Mid Century Modern Thriftstore Makeovers – Part 2- The Chairs

What’s better than finding some amazing curb-side furniture?! Score! Your finds may need some TLC or a complete overhaul. Come, show you how I made my finds new again; Mid Century Modern (MCM) Thriftstore Chair Makeovers.

Reupholstery may sound scary to a lot of people. I can understand that, 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 Chair Makeovers!

Where to find great Mid-Century Furniture deals:

Go sneak-a-peak at the final MCM Living Room! These chairs were FREE! Yes, it was one of those lucky moments where I saw some furniture being put out on the curb for garbage collection. After taking a look at the stability and frame conditions I was convinced they would be a pretty basic job to reupholster. Thrift stores & Habitat Restore are other great sources for finding pieces. Often though the fabric needs an update before it’s new home.

The Secret to Reupholstery:

Ok, on with the job at hand; my Mid Century Modern Thriftstore Chair Makeovers! Yes, every furniture piece is different, I know. However there are some basic similarities on most pieces. Mom said one important thing that stuck me and pretty well explained it all. “You take it apart in the backwards order of how they put it together originally”. There’s really no magic to upholstery DIY on old pieces; some parts overlap others.

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; the chair seat and back are sewn first and then attached with flaps that slide through to inside and the stapled. Arms are bolted from inside of the frame. Rear panels cover the back before the bottom is covered last. So here goes… (be brave)

How to Disassemble Mid Century Modern Thriftstore Chairs:

It’s almost like christmas when you upcycle furniture; 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 a good idea. Do not rip things to shreds!

The basic idea is to use the fabric pieces (don’t trash them yet) that you take off as pattern pieces to remake with new fabric, so label each piece and keep track. Take pictures if needed.

The Basic Piecing:

I like these types of mid-century modern chairs for transformation since there are no fussy small arms to reupholster. Two simple parts are sewn; the seat and back, then attached. Arms bolted on again and then Back and bottom cover again. The fabric was worn but the other parts like legs and arms were in great shape and only needed some refinishing.

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

I’m getting there! Be patient, taking out staples is a nuisance… ‘But, look! There is no particle board, plywood, or MDF! It’s all REAL solid wood frame. The seat has it’s bounce from the springs (curvy metal) under the padding.

Trick of Fabric attachment:

After the bottom is removed, 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 store will sell that stripping. The other replacement option is to use round head decorative tacks when you do not mind seeing them.

See how this looks very hidden?! Often the back is of less importance so it’s attached after main pieces.

Panel is off and arms can be detached by loosening the bolts from the inside. This also means that they can be tightened if needed. Springs will stay as they hold quite well over time. Older furniture was made to last longer that todays’ that have so much foam in the cushioned seat.

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

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 of the Wood Parts:

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 strong, a good thing! If it’s too rough, sand between the layers of varnish. Usually these arms are made of solid wood.

This is a very forgiving stain as it is quite opaque. Since the wood is solid it could also just be sanded well and varnished for a lighter look.

Don’t forget to also finish the legs as they tend to be well worn from being knocked against.

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 also quite 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) Mid Century Modern Thriftstore Chair Makeovers

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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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  3. whoah this blog is magnificent i love reading your posts. Keep up the great work! You know, many people are looking around for this info, you can help them greatly.

  4. A wonderful project, completed by a wonderful woman. Beautifully explained and documented . Thank you Barb. Sally