Back at Chair School – third day

I’ve already decided that I’m going in early tomorrow.. There’s something about seeing a chair start to take shape that can make you very impatient to see the end result, so I’m going to squeeze in as much chair time as I possibly can between now and Friday.

Today I completed the arms and what a valuable learning experience this has been. The techniques I’ve learned are far superior to the methods I previously adopted and have produced a result in which I am fully confident.

A beautiful arm!
A beautiful arm!

This afternoon I was able to move to the wings and I’d say they’re looking pretty good. Again, lots to learn, especially around the join between the bottom of the wing and the top of the arm

The chair as I left it this evening, complete with a second coat of Annie Sloan
The chair as I left it this evening, complete with a second coat of Annie Sloan

There has been much talk this week of my last project, the little cocktail chair that became known as the “10 Please Fred” chair after the inscription I found daubed on its chipboard frame! It’s been remarked that this wingback was likely made by Fred too as chipboard seems to be the wood of choice. This isn’t unusual in more modern furniture and the end result will be just a good

We've decided that Fred should take a break
We’ve decided that Fred should take a break

Tonight Darren and I treated ourselves to a little post-school cinema trip and went to the Plaza in Truro to see The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film was a real visual feast and beautifully filmed, but we took even more from being in a little cinema with big comfy chairs and only 5 rows of seats. No soulless multiplexes here! What a great week this is turning out to be.

A proper cinema
A proper cinema

Back at Chair School – day 2

I always feel that when I’m at Tresithick that I make fewer mistakes than when I’m in my own workshop and that the quality of what I’m producing feels that bit better.

In actual fact, I’m not sure that’s the case at all. For a start I would never put my name to anything that I wasn’t completely happy with so deep down I’m confident that I’m not a complete disaster unsupervised. What I’ve realised this week is that I feel more confident in my skills here because I have someone telling me that what I’m doing is correct. In my workshop at home I don’t have an expert on hand to offer me this reassurance so I’m completely reliant on my own judgement and of course my own doubts. What a week like this does for me is top up my self belief so that I can go home safe in the knowledge that more often than not, I know what I’m doing!

And so to day 2 of the course and the wingback is starting to take shape. Not as much progress today as I’d hoped for, but an important day learning a new method for covering arms so well worth taking my time.

The aim of today was to make a sewn cover, a little like a sock that will encapsulate the whole arm and then be fixed into place. To start, I attached the arm fabric and the panel for the front of the arm, setting their positions with tacks and pins. Getting the fit right at this stage means that when the two panels are sewn together that same great fit should remain

A much better way of doing things
A much better way of doing things

You then take these two panels from the arm and use them as templates for the other arm… being very careful to reverse them because two right arms isn’t a great look.

The two front panels ready for their piping
The two front panels ready for their piping

Once you have your panels and your piping made up, you can sew your piping to the front panels and then the arm panel to the front panel.

Some super neat sewing even if I say so myself!
Some super neat sewing even if I say so myself!

And there we have it, the completed arm sections ready to be adjusted, tensioned and fitted for good.

Some more fettling will take place tomorrow for a perfect fit
Some more fettling will take place tomorrow for a perfect fit

Now, the eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed something a little different about the chair in the last photo. Yes, as much as they were loved, those gold legs have gone. The funniest thing about them is that whoever did it clearly had the chair against a wall…..they didn’t bother to paint the backs! Economical.

Annie Sloan to the rescue. Graphite looks so much better than patchy gold.
Annie Sloan to the rescue. Graphite looks so much better than patchy gold.

Back at Chair School – first day

So here I am, back in Cornwall for what has become my annual trip to Tresithick. While my experience and confidence grows with each new project (and even the most experienced upholsterers tell me that will always be the case) I love coming back down here to top up my formal tuition – there’s just so much to learn.

This week I’m working on a wingback armchair belonging to my friend Chris. It was always my intention to bring a wingback to “chair school” after my first practice run so that I could learn the correct techniques in more detail. Chris loved the last one I did and wanted something similar, so it dovetailed quite nicely that he sourced a chair just in time for this visit. It has the added bonus that I don’t have to find a space in our home for yet another project chair!

The "before" shot - room for improvement methinks!
The “before” shot – room for improvement methinks!

My main focus this week is arms and wings; I know with my last chair that although the end result was good, the journey wasn’t quite right. With the chair stripped and ready (boy did this one put up a fight – I’m keeping Elastoplast in business) I set to work on the arms today.

