Learning to French Polish and Re-upholster Furniture: Weeks 1-8

by Carole
For the last 10 months or so I have been making over furniture using paint, fabric, foam, staples and so on. I decided with my next project that I would join a class and learn all about how to fix springs and webbing which are features of older pieces. I have a layback chair which is approximately late 1940's and wanted to re-do the upholstery in the manner it would originally have been done. So, I signed up for an 8 week class - one morning per week and the first class was today. Took my chair along as my project for the term. Here is the chair in it's original state before work is started. I thought might be good to log the progress and the steps - so here is the starting point. I will post updates as progress is made! French polishing is on the agenda for the wooden arms and legs. Here are some snaps of the beast in question! First week was all about supplies and tools needed.
To make best use of tuition time, I decided to strip the chair down at home prior to lesson two. After all, I did not want to spend my next two hour lesson just pulling tacks and removing grimy fabric! Process included here! Only tools used so far are an upholsterers staple remover and some needle nose pliers which I used to remove tacks that held the fabric, webbing and hessian on and some scissors to cut the fabric and release the springs where they had been sewn in. A trip to the hardware store is in order to buy the supplies I need for working on the frame and prepping it for French polishing.
Update! Week 2
Warning! This is not a cheap hobby! LOL! Just bought up big at the hardware store. 2nd lesson was today. With the chair stripped down to the frame, it was time to rub the chair back with a mix of: 3 parts Gum Turpentine to 1 part Raw Linseed Oil (purchased at hardware store) using some steel wool. Use the grade 2-3 steel wool and dip it in the gum turps/linseed oil mix. Rub only in the direction of the wood grain and put some elbow grease into it! Wearing cotton or rubber gloves or your fingers could end up sore from the steel wool. Phew, this could take a while. If you can get one area down to where it is clean, you can see the wood grain clearly and when you run your finger over it, it is silky smooth with no roughness - then continue with the rest of the 'show' wood to take it to the same level. Don't worry too much about scratches or any little digs in the timber at this stage. I am informed that these all get taken care of after the shellac has been applied and the process is complete - using a wax stick. This is a way off yet! Apparently wax sticks come in packs of 4 from the hardware store and you pick the colour closest to your finished wood so that it blends with it. I am going to complete the rubbing back process at home this week so that it is ready for the next phase when I go to lesson 3. No further photos worthy of showing you at this point.
Update: Week 3
Well today was lesson 3 of 8. I took along the chair frame that I had so far rubbed back with the gum turps/raw linseed oil mix and then cleaned the entire frame after with methylated spirits on a rag. Got the go ahead today to start the Shellac process. I purchased the Shellac Flakes and Methylated spirits from the hardware store and you basically follow the directions for making up the shellac- i.e Mix the flakes 50/50 with the methylated spirits. Stir regularly. NOTE: This mixture will take one week before it is ready to use as the shellac flakes need to break down and it needs to become a smooth liquid. During the week, remember to stir from time to time and keep the mix in a sealed top jar or plastic container. At the end of that week and when you are ready to use it, strain the mix prior to using through some muslin or pair of stockings to remove any nasty bits. In this case I will be applying the shellac with a 1 inch mop brush (the brush is made of goat hair - please don't use acrylic or bristle brushes as they will leave brush marks in the shellac). The mop brush cost about $15 from the local art store. . Using the mop brush apply a thin coat (don't overload the brush as any drips will be hard to get rid of later) - apply in the direction of the timber grain and- this is the important bit - don't lift the brush at all. A clean swipe from one end to the other without lifting the brush. Also, do not go over any bits you miss. They will get picked up on the next coat. The reason is that a second coat when wet, will take off what you already applied and make a mess. So, keeping your brush going in one direction only, no lifting of the brush, no back and forth motion (you are not painting, you are applying shellac) using thin coats - don't overload your brush as it will run - you are now shellacing (is that even a word!). The shellac needs about 10-20 mins to dry between coats. You will be applying approximately 20 coats. Don't apply the next coat if it is still a bit tacky to the touch. After each 5 coats, you will need to rub the finish back with some steel wool - the finer grade which is the 000 grade (check the packet - it should tell you what grade). Well, this is all for now - I should have further info on the process and how it is all going by next week!
