How to Reupholster a Stool

They say “To a guy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Well ever since I bought this bad-ass, cast-iron, fully refurbished 1953-model Singer 15-91 sewing machine on eBay, I’ve been looking for things to repair by sewing. So first up, I’m gonna show you how to reupholster a stool. As usual I’ll include my screw-ups in hopes you can avoid them. And even if you don’t have a stool to re-upholster, hopefully the methodology of this post will teach you a little about taking things apart and fixing them.

A little background on the sewing machine: I came across an engineer who restores and sells these in his spare time (more on him in a future entry). The one I bought from him was a little cheaper than usual–$200 price range–because although it is mechanically perfect, the condition of the machine’s cast-iron body makes it look like it actually fought in World War II.

So here’s the stool in question. I bought six of these on Craigslist for ten bucks each; they were originally $40 at Bed Bath & Beyond.

As you can see, the corner seam of the vinyl is ripped and the foam is poking its way out. I don’t know anything about how stools are built, but it hardly looks like rocket science, so I’ll figure this out as I go along. Please join me on my magical journey of self-discovery. First you gotta get the seat off of the legs, so put the stool upside down and grab a screw gun. (I was going to say “or you can grab a screwdriver if you’re Amish” but I just realized anyone Amish is not on the internet, which is why I will freely fill the bottom of this post with anti-Amish slurs.) Remove the screws holding the seat bottom to the frame.

Now we’ve got just the seat cushion. We see it’s covered in some type of plasticky paper with some flammability requirement label no one’s ever going to take the time to read. There are staples around the periphery and through the label.

Remove just the staples around the periphery. I like to use this Oxo Good Grips blade-style staple remover, as I find the common jaw kind will tear up the material. More on this tool in a second. (At one point I tried using a standard claw hammer, but the claw wasn’t sharp enough and it was too wide to get inside a staple.)

The best way to remove a staple using this tool is to get the tip under the staple at a high angle, then bring it level with the material, push it under the staple and wiggle-rotate it, like you’re turning a screwdriver back and forth. This should release both ends of the staple. If you screw this up, you will release only one end of the staple, as I’ve done here–

–that means you’ll have to use a pair of pliers to yank the staple free.

When you have to remove 20-30 staples using two tools, that increases the time greatly, so either develop the skill to do it with just the Oxo or cancel your afternoon appointments.

The Oxo tool is made out of soft metal. Here you can see I’ve bent the tip through repeated use.

If this happens just flip the thing over and you’ll eventually bend it back the other way. Over time you will chew the tip up; it’s handy for now, but this is not a tool you will be passing on to your grandchildren.

By the way, don’t take the staples out of the label. I’ll show you why in a sec.

Now we’ve removed all of the staples from the periphery of the plasticky paper sheet. Finished, right?

Wrong, sucker! Lifting the paper, we now find a crapload of new staples attaching the vinyl to the wood bottom.

Sigh loudly and dramatically so that your roommate goes “What’s wrong?” while you mutter “Nothin’, mind your own goddamn business.”

We also see that the wood bottom is particle board. I freaking hate particle board. It’s crumbly, dusty, it doesn’t hold screws well, and it always makes me crave peanut brittle when I don’t have any around.

Fold the corners of the plasticky paper into the center, then tape the whole thing shut with a piece of tape. (I used blue tape and if you don’t use blue tape your stool will explode, causing severe burns.) We could remove the paper, but there’s no point, we just need to get it out of the way. In general, when disassembling something I find it’s best to leave attached whatever you can leave attached, you save yourself a little work later.

If you are sensitive to particle board dust, or just a plain ol’ pussy like me, now is when we vacuum the dust away so we’re not breathing it in during the rest of the process.

As we begin to remove this second round of staples, let’s observe how they were applied. We see there’s three in the corners, because that’s the high-stress area. We also see that they were placed closer to the center of the board, leaving room on the periphery for the plasticky paper staples. Good to note.

Another thing we should observe is which corner folds are on top, which tells us the order in which the sides were stapled and folded. It’s different than how I thought: I would’ve stapled and folded two opposite sides first, then did the remaining sides. But here we can see the manufacturer did it in a clockwise fashion, so we should probably copy that later when we staple the new fabric on.

After removing all of the staples from the vinyl, you should now have a small mountain of them. They’re metal, so make sure you recycle them! I throw mine into a drinks can first, so the garbageman doesn’t get stabbed when he picks the recycling bag up. If you don’t like your garbageman, coat the staples in Ricin and throw them straight into the bag.

