How to Buy a Vintage Chair for Reupholstery

Vintage Toothill Chair

Have you read my last blogpost on why you should consider buying a vintage chair? It’s here if not.

This post is about how to go about buying vintage, what you need to consider, and how to avoid costly mistakes.

So, before you head off to trawl the shops, markets and shows, or more likely, get on the internet, there are a few things to think about.

Where’s it going and what size do you need?

Is this a chair to go with what’s already in your room, or is it an accent chair – a stand alone wow piece? Will you be moving it about from room to room or is it static? Is it a chair for your bedroom to throw clothes on (the horror 😆), or is it a chair you’ll be sitting on for a few hours everyday?

Before you begin the painful process of falling in love, have a think about what you want the chair for.

A large heavy wing back can be difficult to place in an already full room, they take up a lot more space than you realise. And they can be even more difficult to move easily.

Halabala chair reupholstered in sea green velvet, arms refinished with wax finish

How do you sit, how tall are you? Long back, short legs or…?

A bit of an odd one this, and I’m no expert, but the reality is vintage chairs come in a huge range of sizes. Some are tiny, and if you’re a tall long legged person who is a bit of a lounger, it’s never going to be comfy. Often chairs described as cocktail chairs are quite low, presumably because you won’t have far to fall…which is fine if you’re shortish, but for a lot of taller people it feels like going back to primary school.

Similarly, I have a G -Plan 6250 wing back which was described as ‘the most comfortable chair in the world’ when it first came out. It’s very comfy, but huge. I need at least 2 scatter cushions to support my back when I sit on it.

Also, be mindful of the fact that most of us lounge around a bit, generally spread out, and relax on our furniture. It wasn’t always like this! If you look at catalogues from the 1950s or 1960s, often people are sitting quite upright and formally. If they have their feet up, it’s usually on a recliner or a matching footstool. This isn’t to say that you can’t get comfy on a vintage chair, it just means you need to really look at the furniture you’re about to buy, or better still sit on it. It all depends on what you want it for. Buying vintage is no different from buying new in that respect. You should give it the same consideration.

1940s German wing back chair
1940s German wing back chair
G Plan Armchair in grey wool with mustard buttons
G Plan Armchair in grey wool

Who else lives in the house and might be using the chair?

I’m talking dogs, cats, teenagers, toddlers etc. Chairs with seat and back cushions you can move and turn will help distribute wear and tear. You might be able to take off the fabric and get them cleaned too. Chairs with wooden arms are more of a worry with toddlers about, but chair arms can get notoriously mucky, so bear that in mind. If it’s just a pretty occasional piece, then you have more scope, but if it’s a hard working piece for everybody in the household, including guests, then you will need to think harder about wear and tear, size and suitability.

Things to avoid and what can be fixed.

This is by no means a definitive list, but it’s a start.

  • Don’t worry about smells, squeaky springs, stained or ripped fabric, mysterious bumps and scratched wood. Most if these can be remedied by your upholsterer with some internal work, new fillings and of course fabric.
  • Things that are more worrisome are tiny regular holes, which might mean woodworm, any significant insect activity, moths or caterpillars. They can be eradicated, but beware of spreading to your other furniture in the meantime. If the infestation is too bad, or current, it might not be worth keeping.
  • Significant splits and breaks in legs or parts of the frame where you can feel could be very difficult to repair, often not impossible but costly and time consuming. Depending on the age of the chair, it might be worth using an experienced furniture restorer.
  • The chair should sit evenly on the floor and not lean or rock and be solid. Generally a heavier frame is a good sign, but not always.

The exciting bit

G Plan Two seater sofa
G Plan Two seater sofa recovered in Kirkby Design fabric

Try and imagine your chair with new fabric, different buttons, maybe without piping? Perhaps strip the wood back to a natural finish. You now get to spend some time letting your imagination run wild and customise your chair to suit you. Pinterest is a great resource for finding ideas about colours, fabrics and do on. It could inspire you to consider something completely different.

So armed with this information, go out and find that perfect piece. Don’t be afraid to ask more questions and for close up photos and measurements. If you get the chance sit down for a few minutes. Really try it out.

Most importantly, enjoy buying and creating your bespoke piece.

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