Restoring a Victorian Era Chair

Victorian dining chairs can often be bought quite cheaply from a junk shop and you can turn them into something both useful and decorative simply by re-upholstering them and giving a little attention to the woodwork.

You will especially want t check for the presence of worm. Value can also be increased by re-upholstering in the traditional way with springs and horsehair. Don’t start by tackling antiques or anything over one hundred years old. That’s a job for the experts.

But you can cover the basics. You can strip the chair and have the webbing replaced. You can have the springs attached and the chair stuffed. From there, the edges are stitched, the second stuffing inserted
and the chair finally covered with a top cover.

Tools

If you are planning to do a lot of upholstery it is worth investing in the proper tools which are not expensive. Needles. For making the bridles you will need a spring needle which is a heavy-duty needle 13cm (5″) long,curved along its length so that it can be pulled in and out easily.

For stitching the edge you will need 8 25cm (10″) straight upholsterer’s needle which is pointed at both ends.

Materials

Stuffing. Horse-hair is the traditional stuffing but because it is difficult and expensive to obtain today it is often mixed with hog hair.

Old hair mattresses can sometimes be bought cheaply at garage sales or from junk shops. If you tease out the hair before washing it will return to its original life and springiness.

Alternatively, use Algerian fibre. This comes from the Algerian palm grass and provided that it is teased out thoroughly it makes a good, inexpensive stuffing.

For a small chair with about 7.5mm depth of padding you will need about 1kg of either type of material.

Webbing. Buy sufficient to replace the original webbing; plain brown will weave or upholsterer’s webbing. Most ordinary chairs will need three or four strands of 5cm webbing placed back to front plus two strands across the seat.

A very strong, smooth string made from flax and hemp, is used for making bridle ties round tho edge of the seat which help to hold the stuffing in place.

Twine is also used for stitching up the edge. Laid Cord, a thicker twine used for lashing the springs. Calico is used for covering the second layer of stuffing: you will need a piece approximately the same size as the Karim.

Replacing the Webbing

The webbing is the basis for the rest of the upholstery and must be secured tautly and really firmly. As the chair has springs the webbing is attached to the underside of the frame. You will find it easier to turn the chair upside down on the work surface.

Use the webbing straight from the roll. Without cutting i,. fold over the end for 2.5mm and place it centrally on the back rail so the cut edge is uppermost and the fold is 1cm from the outer edge of the rail.

Tack down. using five 15cm improved tacks placed in a row about 1cm from the fold, with the line of tacks staggered in the form of a shallow ’W’ across the seat) interlacing it with the first strands.

Attaching the Springs

The springs must be sewn to the webbing, and then lashed together securely at the top to prevent them from moving about in the seat. This lashing also gives the chair a rounded shape.

Turn the chair the right way up and evenly space the springs in a square on top of the webbing intersections.

The beginning and ends of the springs should be towards the middle.

Thread the spring needle with a long length of twine using the fingers of your left hand to feel the positions of the spring from the underside of the chair. Insert the needle into the webbing from underneath so that it comes out level with the outside of one spring.

Pull the needle through, leaving a short tail of twine, and insert it into the webbing again from the top, catching the bottom ring of the spring with a single stitch.

Knot the tail of the twine to the length pulled through. but do not cut it. Still with the needle on the underside of the chair, move to the other side of the ring and stitch it to the webbing there.

Move back to the outside again and make another stitch. This makes three stitches in all, in a ‘V’-shape. Without cutting the twine move to the next spring and repeat the operation.

Continue round in this way for the remaining springs then make a knot finish off and cut the twine.

Lashing the springs

Attach two 15mm (3”) improved tacks on all four sides of the frame, each one in line with the centre of a spring. hammering them half-way in. Cut off enough cord to stretch twine around the frame, leaving a tail which will stretch easily to the top of the nearest spring, plus a couple of inches for knotting.