I’ll not bore you with the detail, but essentially as a modern chair the construction will be mostly foam based and stapled rather than loose stuffings and tacks. This chair in particular has quite a simple construction and is likely to have been mass produced. This doesn’t mean of course that it will look any less stylish at the end, but it does mean that the wood used might not take kindly to hammering and tacks.

If I’m honest, I was thinking gat by the end of this week I’d be happy to have completed one arm and one wing, but based on today it looks like this will be fairly quick build. Working with foam really does give you instant results as far as depth and shape are concerned although it’s still not as simple as I might have once thought. The fabric chosen is already fire treated so this means we don’t have to add a fire-resistant interliner – this means that both wings should be completed by midday tomorrow. Exciting!

A few progress shots from today
A few progress shots from today

So, today’s processes have involved building up the shape of the arms with jute webbing, a tarpaulin hessian base and various grades and densities off foam to create the desired shape. One slightly unusual feature of this chair are the front legs …… unusually made from plastic! These were painted an attractive shade of gold (not by my friend I hasten to add) and come complete with tell-tale moulding seams. I suspect this chair may not be an original Chippendale. I’ve been working on sanding the seams in my spare time today and have secured the right shade of Annie Sloan chalk paint to give them a little make over. No one will ever know.

Keep these away from a heat source unless you want to be tipped out of your seat
Keep these away from a heat source unless you want to be tipped out of your seat

Darren and I are staying at ‘2 The Court’ again, owned by Chris and David of Spring Cottage. It really is a home from home. I brought with me a couple of simple drop-in seats that I rebuilt for Chris and David; out went the traditional tapestry covers and in came the contemporary grey weave. Good for a few more years I think.

A fun little project for the super-stylish Spring Cottage
A fun little project for the super-stylish Spring Cottage

What’s next?

I can’t quite believe that I’ve now been working my ‘old job’ part-time for just over a year now. The fear over making that decision seems like and long and distant memory and the benefits to me in taking back just one extra day have been numerous, not least the ability to say ‘yes’ more often when an offer of paid work comes my way.

Working my day-job for just 4 days has given my life more balance – I often consider myself lucky to have a 3-day weekend, even when a part of that is taken by paid upholstery work – because it doesn’t feel like working. In fact, I have less free time now than I have ever had, yet I don’t feel cheated. The past month has seen me, for the first time, beavering away into the late hours in my little shed to complete projects to tight deadlines knowing that the next project is waiting in the wings for another eager customer. Even my little website has seen a few enquiries….. the word is spreading! Now I’m no Parker-Knoll, but this little bit of momentum feels quite exciting and with it my thoughts turn to what the next step in my journey will look like.

One of the completed 'Princess' chairs
One of the completed ‘Princess’ chairs

Ultimately, my aim is to be able to leave the day job and become an upholsterer full-time, and this may come as some surprise, but this is new territory for me. It’s been great to talk to other people about their own businesses and how they knew when it was right for them to make the leap, but that’s their story and their set of circumstances – so while it provides inspiration and reassurance, it doesn’t mean that what worked for them will automatically work for me.

My gut instinct is telling me that 2013 is not the year for another big leap – I’m quite enjoying the balance right now and the natural growth of my skills, experience and business. That said, I can’t help feeling that a little more direction wouldn’t go amiss to help ensure that one day, whenever that may be, my ultimate goal is realised.

Next week sees me complete another week’s tuition at Tresithick, a week that I am looking forward to immensely. This time to indulge in my ‘new life’ often gives me a taste of how things could be that drives me toward action – so it might be perfectly placed to help me decide on a few well chosen next steps.

What Lies Beneath?

At the end of April I’m off to Tresithick again to see Richard, Sonja and Nadine to continue my structured learning. Originally I’d wanted to complete the AMUSF (Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers) qualification, but with the commitments of my day job I wasn’t able to meet the time requirements of the programme. So instead I’m creating my own path, visiting Tresithick when I can to learn the skills that are most useful for me at that time. Actually, I think it’s working out better for me this way – agreed, I won’t have a qualification, but I’m still gaining the same level of tuition and I can work on projects and skills that relate directly to the kind of pieces I’m being commissioned for.

