Learning About Upholstery

6 refinished stools
Finished work

Upholstery is expensive. I’ve learned a few things on my journey – how to refinish teak, how to walk into someone’s place of business and try to sell them stuff, how to get awkwardly shaped large objects into a car without scratching anything – but the advice I’ve heard most is, stay away from projects that need upholstery. It is too expensive.

I like to try things myself, though. Central Middle School had a junk sale a couple weekends ago, and I went to see if I could find something interesting. A flirtatious 70-year-old man wearing a fur coat sold me these 6 stools for $20. A new friend that I dragged along for the day loaded them into the hatchback, and I hauled them home to see what I could make of them.

They started in rotten shape. All of the seats were ripped. All the chrome was rusty. All the feet were loose, scratched or missing. 

I unscrewed the legs and started pulling staples out of the bottom. The staple remover broke immediately. A flathead screwdriver and pliers worked after that.

The first one was easy, but then there were five more. I set up my workstation properly.

Then I got to ripping out staples at high speed. It didn’t take as long as I thought – there was time to grind off the rust as well before I turned in that night. For that I used coarse steel wool. It didn’t take as much sweat as I expected. Most of the rust was just dirt.

So much for prep work. Now I started thinking about what to recover them with. The black vinyl that they came with was a bit boring. Maybe red vinyl? White? 

I had the bright idea of using a grey wool army surplus blanket. That would look cool for sure. It turns out, though, I’m not the first person who ever had that idea. Wool army blankets aren’t available in huge stacks for 5 bucks at army surplus stores anymore.

A, there aren’t any army surplus stores left. B, even if there’s one, they don’t have any wool blankets, and C, even if they do, they’re not 5 bucks, they’re 40. Damn hipsters ruin everything cool.

My next idea was to use canvas. They have canvas dropsheets for catching paint drips at Home Depot for $20, and that’s what I got.

For foam, I expected to pay $10 for a meter or two and cut it myself. Instead, the woman at the foam store insisted on cutting them for me, which was awesome, but the rounds were $5 each. $30 for foam.

Finally, they needed new feet. I thought chunky white rubber ones would look cool, like these. 

I didn’t expect them to cost $5 for each set of 4 though. It didn’t matter anyway because I couldn’t find six white ones in all of Victoria, Langford and Sidney. There were black ones, but they cost just as much, and somehow they didn’t look right. I ended up with vinyl tips that are identical to the old ones that I removed.

The first cushion came out looking messy. I borrowed my dad’s staple gun, which he uses to put up targets at the shooting range. He uses long staples since smaller ones just fall out. For my purpose, they were too long. They won’t sink into the plywood.

It came out looking kinda messy.

I left the extra fabric loose like that and got shorter staples. The next set worked better. With the next five looking good, I redid the first one.

The paper bottom of the stools proudly states that these stools are made in Canada, from all new material. Of course I wanted to keep that. I carefully stapled the paper back on, and screwed on the legs.

Then I stood them up and tried sitting on one. It did an excellent job of keeping me off the ground. Success! Now to check – is upholstery really expensive, or no?

Here’s the cost breakdown. 
Stools – $20
Canvas – $20
Foam – $30
Leg tips – $15
My own precious time – about 7 hours total, if you include driving around to places.

My time is worth about $25/hour when I’m having a good time, so let’s say $175.

That means each stool cost $12.50 in materials, and $29.50 in time. To make that back, I have to sell them for at least $42 each. There’s nothing to do except be bold, and post them up for a price that makes the work seem worth it! Even if I don’t get my price, I learned a lot and I’ll be able to do much cleaner work if I try this again.

The result is a set of slick-looking bar stools that are stackable and have a small footprint – they’re perfect for a tight apartment where there normally isn’t enough chairs for a party. And yeah, I’d say upholstery is expensive! But it may be worthwhile, in the right circumstances.