Update: lesson 4
Well today I applied more shellac to the chair frame as outlined above. I need to do the first rub back with steel wool fine grade 000, but as the frame needs to dry overnight I will leave that till next weeks lesson and then continue to apply more coats (after you rub back with steel wool, wipe the frame with a clean cotton (lint free) cloth before applying more shellac). Whilst waiting in between coats, I started on the chair back rest. As you can see from the original photos, the back rest is not flat - it is concave in shape. Apply the webbing to the inside of the frame (where your back would touch the seat back, not the reverse of the seat back - does that make sense?) So to keep the shape and not make the back look flat, when applying the upholstery webbing, start at the top middle of the back rest and apply the webbing from top to bottom - using the webbing stretcher to get the webbing as taut as possible. Secure with staples (10mm staples), fold the webbing edge over by about 5mm and add two more staples to secure before cutting the webbing free from the roll. (Do not pre-cut your webbing as you need to stretch it to fit). Apply another strip of webbing either side of the first strip in the same manner (top to bottom). Now for applying the horizontal webbing, rather than weaving the webbing in and out of the vertical webbing which is what you would normally do - apply the webbing BEHIND the vertical webbing. Do not use the webbing stretcher, rather use your hands to stretch the webbing this time, as you don't want the horizontal web to be too tight (or else it will make a flat surface on the chair back - you want to keep that nice concave shape to the back). Three strips evenly placed horizontally across the back, behind the vertical webbing and secured with staples. Now the webbing is done for the back. Cover the webbing with a piece of upholstery quality hessian, cut to size and staple to the frame - staple the top and bottom first - again to keep the concave shape of the seat back. Staple the middle of the top and bottom frame, then fill in the rest of the top and bottom BEFORE you secure the sides of the hessian. Pull reasonably taut, but again, you want to retain the concave shape of the seat back. Over this you will be applying foam - about 15mm deep, then calico and wadding to even out an bumps and provide more padding, before applying your fabric. Stay tuned - I got as far as the hessian and the rest will follow in later lessons. I will keep you updated. I must say the shellac is looking nice and shiny and for anyone who loves the wood look rather than painted furniture - you would be feeling pretty pleased with yourself by now as it shows off the grain of the wood. Sorry I did not take the camera to class or I would have loaded a photo of the seat back for clarity to show the webbing and hessian. I shall have to remember to take the camera to class next week.
Update - week 5
Well I spent today's lesson rubbing back (gently) the 7 coats of shellac already applied with the 000 grade steel wool. Just the steel wool and not dipped in anything. Then wiped over with a clean cotton (lint free) cloth. Then several more coats of shellac. At the end of the lesson I took the chair home so I can complete the shellac process at home. More coats, more rubbing back after say 5-7 coats with the steel wool. For the last 4-5 coats (of 20-25 coats all up) I will apply the shellac with a 'rubber'. Essentially this is cotton wool (use the pleated or ripple cotton wool) several pieces stacked together wrapped inside a 10 inch square of cotton lint free cloth. Dipped in denatured alcohol (meth spirits). Then infuse with the with shellac. On making the rubber - you wrap the cotton cloth around tightly around the cotton wool to make a sort of mouse shape with it. Twist the cotton cloth excess fabric (to make a tail). To make the shellac spread through the rubber mouse, you basically wring or twist the 'tail' of the cloth - which in turn squeezes the cotton wool innards that are soaked in the shellac. So for the last 4 or so coats, just apply - sweeping motion in one direction - with the 'rubber mouse'. Ensure each coat is dry before applying the next. Once that is all completed, then you can fill any small nicks or deep scratches in the wood with the wax stick as outlined earlier, then apply a coat of wax - beeswax/canoubra wax is best. The shellac needs to be completely dry and set solid before you apply the wax or use the wax stick. I remembered to take pictures so here are a couple from last weeks class where the back rest was webbed and the hessian applied. Next weeks lesson, I hope to have the shellac and waxing all finished and will start work on the seat - webbing, sewing in springs and so on. Will keep you posted!
