This article was published by David Harper - a renowned Fine Arts & Antique Broker.
"I think it perfectly explains the pros and cons of antique furniture reupholstery"

Antony Brain, Anthill Upholstery

Smelly old cushions, flee infested horsehair and seat springs that flip you backwards and spike you in the rear end for good measure!

Oh, the joys of owning antique upholstery.

Just imagine for a bargain price, you’ve bought yourself an old Victorian sofa with droopy seats and sticky, worn out covers. You bung it in your living room, remembering to place a throw over the worst holes to hide the straw stuffing and invite all your friends and family round for a sofa warming party. I wonder how impressed they’ll be when they go home with red and nasty bumps up their legs (sharp straw and horsehair) ripped pants (A rogue spring), an uncontrollable itch (A mite bite) and maybe a disturbed mouse hiding in a pocket! Sounds fantastic doesn’t it?

So its easy to understand then that even the most die hard antique buyers steer clear of antique sofas and opt to buy new. I suppose it’s so easy to go to your local furniture store, pick your fabric and have a lovely new sofa or chair delivered. I’m not knocking it; part of my business is the making of new sofas and chairs, so I wouldn’t dream of cutting my nose off! I’m just saying that there is another way and to my mind one that is actually more interesting and satisfying, although a lot more effort is required, its never cheap and in some cases you might end up waiting a long time.

This other way of course involves an antique sofa, chair or suite. They can be bought unbelievably cheaply, but don’t be tempted by that alone. You’ll need a good upholsterer and they really are rare animals. There are lots of so called upholsterers, who’ve spent time in factories mass-producing suites (One man can make up to five three piece suites in a day..Great quality hey) Watch out for these chaps. They might be okay at making stacks of sofa beds, but show them a fully coil sprung 150 year old sofa, with horse hair, straw and a wonderful but loose beech frame all in need of complete restoration and they’ll drop dead! So step number one must be to source your upholsterer. Ask antique dealers, auctioneers or friends to recommend a good one. He must be experienced in, knows and understands antique upholstery. The cost of the restoration and reupholstery will normally and massively out weigh the cost of the sofa or chair.

Lovely Victorian sofas for example can be bought for as little as £200, but might cost five to ten times that amount to restore. So don’t be shocked when you get a quote for reupholstery. Only this morning I gave a price to a lady to restore an Edwardian sofa she’d recently bought in the local auction room. My price included some cleaning and polishing to the legs, frame repairs, new feather and down cushions, respringing and reupholstering. Basically this sofa would be in as new condition. The price came to £1150. Well, If only I had a CCTV system, I would have recorded the comical or was it a mortified face? The lady pulled as she stumbled backwards in an effort to get out of the shop as quickly as possible!

I couldn’t quite grasp what she was mumbling to me as she exited the building, but I did catch the fact that she’d only paid £75 for the sofa, £1150 was a ridiculous price and she could buy two new sofa’s for less…Do you think she’ll be back?

Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that reupholstery is not cheap and you’ve found your perfect upholsterer, get yourself out on the hunt for your perfect partner (sofa or chair I mean) and make sure that the upholsterer can start and complete your work in a reasonable time scale. Bigger professional restoration companies should be able to turn around your furniture within a month or two. The smaller one-man band types might be less expensive, but will probably take much longer to complete the work. I recommended a customer of mine to contact the Guinness Book of Records after she told me she had once waited six years for an upholsterer to complete a reupholstery of a Georgian chair. (She was quoted 4 weeks) After years of periodic letters and phone calls, she was relieved to eventually get the chair back reupholstered and the job, thank goodness was fantastic. She was slightly disappointed however once she realised that the chair was not upholstered in the fabric she’d supplied! Luckily, she’d moved house since dropping the chair off and the fabric she hadn’t ordered went quite well in the new living room!

There are always stacks of antique sofas and chairs in every auction room, so this is where you’ll see the largest collection, unless you can get yourself into an antique warehouse. Dealers often have the better pieces and will sometimes restore them before being putting them on display. The problem here is that if you don’t like the fabric the shop has chosen for the piece, you’ll have to have it reupholstered again.

