DIY: Upholstering a Scalloped Trim Headboard

October 18, 2013 | Alex

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When Rachel and Sean moved into their first apartment together, they were faced with prospect of decorating a fairly spacious 1-bedroom apartment from scratch. Rachel had her eye on a few carefully calculated splurges, but hoped to make up the difference in budget by incorporating hand-me-downs, Craigs List finds and DIYs. 

Enter Sean's aunt and uncle to the rescue! They gifted the couple a vintage headboard (that once belonged to Sean's grandparents) with scallop detailing on the wood trim. While the frame itself was in great condition, the silk upholstery job sported some serious water damage. 

Rachel happily discovered, thanks to good old fashioned construction techniques, the reverse of the headboard was upholstered in a lovely blue linen in perfect condition. Functionally, it was great. But Rachel, one of my most aesthetically gifted friends, couldn't let go of her vision of a neutral bedroom with citrine and brass accents. Pale blue linen wasn't going to cut it. Not to mention that the exposed upholstery tacks were badly rusted.

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So, together, we devised a plan to remake the headboard in Shadow Trellis by DwellStudio for Robert Allen. In terms of know-how, I took an upholstery class at a local shop a couple years ago, but relied heavily on refreshers from Little Green Notebook by Jenny Komenda. I strongly recommend checking out her archives before you embark on your own headboard reupholstery project.

Here's a step-by-step breakdown of how Rachel and I did things (including an action shots of me looking like the hunchback of Notre Dame and Rachel looking like the Kate Moss of upholstery candids):

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 Tools

*You can use a manual staple gun, but you'll save yourself a lot of time, cursing and hand cramping if you spring for a $30 electric model.

Step 1: Remove Old Tacks

You use an upholstery tack remover the same way you would use the pronged-end of a hammer to remove a nail. I wish I could say there was a trick to it, but it just takes patience and elbow grease. If the tacks are in really deep, you can try loosening the tack with a small flathead screw driver first, then applying leverage with the pronged tool once you're able to drive it under the tack head. It's tempting to tear away the fabric from under the tack (which creates a sliver of space to slip the pronged tool under the tack head), but try not do this too much or you'll risk making Step 2 more challenging. It's okay, though, to use this trick for the nails that just don't seem to be budging at all.

Note: This is the most time-consuming and physically draining part of the project. With an old headboard, the tacks are really embedded in the frame. (We also made the unhappy discovery that the frame was not, in fact, wood, but plaster with decorative painting to achieve a wood effect. In other words, extremely hard.) It took us about 1.5 - 2 hours, interpersed with some chatting and water breaks, to remove all the old tacks.

Step 2: Trace Outline of Old Fabric onto New Fabric

If you plan to use the fabric for other purposes, be sure to draw up a cut list before you do anything else. That means sketching out the width and length of the roll (width is determined by the fabric, length is how much yardage you order) and placing the solid pieces you need into the drawing in such a way that minimizes waste. Kind of like a jig saw puzzle! If the fabric is patterned, make sure to factor in how the pattern will run and/or match up. (e.g. if you're using a striped fabric, do you want the stripes to run horizontally or vertically across your piece.) Ideally, you'd do this before placing your fabric order to determine how much you need.

Once you're ready to cut your new piece, roll out the fabric face down on a clean surface. Lay the old fabric on top of the back of the new fabric, taking care that it's centered on the pattern in the way that you want (in the Step 2 photo above, you can see that the fabric is face down because the colors are reversed.) Make sure to fold out the fabric that was tucked under the tacks to clue you into how much margin you need to cut from your new cloth. This is particularly important with a scalloped frame like the one we were working with-- we needed more play, and therefore, more margin in the curves than in the straight runs.

Trace the pattern with upholstery chalk, then carefully cut out your new fabric using the chalk line as your guide.

Note: We were lucky that the foam and batting inside the headboard was clean and in good shape. With old headboards, you sometimes need to replace the innards. 

Step 3: Line Up Pattern and Tack Down the Center of Each Side

Flip the new fabric over so that it's face up. Lay it on top of your frame so that the pattern lines up the way you want it. (In Rachel's case, we wanted the point of one of the diamonds to line up with the center of the scroll carving.) If the pattern has a grid to it, measure in a couple different place to make sure it's running straight (we measured off the left and right side of a few rows of diamonds to make sure they were ending at the same point on either side of the frame). 