Update: Week 6
Well I finished the shellac process at home and took the chair in again for week 6. Now that the shellac has dried I was able to turn the chair upside down and start work on the seat. So now for the webbing. Measure the frame and space your webbing accordingly. I put 4 strips of upholstery webbing running from back to front on the seat area, then weaving in and out of these 4 - another 4 strips applied from side to side. I used an upholstery air compressor staple gun (you can use heavy duty staple gun and long heavy duty staples providing they will penetrate the two layers of webbing and adhere it well to the frame - staples need to be a least 10mm deep). Staple one end of the webbing, fold it back on itself by about 5mm, staple again, then using the gooseneck webbing stretcher, pull the webbing as tight as possible (till you literally hear it creak). Staple the other end and again, fold it back by about 5mm, staple again and then cut the webbing free from the roll. Once all the webbing is in place, add the springs. Carefully place the springs on the webbing - towards the middle of the chair - you want the seat to be dome shaped. Using bricklayers twine and either a mattress sewing needle or a curved upholstery needle, carefully stitch the bottom of the spring to the webbing. You need to do this in a X shape in two places, well spaced, then without cutting the thread - do the same to the next spring in two place - work your way round all 4 springs (4 used in this instance) around the outside, then work towards the middle of the springs till all have 4 X shaped stitches holding them firmly in place. Hard to explain but see photos. Once this is done the springs will need to be compressed and the tops of the springs will be tied in similar fashion and anchored using staples to the edges of the frame. This will keep the springs compressed, The hessian is added over the top of this to cover it all and stapled in place to the edge of the chair frame. Next, clips are used to attach the top of the springs to the hessian. This should now hold all 4 springs firmly in place ready for wadding, foam, fabric and so on to be applied. I reached as far as sewing the springs to the webbing in this lesson. See photos
Update: week 7
Well last week I got as far as sewing the base of the springs to the webbing. This week I have used the bricklayers twine to loop through the top of the springs - run the thread from one spring to the next at the top coil of the spring first from front to back of the chair, then from side to side of the chair, compressing the springs as much as you can - pulling the twine as taut as you can - (you may need someone to do the compressing while you pull the twine and staple it, another pair of hands is helpful at this stage) staple the twine to the frame of the chair, then double the twine back on itself and add another staple before cutting the twine free from the reel. Each string attached to the frame should have two staples in it. You should have two stapled pieces of string per each side of the chair frame and two stapled pieces of string at the back and front of the frame of the chair. Once you have gone front to back and side to side, you then need to go diagonally across the springs corner to corner. See photos Once the springs are tied down and compressed, you then cut your hessian to size and apply over the top of the springs. Staple the hessian to the frame by first putting a few staples on the front edge of the seat frame in the middle, this will hold the hessian while you then pull the hessian reasonably taut and do the same at the back. Then fill in the rest of the staples at back and front and do the same for the sides - ensuring you pull the hessian reasonably taut - it should not be slack. If like me, your chair had a roll of hessian with some padding to it at the front of the seat frame you will need to cut a piece of hessian to make a sausage of hessian wrapped upholstery foam and staple this tightly to the frame, following the shape of the front of the frame. It should look like a roll - not cube like in shape. This is for comfort so that the backs of the legs when sitting are not against the hard wooden edge of the frame, but have this roll of padding under them. See photo
You then use special clips and an upholstery tool like a pair of specially shaped pliers for the task to apply upholstery clips to the tops of the springs, through the hessian. (or you can sew the springs to the hessian in a similar way to how the bottom springs were sewn to the webbing. The clips and pliers method is much quicker though). This ensures the top of the springs are secured to the hessian.
