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Lessons from Ramona’s workshop: 12 steps to re-cover barstool like a pro

Recovering barstools or kitchen chairs is a fast, inexpensive way to give chairs a custom look, or to update and refresh tired ones. [PHOTO PROVIDED BY MARNI JAMESON]

Within minutes of walking into my home, she’d flipped over four kitchen barstools with the moves of a wrestling champ, pulled out her electric drill and, like Rosie the Riveter, handily removed the stools’ seat cushions.

How do you not admire a woman who can operate a power tool like that while wearing a dress?

“I do this all the time,” said Ramona Malevski, when she saw the amazed look on my face.

Malevski had come to me by word of the woman who sews my drapery panels. I wanted my barstools re-covered, and the drapery maker said, “I know the perfect person.”

Apparently.

I knew when I ordered the four rattan and bentwood barstools for my kitchen over a year ago that I eventually would change their plain vanilla seat cushions to something more colorful, custom and stain forgiving.

Like most barstools and kitchen chairs on the market, these came with generic fabric, so buyers would focus on the chair and not be turned off by some novel print. (You with the plain chairs, you don’t have to live with those.)

Once I knew where the decor in the adjacent family room was going, I went fabric hunting. I found a burnt-orange-and-cream-geometric fabric that beautifully bridged the kitchen and family room, and ordered 2 ½ yards.

Enter Malevski.

Besides wanting to swap a plain fabric for something more custom, another reason folks re-cover their kitchen chairs or stools is to get an economical refresh, Malevski told me.

“People often invest in good dining chairs and barstools, but the fabric is the first thing to go," she said. "It gets stained or becomes dated. Rather than replace the chairs, which are still good otherwise, they re-cover. That costs a lot less, and gives your home an instant update.”

I did not tell Malevski about the time I re-covered some kitchen chairs myself. I would have given the job a B-minus. That may be generous. The pebble pattern wasn’t quite square, and the corners looked as if someone attached them while blindfolded and drunk. Curious, I wanted to learn her trade secrets, and asked if I could sit in on the job.

A few weeks after Malevski whisked away my barstool cushions, she texted and said my job was next up. She kindly invited me into her home workshop, a converted family room outfitted with a large work table, several sewing machines, tools and rolls of fabric propped against the wall.

I pulled up a stool, and watched her work, taking pictures and notes, and learned from a master how the pros do it, and how you can, too, in these 12 steps:

1. Remove cushions from their chairs. Use masking tape to label which cushion goes to which chair. “I never like to mix them up,” Malevski said. “You’d think they’d be interchangeable, but you’d be surprised. Just a millimeter difference is a problem. Save yourself the headache.” Keep screws organized per chair, as well.

2. Strip the cushion. Remove the fabric and staples from the cushion. In my case, I wanted to cover over (not remove) the original vanilla fabric not only because it was in excellent condition, but also because, if I ever tired of the print, or wanted to sell the chairs, I would have the vanilla option available. Beginner tip: Going over original fabric is more difficult, because it will add thickness, which can affect the way the cushion fits back in the chair.

3. Map out all seat covers. Be sure all the fabric is running the same way. If the print has a dominant direction, like a stripe or check, make sure it aligns with all the other chair covers and is straight. Beginner tip: A thinner fabric in a solid or overall (non-linear) pattern is easier to work with.

4. Chalk your trim lines. Using the cushion as your stencil, draw your cut lines so fabric wraps to the staple line then add 1.5 inches. “Cutting fabric too short is a common beginner mistake,” she said. “You need that extra margin (which you will later trim) to properly pull the fabric to staple.”

5. Cut precisely.

6. Mark the top front edge of every chair with masking tape. This helps you keep the orientation of the seat and fabric. On the underside, where you will staple, use masking tape to indicate the top and bottom of every cushion.

7. Attach fabric to the cushion with pushpins. Again, check that the fabric pattern is falling where you want it, and that it is straight and consistent with other cushions. (Patterns should align when chairs are side by side.)

8. Staple fabric to the underside of the cushion using an upholstery-grade staple gun, (Malevski’s is compressor-driven.) First, put one staple in the middle of each side at north, south, east and west. Then staple around the edges, pulling and stretching evenly as you go. The goal is to avoid saggy or rippled middles.

9. Work the corners. At the corners, finely gather fabric into tiny even puckers. If you don’t like the way the staple lands, remove it and restaple.

10. Clip extra fabric up to the stapled edge. “The secret to good corners is clipping,” she said. Cushions need to fit back into the chair, and they won’t if corners have too much bulk.

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11. Add the finish. After you’ve stapled on the fabric, cover all edges with a solid piece of regular lining fabric. Turn the edges of the lining under to create a clean edge and staple all around.

12. Return cushions to their respective chairs, and screw them in tight. And have a seat.

Join me next week as we make new kitchen chair cushions. What could go wrong? Well, a lot.

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of three home and lifestyle books, including "Downsizing the Family Home: What to Save, What to Let Go" (Sterling Publishing). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com .

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