- About 1 out of 3 is self-employedtriple the average for all craft workers.
- Most upholsterers gain experience through on-the-job training.
- Opportunities for experienced upholsterers should be good, because few people enter the occupation and few shops offer training.
Upholsterers make our lives more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing by adding upholstery to new furniture and renewing existing upholstered furniture. In addition, some upholsterers repair or replace automobile upholstery and convertible and vinyl tops. In either case, these workers need an extensive knowledge of fabrics, materials, and upholstery techniques.
Although the many fabrics and other materials used in an upholstered product have changed considerably over time, the basic process of constructing and assembling a piece of furniture has remained much the same. This process always starts with the frame. For both new and reconditioned pieces of upholstered furniture, the upholsterer examines the frame for wood defects, loose sections, and finish. Upholsterers may make minor repairs, such as regluing or refinishing, but major repairs, such as modifications to etched or intricate items, are typically referred to a general furniture repairer or a highly skilled craftsperson.
When restoring a piece, upholsterers first discard the old, worn coverings by using a hammer or tack puller to remove staples, tacks, or other fasteners. Worn sections of padding are then removed, but upholsterers try to reuse as much of the padding as possible, to preserve the shape of the item. After removing all materials and exposing the bare frame, the upholsterer examines the frame for bent and broken springs, repairing or replacing old ones, as necessary. The webbing, which is a strong cloth mat that holds the springs, is also checked for wear. If it is too weak to hold the springs properly and support the upholstered sections, new webbing is installed. Upholsterers do this by tightly stretching the webbing (typically made of nylon, jute, or cotton) from one side of the frame to the other, securely tacking it on both ends. Additional webbing is layered onto the first and attached to the frame forming a new mat.
The upholsterer then positions the springs, either sinuous-wire or hand-tied coils, on the mat, so they conform to it and compress evenly. The coils are then sewn or stapled to the mat or frame and tied to each other. Burlap or a pad of compressed fiber is stretched over the springs to hold their shape, then cut, smoothed, and tacked to the frame. The next step is preparing the frame with cardboard to fill in open areas or give curve to the frame. Upholsterers then cover the springs with filler, such as foam or a polyester batt or similar fibrous batting material, to form a smooth, rounded surface.
Upholsterers also measure and cut fabric for arms, backs, and other furniture sections, leaving as little waste as possible. Using a basting stitch, fabric pieces are sewn together, to ensure a tight, smooth fit. The cover is removed, and any necessary adjustments are made. The final upholstered item is sewn together and tacked, stapled, or glued to the frame. Finally, upholsterers attach any ornaments, such as fringes, buttons, or rivets.
When performing these tasks, upholsterers use common hand tools, such as tack hammers, staple guns, tack and staple removers, pliers, and shears. They also employ specialized equipment like webbing stretchers and upholstery needles. In addition, most upholsterers use sewing machines.
The nature of an upholsterers work often varies with work setting. Those who produce new furniture in factories typically perform a limited range of skilled, often repetitive, tasks. Upholsterers doing reupholstery or custom work, however, perform a broader range of highly skilled upholstery tasks. In addition to other tasks, upholsterers who work in upholstery shops may pick up and deliver furniture or help customers select new coverings. Those who manage shops also order supplies and equipment and keep business records.
Most upholsterers work in a shop or factory. Working conditions in these facilities typically vary according to size. Although many shops and factories are spacious, have adequate lighting, and are well ventilated and heated, some may be cramped and dusty.
Upholstery work is not dangerous, but upholsterers usually wear protective gloves and clothing when using sharp tools and lifting and handling furniture or springs. Upholsterers stand most of the workday and may do a lot of bending and heavy lifting. They also may work in awkward positions for short periods of time.
Furniture upholsterers held about 66,000 jobs in 1998. About 1 out of 3 was self-employedtriple the average for all craft workers. Companies that manufacture furniture and shops that reupholster and repair furniture employed most upholsters. Others worked in shops specializing in reupholstering the seats of automobiles and other vehicles.
Most upholsterers gain the skills necessary to become an experienced worker through on-the-job training. In a furniture factory, this training usually lasts about 6 weeks, but it may be supplemented by an additional 3 years of training, to become fully qualified in skilled production work. It may take as many as 8 to 10 years of experience and progressively more difficult work, however, for an upholsterer to reach the top of the trade. Generally, these highly skilled upholsterers work on custom-made and re-upholstered pieces at the high end of the market.
When hiring helpers, employers generally prefer people with some knowledge of the trade. Inexperienced persons may receive basic training in upholstery in high school, vocational and technical schools, and some community colleges. These programs include sewing machine operation, measuring, cutting, springing, frame repair, tufting, and channeling, as well as business and interior design courses. Additional training and experience are usually required, before graduates become fully proficient in their trade.
Upholsterers should have manual dexterity, good coordination, and, in some cases, the strength needed to lift heavy furniture. An eye for detail, a flair for color, and a creative use of fabrics also are helpful.
The primary forms of advancement for upholsterers are opening their own shop or moving into management. It is relatively easy to open a shop, because a small investment in hand tools and a sewing machine are all that is needed. The upholstery business is extremely competitive, however, so operating a shop successfully is difficult. In large shops and factories, experienced or highly skilled upholsterers may become supervisors or sample makers.
Job opportunities for experienced upholsterers should be good. The number of upholsterers with experience is limited, because few young people enter the occupation and few shops offer training.
Little or no change in the employment of upholsterers is expected through 2008. The increasing manufacture of new, relatively inexpensive upholstered furniture is expected to reduce the demand for reupholstery, solidifying employment at the current level. Nevertheless, a steady demand will continue to exist for upholsterers to restore very valuable furniture. Unlike many other production occupations, automation is not expected to reduce employment opportunities substantially in this occupation, because most upholstery work is labor-intensive and is not easily automated.
Employment of upholsterers in automobile repair has been declining for some time, although the rate of decline should slow. The widespread use of more durable fabrics for automobile seat covers, soft-tops, and convertibles is responsible, in part, for the loss of workers in this industry. This decline may be partially offset in coming years by the reemergence of the luxury automobile, especially those with leather upholstery and convertible tops. Despite little or no change in overall employment of upholsterers, job openings should arise from the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Median annual earnings of upholsterers were $22,050 in 1998; the middle 50 percent earned between $17,800 and $26,920. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,160, while the top 10 percent earned over $33,150. Median annual earnings in the household furniture industry were $21,300, and workers performing reupholstery and furniture repair received a median annual salary of $22,500 in 1997. Earnings of self-employed upholsterers depend on the size and location of the shop and on the number of hours worked.
Other workers who combine manual skills and knowledge of materials such as fabrics and wood are fur cutters, furniture finishers, pattern and model makers, and casket coverers.
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For details about work opportunities for upholsterers in your area, contact local upholstery shops or the local office of the State employment service.
To receive a list of technical schools with accredited programs in upholstery, contact:
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, 2101 Wilson Blvd., Suite 302, Arlington, VA 22201. Internet: http://www.accsct.org