upholstery basics: picture-perfect backs

It’s hard to believe that just six short months ago, we met here for the first time and headed to the workshop to begin our upholstery journey together. We’ve tackled dining seats, coil springs and even bookshelves, so my gift to you this holiday season is the picture back. Because the outside back fabric only peeks through the frame of the chair, it looks like a framed picture. So if you have an old needlepoint, painting or a cross-stitched floral, this is the perfect place to show it off. We’re skipping straight to the back, so check out the other Upholstery Basics columns for upholstering your seat. — Amanda

Read the full how-to after the jump!


  • goggles
  • gloves
  • razor blade or X-Acto knife
  • pliers
  • staple remover
  • air compressor
  • stapler
  • 3/8″ staples
  • measuring tape
  • foam (super soft or low density)
  • permanent marker
  • carving knife
  • burlap
  • Dacron
  • fabric
  • white or yellow chalk
  • straight edge/ruler
  • scissors
  • spray adhesive
  • jute webbing
  • webbing stretcher
  • 5/32″ welt cord
  • sewing machine
  • double welt cord foot
  • thread
  • high heat glue gun and glue sticks
  • regulator
  • air blower attachment

Don’t forget to check out Upholstery Basics: Tool Time to learn more about the tools we’re using today.


1. Any time I get a chair with busted cane, I seize the opportunity to replace it with upholstery. Use an X-Acto knife or razor blade to cut the cane as short as possible. We don’t want the ends of the cane showing through the back of the chair.

2. After removing the cane, hold the foam against the frame and use a permanent marker to trace the shape of the back.

3. After you’ve traced the foam, use the carving knife to cut on the line. We’ll use the foam as a pattern to get the rest of the materials we need.

4. Cut one piece of burlap and two pieces of fabric that are 2 inches bigger than the foam piece on all sides. Then cut one piece of Dacron the same size as the foam.

5. Use spray adhesive to attach a second piece of Dacron to the front side of the foam (the side without the marker). Then trim the Dacron even with the edge of the foam.

6. Now that we have all our materials cut out, use the measuring tape to find the middle of the top and bottom and mark with chalk.

7. With a picture back, the first thing we’ll put on is the outside back. With the good side facing down, line up the middle of the fabric with the chalk mark and sub-staple it in place. Refer to step 10 from Dining Chair Do-Over for more about sub-stapling.

8. After sub-stapling the top, bottom, right and left sides, take a look at the back and double-check that the fabric is straight and the pattern is placed appropriately. “Appropriately” is up to you. A good rule of thumb is to center the pattern, but feel free to deviate from this if you’re feeling frisky.

9. When you’re happy with the fabric placement, begin removing the sub-staples and replace with permanent staples that go all the way in. The staples should be placed close together and as close to the finished wood as possible. Trim the excess fabric with a razor blade.

10. Place one layer of Dacron on top of the fabric (without attaching) and attach two to three strips of webbing for extra support. See steps 3–7 on Constructing Coil Seats — Part I.

11. After the webbing comes the burlap. Pull it taut and put staples close together all the way around. Then trim off the excess. In the past, we’ve folded the burlap over and stapled again, but since the space where we staple is so small, we’ll skip this step to minimize bulkiness.

12. Apply spray adhesive on the back of the foam and stick to the burlap.

13. Now it’s time for the inside back fabric. Determine how you’d like the pattern placed, then sub-staple. It’s easiest to keep the pattern straight if you start by stapling the middle of every side. Then pull the excess out in the corners. Once you have all these points secured, staple in between.

14. Just like the outside back fabric, move on to permanent staples once the fabric is sub-stapled in place. Then trim off the excess fabric.

15. Now that our picture backs are padded and upholstered, the only thing we’re missing is the decorative trim, so we’ll attach double welt cord to clean up the raw edges. Refer to steps 15–17 from Coil Seat Finale for sewing double welt cord. Open up the seam on one end of the double welt cord and cut out about an inch of cording. Be sure to cut both cords.

16. Glue the end back together with the hot glue gun.

17. Before we fold the end over and glue it down, we’ll trim off the corners so they don’t stick out the sides.

18. Once the end is neatly glued down, put a continuous line of glue on the back side of the double welt and press firmly on top of the staple line. Work in segments of 6 to 8 inches, so the glue doesn’t dry before you stick the cording.

19. Start and stop the cording in the middle bottom of the inside back.

20. Continue gluing until you’re a few inches from where you started. The regulator can be used to tuck in strings and glue that squishes out the sides.

21. Then cut off the cording about an inch beyond where we started.

22. Open up the cording and finish the end by repeating steps 15–17. The beginning and end of the double welt cord should meet at the bottom middle of the inside back.

Helpful Tips

  • The easiest way to upholster a picture back is with the chair laying on its back.
  • As you’re upholstering, frequently check to ensure no staples are poking through and showing from the back. When you come across a rogue staple, pull it out and touch up any imperfections in the wood before moving on.
  • Remember, if you’re pregnant, have a buddy help with the spray adhesive.

While you’re home for the holidays, I bet you’ll look at those pieces at grandma or mom’s house a little more lovingly. “Wouldn’t that look great with that new Martin Lawrence Ballard fabric?” Or “I could see this in a plush magenta velvet!” Make your New Year’s resolution to rid yourself of ugly, impersonal furniture, and meet me back here in 2012 for how to do it!

Chair fabric is Robert Allen’s Aztec Pathway in Pomodoro. Painting by Austin artist Maria Gatling.