So what do I want to learn this time? Well I’ve opted for something a little less traditional as I’ve been asked to complete a number of pieces lately that use foams and staples, rather than hair and tacks. Working on my Parker-Knoll style chair recently has given me an opportunity to try some skills associated with more modern chairs, but for my tuition I’ve purchased this baby:

Cocktail chair

A little 50’s cocktail chair, nice eh? Now as tempting as it was to keep this beautiful floral-fluff ensemble, I made the tough decision to strip it back and prior to making this purchase, I had a conversation with Richard about it’s suitability as a project. I wanted to try something that involved foam and a variety of panels that will need stitching together, and with it’s 50’s lines and curves it might also throw a few more challenges that I could learn from. Richard suggested that this little 50’s cocktail chair would likely have a bespoke spring unit in the seat which would be impossible to replace and should therefore be left in situ. I set to work stripping the chair.

One of the things that I enjoy about upholstery is piecing together the history of a chair while you’re stripping away its current façade. One of the things I hate about upholstery is cutting my hand on staples and having to sit with my head between my legs for 10 minutes so as not to faint. I really need to man-up.

What treats lay beneath the green velour on this little beauty? A bespoke spring unit? Some scraps of the original 50’s fabric? A unique method of upholstery that I could learn from? No. None of these. What lay beneath the original velour upholstery was a mass-produced chipboard carcass. This isn’t a 50’s chair at all – it’s a 50’s style chair. To add insult to injury there was even a chalked note on the inside if the seat base saying “10 please Fred”. Good old Fred, he was knocking these out like they were going out of fashion (and in the 1980’s they’d probably been out of fashion for about 30 years).

10 Please Fred
10 Please Fred

Here’s the question – does it make a difference? I felt a bit disappointed when I discovered the chair might only be 20-30 years old, but why? The shape is the same, with the right fabric I can still achieve the same look and structurally it’s sound, so it will fulfil its purpose. Ok, so it’s not actually from the 1950’s, but if the aesthetic is the most important thing, is that an issue? Now if I were an antique dealer I’d have a different view, but I’m not. So what do you think? Should I give this little imposter a more fitting 50’s look?

Oh, and while you’re at it I wouldn’t mind some help in choosing fabric – I love these 50’s prints from Sanderson and think they’ll really bring this chair to life, but I can’t decide. Which is your favourite?

                                Mobiles Black                                    Mobiles Blue        Mobiles Green    Festival    Perpetua

Chalk Painting and Festive Frippery

I know I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front recently, but I’ve not been sitting about, honest. Scout’s honour. My little wing back arm chair is coming along nicely, and I’ve completed the arms to calico stage. A few new techniques here, and I’m really pleased with the results. It’s ground to a halt while I decide on fabric and I’ve committed to ordering it today – who knew it would be so hard to find a nice grey?

Building up the shape of the arms

A couple of weeks ago Darren and I went down to Truro for a long weekend, partly to see Chris and David at the wonderful Spring Cottage but mostly so that I could attend an Annie Sloan chalk painting workshop at Tresithick. I’d heard quite a bit about these paints but needed to see them for myself – the idea of painting directly on to wood or metal without doing any prep or sanding sounded too good to be true (which it wasn’t – you really can do that) but nonetheless appealed to the lazy person inside me. We practiced a variety of techniques to gain different effects from layering and sanding to reveal parts of the colours beneath, to force drying to gain a crackled look and the use of dark waxes to make a piece look aged. It was great fun, and I really am an Annie Sloan convert! This opens up a whole host of design possibilities for furniture aside from upholstery.

Trying to colour between the lines Annie Sloan style….

October and November also saw me hard at work producing my festive scatter cushions for sale on in time for Christmas. With some really unique fabrics from Spoonflower, I set to working on the ancient Husqvarna Viking which seems to be getting grumpier by the minute, snapping needles flew past my ears every 2 seconds. I want safety goggles for Christmas. Feedback on the cushions has been great, and some remain – get one now before they’re gone!

One of my Festive Scatters (on the right!) photographed by my first happy customer

The second day

Day 2 and I’m really getting into the swing of things today. Not only have I found that I’m working with a great bunch of fellow students but my deep buttoning project has started to take shape and I’m finding the process enjoyable and rewarding.

Tresithick are taking 7 students each week now that our guru, Richard is ably supported by Nadine ( deputy guru). The layout of the workshop means that the group is split into two distinct areas and I’ve found myself with Tracy, Henry and Kate who have kept me amused all day. Needless to say, very little of our conversation is about upholstery and I’ve had a great abs workout from all the laughing that’s taking place. Definitely the naughty-corner. Of course we’re fully focussed on completing our projects and learning all that we can, but the group dynamics are making the whole experience even better.

