Mid Century Modern Thriftstore Makeovers – Part 2- The Chairs

Mid Century Modern Thriftstore Makeovers – Part 2- The Chairs

Reupholstery may sound scary to a lot of people. I can understand, but in my childhood home it was quite common. My Wonder-Mom ‘redid’ the sofa and chairs every few years. She gave me the courage to do my first set about 25 years ago. It is not such a mystery as you may think. Let me give you a guided tour… So you too can have some Mid Century Modern Thriftstore Makeovers!

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Go sneak-a-peak at the final MCM Living Room! These $0.00 chairs were the starting point…

Ok, on with the job at hand: Mid Century Modern Thriftstore Makeovers! Yes, every piece is different, I know. However there are some basic similarities on most pieces. Mom said one thing that stuck and pretty well explained it all. “You take it apart in the backwards order of how they put it together originally”.

The bottom is mostly the first thing to come off easily (by pulling out a ‘million’ staples) and then working to next layer. It would be attached in a way that it didn’t matter how it looked. Then once a layer is off, it’s visible what can come off next.

You will need: some good pieces of furniture (see my hunt here)

  • Pliers, variety is good, big /small,
  • flat head screw drivers, small pry bars/staple removers
  • staple gun (electric is best) & staples (3/8″, 1/2″ depending on wood hardness)
  • sewing machine
  • fabric/thread to replace old one
  • stain and varnish to refinish wood sections
  • wrenches for bolts
  • thin foam 1/2″ – 1″, optional

This is a very simple design. It is what they call ‘tight back’. It has 2 parts; seat and back are sewn and attached with flaps that slide through to inside and the stapled. Arms are bolted from inside. Rear panel covers back before bottom is covered last. So here goes… (be brave)

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The Disassemble:

It’s almost like christmas, finding out what is going on inside. It’s really not that scary as old stuff was well made! If you are paranoid of bugs then leave it outside in the winter and freeze the little buggers! It may be dusty so a vacuum at hand is good. Do not rip things to shreds! The idea is to use what you take off to remake with new fabric, using the pieces as a pattern, so label and keep track. Take pictures of needed.


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The designers have usually figured out some way to keep edges clean and covered. Here one section was folded over the other.

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Getting there! Be patient, staples are a nuisance. But, look! There is no particle board, plywood, or MDF! It’s all REAL solid wood frame.

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After the bottom, usually the back panel comes off. It may look like a mystery as the tacking system is folded inside the fabric. It’s one of the magics of upholstery, these strips that can be hammered on. A good upholstery supply will sell that stripping. The other replacement option is round head decorative tacks.

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See how this looks very hidden?!

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Panel is off and arms can be detached by loosening the bolts from the inside.


The seat and back sections are anchored by being pulled through the ‘crack’ to the inside back and stapled/nailed.

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Once detached the fabric sections can be pulled out and off. Cotton batting was used a lot. If you get into older pieces they could even have horse hair. I know you are probably thinking ‘ew’, however it is strong and can last quite well. Foam, on the other hand deteriorates quite fast. I have seen more than my share of ‘squashed old foam’ furniture.


There, stripped! Cotton looks good, and I’m just going to add some slight thin foam to make it a bit softer, but not really change the overall size much.


The Refinish:

The arms needed a bit of TLC, so a quick sanding & scuffing…


…and then stained with my favourite General Finishes Java Gel Stain. Once dry, a satin water base varnish is applied. I know it’s made for floors, so it is really string, a good thing! If too rough, sand between layers of varnish.


This is a very forgiving stain as it is quite opaque.


Don’t forget the legs…


The NEW Fabric:

I decided white would just give these the style they deserved. But fabric would be too sensitive. I found a good quality vinyl that was not ‘plasticy’ or too shiny. It was easy to sew as well.


To round off some of the corners foam is stapled on the seat,


and on the back. Any wood part of the frame can be dressed with a bit of foam. 1/2″ foam is sufficient.


Oh, did I tell you how much I LOVE my electric staple gun!? I had used the standard trigger type for many years but it is hard on the hands. Staple away!


A bit patchy assembly, but it will be covered soon enough.


Time to make the new covers. Lay out the pieces in the directions that they should from original. You can always cut off extra, but not add, keep that in mind! Add extra allowance at places where you will staple edges.



Cut slots where fabric needs to round corners. Use good quality thread. I sometimes sew twice so it is extra strong. You don’t want any bursted seams.


Now comes the reverse order reassembly. Seat and back, then rear panel (I used round head tacks) The seat and back have flaps that get pulled through to the back and stapled to the inside. Each piece has some different system of assembly.


Staple carefully and then cut excess fabric after. Use a small hammer if staples do not completely set flush. It should be a bit of a tight fit, then it will not shift later on. If need be, take in the seams a bit if too loose.

At the top edge of the rear panel, a strip of cardboard (thin, like cereal boxes) keeps the edge clean once flipped down to the right side. Round head tacks were used instead of the hidden nailer strips at the side of back panels. Then any cheap fabric can be used to cover the bottom, as it’s mostly unseen.


The amount of sewing here was minimal. There is perhaps a little more stapling than most. This design is great as the arms will withstand a lot of wear since they are not upholstered. I heard that they were form the early days of the university. And now have lessened the amount in the landfill… Love and enjoy them! (and that feeling of accomplishment) Enjoy your Mid Century Modern Thriftstore Makeover!

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    1. Sometimes the other alternative is the landfill, so very little ‘risk’ taken. Custom made ‘pullover’ slip cover is also a choice, with no disassembly needed.

    1. You are welcome! My mother passed it to me and now with modern technology I can pass it on to many and perhaps help the environment a bit. The satisfaction that comes from doing it yourself is priceless.

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