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Upcycling: furniture restoration and upholstery

By Rebecca Milligan

Upcycling allows you to recycle unloved furniture and turn it into something fresh and fabulous. This eco-friendly approach gives you control over design as well as being kind to the environment.
furniture restorer working on a chair frame

‘Chuck out your chintz’, said IKEA in their 1996 campaign. It can be tempting to throw away large items of furniture when you want to refresh your living space, but hold on a second: there is another way. Why send sturdy preloved furniture to landfill when, with a bit of work, it can become a centrepiece again?

Upcycling has become a buzzword in the last few years, with shabby-chic vintage style all the rage. It can be as simple as grabbing a few tins of paint and giving your furniture a new look – craft aficionados on Pinterest are full of ideas. But if you want a really professional finish, with less effort and outlay than buying new, Which? Trusted Traders has upholsterers, carpenters and furniture restorers who can breathe life into your old furniture.

Furniture that’s built to last

If you’ve got a good-quality piece of furniture that has seen better days, one option is to take it to a furniture restorer and upholsterer. Diane Bull, from Which? Trusted trader Richard Bull Upholstery, told us that rather than buying cheap furniture that breaks easily, you can use furniture restoration to bring out the best in good-quality furniture, whatever its age.

‘It’s not necessarily the cheapest option,’ said Diane, ‘you can buy a cheap sofa for a couple of hundred pounds, but the chances are it will end up in landfill in a few years. Cheap furniture isn’t designed to be restored. It’s often made from softwood, which breaks easily, and held together with what looks like cardboard. Once it’s broken, that’s it, you can’t work with it.’

If you have a well-made piece of furniture, on the other hand, it can last a lifetime. Look out for well-known furniture makers such as G-plan, Duresta, Ercol, Parker Knoll and Multiyork, among others. These good-quality brands can all be reworked and reupholstered, to make them like new.

Some of Richard and Diane’s clients choose to buy quality second-hand furniture that needs restoring, rather than buying new. This gives them control over the design, allowing them to choose fabrics as well as the precise specifications. As Diane says: ‘It’s possible to rejig a sofa – you can change the size or style slightly, and changing the fabric and cushions will make it feel like new.’

Reworking a sofa

Diane described how a sofa will be stripped down to its frame when it comes into the workshop. ‘We can make any adjustments or alterations necessary. Then it will be rebuilt. If the interiors need reworking, we can add feathers or additional feather or fibre fill. We’ll reuse materials if possible.’ It’s this complete rebuilding process that allows restorers to create a bespoke product.

As Diane pointed out, the wear and tear on a piece of furniture will be unique. For example, if two people sit on a sofa, they’re unlikely to be the same weight or height, or sit in the same way. It’s possible for a restorer to make one back seat fuller than the other to accommodate people of different heights. They can make arms thicker or thinner depending on requirements, too. Subtle internal differences won’t be visible to the naked eye, but they can make all the difference to how the chair or sofa feels to the people sitting on it.

Upholstery costs

Costs will vary, depending on:

  • the size of the furniture
  • the condition of the furniture
  • the fabric you choose – the best-quality fabrics will cost around £14 a metre
  • delivery and collection distances.

To give an idea of the level of costs involved in reworking a three-seater sofa, Diane estimates that reupholstering the sofa, with new cushion interiors in a good-quality fabric would cost around £1,500. Armchairs would range between £350 and £800 depending on their size. This is comparable with buying new, but upcycled or reworked chairs and sofas will be made to your precise specifications. And they’re not going to end up in landfill any time soon.

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