The vast continuum of furniture coverings is bookended on one end by cheap, easy, often desperate quick fixes, such as the artfully draped and tucked blanket. On the other end: shockingly expensive professional upholstery. Let’s split the difference, shall we? Our five clever cost-cuts and totally-doable DIYs promise results swankier than a bed sheet but more reasonable than reupholstering.
Avert your eyes, furniture purists; these upholstery methods are down-and-dirty make-dos, spit-and-glue hacks, and outright cheats—making them particularly perfect for imperfect furniture and drum-tight budgets.
Tip #1: Don’t Hire An Upholsterer
Skip the advertised upholsterers and storefront shops in favor of an independent freelancer (think casual hobbyists or in-training sewists). To pay for gas and groceries in college, Rai Feltmann covered the loveseats of her families, friends, and family’s friends at college-kid prices. The gig provided valuable practice, too, as she studied toward her scenic design degree at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts in St. Louis. Back then, Rai’s hourly rate was around $15—three times less than that of an upscale upholstery house. Even today, her rates don’t often exceed $20. “I can afford to be affordable because this isn’t my day job,” says Rai, who now works full time as Cleveland Play House’s assistant prop master. “Plus, I’m not paying for extra staff or rent and overhead on a physical space.”
Tip #2: Don’t Buy Fabric from the Fabric Store
We’ve already established blankets and bed sheets to be clever, (though temporary), covering options. But what about shower curtains? Window curtains? Tablecloths, quilts, picnic blankets? As long as it’s durable enough to withstand your furnishing’s usage, it’s game. Often times, even the price of multiple shower curtains will cost less than traditional fabric by-the-yard. Jessica Cass of Yodelback Design used $12 pillow shams from Amazon to cover the cushions of her back-porch sofa in Mankato, Minnesota. “I hate overspending on something that’s going to live outside and get such little use anyway,” she says.
If you must shop a fabric store, make it the clearance aisle of a wholesale fabric warehouse—where even designer prints can be found for less than the cheapest no-name cloth at retail stores.
Tip #3: Staple, Glue, and Tack the Hell Out of It
Jessica isn’t ashamed to admit she has wrapped, stapled, glued, and tacked more chairs and sofas than she has upholstered. Her cheapskate superpower comes in handy with budget-conscious clients wanting fresh looks in a hurry. “Personally, I prefer this route,” she says. “It frees me up to try bolder fabrics, because I know I can just start over if I don’t like it.”
After first removing the old fabric from the piece, Jessica carefully but informally wraps the new fabric around the frame, securing as she goes. “I usually use staples on the frame and tacks everywhere else,” she says. “I try to mimic the fold of the original covering.”
To conceal exposed staples, Jessica glues fabric trim over top. “It gives it a nice finished look,” she says.
Tip# 4: Say No to Bobbles and Brass Tacks
Details like buttons, skirts, tufts, piping, and decorative tacks fall largely in the “just for looks” category and can therefore be skipped for extra savings. Be clear on opt-outs, however, as many upholsterers will automatically include certain details, especially if they existed on the original piece. Rai hesitates to skip piping, but she will if a client requests it. “It adds such definition, and sometimes it helps hide staples and tacks,” she says. “But it’s not mandatory.”
Rai points to midcentury furniture, with its clean, uninterrupted lines, as exempt from piping and other embellishments. If you simply must have decorative metallic tacking, she suggests picking up more affordable French brass from the fabric store. “It’s actually a trim, so it only has to be attached in every four inches or so.”
Tip #5: BYOF (Bring Your Own Foam)
Cushion filling can be one of an upholstery project’s biggest tickets, particularly if it’s the good stuff—a.k.a., high-grade plush down—and you need a lot of it. Fortunately, that’s more the exception than the rule.” A lot of times you can salvage some of the filling and just refresh it with partial new,” Rai says.
Obviously, partial-plush filling is thriftier than full-plush filling. But Rai finds foam cushions (the cheapest of all fillings) equally acceptable. “It’s non-allergenic, really easy to work with, and most mass-produced furniture today is made with foam wrapped in wool batting anyway,” she says.
Foam cushions of all sizes are widely available online, but when in doubt, go big. You can always trim-to-size if necessary. “Mine were about two and a half inches too big for the shams I bought,” says Jessica of her porch-sofa project. “I just got out my really fancy bread knife and sawed off a hunk.”