Cover story

With family holidays approaching and a potential long winter stuck indoors ahead, now's the time to start thinking about what can be done to re-energize your decor.

Of course shopping, entertaining and heating bills are also on the horizon, so a full-scale interior makeover might not be in the budget. Minor changes are sometimes all it takes to reinvent a space — a different color paint, wallpaper, or updated lighting can dramatically transform a room.


But there's not much you can do about that tattered old sofa or chair. The simple fix is to cover it. If money is no issue, replacing it will open up a host of decorating options. But another way to freshen up your home is to reupholster existing pieces — an economical way to get a unique new look.

If the furniture you've got fits your space just fine and is in good condition, it may be an ideal candidate for a new skin.


"Most of the time when someone wants to reupholster, it is either a sentimental piece or something that just fits in the client's house," says Alan Ibello of Ibello Upholstering Co. in Remington.

Age and quality are key factors to consider when determining whether a piece is worth reupholstering.

Bob Baxter, owner of Clifton Upholstering and Design in Lauraville, says if a piece is older and the frame has held up well, "it's probably worth reupholserting. The pieces people choose to reupholster are almost always better than the stuff that is in the stores."

True reupholstering refers to the process of stripping a piece down to the frame, tightening the joints and replacing the springs if needed. That said, the cost of reupholstering less expensive furniture store pieces that may already be squeaking and creaking after just a couple of years of use, may be higher than the original purchase price.

Baxter, a third-generation upholsterer who has been in the business for 35 years, suggests that reupholstering an average sofa, including fabric, can cost as little as $950, while 95 percent of the sofas he reupholsters fall between $1,200 and $1,600, depending on the fabrics.

"I can typically redo an entire living room set for less than the cost of purchasing a similar quality sofa," says Baxter.

To help his clients work out a budget, Ibello asks for an emailed digital picture of the piece they want reupholstered. With that, he can easily ballpark a range of prices for labor and fabrics.

"My labor for an average sofa is about $1,400, a wing chair $600 and a love seat $1,200."


One of the main benefits of reupholstering is that it allows for a look that's totally personal. Options for fabrics and finishing details are seemingly endless.

But upholsterers say homeowners should consider how the piece will be used before selecting fabrics and cushions.

"A quality reupholstery job should last 20 years," says Baxter, adding that it's important to choose fabrics that will stand the test of time.

To narrow the field, the first factor is function. Ibello suggests that thicker fabrics like chenilles and tapestries work well in family rooms where furnishings will get a lot of use, while damasks, silk striates, and velvets are better suited for living room.

"Teflon coated fabrics and stain-resistant textiles like Crypton are often used in hotels and restaurants and are great for home dining rooms," says Ibello.

Cushion options include synthetics like hollow-fiber polyester and foam rubber, down and down/foam combinations. And because nothing beats sitting on samples to determine whether a given cushion is too soft, too firm or just right, a good upholsterer will have plenty of options for clients to test.


Another option that most upholsterers offer is a custom piece. Making to suit sounds expensive, but it can be an affordable option, says Baxter, whose handcrafted custom sofas range from $2,500 to $6,000. He is careful to point out that his top-quality hardwood-frame and hand-tied-spring construction should not be price-compared with what he calls "lesser-quality, disposable furniture that is mass produced using particle board, cardboard, and plastic framing materials."

Ibello, who also specializes in custom upholstered furniture says that "custom pieces are popular in home theaters. People want big comfy and unusual. Custom pieces are made because they can't be found in the store."

Both Baxter and Ibello compare custom upholstery to a hand-tailored suit. The process starts with a fitting.

"People come to me for custom pieces because they can't find something high enough, low enough, or long enough," says Baxter. "Someone maybe wants a high wing chair with a lower or deeper seat. I will custom-fit a customer like I am fitting them for a suit. I measure them to determine the dimensions for a piece's arms, seat depth and height."

To help guide the design process, Ibello urges clients to have clearly defined ideas about what they want.

"Get pictures from magazines or off the Internet," he says. "I have samples people can sit on to help them decide, but it is important they know the level of comfort and the look they want."


Even without going so far as a custom piece, the budget-conscious home decorator can get a custom look for a fraction of what a similar-quality new piece might cost.

Baxter suggests that consignment and used furniture shops are full of older sofas and chairs that were built to last using higher-quality materials and craftsmanship than what is typically found at furniture stores today.

"From its earliest days, Baltimore was one of the biggest furniture manufacturing towns in the United States," says Baxter. "For generations, Baltimore families of every stripe had high-quality furniture."

But because Mom and Dad's sofa typically is not appealing to the kids, but it's too good to put out at the curb, such furniture ends up at consignment shops where it is sold inexpensively. Reupholstering these pieces is economical and will totally update the look.

For the ecologically minded, consider the resources depleted by manufacturing new furnishings, Baxter says. Reupholstering will get you not only a high-quality, durable piece of furniture, but the natural resources consumed in the process will be greatly diminished.

"We are the oldest recycler in the state," jokes Baxter. "We've saved thousands of trees."


Dennis Hockman is editor of ChesapeakeHome Magazine. He can be reached at