So you want to try upholstery: a beginner’s guide to choosing the perfect project.


Last week on the blog, we discussed project selection for our advanced workshops.

It was  then brought to my attention that we needed a post for beginners – duh!!!

So let’s chat. We love beginners in the shop. Most of our students begin as Weekend Warriors in a 12 hour open workshop. What should you bring? We want to help.

First let me preface this whole post by saying that most people overestimate how far their time will go. Whatever you think you can get done in a weekend? You probably need to cut that by a half to two-thirds, and I’m totally not kidding. When we tell you to start small, it’s not because we think you’re inept (actually, we assume you’re relatively handy!) – it’s because we’ve literally taught hundreds of new students, and ALL OF THEM would tell you to start small.

Upholstery is harder and more time consuming than it looks. I don’t think that’s unique to upholstery – as a DIY warrior, I’ve been destroyed by everything from gutters to frosting.

Everything takes practice.

So when you sign up for that first class, our initial goals are that you’ll have fun, hopefully finish in 1-2 weekends, and figure out whether or not you like this whole upholstery thing.

From there, we’re prepared to help you set new, bigger goals.

Gabrielle Lindberg, Cotton Seed Designs, finishing up her first attached cushion chairs.

Here are a few proven advantages to starting small:

  1. Typically better results. If you’re crashing through a 20 hour project in 12 hours, you have zero time for rework or fussiness.
  2. Better retention. Focusing on a few new skills is a great way to understand and remember what you learned.
  3. More productivity. Our student/teacher ratio is very low (4:1) but that still means 75% of the time, your instructor is with someone else. If you have a complex project and no mastery of the basics, you’re going to spend more time waiting and less time doing, no fun!
  4. Room for unexpected complications. Upholstery is full of surprises – busted springs, cutting errors, disintegrated padding, etc. A simple project give us badly needed room to detour.

So what exactly do we mean, “Start small?”

I’m so glad you asked!

Here a few examples of well chosen student projects to give you an idea.

#1 A simple to moderate ottoman

Two of our recent students elected to work on ottomans, excellent choice! Sue’s ottoman was a giant, coffee table sized beast that she reupholstered in a funky, faux leather. Gladys’ tiny ottoman had a few more details – a tack band with a single welt cord, and a double welt trim.  While these may seem like overly simple projects, they were PERFECT for a first weekend.

Skills introduced: 

  • Basic tear back
  • Introduction to measuring and cutting fabric for upholstery
  • Centering/tensioning fabric for a smooth finish
  • Introduction to the industrial sewing machine 
  • Introduction to handling vinyl (Sue)
  • Measuring/layout for a sewn corner (Sue)
  • Single welt (Gladys)
  • Double welt (Gladys) 
  • Cardboard tack strip (Gladys) 
  • Foam selection (Gladys)

#2 a simple bench

Vickie’s rescued bench, looking fresh with new foam and fabric.

This adorable entry bench made a great first upholstery project for Vickie! A simple seat that can’t be removed from the frame (dining chairs are often a removable, upholstered seat) introduces a small wealth of basic upholstery skills.  Vickie was able to do a beautiful job, AND leave with a finished piece.

Skills introduced: 

  • Basic tear back
  • Introduction to measuring and cutting fabric for upholstery
  • Centering/tensioning fabric for a smooth finish
  • Retying zig-zag springs/burlap replacement
  • Introduction to easement cuts. 
  • Single welt 
  • Foam selection 

#3 A single cushion

Average time to complete a first boxed/welted cushion is about 6-8 hours – SURPRISE!!!! They may look simple, but there are a good many steps to this bread and butter skill. Still, it’s a great skill to learn, and one you’re bound to use again and again. If you’re very lucky, you might get a couple cushions done in a weekend, but best not to bank on it –  there’s a learning curve on the industrial machines that is going to slow you down for a while. And good cushions start with careful measuring and cutting, so rushing is ill-advised. On the bright side, this foundation skill is going to serve you well in many a future project.