So there are lots of place to buy lovely old sofas and chairs. You won’t need too much money to make the initial purchase, but what you’ll need is a great deal of is imagination! If you don’t have imagination, then get straight down to the nearest out of town furniture store selling three piece suites on interest free credit (Who pays the interest then?) and let the spotty faced salesman sort you out. But if you do, you’ll be able to see past the general old and dirty appearance. You might not like the old fabric, but you can see past that: the saggy seats with springs poking out of the bottom wont put you off and the very distinctive smell might even be attractive (Or is that just me?)

Once you’ve seen past all the horribleness, you’ll find the shape you like and size that’ll fit perfectly. What you’ll appreciate is the wonderful quality that has kept these things in use for generations. Also realise that although its going to cost some money to bring you ideal sofa or chair back to life, you’re going to have a truly unique and characterful piece of furniture that no one else will have, it’ll be worth passing on and something you’d have to pay much more than your final investment to commission someone to make in the same way and to the same standards.

Actually then, all things considered, reupholstery isn’t expensive. Yes it takes effort to find the right upholsterer, the right piece of furniture and plenty of time trawling around auctions rooms and antique shops. But if you enjoy antiques and the pleasures that come with them, why not go this route next time you need a new sofa or chair. The whole experience will be exciting and possibly frustrating, but something you’ll always remember and I think you’ll really enjoy it.


When buying a piece needing reupholstery

Check the frame as best you can. Some wobbliness is okay as the frame can be repaired and strengthened once all the fabric is stripped off. Watch out though for signs of woodworm. Look under the piece and if you see piles of white dust on the floor, leave it alone as it’s got a bad case of the worms! Don’t stop looking yet; Turn the piece over and peel away a bit of the hessian base so you can see the frame. Look for signs of the powdery dust left by munching worms or fresh wormholes (Fresh holes are clean and white apposed to old holes that are dark and aged) the odd hole here and there is fine, it can be treated before the reupholstery. But if there is a lot of wood dust and stacks of holes, leave it alone, it’s not worth the risk. Don’t confuse old upholsterers tack holes with wormholes. Wormholes are smaller and not uniformed like upholsterer’s tack holes are. I made a big mistake years ago by falling in love with a gorgeous old sofa. I made all the right checks for woodworm and every one confirmed that it was riddled with the blighters! I should have moved on at this point and left the riddled sofa to someone who isn’t expected to know better. I didn’t move on, and I really have no idea how on earth I convinced myself buy the thing, when everything told me not too. I only wish I could use the same skill of selling to myself on someone else!

More in hope than expectation, I gave the sofa to my upholsterer. Sadly, the dream sofa I shouldn’t have bought began to crumble when the old covering was being removed. Every attempt was made to save the frame, but it was all in vein. I actually witnessed worms leaving their holes hurriedly being chased out by the chemical treatment that was being poured all over the thing (In huge quantities) The frame was eventually pronounced dead on the bench and ended up being burnt in fear of the worms spreading. I watched my purchase cost of £440 go up in smoke and lost a whole days work from one upholsterer. So all in all a bad experience and one that I shouldn’t have had and refuse to have again! So remember, sometimes it pays to take no notice of yourself?

Some Victorian chairs have a metal frame. Watch out, they’ll cost you much more to have reupholstered.

Droopy springs: Any old sofa or chair will need respringing, so don’t panic if there are more springs on the floor than on the seat! It’ll all get sorted out.

New seat cushions: Don’t settle for square foam blocks; they’ll ruin the look. Go for feather or fibre seat cushions.

Staples or tacks The majority of upholsterers use air compressed staple guns. If it’s not a museum piece, it doesn’t matter if staples are used. They’re more efficient and do a better job. The only place I insist on having tacks is on the base. It just looks nice if you turn the piece over.

Show wood and polished legs: A lot of antique upholstery has show wood frames or turned wooden legs with castors. If you’re going to reupholster something like this, then make sure the wood gets some attention. Don’t have it over polished to make it look new – just touched in, re-coloured and waxed. It still needs to look its age.

Copyright © David Harper 2016 - originally published in 2002