Tie the cord round a tack on the back rail. and hammer the tack in. Working towards the front of the chair, take the main length of cord to the nearest spring and knot it around the coil which is second from the top of the nearest side.

Take it through the spring to the other side and knot it round the top coil.

Move to the other spring in the row and knot the cord around the top coil on the nearest side, keeping the distance between the springs the same as at the bottom.

Take the cord through the spring and knot it around the coil which is second from the top on the front edge. Tie it off tightly around the tack on the front rail and hammer it in.

Take the tail of cord at each tack back to the nearest spring and tie it around the top coil on the outside, pulling tightly so that the spring slightly leans down towards the frame.

Repeat this process on the other pair of springs with the cord running parallel to the first length, and then again with two lengths running across the chair. The springs will now have a rounded shape.

The Main Stuffing

The canvas. Centre this over the springs. Fold over 2.5cm on one side of the canvas and place this centrally on the back rail with the raw
edge uppermost.

Tack down 15mm tacks placing them 2.5cm apart and 1cm from the fold. Fit it neatly round the back uprights, cutting if necessary.

Smooth the canvas over the springs by pulling it quite taut and temporarily tack it to the front rail through a single thickness, keeping the grain of canvas absolutely straight.

Smooth out the canvas to the side rails, and temporarily tack through the single thickness.

restoring chair

When satisfied that the canvas is completely smooth and the grain straight, hammer the tacks in completely.

Trim off the excess canvas to within 2.5cm of the tacks, then fold this over and tack it down at about 5cm intervals.

Stitch the springs to the canvas in a similar way as they were attached to the webbing, but make a single knot at each stitch to lock it in position.

To make bridle ties for the stuffing thread the spring needle with enough twine to go two times around the chair. The stitch used is rather similar to back stitch.

Start by making a stitch in the canvas about 2.5cm long and 2.5cm from the edge. Pull it through, leaving a 7.5cm tail to the main length at the point where it emerges from the canvas.

Go forward and insert the needle about 10cm away. but pointing it backwards. Pull it out about 7.5cm from the starting point.

Leave the stitch on top of the canvas loose enough for a hand to be inserted. Continue round the whole edge in this way, making sure that a 2.5cm stitch falls at each corner.

You may have to adjust the length of the bridles to do this. Finish off by tying a knot

Take a handful of stuffing and tease it out thoroughly, removing any lumpy pieces. Put it under one of the bridle threads working it together well to prevent lumps.

Do this for all the bridles. then fill the middle with more stuffing, teasing it well to make an even shape and to overhang the edge slightly by the same amount all around.

The Scrim

Place it centrally over the stuffing and fix one temporary tack in the middle of each side to hold it.

Put two other temporary tacks either side of the central tack. At this stage the scrim should be rather loose on the surface of the stuffing. Thread an upholsterer’s needle with a long piece of twine and stitch through from the scrim to the canvas in a rectangle about 7.5cm from the edges of the seat.

To do this. pass the needle through the scrim and stuffing and pull it out between the webbing on the underside of the chair, leaving a tail of twine on top for tying off as soon as the needle is completely through the canvas.

Keep the unthreaded end pointing down and push needle back through the canvas with the threaded end 1cm further on. Withdraw it on top and tie to the main length in a slip knot.

Push the needle back into the scrim making a stitch about 7.5cm long on top. Continue round in this way leaving a 1cm gap between stitches. Pull the twine tightly so that the scrim is pulled down and be careful not to catch the springs as the needle passes through.

Even out any lumps in the stuffing with the regulator. Remove the temporary tacks securing the scrim to the frame in the front of the seat first then the sides and lastly the back.

Even out the hair which is along the edges of the seat. Add more if necessary to make a fat roll which just protrudes beyond the edge of the frame.

Tuck the raw edge of the scrim under the hair smoothing it over the roll. Use 10mm tacks to fix the folded edge of the scrim to the chamfered edge of the frame without pulling too tightly.