The slick way to spruce up upholstery (without duct tape)

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Frasier Crane’s father was really attached to his old recliner.

Frasier: "Oh, Dad, no, no! Not more duct tape!"

Martin: "Yeah. I gotta repair a little split in the old throne here. You gotta catch these rips early, or they look like hell."

Frasier: "You know, Dad, instead of repairing this old relic all the time, why don’t we just bring the Eames down here?"

Martin: "Ah, no, that thing’s too fancy for me, I just need a comfortable place to park my fanny."

Just about everyone has a story about a tired old piece of furniture that they were loath to part with out of sentiment, convenience or just because it’s really comfortable.

Amanda Brown understands. "People are driven to start an upholstery project because they saw something or they have a beloved piece they want to tackle," she said in a phone interview.

She was living in an old garage apartment in Austin, Tex., that was filled with eclectic treasures, thrift store finds and more. While she was away for a weekend visit with family, an electrical spark caused a fire and the whole place burned to the ground. Devastated by the loss, she tried in vain to replace her belongings and eventually turned to a big box retailer for replacement furniture.

It wasn’t the same, and little by little, she began hunting and gathering old pieces, saving up to have them professionally reupholstered. Energized and inspired, she decided to enroll in some local upholstery classes and soon after was tackling jobs for hire and planting the seeds for her own business. In 2007, Brown left her day job and in 2007 Spruce Upholstery (www.spruceaustin.com) was born.

Since then, she has turned upholstering on its ear, mixing fun and funky textiles with classic shapes that are full of whimsy, modernizing even the most classic furniture shapes. Her work is in high demand and her refreshing designs have appeared in the pages of the New York Times, Metropolitan Home and Southern Living. She is a regular design contributor to Design Sponge, and appears in and produces videos for the DIY Network and HGTV, where you may have seen her teaching her tricks of the trade.

Now, if you can’t make it to Austin to take a class, you can buy her new book, "Spruce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Upholstery and Design" (Storey Publishing, $35). The book is one of the best on the market for do-it-yourselfers. Inside, you can follow each step as Brown tackles an entire room full of furniture. From start to finish, it is a master class in upholstery and design. Brown said the book was born from necessity.

"In the early days, we started teaching classes as a way to subsidize the cost of a retail space," she said.

The twice-a-month classes caught on like wildfire as a new generation of design professionals and DIYers discovered how cool and "green" it was to rescue a piece of furniture from the trash heap. The classes are still going strong and are structured for no more than six to 10 people, so they fill up quickly.

"We have a chair class that is a two-day class," she said. "We provide the raw frame and everyone gets some hands-on attention."

She says that nearly half of her students come from out of state and that they take the completed piece and ship it back home. Other classes cover a handmade bench, lampshade and headboard. All of the frames are built in-house.

The new book provides very detailed photos on how to do these projects yourself. Brown said many people are intimidated by the idea of doing their own upholstery.

"There is no sewing experience required, and they think you need to have a sewing background," she said, laughing.

Many people want to start with a sofa or wing-back chair, and that can be a mistake, she said.

"You can get discouraged if you go too big in the beginning. You want to tackle something that you can complete in a weekend so you can get that first rush of excitement."

Brown has loved vibrant, fun colors since the beginning.

"I wanted to have a retail store that had fun, vintage pieces that I revitalized. It was always my drive to make cool pieces to sell."

Silks and small stripes are a no-no for the beginner.

"It is hard trying to keep them straight. Larger stripes are a bit easier. Cottons are great, inexpensive and there are a lot of dynamic synthetic blends with stain resistance built-in.

"Linens also have a tendency to ‘grow’ unless backed so they are not for the first-timer."

Brown was lucky enough to have built her business up to the point that her employees — "Sprucettes" as they are known in the design world — were able to hold down the fort as she worked on the book.

"I hired a really great person out of California with 45 years of experience, and he took over my spot in production as I worked on it," she said.

She has never backed down from a project. Brown will never forget the call from a woman who asked if she could tackle a really, really big wing-back chair.

"I sent the delivery company to retrieve it and it was huge, probably 15 feet tall and from a carnival. I had to stand on the seat just to upholster the back because it was so tall."

When it was done, the chair went into a showhouse. Like many Spruce projects, it surely became the most-talked about piece in the room.

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