Have a Seat

Whether they’re updating a family heirloom or getting the old sofa ready for the playroom, Columbia’s re-upholsterers take pride in the art of giving furniture a second life.

Jeff Amberg

Whether they’re updating a family heirloom or getting the old sofa ready for the playroom, Columbia’s re-upholsterers take pride in the art of giving furniture a second life. Levon Stack has owned Columbia Furniture Service for more than 40 years, but his education in furniture began during college when he worked part-time at Turner Furniture. 

“I learned how furniture was built when I did pickups for Mr. Turner,” he recalls. “They wanted me to work overtime in the warehouse, but I couldn’t because of school. I learned so much about how furniture is built that Rhett Jackson allowed me to do repairs. After that, I taught myself how to re-upholster on one of my mother’s old rockers, and then they let me do more. I got so busy that they gave me a space to do it rent free until I went out on my own.”   

As Levon talks, his fingers fly over fabric, feeding it into a well-used Singer sewing machine with practiced ease. “Sometimes when I re-upholster a piece, I’ll find the old fabric underneath. That’s a short cut. Re-upholstery is more than beautifying. You want to make it a better piece. Rotted foam needs to be replaced, and the fabric always has to be tossed, because the new fabric will get dirty and nasty. Beware if someone says he can do your sofa for $400 or $500.” 

Walking around the shop, Levon explains some of the ways that a good re-upholster can improve a piece of furniture beyond the aesthetics. “We can fix a squeak. We can add a little padding around the front edge of your sofa so the cushions won’t slide off anymore, or to the arms to make it more comfortable. We can straighten out warps and get rid of mildew too,” he says. He knows that particularly well after the floods that came through Columbia in 2015. “I did 120 pieces from the flood. They had to be sanitized and pressed back into shape before we could even begin to recover them.”

For clients curious about whether a piece is worth recovering, Levon suggests looking at the wood. Oak is the best for the frame, or thick plywood, but not pressed wood. “People think it’s good because its heavy but they’re fooling you,” he shares. “I like Lee, Ethan Allen, Baker and Charles Stewart. If they have two levels, buy the higher one.” Levon believes that wood is more important than the springs, another indicator of quality. “A good frame will last forever,” he says. “We can always change out the springs.”

As he goes over a rocking chair he’s just completed, he explains a bit about the value of a quality piece of furniture — and how an experienced upholsterer can keep it looking its best. “You can tell this is a good rocker because it takes just a touch to get it rocking, then it goes for a long time,” he says. “It was filled with horsehair, which will last as long as life, but it had flattened out a bit. You want the fabric to follow the lines of the chair, so I had to add some cotton padding on top of the horsehair. Now the padding flows like the wood, and it’s even.” He says the nap of the fabric needs to be considered as well. “If the nap doesn’t go the same way on every piece, they won’t match.” 

Although he often works alone, Levon usually has one or two apprentices with him, young men or women considering going into the trade. “Some people think that by training the next generation I’ll put myself out of business, but I don’t believe that,” he says. “There’s plenty of work.”

Just ask Jeremy Atchley, who apprenticed with Levon for several years before opening his own shop, New Coverings, 15 years ago. Today, in addition to re-upholstering furniture for residential clients, Jeremy creates upholstered seating for restaurants and other businesses. He says that those projects have allowed him to hire several employees and also gives him the flexibility to take on jobs that require a lot of time or detail work. “We did a chair recently that was so deteriorated that the only thing holding it together was the fabric,” Jeremy says. “All of the glue had disintegrated, and there was a lot of rot. We added metal braces and dowels and saved the chair. Projects like that require a lot of problem solving, which is really rewarding.”

Jeremy shares a yellowed photograph that is, no doubt a treasure. The inscription reads, “Bertha, 1946.” “I just found this in a chair I was tearing down,” he says. “I am going to call the client and tell her I have it. She probably doesn’t even know it exists. It’s kind of rare to uncover treasures like this. I usually find remotes, change and keys, although I did once discover an entire bag of toys that had been stuck in a sofa for 10 years!”

For Jeremy, finding lost treasures is a small but rewarding aspect of his work. He garners his greatest satisfaction helping clients find a way to save a beloved family piece, whether it’s a rocking chair or, as in one recent case, a rug. “The rug was tattered, but it meant something to the client, so we cut out a piece that was still in good shape and turned it into a pillow,” he explains. “The fabric was too thick for a zipper, so we ended up doing a Euro-flap, like a pillowcase, instead. To hold the stitching better, we backed it with lighter fabric. It turned out beautifully.”

But that’s not the most unusual request he’s had in his career. That honor goes to the client who asked him to use her collection of mink coats to cover an ottoman. “It was actually really cool,” he says. “She couldn’t wear the coats any more, but didn’t want to just toss them. The ottoman ended up being gorgeous — and unique.”

For the most part, though, Jeremy spends his days — and a lot of evenings — returning old pieces of furniture into better versions of their former selves. Some are old Victorian sofas with horsehair-stuffed cushions and stiff backs that, with the right changes to the cushions, can actually become as comfortable as they are attractive. Other times, he’ll redo a wing chair with an extra-firm cushion to support a client’s bad back, or top a chair with a thicker bottom cushion to make it easier for elderly clients to ease in and out. “Just like anything else, furniture wears out, or seems to outlive its usefulness” he explains. “But if you love it, there’s a lot we can do that will allow you to continue to enjoy it.” 

The one thing an upholsterer can’t do is choose a client’s fabric and cushions. Soft cushions might feel great, but they tend to look like they need plumping every time someone gets off of the sofa or chair. Mitch Aurednik, another former apprentice of Levon’s, says that a combination of foam and feathers is usually a good choice. “You get support, but it’s also soft,” he says. Then there’s the fabric. Jeremy recommends neutral fabrics rather than big patterns, which might look interesting in swatch form but can become overwhelming on a large piece of furniture. “If you want drama, go crazy with the pillows,” he says. “You’ll have just as much fun, and you’ll have more flexibility with the sofa or chair.”

Like Levon, Jeremy is often asked whether to buy a new sofa or chair or re-upholster an old one. “In general, if a piece is high quality, you should re-do it, but there are definitely other factors to consider, such as sentimental value and the condition of the piece,” he says. “Even a cheap chair is worth redoing if it means a lot to you or is the just right size for a particular space.” To help clients decide, Jeremy is happy to look at photographs sent via text. “We do a lot of work that way,” he says. “It’s convenient for the client and saves everyone time.”

Re-upholstering can also save money, particularly for those looking to invest in high-quality furnishings. Jeremy, for instance, has purchased most of the sofas and chairs in his home from thrift stores. “If you know what to look for, you can get really well made furniture for next to nothing,” he says. Clients shouldn’t think of it as used furniture. “We strip it down to the frame, then rebuild it with new materials,” he explains. “You’ll end up with a piece that’s almost custom made, but at a fraction of the cost.”

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