By Jack Carr
Recover or Reupholster?
If a sofa or chair is in good shape on the inside and all it needs is a fresh new fabric on the outside, that's recovering. When a piece needs work on the inside, either partially or totally (new webbing, re-tied springs, new fillings, re-cushioning) that's reupholstering. Both are the province of the upholsterer, marine fabricator or auto trimmer.
The upholsterer works from the frame, up... much the way the furniture maker does. So, if your old piece has a good frame, there's some significant initial saving to be had. Using modern materials with traditional skills can provide you with results that are even better than the original. In the hands of a good professional, you can get a full measure of value for your money, and quality that's hard to match.
Reupholstery or restoration is one of the few professions in the domain of the hand skills that is alive and well in the assembly line age. So, if you have a lumpy old sofa, or a frayed chair that's beginning to shed its stuffing, take another look before dismissing it as a "has been". It could be the beginning of a beautiful new piece. This recycling of quality furniture will bring much pleasure in seeing a fashionable new piece bounce back out of the old one.
If your old sofa (or chair) frame has stood up for ten years or more, it's probably good or it wouldn't have lasted that long. Good frames don't wear out. Over the years a good wood frame has jumped 100% OR MORE IN PRICE.
Hardwood, The Key to a Quality Frame
Good frames are made of hardwood - oak, maple, ash, alder or mahogany. These woods are strong and enduring and the upholsterer can tell them by their weight. They're heavy! That's why salespeople will often lift up one end of a sofa 98 when showing it to a customer. They are indicating a quality feature of the furniture, which is the frame's weight. You can do some testing yourself by lifting pieces similar to your own and comparing to see how they feel
Good Frame Construction
Good frames are joined with double dowels (wood pins) and wood blocks, or screws. These hold fast and firm for a long time. If and when they loosen, they're easily firmed up or replaced.
Frames made with metal braces, and those where staples are used without dowels, are generally not the best. The wood used in such frames is usually of lesser quality and doesn't wear well. And a reliable upholsterer will usually advise against repairing. If, however, you have such a piece and are fond of it because it has a style your like and couldn't find again, or it fits a particular space, or you simple don't want to part with it, it can be repaired for further use.
Before re-doing a piece, many professionals will move it around to check for "motion" in the joints. If a sofa has weak arms, some will not work on it. Others, who regularly do frame work as part of the total job, will put the arm solidly back where it belongs, replace any support pieces that are loose or missing and put the frame back into mint condition. The hardwood itself is worth it. It's generally a hefty 1¼" to 3½" thick and it's valuable.
Many pieces have interesting outside frames, which is their style. These are often delicate and finely made, as on side chairs and occasional chairs, in French antiques or copies. These frames are worth strengthening and a skillful upholsterer will know it right off.
Furniture with exposed frames is usually valuable. And if it's old, even more so. The frame is part of the design of the piece and if you own one like this, you probably know its worth.
These outside frames are usually cherry, walnut, or mahogany, and some are beech or birch. They are found on Victorian styles that have rich, dark woods, on Chippendale and Sheraton pieces where the frames are handsome embellishments to the piece, on Empire styles, French and American antiques, and on good reproductions. The wood usually ripens with age and acquires a beautiful patina, or soft glow. Such frames rarely need big repairs, if any. If one should need refinishing, this is done before the upholstering process begins. A fast, convenient, modern way is to spray stain and polish on the wood in a single process. Or it is stained and then hand-rubbed the old craftsmanship way, which is more expensive.
Not all upholsterers re-style frames. Those who do can be quite versatile and are accustomed to handling all kinds of specifications. They can change a straight Parsons arm to a rounded or flared arm. Or a square arm to a rolled arm. They can lower the sides or the back of a sofa, and knock off sharp corners for soft curves. Sofa arms can be cut down. And a sofa can be re-made into a love seat. Often, as the shape changes, so will the filling. A tight back can assume the shape of a plump, soft, pillow-back style. A tailored piece can be softened with draping and tucking and button-tufting.
Comfort For An Aching Back
When it comes to the upholstered chair, something that would strike most of us as extraordinary, is all in a day's work for one highly sophisticated upholsterer. He re-styles frames for people with back problems. He will change a curved chair frame to a straight one for comfortable upright support. And then fill and build up the back of the chair at the required level–upper back where the sitter needs it–lower back for the lumbar region if that's where the trouble is. And he'll do the same for the shoulders and neck. Restyling can be very effective and it's not especially complicated, aside from the fact that you can't go out and buy a chair made just for your aching back!
The Custom Frame
Many upholsters custom create the entire piece. They will order a frame in a particular size and style, to fit a room space, large or small, or to match up with a grouping of pieces. And then fashion the furniture to individual specifications, just as they do for decorators and interior designers. It goes without saying that this is expensive, but if it's worth it to you, you can get an approximate price which will be adjusted for materials, labor and the fabric you choose. What you will end up with is a truly one-of-a-kind piece of furniture.
Visit Jack Carr's website at www.carrscorner.com