Now for the padding. You will by now have a seat that has 4 bulky springs, albeit held down with twine and compressed in the centre of the seat. You need to build some lintus wadding around the outer part of the seat ie the part that has no springs - you can tear the lintus from the roll into sausage like rolls or wads to pad this area out to bring it sort of in line with the spring tops. When this is done, you add a little lintus over the springs. When this is done and it is looking fairly even, you then add a sheet of the lintus over the whole thing to even things out. To hold the lintus to the seat - cut some wide strips of calico (about 4 inches across should do it) and staple two lengthwise and two width wise over the lintus topping to hold it all together. You will need to pull the calico quite firmly and staple the edges of the calico to the seat frame. See photos
Once that is done and you are satisfied that the springs and lintus are secure and it is starting to look more like a chair - you can measure up and cut your foam for the seat. The foam should be high density quality foam. You can pick medium or firm feel for the seat when choosing the foam but it needs to be high density quality (otherwise you will feel the springs sticking into you). The foam should be at least 3cm thick - I used 3.8cm foam. Measure twice and mark up and cut once! Remember if you cut too much off you are stuffed, if you cut too little you can always cut a little more. Err on the side of caution here as foam is not cheap! You can use a marker pen to draw up where the chair legs cut into the seat space and cut accordingly. I used an electric carving knife to cut the foam - don't use scissors or shears as these will twist and distort your foam - leaving slanted edges instead of clean, even edges. If you are ordering foam cut to size, then order it 2cm ALL AROUND larger than the seat of your chair as you can always fine tune this later by cutting with the electric knife. (This means 4cm wider, and 4cm longer in total) NOTE: Some chairs have the foam pulled and stretched and glued to the outer sides of the frame of the chair. You will know if you need to do that as you will be the one who stripped your chair in the first place (hopefully) and if you remembered to take photos as you went, you will know if you need to get the foam cut a little bigger still to allow for overhang of the frame and gluing to the outer sides of the frame. Foam will stretch and surprisingly does not look bulky at all if you need to do this. All depends how your chair was put together in the first place. Once you are happy with the foam, then you need a way to hold the foam to the chair. Enter the calico again! Cut a piece of calico to size and cover the foam. Put the first three staples into the back middle edge of the frame - pull the calico as firmly as you can and staple to the front middle edge of the seat frame. Fill in your staples and then do the same for the sides. Ensure you pull the calico taut and start stapling with a few staples at the side edges in the middle area first then the other side in the middle area and then fill in the gaps. This is done to ensure the calico is pulled nice and even and taut over the foam and compresses the foam down so you don't get noticeable square edging of the foam to the seat top. Use your forearm and hand to push the foam and calico and compress it before putting the staples in to get it nice and tight. If it is not tight enough the calico is merely covering the foam and not compressing it into a nice shape with no obvious hard edges. You don't want your seat to look like a cube of foam! Well, ran out of time. I will post the photos here later today so you can see what I mean. Last lesson is next week. During which I hope to wax the frame (do this before you apply your fabric as if you get wax on the fabric it will never come off!). I need to finish stapling my calico to the seat over the foam. Then will come the fun part - the fabric! I also need to add some padding and foam to the back rest, calico and fabric and tacking strips - so stay tuned! I am hoping to get all that finished next week as that will be lesson 8 of 8. Hopefully I will be able to post the completed chair next week. Yay!
Update: Week 8
Well this is the last lesson of the course. Chair is almost finished. Last week I was fixing the calico layer over all the upholstery and got half way round with the staples and the time ran out. So this week, finished putting the staples in the calico. With the seat and calico facing away from me, I wrapped my arm around the chair and used my forearm and hand to push the foam and calico down tightly to the frame I completed the stapling. If you don't do this you will end up with a noticeable squared edge where the edge of the foam is. Once the calico is secure - check the dome shape for any dips - this may be where you pulled the foam and calico tighter in those spots to the edge of the frame than in other spots. If it all looks smooth and no dips - all well and good. If you have any little dips round the edges now is the time to use some pieces of Dacron cut to size to fill in any gaps. Use fabric glue to stick these to the calico to fill in any dodgy spots. I used Kwik Grip glue from the hardware store. Providing the glue does the job and dries clear - use whatever works for you! I was itching to attach the fabric at that point once the seat part was done, but the tutor turned my attention to the incomplete backrest which he said needed to be done first. So, using the 15mm or 12mm foam, I glued the edge of the foam up against the edge of the back rest wooden frame. I did not wrap it round as this layback chair has no wriggle room down the sides of the backrest - if I pad the sides it will not fit back in the frame where it is bolted into place and is meant to be able to swivel when you lean against it. So the foam was glued all round the frame. I used some temporary staples at the top till the glue dried and cut the excess foam off and removed the temporary staples once I knew the glue had dried completely and was holding the foam. I did wrap the foam over the frame at the top to soften the hard wooden edge. Now to wax the chair frame before adding any fabric. I used a beeswax and canouba mix wax. Rub on with a soft cloth and buff it off with another clean cotton cloth. The wax will look dull and cloudy when you apply it and you need to buff it up again to get it looking good. This provides a protective coat to all that hard work doing the 20 or so layers of shellac earlier! If you don't wax, the shellac won't last as well. At this point, if you have any little nicks in the frame, you can go over those with a wax stick in the appropriate shade to match the woodwork.