Peeling the seatcover back, we can see the seat’s “ingredients.” We’ve got a smooth vinyl outside and a crunchy particle board inside with a creamy polyurethane foam center.

Now we remove the vinyl altogether. It’s sewed at the corners and we need to take the stitches out. For this you can use an X-Acto knife or a stitch ripper. Though the stitch ripper was designed for this purpose, I actually find the X-Acto knife superior for stitch removal.

With the vinyl piece now flat and the stitches removed, we could simply trace its shape onto the replacement fabric; but since I have six of these stools and will likely replace the seat on all of them down the line, it’s worth it to make a template. Get a scrap piece of cardboard, foamcore, or one of your roommate’s prized LP record covers.

The vinyl has been stretched through use into an irregular, not-quite-square piece, so I measure it, average out the inconsistencies through guesswork, and draw the corresponding shape onto the foamcore. It’s basically a square with flaps coming off of each side, simple.

Only after cutting out the foamcore–my last piece of it–do I realize I’m a retarded idiot that has mis-measured the flap sizes. But luckily the seat center is the correct size, so I can compensate by leaving a perimeter around the template before tracing it onto the new fabric, then extending the flap lines out to make them longer.

Next I cut the fabric out. I was supremely impressed by Fiskars in my recent review of their Cuts+More scissors, so now I’m trying out a dedicated pair of their fabrics scissors, the 8″ Softgrip Razor-Edge. Cuts like a beaut.

Now what you want to do is fold the corners shut, with the “good” side of the fabric inside, and sew them shut with a single line. By observing the vinyl we can see there’s a 3/8″ “seam allowance,” meaning the stitching is 3/8″ from the edge.

Sewing a straight line on a machine like the Singer 15-91, which pulls the material along strongly and smoothly, is probably the easiest sewing operation you can do on a machine.

After doing all four corners, we now have this floppy box.

Turn it inside out, so now the sewed flaps are on the inside. Use your finger to push the corners out from the inside. Be thorough, as you’ll think the corner is fully extended but then a little bit more will pop out.

Next we shove the foam-and-particle-board sandwich down into the material, foam side down, obviously. If you’ve done everything right up ’til now, it should already be a tight fit.

Check to make sure the corner of the fabric lines up with the interior corner of the foam-wood sandwich.

Now it’s time to assemble, so we grab our trusty staple gun. What’s that you say, you don’t have a staple gun? Well you’re in luck, we sell them on Hand-Eye Supply! What a co-inky-dink, that I wrote this entry and then we just happen to sell them! Funny!

Before stapling, grab one of the old staples (careful if you did the Ricin) and check the length. Staples come in different sizes, and obviously you want to use the same length so it doesn’t go all the way through the wood and poke someone in the ass. Here we see they used what looks like a 3/8″ staple, and the 5/16″ staples we have on hand are close enough.

Next we load the gun up–be sure to empty it first, in case there are longer staples already loaded–and start stapling the fabric. Tips:

1. Stretch the fabric and staple it under tension, so it’s nice and taut.

2. Remember to staple closer to the center of the board, to leave room on the outside for the second set of staples.

3. Also remember to duplicate the order in which the original fabric was folded and stapled.

I opted not to do the three-staples-in-each-corner because I believe this fabric is stronger than vinyl and I want to see if it still tears. I’ll check it after a month of use.

Once all four sides are done, inspect the staples. I found several of mine were screwed-up and didn’t go in all the way. This will happen if you don’t apply enough pressure when stapling–you really need to lever down on the staple gun and apply a lot of pressure to the tip at the exact moment you pull the trigger. Here’s what a good staple looks like,

and here’s what a screwed-up one looks like:

Obviously this must be fixed, or the fabric is more prone to tear because it’s being pierced by two pinpoints, rather than sandwiched against the wood by the surface area of the staple top. So give the staple a good whack with a hammer to drive it flush.

Next we untape the plasticky paper and staple that back on. I can’t see any function for this paper other than to catch the particle board dust and hold that stupid label.

Now, ta-da, the cushion is done, and hopefully your corners are nice and tight.

Re-attach the legs by driving the four screws.

Particle board sucks, so the existing screw holes are probably kind of loose. To compensate for this I drove the screws in at a bit of an angle, hoping they would bite into fresh wood. But I may have just succeeded in widening the already crumbly screw hole, so I may have to eventually replace the wood.

For now though, the base seems solidly attached. Now you’re finished, and you can sit on the stool for many weeks to come while scanning the papers for your garbageman’s obituary. Congrats!

About the author: websmiami

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