Skills introduced: 

  • Measuring/layout for a basic boxed/welted cushion
  • Accurate cutting/labelling for a basic boxed/welted cushion 
  • Introduction to the industrial sewing machine 
  • Simple sewn in zipper
  • Single welt
  • Order of operations for sewing a simple and accurate cushion
  • Ratios for creating a foam insert
  • Foam selection 

#4 A simple chair with a really fun fabric

This is our most popular project selection, and for good reason – cute chairs can be had for a song, and they’re a dime a dozen. There’s lots to be learned on even the most basic of chairs, and a splashy fabric takes the pressure off achieving perfect results on your first project. (Be advised, however, that many “simple” chairs require 15-20 hours. They can still be great first projects – but not necessarily one session projects. )

Skills introduced: 

  • Basic tear back
  • Introduction to measuring and cutting fabric for upholstery
  • Centering/tensioning fabric for a smooth finish
  • Introduction to the industrial sewing machine (possibly)
  • Introduction to trims (double welt, gimp, nails, etc)
  • Foam selection (possibly)
  • Easement cuts
  • Introduction to basic supplies/techniques such as cardboard tack strip, hand stitching, metal tack strip and ply grip. 
  • Every chair teaches us something – but the mix of skills will vary from project to project.

My favorite “first” upholstery project:

In 2015, I worked with Craftsy to create their first online upholstery class. It was  an introductory class, intended for the savvy beginner. I put a lot of thought into what project we should include (in addition to a basic dining room chair). What would be accessible for a new upholsterer? What were the most useful techniques and tips we could introduce? What would best prepare new students for later, more challenging projects?

In the end, I scoured the area thrift stores and Craig’s List for two very basic side chairs. They may not look like much, but I assure you, they are a very full and challenging 12+ hours for a new student.

Let me explain very specifically what we’re looking at here:

  • A side chair with an upholstered seat and back.

More importantly, here’s what we’re NOT looking at here:

  • Upholstered arms
  • A separate cushion
  • Sewing
  • Embellishments like tufting, channeling,  tack bands, etc.
  • A skirt
  • Loads of show wood with double welt or nailhead
  • Massive spring/padding work (hopefully!!!)
  • Stripes/plaids or giant repeats that need to be matched

All these seemingly insignificant details add up to additional techniques and extra hours.

In conclusion, look for the most unadorned chair at the thrift store. Try for one that’s in pretty good condition (but don’t spend over $20, REALLY) 

Skills introduced: 

  • Basic tear back and documentation 
  • Basic order of operations for upholstered furniture
  • Measuring to create a cutting list/diagram
  • Accurate cutting/layout
  • Centering/tensioning for a smooth finish 
  • Folding corners or pleats
  • Basic easement cuts
  • Cardboard tack strip
  • Support layers/padding for exterior surfaces (outside back)
  • Hand stitching, pli-grip or metal tack strip 

But what if I want to bring in something different/more challenging?

Okay, you read all the cautionary tales, you still really want to try something slightly  more challenging.

We’re fairly flexible on project selection (but did you catch that SLIGHTLY more challenging????) If your project falls outside these parameters, we aren’t going to yell at you, or anything – but we also don’t want you to yell at us. No fun!!!!!! That’s why we stress our recommendation to START SMALL 🙂

Okay, MAYBE . . . But what if I finish early?????

Nobody ever wants to finish early – perish the thought!!!!!! But rather than frantically going over hours, here are a few truly delightful things you can do with a bit of extra shop time:

  • Troll your neighbors – learn from the projects around you.
  • HELP your neighbors – someone is going to be frantically running behind.
  • Practice on the sewing machine. It really is best if your first attempts have nothing to do with specific project goals.
  • Make an accent pillow
  • Practice making a zipper panel
  • Add a little something to your project – decorative nailhead, buttons, etc.
  • Ask all kinds of questions about other projects you’re considering or trying at home.

