Making and upholstering a footstool from scratch

In April 2016 I attended a week-long course at the Chippendale International Furniture School at Gifford and it was one of the most productive, interesting weeks I have spent in a loooong time. We packed in lots of activities (more of them in later blogs) but in this post I’m going to bang on about the footstool I made and upholstered from scratch.

Firstly, I chose wood for the legs and frame – this was a bit of a rammy where all the students pounced on the woodstore like dogs on a value-pack of Iceland frozen sausages, but I managed to beat off the opposition and snaffled some spalted wood. I’m not sure which wood it actually is, but the spalting effect is colouration caused by fungi growth, resulting in funky black lines running through the timber.

Wood chosen, planing off the edges.

The wood was already square planed, so once cut for length I slighty planed the edges and sanded from coarse through to fine 240 grit sandpaper. Smooooth as a baby’s bum. Next came construction of the frame – soft pine was used for the stretchers to allow us to staple the upholstery onto the frame easily so this was cut to length. I was then introduced to yet another DIY Object of Desire – a Festool Domino Jointer which makes incredibly strong, invisible joints. It drills elongated dowel holes in your workpieces which allow you to join the two together with proprietary (read expensive) beechwood dominoes and glue.

Basic frame complete.

So – if you’ve never heard of Festool before I invite you to peruse their website. They make eye-wateringly expensive but very well designed tools for the professional woodworker (that p-word is the reason I havenae got any….) and everything just kinda works together. Sheesh – I wish someone from Festool would read this and sponsor me. Anyhooooooo back to the stool. As I was going to be tensioning webbing across this mofo I needed to beef up the frame by screwing in gussets to each corner (and now you, too, know what those bits in corner joints of tables are called). Free facts. Right here.

Strengthening the frame with gussets..

And see – with the benefit of hindsight I now really wish that I’d fitted the rails flush with the legs (you’ll see from the picture they’re slighty recessed) because this is gonnae cause fabric stapling problems for this amateur upholsterer later on in the process. In the words of 80’s funk singer George Benson: ‘if I knew back then what I know now’. Wonder if he’s into upholstery….

As it was a stool and not a commode I was making I needed to fill the big hole in the middle with a base for the padding to sit on, so, using tacks and an upholstery hammer I began attaching the webbing to the frame. The webbing forms a 3 by 3 grid with each strap interweaving the others and it needs to be tight for it to offer any support.  An upholstery stretcher is used to achieve the tension, pulling it tight enough so it gives a satisfying PA-TOINNNNNG!! when you twang it. Beginner’s tip 1: Find a heavy weight like the one in the photo when you are doing this and weigh down the frame or you will clatter it into your own face as you press down on the stretcher for tension. True story.

Attaching the first webbing strap.
Tensioning the webbing.

I carried on tensioning, tacking and interweaving the webbing until it looked like something that someone who knew what they were doing had produced,  and like I might actually be able to put some cushioning onto (see the photo at the top of this blog). Takes a while to get the hang of tensioning with one hand (and not smacking yourself in the face with the frame) and picking up the tacks with the magnetised end of the hammer, but this was the most enjoyable part. Time to fill the gaps with material which will stop the padding falling out the bottom. Hessian backing is attached with tacks, folded over neatly and trimmed; as belt and braces we were also advised to add a piece of calico which stops dust getting into the piece – I mean, HOW do they know I’ve got a dusty house? The cheek of it.

Hessian backing added.

Now onto upholstering the seat itself. There are various types of stuffing you can use and here I used coir coconut fibre which is relatively inexpensive compared to horsehair and ends up with less bald horses I suppose. I fashioned a kind of hessian sausage around the edge of the piece stuffed with coconut fibre as this adds definition to the edge of the stool and stops the stuffing rolling over the sides, and this was tacked and glued down. Beginner’s tip 2: those hot glue guns aint messin’ around when they heat up. I invented several new hybrid sweary words when I went to wipe away some overspilt glue with my finger. And it sticks like shit to a blanket, so don’t go picking your nose when you’re using it or you’re gonnae look a bit of an eejit in A&E with your finger jammed up your hooter.

Building up the edge.

At this point if you were a proper upholsterer you would backstitch in loops of twine to hold the stuffing in place (called bridles), but as I’m a charlatan I didn’t.  I teased it out into the rough shape of the stool and foofed it into a sort of light brown mound; it was at this point that I empathised with Donald Trump’s hairstylist. Not sure why.

Trumpifying the seat.

It’s now a lumpybumpy, jaggy heap and if you were to simply cover it now you would get lumpybumpy jaggy bits sticking through the covering material into your ankles when you rested your weary plates of meat on the stool. The shock of that would be enough to make you spill your Merlot and we can’t have that so, resisting the urge to rush ahead there are a few more steps before we are done. I cut a piece of cotton felt wadding slightly wider than the stool itself and placed it on top. Again, if George Benson was an upholsterer he would say that  this was a mistake, as it’s resulted in the sides of the stool looking lumpy. Every day is a schoolday.

Wadding the cushion just a little bit too much.

On the home stretch now, and time to cover the pad with fire retardant calico. This is where the first real skill of the upholsterer becomes apparent. I smoothed the calico over the top and tacked in the middle of each rail with a couple of staples using a staple gun; the tautness of the calico is what will stop your stool from bulging out later when someone sticks their clodhoppers on it, so it’s important to get it as taught as you can. I then stapled out towards the corners and repeated the process with another layer of calico. At this point I was pretty much done, and trimmed the excess material from under the line of staples. And if you are wondering how far a staple flies out of the end of the gun when aimed at someone, it’s disappointingly un-far – oh the japes we played that day.

Covered, and just needs a trim.

Aaaaand we’re done. Ready for covering.

So where is the stool now? Where is the grand reveal where I show you it lovingly wrapped in wool tweed with a colour-matching upholstery edging gimp – yes, that’s really what it’s called? Truth of the matter is I spent a fair bit of money on said beautiful wool tweed, however it’s got such a huge pattern repeat on it that I can’t get it centred so it looks correct and unless you’re patient (a-hahahahahahahahaaa NOT) and good at tensioning and tacking as mentioned above, the lines of the tartan are really difficult to get straight. The stool is therefore languishing under some piles of folded up material and will, at some point see the light of day again. I may even remove the calico, trim back the wadding and recover it. Stay tuned.