DIY Basics John and Alice's Family Room

Removing Some Of The Mystery From Upholstery and Button-Tufting

Last Updated on February 26, 2013 by Kristi Linauer

By no means will this post be a complete DIY tutorial.  That’s coming up next week (hopefully).  But I’m hoping that today, I can share just enough information to remove some of the mystery from upholstery and button-tufting.  These are topics that seem to frighten even some of the most fearless DIYers, and I assure you, there’s no reason to be fearful of a little upholstery.  And button-tufting?  Pffft….once you understand the basic process, you’ll be fearless! 

First of all, I think the reason that so many people are intimidated by upholstery is because they don’t know what’s underneath all of the fabric.  And very often, we fear what we can’t see.  So, here it is.  They mystery is removed.  When you take the fabric off of a chair, it’ll look something like this…

wingback chair stripped

And if we were to strip that down even further, we would have a very rough wood frame, with springs going across the back, and across the seat area.  All of that foam helps to soften the springs and round out the corners.

Upholstery is done one section at a time.  It helps to think of it in layers.  And the main sections will have areas where the fabric is tucked in and stapled to the chair frame.

Here’s an “in process” example…

wingback chair progress 2

Again, I’ll go into more detail later.  These are just the very basics.

This picture of my progress shows four different sections finished—two arms, the seat, and the back, and each one required a separate piece of fabric.  I started with the seat, tucking the fabric through the cracks, and stapling it to the frame.  Next were the arms.  And again, it was wrap, tuck, staple.  And then came the button-tufted back.  On the back, the tufting had to be done first, followed by the tucking and stapling.  Here’s an “in progress” picture of the tufting…

upholstery primer 1

You can see that I just cut a big rectangle of fabric and draped it over the back.  Then using my fingers, I pushed the fabric into the center top hole, and secured it with a button.

And here’s a picture with a bit more progress…

upholstery button tufting 2

The question people seem to have the most about diamond tufting is how to form the diamonds.  But if you’ll look closely at the picture above, you’ll see that the diamonds begin to form on their own.  Look at the fabric below the second row of buttons.  All I’ve done is take the fabric at points vertical to the top row of buttons and pull straight down.  Those diamonds just appeared.  Now of course, I still had to work with the fabric to get the folds just right, but it doesn’t require nearly as much work as you might think.

Buttons used for tufting generally look like this…

button used for button tufted upholstery

They’re very similar to those two-prong brass paper fasteners that you can buy at an office supply store, but these are made of much stronger metal.  This type of button requires a machine to cover with fabric, which of course, most DIYers don’t have and won’t spend the money on.  So I re-use the buttons, and use my trusty hot glue gun to wrap the new fabric over the button, and glue it on the back.  Works perfectly!

So the prongs of the button are shoved through the fabric and the foam from the front, and then spread apart on the back to secure the button.  From the inside of the chair, it looks something like this…

inside of button tufted chair back

I hope by now, you’re feeling less intimidated by the tufting!!  Once the tufting is done, it’s just like the rest of the chair parts…stuff the edges of the fabric through the cracks, and staple it to the frame.

button tufting

Now I don’t want to overwhelm you with info today (because I feel certain that right now you’re feeling a little more confident, right?), but let me quickly explain the difference between button-tufting on a fully-upholstered chair and an accent chair like this one…

chair with pillow

With a fully-upholstered chair, the chair actually has room inside of the frame to work and do the tufting.  Then all of that stuff is covered by the back panel.  With an accent chair, obviously you don’t have that luxury.  When these chairs are stripped of fabric, they look like this…

cane chair after painting

And all of the upholstery on the chair back is done from the front of the chair back, so from the back, it looks like this…  (please note, this is an “in progress” picture, which is why it still looks a bit sloppy.)

cane chair progress 3

So working from the front of the chair back, the first thing that goes on is the fabric that will be seen from the back of the chair.  On top of that goes a layer of very thin foam (or batting), and then on top of that is the tufted back.

The tufting for an accent chair like this is done separately on a piece of chip board…

cane chair progress 5

And then once the tufting is done, the chip board is stapled to the chair frame, and then the raw edges of the fabric are tucked into a carved out “channel” in the chair frame and covered with cording.

chair with pillow

So has this helped you any?  Did it remove some of the mystery of what lurks underneath all of that fabric?  Does button-tufting seem a little less daunting than it did before?  Again, I’ll have more thorough tutorials coming up next week (one for each of the chairs above), but the best way to learn really is by trial and error.  (Yes, I’m speaking from experience. Open-mouthed smile  I’ve made countless errors that have all helped me learn the process a bit better.)

The link party is coming up this afternoon at 1:00(ish)!!  I’m excited to see what y’all have been working on! 

I’m linking this post to Tips & Tutorials Tuesday at Home Stories A To Z.

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  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Terri Roberts
    June 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Very good tutorial (as usual).  I *might* give it a try one of these days on an old chair I couldn't make any worse!  Can't wait for the full tutorials. 