Okay, but what if I DON’T finish????

And now I must be quite honest . . .

Projects rarely take exactly 12 hours. Upholstery is messy stuff, and time estimates are the messiest of all. Whether it’s 2 hours or 12 hours or 20 hours, people almost always finish early or go over. 

There are all kinds of things that can cause delays and make a “12 hour project” run long. A few very common speed bumps are:

  1. Challenging fabric (non-upholstery weight, not enough, ravels easily, needs to be matched)
  2. Unexpected foundation work (springs/padding – common in “thrift store scores”)
  3. Very high standards (our perfectionists? Yeah, they take longer)
  4. Sewing (Even simple sewing can cause delays when you’re new to the machines)
  5. Mental/physical fatigue (sometimes, our hands or brains are just done for the day)
  6. Pattern matching (plaids or large repeats will complicate things considerably)
  7. Extra fussy details – a chair with more curves, or easement cuts, or decorative trim etc.

Since most people don’t relish the idea of finishing early, many students invariably choose a more ambitious project and end up going over. Not necessarily a disaster, but you’ll basically have two options:

  1. Finish on your own.  If you want to finish on your own, we will wholeheartedly support your efforts by recommending books/videos/resources that might help. We can recommend tools and tell you where to find them, and are happy to sell any additional supplies that you’ll need. Many of our advanced students do final steps at home as a regular practice.
  2. Sign up for additional classes. If you feel like more instruction, the proper tools, and dedicated time/space are really what you need to get the job done, we’re always happy to see you for additional classes. Many of our intermediate/advanced students finish one project mid-session and dive right in on the next. If you finish early on your second class, remember the excellent options on our, “What if I finish early?” list. Oh! Oh! Oh! The neighbor projects you could peep!!!!

Unfortunately, between our class and client schedules, we are not able to accommodate requests for drop-in hours to “finish up” 🙁

So please, if you’re determined to finish in one session, START SMALL SMALL SMALL!!!!!

If you aren’t inclined to start SMALL SMALL SMALL, please be prepared for the possibility of multiple sessions.

Either way, we’re delighted to have you in the shop! 

And of course, if you just aren’t sure, we are ALWAYS happy to talk – whatever you’re interested in trying, or bringing in, don’t hesitate to send a photo or a message. We understand that a first upholstery class can be daunting, and the project selection process confusing – We want you to arrive feeling prepared and to leave feeling successful. So any questions you have? We want to hear ’em

 5 things you can do to get ready for your first real-life hands-on class:

Nervous about upholstery in person? Try an online class first. USE THIS LINK to save 50% on my Craftsy class – Getting Started with Upholstery. You can watch, rewatch, watch some more, and even ask questions! (yes of course I answer them! ) It will give you a good sense of what actually happens in an upholstery class. 

Banner 300x250

Send a photo of your project, or tell us about your goals – email your questions to – If your project is a little ambitious, we may be able to recommend an alternative project that will introduce the necessary skills. 


Once you sign up, expect an email from, and communicate directly with your instructor – they can give you tips on what to expect and how to prepare. 

On board for homework? Watch our YouTube tutorial on Tear Back and Documentation – then ask your instructor if there’s anything specific you need to know. Once you get the okay, dig in! Tearing back at home gains you a big hunk of work time on Saturday.


Head over to Amazon and buy yourself a nifty new C.S.Osborne Staple Lifter – it’s going to save you SO MANY HOURS.

So we hope this gives you some guidance, because we’d really love to see you in a class!!! And if you’re wondering what NOT to bring, check out our related blog post: “Worst First Upholstery Project” We hope Virgina’s story will give you some additional insight and possibly a laugh! She was very good to share her experience!

See you in St. Paul, upholstery fans 🙂 

Ready to give upholstery try? Check out our Weekend Warriors Workshops now!

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Share Your Thoughts

%d bloggers like this: