Education and Training: Varies—see profile
Salary: Median—$12.35 per hour
Employment Outlook: Poor
Definition and Nature of the Work
Custom upholsterers repair, rebuild, and re-cover upholstered furniture, such as sofas and chairs. Most custom upholsterers work in small upholstery shops. Some work for furniture or department stores. A few are employed by hospitals, hotels, and theaters. Many custom upholsterers have their own businesses.
Custom upholsterers often help customers select an upholstery fabric and give them an estimate on how much a job will cost. A total upholstery job involves stripping a piece of furniture down to the bare wooden frame. Upholsterers usually put the furniture on padded wooden horses so that they can work comfortably. They pull out the anchoring tacks and take off the covering. They remove the padding and burlap that cover the springs. Upholsterers cut the cords or wires that hold the springs in the webbing. They remove worn or broken springs, as well as the webbing. To repair the frame, they may have to glue loose or broken pieces or refinish exposed wooden areas. Sometimes upholsterers use a saw and hammer to change the shape of the frame.
To rebuild the piece of furniture, upholsterers re-web the bottom and tie new springs in place. Then, they cover the springs with burlap. They pad the furniture using such materials as cotton batting and foam rubber. Then they cover the padding materials with a rough fabric, such as muslin. They attach the final covering, which they have cut and sewn using patterns and heavy-duty sewing machines. Once the covering is in place, upholsterers tack it tightly and sew the final seams by hand. They may finish the edges of the furniture with braid or other trim. Custom upholsterers also make fitted cushions and slipcovers.
Custom upholsterers use a variety of hand and power tools in their work. Some of these are special upholstery tools, such as upholstery needles and webbing stretchers. Many upholsterers also manage the day-to-day activities of running a small business.
In addition to custom upholsterers, there are other kinds of upholstery workers. Most work for furniture manufacturers, but some work for manufacturers of automobiles or airplanes. These workers are usually concerned with just one part of the upholstering process. For example, they may make only the arms or backs of seats in these vehicles. Depending on the type of work they do, these upholstery workers may be known as springers, cushion fitters, cutters, or sewers. Sometimes they are called industrial upholsterers.
Education and Training Requirements
Employers usually prefer to hire high school graduates, especially those with vocational training in woodworking, drafting, textiles, and upholstery repair. The most common way to enter the field of custom upholstery is through on-the-job training, which interested individuals can complete in about three years. Candidates can get this training in a furniture factory or in a custom upholstery shop. They can also enter a formal apprenticeship program that lasts three or four years and includes both classroom and on-the-job training. Custom-made furniture upholstery usually requires longer training—as much as eight to ten years.
Getting the Job
The placement offices of high schools or vocational schools can be helpful in finding a job. Prospective workers can enter the upholstery field by applying directly to custom upholstery shops, to furniture or department stores, or to factories that make furniture. They can also answer newspaper classifieds, check with state or private employment agencies, or search job banks on the Internet.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Experienced custom upholsterers can become supervisors or managers in a large shop or firm. Many workers open their own custom upholstery shops. They need only a small amount of money to get started in this business. Competition is keen, however, and many small shops fail each year.
Employment of upholsterers should decline through the year 2014. Most job openings will be created to replace workers who leave the field. In addition, as the economy remains strong, people prefer to buy new furniture rather than have their old pieces reupholstered. However, there will still be a demand for upholsterers to restore more valuable furniture.
Although most upholstery workshops are well lighted and well ventilated, the air may contain dust and lint from the materials used in the trade. Workshops may also be noisy from the use of hand and power tools. Upholsterers may receive minor cuts and scratches when working with sharp tools and rough wood. Sometimes workers must lift heavy furniture. They often pick up and deliver the furniture that they upholster. They need to be strong and work well with their hands. Some artistic ability is helpful, too. Custom upholsterers who start their own shops need good business sense as well as the ability to deal with customers.
Most upholsterers work forty hours a week. They may work overtime during the busy periods before holidays. There may also be slow periods with little work. Self-employed workers generally work longer hours than those who are employed by others. Some upholsterers are union members.
Where to Go for More Information
Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration
2715 E. Mill Plain Blvd.
Vancouver, WA 98661
National Association of Decorative Fabric Distributors
One Windsor Cove, Ste. 305
Columbia, SC 29223
Earnings and Benefits
Custom upholsterers earn a median hourly wage of $12.35 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The earnings of self-employed workers depend on the size and location of their shops, plus the amount of hours they work in each one. Benefits for upholsterers vary. Many small custom upholstery shops offer few benefits. Larger firms often give benefits that include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.