tooling around: hit the nail on the head

Shelly Miller Leer had her own upholstery studio for close to 20 years. Three years ago she started teaching other people this special refurbishing art.

Even more recently, a friend of mine helped Shelly publish her first e-book, “Mod Home Ec Digital Apprentice: Intro to Sewing & Upholstery.” When I found out about the e-book and Shelly’s vast array of tools, I virtually zoomed right on over to Mod Home Ec where I saw this!

We’ll start from the very beginning. Once your chair is approved, you will learn how to determine fabric yardage, choose appropriate fabric, tear it down (remove the old upholstery fabric), make simple repairs, re-pad and reupholster it. Professional tips and shortcuts will be covered in order to keep you interested and excited about learning how to upholster. You will learn how to use upholsterer’s tools as well as how to substitute tools you may already have at home. This class meets 6 times for 2 ½ hours, that’s 15 hours of hands on upholstery instruction!

Did you see it, too? Right here: You will learn how to use upholsterer’s tools as well as how to substitute tools you may already have at home.

You mean to tell me I have regular tools with secret upholstery talents?  I love things with hidden talents!  So I asked Ms. Leer to please tell me more about the tools used in her Beginning Upholstery class.

She sent me info on 11 different tools.

“I love them all so much, I didn’t know who to leave out!” she laughed.

Upholstery toolkits are sold for Beginner, Intermediate, and Professional levels. Of course, the more you upholster and are exposed to all kinds of furniture construction methods, the more specialty tools and materials you’ll need (and want). Upholstery tools are not readily available in any local retail stores. They can be purchased online through numerous DIY upholstery suppliers. I forced poor Shelly to focus on just three of the tools you’ll find online.

1.  There’s just not a DIY substitute for a web stretcher.

Gooseneck and straight web stretchers from C.S. Osborne

These tools are designed to grab and hold webbing while you leverage the tool and pull the webbing taut so you can staple the webbing onto the frame. The web stretchers shown here are made by a company called C.S. Osborne, located in Harrison, New Jersey. Their tools have been, and continue to be, in the hands of upholsterers since 1826. There are a few other companies that make some very specific tools, but nobody can compete with Osborne. If you buy an Osborne tool, it will last a lifetime.

2. Some DIY-ers try to use little nail guns, or brad nailers, but in the end, an upholsterer’s staple gun is the way to go.

Three staple guns used by Shelly when she teaches.

The gun on the far left, made by Maestri, is electric and it’s the one I use in all of my beginning classes. The gun on the far right is probably the best buy for the beginner. It only costs about $25.00 at Harbor Freight, it uses larger staples than an upholsterer’s staple gun, and it is powered by an air compressor.

Orangey, in the center, is my pet name for my favorite staple gun. He has been by my side for about twenty years. He’s a little heavy, but that helps keep the nose of the stapler from popping up when shooting staples. The air compressors kick on when you’re least expecting it and scare the bejabbers out of you, but the pneumatic staplers are almost effortless to use. Once you try it, you’ll never want to go back to an electric staple gun.

A small air compressor can be purchased on sale for about $60.00. It needs to be fitted with a removable adapter for the staple guns. Try Nail Gun Depot for an assortment of staple guns, as well as other online companies. It’s difficult to find an upholstery specific pneumatic or electric stapler at a retail store. For some reason, someone makes it difficult to just run out and buy upholstery tools. Ebay often has used upholstery tools.

3. To apply your finishing nails, decorative nail heads, and/or upholstery tacks, a small hammer will do just fine as a substitute in for an upholsterer’s tack hammer.

A small hammer will do as a substitute in for an upholsterer’s tack hammer. The upholstery specific hammer has magnetic ends.

The upholstery specific hammer has magnetic ends for tacks or decorative nail heads. Old timers in the business spit tacks. They stash some tacks in their mouth and with a fluent motion, they raise the magnetic end of the tack hammer up to their mouth where a tack head is ready, it jumps on the magnetic end and they pound them in to the fabric and furniture in a really steady, fast-paced process. Before staplers, this is what they did, and some still do.

You can purchase a tack hammer with a nylon tip so as to not damage the nail heads but, honestly, I’ve never ruined a nail head by using a non-nylon tipped hammer.

When you’re working fast, tools and processes need to be simple and quick. If the right tools make it easier, then invest in them!


Shelly really does love her tools, and that made me fall in love with Shelly! I wanted to know more about the woman wielding that pneumatic nail gun!

Shelly Leer: My mom was always pushing the limits on doing her own design work around our house. She taught me to sew when I was about eight or nine. It was the only time I got to spend with her since I had three older brothers. She was a master of redesign, so I come by it honestly.

After graduating with a degree in Design and Textiles Education (Home Ec), I did a 180 and went to paralegal school in Philadelphia. After six or so years of working as a litigation paralegal, I was starting a family and looking for a way to work from home. I used to go talk to a friend who was starting her own business so she could stay at home with her kids. As we talked, I just jumped in and started tearing down furniture for her. I watched her like a hawk to see how she streamlined so many routine processes in order to get the job done efficiently and well. After helping my friend for about a year, I took some classes at a local adult education program. That’s when M. M. Leer Upholstery Studio was born.

Janice Bear: What kind of tools did you start with?

SL: I went out and bought crescent pliers from the hardware store, used some different sized flat head screwdrivers we had lying around, and a plain old hammer before I started investing in tools. I used a tackle box for my tool box.

JB: Any bloopers you would like to share?

SL: When I was doing upholstery for designers and my clients, I felt the most pressure when something was due and I was finishing up in the last few minutes. Inevitably, something would go wrong, a fabric stain of some sort, a tiny tear when trying to correct that one last thing. We were delivering a chair to someone’s condo, and contrary to all good upholstery standards, it was not covered in plastic. As we walked up the sidewalk, a bird flew overhead and you can imagine what happened. Back to the van it went.

JB: Biggest triumph?

SL: Being selected as a finalist in the Ready Made 100 contest a year ago. I have a signature upholstered ottoman I make out of old electrical spools. I entered one in the RM contest at the last minute and was selected as a finalist. It was shipped to Iowa for photographing and then back to me, and then to New York for a reception, and then back to me. It appeared on two different pages in the ReadyMade April/May 2011 issue. See it here.

7 thoughts on “tooling around: hit the nail on the head

  1. the web stretchers is what this gal loves and wants but not for upholstery, they just look so nice and dangerous … I love tools with pointy ends … today I could use those puppies to comb out my fro. :)

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