Once you've got it lined up perfectly, you can either pin it or set center tacks on each side. (Our straight pins weren't sticking, so we jumped to tacks.) The key is to:

  • Pull the fabric very taut while tacking, but without knocking your pattern off it's alignment 
  • Tack the center of each side, working in opposites. e.g. Tack the top, then tack the bottom. Tack the left side, then tack the right side.

Don't bother hammering the tack all the way into the frame at this point (especially if you plan to replace them with decorative nail heads.) About half way in is plenty. 

This is a really good reason to you buy sterilized tacks, by the way. When you're holding the fabric taut with one hand and wielding an upholstery hammer with another, you'll quickly find yourself holding tacks in your mouth. The magnetic tip of the hammer is also handy for picking up one or a bunch of tacks at once.

Step 4: Tack the Perimeter of the Headboard

Pick a side (the top of the frame is usually a logical place to start) and work out from the center until you get a few inches out, then switch to the opposite side (i.e. the bottom of the frame). You don't have to alternate top vs. bottom on each tack, but the key is to work in opposing sections so that you keep the tension more-or-less uniform while you work. Once you've tacked the top and bottom a few inches out to the left of center, switch to the right side and repeat on the top and bottom. 

With a rectangular frame, you would leave your corners for last. The corners allow you the most give-- so you can pull the fabric taut with each tack and deal with the resulting excess in the corners at the very end. Because our frame had scalloped curves, we left the curves for last. 

When we had tacked all the straight aways, we finessed the curves by tucking more or less fabric under as necessary until the curve of the fabric echoed the curve in the carved frame. In doing so, we also tucked under the excess created by pulling the fabric tight with each tack.

Note: We used the staples, rather than tacks, on the bottom of the headboard, where they wouldn't be visible.

Step 5 (Optional): Replace Upholstery Tacks with Decorative Nail Heads or Nail Head Trim

At this point, Rachel and I debated nailing the blued tacks all the way in and calling it a day. They lend a cool, raw look to the piece. But mostly, we were just exhausted. But once we experimented with a brass nail head, we decided it was going to give a much more finished look to the piece, coax out the fabric's citrine notes and tie in Rachel's brass chandelier. 

If you choose to use decorative nail heads, you have a few options (in increasing order of the amount of time that they will take you):

  1. If your decorative nail heads are large enough, you can nail them adjacent to the blued tacks, so that the large decorative nail head covers the much smaller blued tack head. 
  2. If you want to use nail head trim strips (another time saving approach), you can replace the blued tacks with a uniform line of staples, then apply the the nailhead trim on top to cover the staples. (I'm always tempted to use trim strips rather than individual nail heads, but deep down inside I know they don't look as good.)
  3. Remove the blued tacks, one by one, replacing them with decorative nail heads as you go.

We chose option 3 because we are gluttons for punishment. (And because we figured that if we'd come that far, we might as well do it right.) The trick with this approach is to again work in sections, very slowly and carefully, leaving any integral tacks that are holding excess or structuring curves, until the very end. You can also use this as an opportunity to smooth out any uneven spacing in your tacks. Because the nail heads are larger, it will be more obvious if they are spaced unevenly.

You don't need a 1-to-1 ratio of blued tacks to decorative nail heads, just as long as you have nail heads to keep the fabric taut and structured in the aforementioned key places. We probably wound up using a third of the number of decorative nail heads as blued tacks. If there's a hole where the blued tack was originally places, you can usually smooth it out with your finger nail.

If you find that the hammer is damaging the finish on the decorative nail head, try wrapping some scrap fabric over the hammer head and securing it with an elastic band. This trick helped us tremendously.

Note: Remember, if you choose individual nail heads over a strip of nail head trim, don't beat yourself up if it's not perfectly straight or perfectly evenly spaced. It is damned hard to get it perfect. We definitely didn't achieve anywhere near perfect, but it still looks great!

My best tip is to tackle the project with a friend-- I don't think I would have had half as much fun if we couldn't switch off tasks to keep our hands from going numb, and chat the whole way through to keep each other entertained. 

Not too shabby, huh?

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