee grounds (used will work); 2 tablespoons powdered turmeric. Bring each pot to a low simmer for 30 minutes to an hour, until the liquid is deeply colored. At this point you can strain out the dye material for clear even colors, or leave it in the pot for mottled effects. For darker, grayer shades, use an iron pot; for greenish tones, use a copper pot.

Dye the fabric

Add fabric to dyepot and simmer slowly for 30 minutes to an hour. For deep, long-lasting colors, remove pot from the heat source and let the fabric cool in the dye liquid. Handwash fabric in warm water and mild detergent, and lay flat to dry. Steam press while slightly damp.