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    June 24, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Ooooooohhhhhh! I see! It still looks like lots of work, but now I want to try it. Instead of run away sobbing. Haha.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    June 24, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Nice start to the tutorial, Kristi.  I haven't done tufting yet, but I've seen explanations like yours and it looks doable.  All of the makeovers I've seen with tufting have been "sent out" to a pro.  

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Amber Peters
    June 24, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Yes that does help!  Thank you!  I will feel a little more confident now that I know what i am dealing with when I redo my accent chair.  Great info!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    [email protected]
    June 24, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for making this post! I have a great chair I paid a former roommate $10 for. It either needs to be stripped and recovered, or at the very least a slipcover. You've given me more confidence to tackle that project after the 1000 others that are ahead of it.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    June 24, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    This actually makes me think I might be able to reupholster a chair or two.  What about vertical tufts on a rounded back (barrel?) chair?  Same theory?  I'm terrified of taking it apart to find out!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Claudine Kruck
    June 25, 2011 at 2:52 am

    Thank you! I can't wait until next week for the whole tutorial! Upholstery is a mystery!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    June 27, 2011 at 12:14 am

    Thanks for giving me a taste of the tufting process.  I'm looking forward to seeing the full version.  I have a feeling that the foam in my grandmother's chair has disintigrated and the springs are shot.  It'll take a bit more work than I was hoping, but I'm inspired by you to give it a try.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Kim Perdew
    June 29, 2011 at 12:51 am

    You make it look so easy but I still don't think I could ever do it and make it look good. :o(

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Beyond Creatives
    July 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    You have removed my fear of tufting! My roadside trash pickup that sits in the garage is to be a grand piece as soon as I find the fabric I love.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Matter Of Style DIY blog
    September 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I always wanted to find out more about this technique!
    Last year I had to figured it out by myself by trial and error,your tutorial is very good! Thanks for sharing these useful informations and details!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Dana Barrentine
    September 11, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I LOVE your "eye" and am jealous as can be of how talented you are! You can do anything!!!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    ECK Design
    January 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Thank you so much for this!!! I’ve been wanting to re-upholster a chair forever and it has ALWAYS looked so intimidating!!!! Now all I have to do is just settle on a fabric! =o)

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    May 7, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Hi Kristi,
    This is awesome! I want to reupholster an old chair and this gives me the confidence to do so. I have been searching your site for the follow-up DIY instructions on this project, but I can’t find it anywhere. Can you please post the link?
    Thank you!!!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    May 7, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Thanks, Kristi! This is awesome! I want to reupholster an ugly old chair and this gives me the confidence to do so. I have been searching your site for the follow-up, full DIY tutorial, but can’t find it anywhere. Can you please post the link?
    Thank you!!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
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    February 13, 2013 at 7:00 am

    […] This post is a great overview of reupholstering […]

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    August 9, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Thank you so much for this! Working on removing the velvet from a (very tufted!) Queen Anne style settee right now….. and you said it right, the scary part is not knowing what’s underneath! I am definitely taking your tip on reusing the buttons by covering them! Thanks again! 🙂

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Kate Rauner
    November 11, 2013 at 9:19 am

    I have an occasional chair with a back cushion held against a caned back with buttons. A single stiff metal wire connects the two buttons through the cushion and back. I don’t see how to remove the buttons so they can be reused (I’d like to use them again.) The thin metal rod simply disappears into the back of each button. I have not even found this style of tufting button in my searches so far. Do you know what this type button is called and how it is removed and replaced?

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 13, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    I am just about to attempt my first tufting and have those prong buttons that I took out of the chair I’m working on. Thank you so much for your how to steps, I think I can manage this! So, to re-use the buttons I just wrap the new fabric around them and hot glue? Do you have a post that shows that process? Thank you!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
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    February 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm

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  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Mrs. B
    February 3, 2015 at 8:14 am

    This tutorial made me laugh because I am currently recovering the EXACT same chairs!!! I too painted them black but I’m doing a floral fabric. Love the look of yours! I’m going to do a blog on mine and might link to yours. Would you be ok with that?

    Mrs. B

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Judy Pimperl
    July 6, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    I just purchased two great old French chairs with tufting and have taken the old nasty fabric off. I was wondering where to purchase more of the buttons with prongs that go through the back, and now, after reading your post, I know to just hotglue new fabric onto the ones I took off. Thank you!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    April 10, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    But what about tufting a bench, or the seat portion of a chair? Can you really use those metal prong buttons on a seat or do you have to now sew them on through a small hole with a long needle so no one sits on anything lumpy?

    • Reply To This Comment ↓
      April 13, 2017 at 7:18 pm

      I wouldn’t use those on a seat. But it’s hard to say how I’d do a seat without looking at it first.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    November 12, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    Any idea where to purchase that same type of tufting button with the “Brad” type back? 2 of mine broke while I was taking them off the chair. I’ve scoured the internet but have had no luck.