Changing the Style of a Recliner backrest

We were asked a question if it was possible to change the style of a tufted semi-attached pillowback to be plain, like a living room chair.

Here are a couple things to consider.

  • It depends greatly on your skill level. If you are an experience professional upholsterer you will be able to change it any way you like, and therefore you probably don't need my suggestions here..
  • If you have a digital camera, take pictures your recliner before you tear it apart, and also take pictures of everything you do, step by step. It will make it much easier to figure out how to put the recliner back together.
  • But if you are an amatuer, then you should consider the following when thinking about changing the style on an attached pillow recliner.
    • When recovering a recliner you are safer to use the old cover as a pattern to make the new cover. It is a lot less work to copy the existing style than to change the style of the backrest. If you use the old cover as a pattern (which I'd recommend), before you take the attached pillow apart, mark all the seams. For example, on every seam, draw a match-up line on every seam with a corresponding letter (A - A, B - B, C - C, etc.) on each side of the seam. These will help you reassemble the pillow back as you sew it.
    • If the existing foam is in good shape and comfortable, you may want to reuse it.
    • Lazyboy recliners generally have a curved backrest, which almost necessiates have an attached pillowback. (You can make the backrest plain, but that involves some special considerations which I won't into here yet.)
    • If you do decide to change the style of the backrest, I'd strongly advise that you get some cheap or scrap fabric and make up a prototype. This would save you a lot of grief later on.
  • One of the beauties and attractions of using a recliner is the padding is generally shaped to fit your back (Lumbar support, an indent for your shoulders, and have it support your neck and head at a comfortable angle). Unless you are knowledgeable about how to shape the new foam to fit your back, you could have problems. If you replace the back padding, then the padding in the backrest may no longer fit your back and therefore not be comfortable any more.
    • If you do decide to change the style of the backrest, Then you will need to do some fittings along the way. I recommend that after you have recovered the inside arms and seat, and are ready to work on the backrest:
      • put the the recliner together and put the bare wood of the backrest on the recliner.
      • you put the foam in place and try out how it feels. On a recliner, to get the foam in the backrest to be comfortable, you often have to layer and glue sections of the new foam to make it fit and be comfortable for your back. You'll especially want to put in some foam for lumbar support. If you are an amatuer, then you may make some mistakes (which is OK and is part of the learning process).
      • that you make a prototype of your new style of the backrest and try that out. That would involve you:
        • fitting the prototype fabric on the chair with the backrest in the chair
        • sewing up the prototype cover
        • stuffing the foam into the the prototype cover
        • taking the backrest off the chair
        • attaching the sewn prototype cover to the frame with very few staples (just enough to hold the cover in place.)
        • putting the assembled prototype backrest back on the recliner frame
        • test out how it fits.
        • You may have to go through this whole process several times or more to get it to look good and feel comfortable for you.
      • Sometimes, especially if you are an amatuer, you may have to make several, or more, prototypes to get the look and feel you want. (This is OK and to be expected.) Even professionals often make more than one prototype when necessary.
      • When you have your prototype the way you want it, use it as a pattern to cut and sew your new cover.

Note: on most recliners the backrest has an attached pillow back, which is assumed with the above instructions. However, if you decide to put the foam directly on the chair backrest frame, you'd first need to put burlap over the springs and staple it to the frame. (assuming that the backrest frame is straight rather than curved) Then you'd layer (cut and glue) the foam to the frame. After that you'd make a prototype to use as a pattern.

The exact process you go through may vary depending up the existing style of the backrest and the new style that you want to me. It would greatly help if you had a picture of the recliner and the existing backrest.