Well.... the lesson finished before I got time to do the fabric, but I started on the backrest fabric at home. I was advised to start with the back rest of the chair when applying the fabric as if you have a heavy pattern, the backrest is the bit that is noticed first. If you have stripes it will be obvious how they should look, if you have a large random pattern, plan the pieces before cutting to get the best result and the best use of your fabric without too much wastage. The bigger the pattern the more fabric will be potentially wasted. Plain fabric is much easier to work with! So I have applied my fabric to the front of the backrest this afternoon - stapling it to the frame at the back as I went. You need to make sure this is nice and smooth and that you do the corners as neatly as you can as you don't want bulky corners with excess fabric spoiling the look of it. I have stopped there for today. I attach photos and will upload photos of the finished chair once I get it completed, which hopefully will be no longer than another week, so stay tuned if you want to see it finished! Thanks for following along!
Update: work done at home and virtually finished
Well I applied the fabric to the seat, added the black dust cover to the underneath at home. Now I just need to complete the reverse of the backrest. I think I can complete this myself using tacking strips, fabric glue, whatever it takes. Hope you like it!
Update: I have decided to go with metal tacking strips that I ordered from an upholstery store online to apply the fabric to the reverse of the backrest. The strips cost $2.50 each and are 68cm in length. These have teeth to hold the fabric under them and teeth that you hammer into the chair frame (with a tack hammer or similar) to hold them and the fabric in place. This way I should (in theory) get all 4 edges to be neat, straight and clean looking with no visible signs of tacks, messy glue, stitches or whatever! You basically cut your fabric to size, leaving sufficient fabric to fold the edge of the fabric over the tacking strips on all 4 sides. There may be some care needed in aligning the strips neatly but this method seems to me to be the best way to go. Job done!
Footnote added on 20th Dec 2014
I listed this chair on ebay for sale after it had sat in our guest bedroom for a few months unused. Who should spot it and buy it but an old friend. She gets updates on my ebay whenever I add a new item for sale and she emailed me to say she had seen it on ebay and would I sell it to her. So of course I agreed. This is now sitting in her master bedroom. Funny how things turn out! I am just happy it found a new home and a new lease of life!
Ta - daaaa! From the front - the after photo! Finally!
The process - before - You can see the seat is a bit sunken here and paint splashes to the arms
Very grubby fabric and sagging underneath - I am hoping the springs can be re-used in this project if they are not damaged
See how the back of the seat tilts or swivels, hence the term 'layback chair;
This is the seat area - you can clearly see that the springs are sewn onto the webbing.
Stripping the webbing from the seat and removing the springs
Oh my gosh - what a mess! No foam in this chair - just this stuff and it's all gotta go!
That's it for the seat!
The reverse of the back rest. You can clearly see the cardboard tacking strip. This would have given the invisible join for the fabric at back of the chair
One strip of webbing and some hessian and more of this wadding stuff - all gotta go!
Stripped down to the bare frame - the bolts on the floor were to hold the swing back rest on. These bolts will need replacing as they are a bit rusted. OMG - what have I done! LOL! The only bit worth keeping is the frame!
Hoping these 4 springs can be re-used for the new upholstery job. These were in the seat.
The seat back rest. The frame was reinforced with these corner pieces and one had split so it was replaced. Always use screws and never nails as nails will split the wood.
To maintain the curved cushion surface - apply the horizontal webbing behind the vertical ie. do not weave in and out of the vertical webbing as you normally would.
Back rest from the front view. Upholstery quality hessian is stapled over the webbing. This forms the basis to apply the foam next. Foam should be around 12mm - 15mm thick in this instance.
