Furniture maker Grant Trick, who has a furniture upholstery workroom in Birmingham, Ala., began his career as a sportswear designer, learning pattern making skills. He served as a showroom designer and prop-maker for fashion brands, becoming an expert at custom upholstery and soft furnishings. Grant hand-tailors custom pieces for the design industry and recently launched his own furniture collection that bears his name.
Trick joined staff writer Jura Koncius last week for The Washington Post’s Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: The cost to reupholster furniture varies so greatly. Excluding the cost of fabric, is there a rule of thumb for what is a reasonable price to reupholster, say, a big, comfy chair? How do I know whether I’m paying too much or getting a deal that’s too good to be true?
A: Pricing varies for so many reasons other than the quality of the work, such as the size of the shop, overhead costs or the age of the upholsterer. Sometimes you get the best work for next to nothing, and sometimes you pay the most for the worst. Look at examples of the work, and if it looks good to you, give it a try. I don’t think you can overpay for good work. Reupholstering is incredibly labor-intensive and is worth the price when done right.
Q: We have a very well-made sofa, love seat and chair that we’ve had reupholstered three times over more than 30 years. We were happy with the results the first couple of times, but then the person who did the work retired. We used someone else for the third time, and the pieces seemed fine at first, but now, a few years later, they aren’t as firm as we would like. The outer fabric itself is fine on all the pieces, but can we add stuffing?
A: It sounds as if you have some great pieces that have stood the test of time. I would imagine the frames are very well-made. After so many years of use, the padding needs to be replaced. This isn’t possible to do without completely reupholstering it again. It’s unfortunate the last person to reupholster it didn’t bring this up as an option, but next time you take it, be sure to ask for new foam and fiber.
Q: What is it that sets custom upholstery aside from large retailers?
A: Quality. In general, those guys are using low-quality everything but are giving you a lot of style. Custom upholstery usually starts with well-built frames, high-quality foundations and the best foam, fiber and cotton. The attention to detail when making one piece instead of thousands is to be noted.
Q: Why is white- and light-colored upholstery so popular? Generally, I think it looks fine, but I don’t understand how families can keep it clean. I don’t have young children in my house anymore, but my upholstery still stains and gets discolored.
A: I’m a big fan of white upholstery; we make dozens of all-white sofas every year. Cleaning weekly with a vacuum keeps the dust off. We almost always have a surface treatment applied to the sofas after we make them, such as fabric seal or Integratect. These seals repel dirt and stains and make cleaning very easy. Funny story: I once had an all-white sofa, but now it has brown cushions and a white frame. I love the contrast, and now I don’t worry that my dog sits on it more than I do.
Q: I’m having a superlong custom sofa made, but I’m struggling with the idea of the maker putting a leg in the middle so it doesn’t sink over time. Is there a way it can be made without, or is there something more attractive that can be done?
A: This all depends on the structure of the frame. There are ways around it, but that has to be figured out before the frame is built. If the furniture maker is saying you need a leg, you probably do. If the frame is still in progress, suggest adding an extra stretcher from the front rail to the back rail in the center of the frame. You could add a hidden support; if the height from the floor is less than four inches, it will never be seen.
Q: What are your thoughts on performance fabric? Are there other functional options that are durable but not so unsightly?
A: “Performance fabric” is a widely used term in the fabric industry, and there is no regulation of how it is used or what it refers to, so buyer beware. Do your homework. Performance often refers to fabrics made of acrylic yarns that will not fade in sunlight and can be bleach-cleaned if they have mildew. This does not mean you want them in your living room, because acrylic fabrics have notoriously low abrasion ratings, so they will show signs of wear much sooner than others. If you’re looking for a performance fabric to use indoors, look for polyester and olefin yarns, because they are much more durable and are made to be stain-resistant and easy to clean.
Q: Can you update detailing when reupholstering, such as changing welts to be thicker or removing them, or taking off legs or feet and adding new ones?
A: These are all changes a skilled upholsterer could do. Have a conversation and discuss the options, and bring ideas if you have specifics in mind.
Q: I have eight dining chairs that need to be reupholstered and repadded. They are somewhat old-fashioned looking, and I think a modern fabric would jazz them up. However, they have a solid line of nail heads around the edge. I’m guessing this is going to be so time intensive, thus expensive, to redo that it may be cheaper to buy new, more modern chairs that go with our table. Any advice?
A: Nail heads are usually priced by the foot, so it shouldn’t be that expensive for dining chairs. If you want the chairs redone, take a photograph and get some quotes from upholsterers. I wouldn’t look for the best deal when asking a shop to do nail heads, because this takes time and skill. If it’s done poorly, you will want to burn the chairs in a bonfire.
Q: What are your tips for buying quality furniture, especially online?
A: This is tough. The Web is full of so many things. Look to see if the vendors tell you anything about the construction of the piece, such as frame type, springs, etc. If they don’t tell you anything, it’s probably because there isn’t much good to say. Check reviews. In many cases, you can find some pictures of the “guts” of furniture from the big-catalogue companies. There are some haters out there we can thank for shining a light on what’s inside these pieces.
Q: Which upholstery fabrics do you use for families with dogs, cats and kids?
A: There are lots of options out there at all price points. Performance fabrics that are made with polyester or olefin, not acrylic, work well. Crypton fabrics are great and available from many companies. If you want to go high-end and still have something durable, my go-to is high-quality mohair velvet. I find that mohair velvets are super durable, but the best thing is that they “wear in” instead of wearing out, like their cotton and polyester cousins. They develop a gorgeous patina over time and look great for many years.
Q: I’m choosing fabric for reupholstering two chairs. If the upholsterer doesn’t have any fabric I like, how can I tell him I’ll provide the fabric – and ask him to give me an opinion on the durability without denigrating his fabrics?
A: All shops are different. Tell him you’re bringing your own fabric. Rather than asking him to help you select fabric from elsewhere, ask the store or showroom where you’re shopping to advise you.
Q: We have cats, and unfortunately (but not surprisingly), they have damaged areas of our upholstered furniture. Is there a cost-effective way to repair it, short of reupholstering the whole piece?
A: I don’t see a good solution other than reupholstering or slipcovering – or possibly having a long conversation with said cats about this issue. Maybe you could bribe them with a cat tree or scratching post.
Q: What are the right questions to ask when evaluating upholsterers?
A: The best place to start is seeing their work. Ask if they repair foundations such as springs and webbing. Ask if they apply new fiber and foam, and if they can flow-match a pattern.
Q: Any suggestions on where to look for small pieces? We have a small basement and need a new couch, but everything is so big. We can do up to 84 inches wide and prefer a corner couch or sectional.
A: Seven-foot (84-inch) sofas are pretty standard. Finding a corner sectional in that size might be trickier. I suggest something custom, depending on your budget. There are some online options where you can buy modular pieces and put them together to get the sofa size you want.
Q: I have a bold floral-patterned ottoman in front of two large brown arm chairs. I want something lighter. Would stripes or small checks work?
A: It’s hard to say without seeing your room, but ditch the floral and pick something that makes you happy. Be careful with stripes and small checks; they can be very busy. They also require a skilled upholsterer to get them on right. If it’s done poorly, you won’t be able to ignore the bad work.