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Nature of the Work
* About 30 percent are self-employed, three times the average for all craft workers.
* Most upholsterers are trained on the job as a helper to become an experienced worker.
* Opportunities for experienced upholsterers should be good because few young people want to enter the occupation and because few shops are willing to train people.
Employing an intimate knowledge of fabrics and materials, upholsterers make our lives more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing by making new upholstered furniture and renewing existing upholstered furniture (reupholstery). In addition to this, some upholsterers repair or replace automobile upholstery and convertible and vinyl tops.
Upholsterers who produce new furniture work in factories and typically perform a limited range of skilled, often repetitive tasks. Upholsterers doing reupholstery or custom work, however, perform a broader range of highly skilled upholstery tasks.
Although the many fabrics and other materials used in an upholstered product have changed considerably over time, the basic process of constructing and assembling a piece of furniture has changed very little. The process of upholstering, or reupholstering, a piece of furniture always starts with the frame. For both new and reconditioned pieces of upholstered furniture, the upholsterer examines the base for wood defects, loose sections, and finish. Upholsterers may make minor repairs, such as regluing or refinishing, but major repairs, such as repairs to etched or intricate items, may be referred to a general furniture repairer or to a highly skilled craftsperson.
When restoring an old piece to new life, upholsterers first discard the old, worn coverings using a hammer or tack puller to remove staples, tacks, or other fasteners. The padding is removed and as much of it as possible is reused in order to preserve the shape of the item. After removing all material to expose the bare frame, the upholsterer examines the frame for bent and broken springs, repairing or replacing old ones as necessary. The webbing is checked for wear. If it is too weak to hold the springs properly and support the upholstered sections, then new webbing is installed.
The upholsterer stretches the webbing, a strong cloth mat that holds the springs, from one side of the frame to the other. Typically, the webbing is made of nylon, jute, or cotton and is stretched tightly and tacked securely on both ends. Additional webbing is layered onto the first and attached to the frame, forming a new mat. The upholsterer positions the springs, either sinuous-wire or hand-tied coils, on the mat so they conform with it and compress evenly. The coils are then sewn or stapled to the mat or frame and tied to each other. Burlap or a pad of compressed fiber is stretched over the springs to hold their shape, then cut, smoothed, and tacked to the frame. The frame is prepared with cardboard to fill in open areas or give curve to the frame. Upholsterers then cover the springs with filler, such as foam or a polyester batt or similar fibrous batting material, to form a smooth, rounded surface.
Upholsterers also measure and cut fabric for arms, backs, and other furniture sections, leaving as little waste as possible. Using a basting stitch, the fabric pieces are sewn together to ensure a tight, smooth fit. The cover is removed and any necessary adjustments are made. The final upholstered item is sewn together then tacked, stapled, or glued to the frame. Finally, upholsterers attach any ornaments, such as fringes, buttons, or rivets.
Upholsterers use common hand tools: tack hammers, staple guns, tack and staple removers, pliers, and shears for example. They also employ such specialty equipment as webbing stretchers and upholstery needles; they may use sewing machines.
Upholsterers who work in upholstery shops may pick up and deliver furniture, or help customers select new coverings. Those who manage shops also order supplies and equipment and keep business records.
Most upholsterers work inside a shop or factory. Working conditions in these facilities vary, typically according to size. Although many shops and factories are spacious, have adequate lighting, and are well ventilated and heated, some may be cramped and dusty.
Upholstery work is not dangerous, but upholsterers typically wear protective gloves and clothing when using sharp tools and lifting and handling furniture or springs. Upholsterers stand most of the workday, doing a lot of bending and heavy lifting. Also, they have to work in awkward positions for short periods of time.
Furniture upholsterers held about 57,000 jobs in 1996; about 1 out of 3 was self-employed. Companies that manufacture household and office furniture employed 62 percent of the wage and salary upholsterers, and shops that reupholster and repair furniture employed another 17 percent. Over 10 percent worked in shops specializing in reupholstering the seats of automobiles and other motor vehicles, and a few worked in furniture stores.
Most upholsterers are trained on the job as a helper to become an experienced worker. On-the-job training in a furniture factory, usually about six-weeks, may be supplemented by an additional 3 years of training in order to become a fully qualified upholsterer doing skilled production work. It may take as many as 8 to 10 years of experience and progressively more difficult work, however, for an upholsterer to reach the top of the trade. Generally, these upholsterers work on custom-made and reupholstered pieces at the high end of the market. Others learn upholstery through apprenticeship or formal training.
When hiring helpers, employers generally prefer people with some knowledge of the trade. Inexperienced persons may get basic training in upholstery in high school, vocational and technical schools, and some community colleges. Programs include sewing machine operation, measuring, cutting, springing, frame repair, tufting, and channeling, as well as business and interior design courses. However, additional training and experience are usually required before graduates can perform as quickly and efficiently as experienced upholsterers.
Upholsterers should have manual dexterity, good coordination, and, in some cases, the strength needed to lift heavy furniture. An eye for detail, a flair for color, and a creative use of fabrics are helpful.
The major forms of advancement for upholsterers are opening their own shop or moving into management. It is relatively easy to open a shop because a small investment in hand tools and a sewing machine are all that is needed. The upholstery business is extremely competitive, however, so operating a shop successfully is difficult. In large shops and factories, experienced or highly skilled upholsterers may become supervisors or sample makers.
Little or no growth in employment of upholsterers is expected through the year 2006. Although automation is expected to reduce employment opportunities in many production occupations, this is not expected to occur with upholsterers in the furniture industry. Upholstery work is unique, and does not lend itself well to automation. Furthermore, the increased manufacture of new, relatively inexpensive upholstered furniture is expected to solidify employment at the current level. There still will continue to be a steady demand for upholsterers to restore more valuable furniture. Employment of upholsterers in automobile upholstery repair has been declining for some time although the rate of decline should slow. The widespread use of more durable fabrics for automobile seat covers, soft-tops, and convertibles is responsible, in part, for the loss of workers in this industry segment. However, this is offset, in part, by the reemergence of the luxury automobile, especially those with leather upholstery and convertible tops.
Despite the little or no growth in employment expected, there will still be many job openings created by the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Therefore, opportunities for experienced upholsterers should be good. The number of upholsterers with experience is limited because few young people want to enter the occupation and few shops are willing to train people.
Median weekly earnings of upholsterers were $366 in 1996; the middle 50 percent earned between $291 and $550 per week. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $250, and the top 10 percent earned more than $660.
Earnings of self-employed upholsterers depend not only on the size and location of the shop, but also on the number of hours worked.
For details about work opportunities for upholsterers in your area, contact local upholstery shops or the local office of the State employment service.
To receive a list of technical schools accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology that have programs in upholstery, contact:
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, 2101 Wilson Blvd., Suite 302, Arlington, VA 22201.
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