Shellac progress after about 11 coats and one rub back with steel wool so far. Looking shiny!
Oak arms - you can see the wood grain through the shellac
Webbing applied to underside of chair seat running from back of chair to front of chair - held with upholstery staples - webbing stretcher used to stretch webbing to the max.
Sewing in the springs to the webbing - using a curved upholstery needle and bricklayers twine
Sewing in the springs to the webbing - completed
Tying in the tops of the springs using bricklayers twine and stapling the twine to the frame
Tie in the springs from front to back, side to side and diagonally - compressing the springs as you go
Hessian with clips to hold the tops of the springs
Hessian over springs, stapled to frame and the spring clips clearly visible
Adding the lintus round the outsides of the springs
Adding more lintus to the middle, to cover the springs
A sheet of lintus over the whole thing, followed by 4 strips of calico pulled taut and stapled to the frame
See the front edge of the seat is curved
Hessian covered foam - made into a roll and staple to the curved front of the frame - provides protection and comfort for backs of legs when sitting
Foam cut to size using an electric carving knife
Starting to add the calico and staple all round. This will smooth out when the calico is pulled taut all round and should look dome shaped in the middle - It is bulging at the moment.
Check the dome shape and if there are any dips (see on the r/h side?) cut Dacron to fit the dips and glue to the calico
Check the shape all the way round as once your fabric is on, it is too late to fix any uneven spots!
If you are happy with it, trim any excess calico. Any Dacron if applied to smooth the shape should not notice once the fabric is stretched over the whole seat.
Back rest re attached temporarily - showing the foam layer - on the seat you can see the Dacron on r/h side used to fill any dips
From the back
Reverse of backrest with fabric stapled to the frame
Backrest from the front
From reverse and underneath
Close up details
Dust cover to neaten the underneath
White upholstery tacks and leg details
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4 of 15 comments
  • Mom2473870 Mom2473870 on Oct 05, 2015
    Awesome tutorial! It will be helpful for me with restoring the spring seat of an antique rocker I recently purchased. Thank goodness, my wood is in excellent condition and needs no refinishing. However, my rocker has an open bottom and the middle row of springs are attached to a metal strap that sits between the front and back wood. I bought a replacement but it is not quite right. Wondering now, after reading this, if I could maybe enclose those springs to salvage the seat, or if I need to find a way to repair that broken meta strap.

    • Carole Carole on Oct 05, 2015
      @Janet Joyner VanAntwerp Could you replace the metal strap with a piece of strong timber I wonder? Don't forget if you are using springs to push them down hard when tying them in to make a almost level surface. Another person pushing down with their weight on the springs whilst you staple and tie them off is very helpful. Hard to manage on your own. Good luck and be sure to post on here when you are done. Would love to see before and after shots!

  • Sherrie Sherrie on Jun 24, 2016
    How did you learn this and the patience?

    • Carole Carole on Jun 24, 2016
      I had already pulled apart several dining chairs to upgrade the upholstery to something pretty. Usually kerb side finds or chairs I bought at a charity store. This bridge chair was the first one I bought cheap on ebay that had a sprung base to it. It needed more skills than I knew I had. So I saw an advertisement in the local paper for an upholstery and French polishing course. It was 8 weeks and just one morning per week and you had to take along a piece that you wanted to re-upholster. I contacted them and asked if this chair would be a good candidate for the class. They said yes, it was ideal item to start with. I took it along. I was a little disappointed that the first weeks were spent stripping back the varnish to the bare wood and doing layers and layers of shellac to bring the oak finish back to how it would have originally looked. I was more interested in the upholstery part of the course. Still, it was all useful stuff to learn and quite interesting. The second half of the course we focussed on the seat part and how to rebuild it from scratch. Really enjoyed that bit and the fun part is you choose a pretty fabric to re-invent the piece and make it more modern if you want to or can stick with a traditional look in keeping with the age of the piece. I chose to update it to a more modern look. Each week you take it along to class and they give you help and instruction on what to do. If you don't have all the tools necessary - you can borrow or use theirs. It is a slow process and not really for anyone who is impatient. You do a little each week. Spending time with like minded people and seeing what project they were working on and the result they achieved is all part of the fun.