Reuse, Recycle and Reupholster Your Old Furniture

Traditional upholstery techniques stuff new life into old furniture.

| September/October 2001


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

Photography By Joe Coca

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.”

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