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Reupholster, Refinish, or Replace?
By: Terry Lee

This is the question facing many church administrators and facility/building committees when it is time to do something about current pews.

Typically, a cost comparison is the first major step in answering that question. As it is with most products and services, you get what you pay for! Sometimes, however, the least expensive option may be exactly what the doctor ordered. 

As an example, imagine that a church has pews with the seats, front sides of the back, and back sides of the back upholstered. Maybe 10, 12, 15 years old, the fabric is showing some wear, possibly some major stains on the seats; the oak ends are showing wear and maybe some scratches; and the legs, particularly the bottom portion, are showing signs of being kicked, hit by vacuum cleaners, and harmed by various baby toys. But, except for a couple of loose anchors, a missing card holder, and dated fabric, the actual pew structure is still in good shape.

Now, this church sanctuary seats 500 people at capacity and has an average attendance of 350 for Sunday worship services. Over the past several months, they have seen a slow but steady increase in attendance and would prefer not to miss a Sunday morning service. Although attendance is on the upswing, the current recession has been felt everywhere, and there is not an over abundance of money waiting to be spent.

A recommendation for this example might be on-site re-upholstery service with a hand-wiped touch-up on the exposed wood parts.

The original fabric would be removed and the existing foam inspected. If the foam is in good shape and still meets industry standards, it could possibly be reused. If this were the case, an additional layer of high-density foam might be added to give extra cushioning. If the existing foam is not up to par, it would be removed and replaced with new high-density foam, followed by the installation of the new fabric.

Following the upholstery work, the exposed wood surfaces would be cleaned, lightly sanded, and a hand-wiped stain applied to revitalize the original stain. An oil-based conditioner would follow for additional protection and restore luster. Then, all areas of the pews that come into regular contact with skin (i.e. the cap rail and armrest) would be treated with a clear, hard finish.

When properly scheduled, the process could begin after service on Sunday and be completed before the next Sunday service.

Taking these pews out of the church and moving them to a factory/facility for re-upholstery would not only cause more wear and tear on the pews, but the cost would be more, and a six-day turnaround would be virtually impossible.

Now imagine that this same church is also interested in repainting the sanctuary, changing existing lighting, replacing dated carpeting, and installing new AV equipment. Instead of just showing some wear, the pews are also showing tears and are in disrepair, with several cracked/broken support legs, and the finish on the cap rails and ends have been worn down to bare wood. 

Time is still a concern, but the painter and flooring crew has asked for more than 3-1/2 weeks from start to finish. This would be an appropriate time to consider off-site refinishing and re-upholstery. This process would also begin following one Sunday service. 

Note:  A detailed drawing should be made prior to removal of any pew. Each pew should be numbered and marked, denoting its exact location in the sanctuary. The pews would then be disassembled and loaded into the transport vehicle. 

Once the pews are at the refinishing facility, the fabric and foam would be removed. Any repairs to wood parts would now be made. All exposed wood parts would be stripped and sanded, new stain applied, and finally a protective sealer sprayed on. The entire process could be a three-step or four-step process, depending on the finish desired.

Once the wood pew parts are refinished, new foam and fabric would be installed. After inspection, the pews (unassembled) would be transported back to the church, where they would be reassembled and installed in the exact location in the sanctuary, 

This process is more involved and more expensive; however, it does give the church an opportunity to work in the sanctuary without obstruction or worrying about moving or damaging the pews.

Let's once again consider this same church, same pews, same wear and tear, except that attendance is running at capacity every Sunday and a new sanctuary has been approved to be built. The question now becomes, "Can the old pews be moved from the old sanctuary to the new sanctuary and can new pews be added?"  The answer in both cases would be yes. 

However, let's suppose that the old sanctuary was traditional (the same amount of pews of the same lengths in each row), but the new sanctuary will be pie-shaped with varying lengths of pews in each section that would require extensive modification to make the old pews fit the design of the new sanctuary. 

The most cost-effective method in this case may be to trade in the used pews, which then could be recycled to help other churches, and buy new pews for the new sanctuary. The delivery could be made and the pews installed without interruption of service. The congregation would simply worship in the old sanctuary one week and in the new sanctuary the next.

Same church, same pews, three different results, each one tailored to fit the situation. Identify your church's situation, know your options, and pray for guidance that God's will, not ours, be done, in this and all things.

Terry Lee is the owner of Affordable Church Furniture, LLC, located in Autryville, North Carolina. 

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