So to my footstool, and today I’ve attached my calico cover which really sets the shape and firmness for the final cover in the next couple of days. Again, hugely mathematical, I had to mark the calico with the position of all 28 buttons allowing enough material for the calico to be fitted deep into the holes. The calico is pulled int the holes with a loop of buttoning twine and secured on the underside of the board with little toggles made from off cuts of firm material. This is where you can really see the shape and pattern of the finished article start to appear as each button hole is created…….







This has been a whole-day job, and there’s more to complete on this tomorrow. Unfortunately, it’s not a simple case of just pulling the material into the holes – each fold that is created has to be neatly pleated following certain conventions that will have the pleats running in the right direction. Each pleat in the edge of the pad needs to be arrow-straight so that the final fabric has the correct guide beneath it to give the desired effect. Of course, there are a few pleats that just fall into place, and others that put up a fight! It’s been hugely time consuming, but great fun and as ever I’ve learned heaps.

I’m really pleased I didn’t go for a small board, the scale of this will look stunning and it looks like I’m on schedule for finishing by day 5.

The first day

So I’m here, we flew down to Truro on Friday night and had a weekend exploring the area before I started my course this morning.

With a little bit of that ‘first day of school’ trepidation, I arrived at Tresithick at 9am with my sandwiches and a massive plank of wood. Richard, Sonja and Nadine very quickly settled me in (it was great to see them again) and I was introduced to the other students here this week. Most students this week are ahead of me in terms of their learning, and 5 out of the 7 people are completing the AMUSF qualification. This of course is great for me because it means I get to see a real variety of projects and listen in on the help and advice given at a more advanced level as the week progresses.

Attention then turned to my project, which ultimately will be the top of a huge coffee table style, deep buttoned footstool. In planning for this week it was important that I had a project that would keep me occupied for 5 days and my discussions with Sonja prior to arriving seemed to suggest that a small deep buttoning project might not fill the week. So I decided to up the scale a little, well, a lot. There were a few raised eyebrows as I started to discuss my plans for a footstool measuring almost 1m square, especially from those who have completed similar exercises in the past – but hey, I wanted to get my money’s worth this week and Richard seems full of confidence that I can do it and that’s good enough for me! At this stage, as I have no idea what processes lie ahead I feel pretty confident too (famous last words?)

As with my previous posts and for those that are interested in the detail, here’s what I’ve done today….

Deep buttoning is really quite mathematical, if you don’t set your button positions accurately at every stage, you’ll end up with a piece that looks uneven and messy, so accuracy is the key. We started by marking the position of the buttons on my ply board and drilling holes so that the various layers and ultimately the buttons can be pulled through and secured. I’m looking at 28 buttons in this footstool (I’m told I’ll be sick of buttons by the time I’m done!!)


With that done we started to build up the pad and the first layer is rubberised hair. I’ve not worked with this before, it’s hair coated in a rubberised solution and set as a pad. It gives an even shape and consistency, can be cut with scissors and is great as a first stuffing for my footstool. This is attached to the edge of the board with staples to give a rounded profile and with the hole positions marked out, I cut crosses in the pad so that the buttons can be seated later on.


Then it was on to more padding, this time 2 layers of cotton felt, each one having the hole positions cleared as it was added. This was pretty time consuming, but you can already see the shape starting to form.



Finally for today, a layer of polyester padding that will prevent the cotton breaking up when the first layer of material is added tomorrow.


I really don’t know where the time goes when I’m here, days absolutely fly past. Tomorrow the pad will really start to take on that deep buttoned look as I add a calico cover (already marked with mathematical accuracy!) but this is also where the work starts to become more detailed in ensuring the width and depth of each pleat is just-so.

I’m having a brilliant time as I knew I would and I can’t wait to show you tomorrow’s progress!

Truro here I come (again!)

Late last year, still full of enthusiasm for the week I spent at Tresithick, I booked up to spend another week at their idyllic workshop in Truro so that Richard, Sonja and Nadine could help me move my skills another step forward.

Guess what? I’m heading to Truro tomorrow to start my next 5-day project on Monday – I’m so excited! Not only do I get to indulge my new passion for a whole week, learning new techniques and (hopefully) producing something aesthetically pleasing at the end of it, but I’m also staying at the equally idyllic Spring Cottage again.

If I don’t feel totally rejuvenated by the time I come back, there’s no hope for me. The timing is perfect too as my return will be just one week away from starting my new part-time contract, so I can put my enthusiasm to good use.

So, this is my project for the week:


Yes, it looks like a big piece of 18mm plywood. Watch this space………