  1. Rachel Tatem says:

    That’s awesome! Thanks for the tips. You made it seem somewhat simple, and that’s saying something

  2. Jen says:

    Hi Amanda –
    Your ideas are so inspired and your execution is impeccable. You make it look so easy! As a new DIYer, I lack the confidence to attempt such an involved project even though I have ideas upon ideas and plenty of pieces that need revamping. I just recently refinished my mom’s childhood vanity and it looks beautiful. But that was just a painting project. I hope in the new year I can build up the courage to tackle some upholstery projects using your tips and tricks. Thanks again for all the inspiration!

  3. Beautiful job and extremely well-documented! If I can’t figure out how to do this it’s not because you didn’t try! I love the fabric you chose as well -very cool!

  4. Liz says:

    This is unrelated to the chair, but where did you find that beautiful Rothko print in the background against the wall? It’s gorgeous!

  5. Laura says:

    I did a terrible job on the back of a chair recently and am excited to try it again now that I know the right way! Thanks for posting this.

  6. amandita says:

    Wow! The finished product is amazingly beautiful and the instructions are really detailed and easy to follow. Thank you for taking the time to create such a great post. I love Design Sponge!

  7. I found the perfect chair on my corner. (I love living in NYC!) can’t wait to get started. I’m looking for more suggestions for fabric shops now

  8. Vanessa says:

    Beautiful chair and fantastic tutorial and column. It would be awesome if you released all the column entries at the end in an upholstey e-book!

  9. Amanda says:

    The artwork is an original painting by Maria Gatling. I have link to her website at the bottom of the post. Thanks!

  10. Jody Kaufman says:

    well done , Jody Kaufman, ASID

  11. Tarryn says:

    Brilliant! What a beautiful result.

  12. Katie says:

    OMG This is EXACTLY what I needed to figure out how to finish the arms on my chair!! Thank you!!

  13. Thank you SO much for this. I have had a chair to upholster for months, but never got round to it. I will use this guide to tackle it in the holidays!

    Great job- beautiful finish.

  14. hany ghannam says:

    thank u :)

  15. Kitty says:

    this is the most awesome tutorial! Thank you for showimg step by step how it’s done.

  16. Anna says:

    Thank you Amanda! I was gnawing on my fingers hoping you would release another post about chair’s back. I just removed all of the fabric and material from one of my living chairs and it’s ready to receive its new skin!
    I was talking to an upholster to purchase cotton batting (none of the fabric stores seemed to have any..all they had was polyester filling) who mentioned that nowadays, cotton batting is just not used to get a crown — only foam. This somewhat confused me. What are your thoughts?

  17. Amanda says:


    I know a lot of upholsterers who still use cotton batting, but I’m sure it depends on the availability of the material in your area. For instance, our supplier stopped carrying upholstery tacks, saying that no one in our area was really buying them. So we have them shipped in from another city.

    It is true that foam is the most widely used padding material, but to give a seat or back that extra roundness, or to fill in around coil springs, I would suggest cotton batting in addition to foam.

  18. Tonya says:

    I really want to try this…but I worry that you make this seem much easier than it is…. You did an awesome job…I hope if I finally decide to take this project on…I am HALF as successful as you were…

  19. eva says:

    beautiful! It still looks like something I might not want to do myself, ‘to do it well’ is a totally different thing than ‘to do it’.

  20. Elaine says:

    Thanks, Amanda! I look forward to trying my own hand at this. Some day…

  21. Barclay says:

    This is so inspiring! I definitely want to try this! I have one question – what is Dacron? I tried Googling it but got industrial links back. Do you have source recommendations for supplies like that?

  22. Ann says:

    i love that painting above the chair

  23. Love the fabric choice! So great when something trendy like an Aztec print comes in such classic colors. Robert Allen does that well. Perfect for this chair. Thanks for the great instructions and pictures. Should be helpful for any DIYer!

  24. emily says:

    I have a beautiful rocking chair with a cane bottom that’s all torn up… do you think jute webbing would be enough to support someone’s bottom, or should I use a bit of wood for more support? Any advice would be greatly appreciated, and thanks already for this great info!

  25. Krysti says:

    Did you sand and stain the chair or did you use paint? What brand/color did you use? It turned out amazing! Thanks!

  26. Amanda Brown says:

    Hi Krysti,

    I had the chair stained in a dark espresso wood finish. I’d recommend Minwax Polyshades for the easiest DIY refinishing. Cold and wet weather are not ideal for staining furniture, so keep that in mind. Thanks for your comment!

  27. Amanda Brown says:


    Just saw your comment from over a year ago! Yes, webbing is strong enough to support someone’s weight in a caned-seat chair. I would recommend adding upholstery tacks on top of the webbing (like I did with the coil sprung seat) to ensure a strong connection to the wood.

  28. Demi says:

    I am in the process of doing this as per your instructions. First timer and had no idea how to replace the cane without your advice. Thank you

  29. hadassah says:

    Hi Amanda,

    You did a fantastic job and gave me the push to do my own dining room chairs! I’m not a sewer; is there anything else I can use besides the decorative cord to hide the raw edges? Thanks in advance!

  30. Tony L. Waldrop says:

    I just found this article. I have six dining room chairs that need the caning replaced on the backs. thanks for the step by step. I will let you know how they turn out. Thank you, and God Bless.

  31. Shannon says:

    This is the most helpful tutorial I’ve found to date as a beginner!!! I’m just beginning to get into up-cycling furniture and have a few caneback chairs to do! Thanks a million for this tutorial! It’s given me the confidence I need to dive in and get started on something that previously scared me!!!


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