Hot Career Alert: Learn Reupholstery and Start Out Earning $20+ an Hour
There’s a steady demand for upholstery work and not enough upholsterers trained to do it. Two semesters in an upholstery course at a local community college could help you land a job that can start at $20 an hour and eventually pay up to $70 an hour.
“I get a call from a company at least every other week saying they are looking for someone to hire,” said Katherine Smith, coordinator of special projects at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. “And they are calling from around the U.S., not just Texas.”
She hears from a variety of employers, well beyond the traditional furniture upholstery shops. Medical supply companies call needing someone to upholster examining tables. Auto body shops call looking for people to repair seats.
Owners of furniture upholstery businesses around the country say they have clients waiting months, even years to get work done because they don’t have enough well-trained upholsterers in the profession.
We spoke to business people in the field. Here’s their advice on how to learn upholstery and fill a lucrative, unmet demand.
“I’m doing a couch starting next week and the owners have been waiting two years,” said John
Levey, who owns Zim’s of Catalina upholstery business on Catalina Island, Calif. He’s ready to hire a qualified employee on the spot for $30 an hour.
“I have so much work I don’t know what to do with it,” said Chris Scirica, who co-owns Caribe Interiors Upholstery & Furniture Refinishing in St. Petersburg, Fla. “The reason the demand is extremely high is there are so few people doing this well. I can’t even find anyone to teach.”
How to Learn Reupholstery
There are several resources — both virtual and in-person — for people who want to pursue upholstery as a career or side gig.
Take Courses at a Technical School or Community College
Schools around the country teach students how to reupholster at various levels. Some are more for the “weekend warrior” who wants to recover the dining room chairs they found at a garage sale or even take a stab at a skirted sofa. Others offer certificates of continuing education and teach skills that can be put to use in an existing upholstery business or start one of their own.
When students finish a year at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, for example, they are ready for the upholstering profession, Smith said.
Here’s how that program works:
The first semester at Tarrant covers the fundamentals of upholstery while the second semester covers intermediate upholstery. Each requires 96 hours of instruction. A summer course teaches auto and boat upholstery in 108 hours. Classes meet twice a week from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The courses cost $300 a semester and many students are eligible for financial aid. Upon completion, students earn a certificate that shows they are qualified to work in the reupholsetry profession.
Check with your local technical school or community college to see what types of courses are available.
The National Upholstery Association also has a directory of classes taught by master upholsterers and other professionals.
Take Online Upholstery Classes
Kim Chagnon took upholstery classes twice a week for a year in 1996. She started upholstering for friends and family as a side gig and then made it her full-time job. After building a thriving business in Greenfield, Mass., in 2010 she started posting YouTube tutorials to share her knowledge for viewers who wanted to pursue upholstery. Since then, she and her husband Bill have made more than 200 posts and have 75,000 subscribers and more than 8 million views.
Their business, Kim’s Upholstery, now offers classes through their website with more in-depth training. For $25 a month or $240 a year, students have unlimited access to training videos available around the clock. Subscribers talk regularly to offer each other help and Chagnon is also very accessible.
Subscribers can learn reupholstery for all types of furniture including a chaise lounge, channel back chair, skirted sofa, any kind of cushion, tufted ottoman, Queen Anne Chair and curved headboard just to name a few. Chagnon also teaches slip covers for a rolled arm loveseat, replacing a zigzag sinuous spring, matching patterned fabric and measuring fabric for yardage.
Kim’s Upholstery also offers in-person, three-day workshops for people who want to learn upholstery in one project for $600. There are two coming up in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Pursue Upholstery Apprenticeships
Many upholsterers learned their skills working in a family business.
With the need for trained employees so high, Smith said she’s talked with employers who would take someone on as an apprentice and pay them as they improve their skills.
“If they can get someone that at least halfway knows what they are doing and they can use a commercial, industrial sewing machine, they are interested,” she said.
“I was taught every aspect of what it takes to do a job completely,” said Scirica of Caribe Interiors. His father, a master craftsman from Sicily, Italy, passed his vast knowledge on to Scirica and his brother. Scirica believes many local community college courses are more for do-it-yourselfers who don’t need to learn about intricate upholstery skills.
“They don’t teach how to do diamond tufting or stuff with horse hair,” he said. “The best way to get into a business like this is to find somebody and apprentice.”
How to Start an Upholstery Business
No matter how you learn your upholstery skills, if you want to start your own business you need to invest around $1,500 to $2,000 in equipment.
A good industrial sewing machine costs an average of $1,500, according to Smith. A box of essential upholstery tools is another $500.
Chagnon gave strong reviews to the LS-1 Basic Walking Foot Sewing Machine, which sells for $795. It comes with a 3-hour video to teach users everything they need to know about the machine.
Once you have proven yourself with friends and family, start networking. Contact antique dealers, vintage shop owners and estate sale managers who can hand out your card when they sell a piece of furniture that needs work. Realtors also get to know a lot of people who want to spruce up their homes and reupholster furniture. Reach out to interior designers, too, of course.
Profitability varies. While there is steady demand for upholstery work, Scirica says his business is far from a cash cow.
“It’s a labor of love,” he said. For example, an upholsterer might spend 10 hours working on a high-back wing chair and charge the client $700. The $70 an hour earned on that chair also has to help cover expenses like power, insurance and rent for the workspace.
Setting up a business in your own home definitely allows more room for profit, Smith said.
Myles Denny, owner of Diversified Upholstery Service in Knoxville, Tenn., has a lucrative business doing repairs and upholstery for warranty companies that cover furniture. He’s a one-man shop, and travels to clients’ homes to fix their furniture.
“I charge $90 for a service call and after that it’s $70 an hour,” Denny said, explaining the warranty companies pay him, not the furniture owner. “I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands. I make a very good living at this.”
Katherine Snow Smith is a staff writer for The Penny Hoarder.