A Guide To DIY Upholstery Cleaning

Imagine the following nightmare scenario: You’ve spent a large sum of money on a gorgeous white linen couch without any slipcovers. You realize that it is likely to be a nightmare to clean, but you’re not too worried about it. You don’t eat on the couch anyway, so food stains shouldn’t be an issue. You also don’t have kids or a pet, so dirt stains should be minimized as well. What could go wrong?

That’s fine as long as you are the only one in your home. What if you meet the love of your life, and they have a dog? What if they also want kids? You can’t turn down a serious relationship because of a couch, but how the heck are you going to keep this thing clean?

First, you have a right to be angry at the manufacturer. At what point does a potential product become so impractical that a company cannot make it commercially available in good conscience? Still, you were the dummy who decided to purchase this absurd piece of furniture. Ultimately, the blame rests with you.

Thankfully, upholstery cleaning is a simpler process than many people expect it to be. In fact, you can probably clean your couch on your own with minimal effort and expense! The first step toward doing so is to take a look at your couch’s care tag, typically found sewn into the underside of a seat. This tag includes a letter that gives you the manufacturer’s recommendation on how to take care of it. Here’s what they each mean:

S Dry Solvent Cleaning Only

This isn’t ideal, as dry solvents aren’t always practical for home use. Still, you can do it yourself by picking some up at your local hardware store. Many aren’t branded, so do not be afraid to ask an employee for assistance if you can’t find what you are looking for.

W Water-clean Only

This is one of the better letters to find, as it means that you’ll have your pick of quality products to scrub your furniture the old-fashioned way.

SW Dry Solvent or Water-cleaning

This is the most versatile letter you could find, though in practice it ends up working out very similarly to a W tag. Water-based upholstery cleaning is the most convenient method to clean a piece of furniture, so choosing a dry solvent when you don’t have to is foolhardy.

X Professional Cleaning or Vacuum Only

This is the worst letter you could find, and thankfully it’s rare. If you haven’t purchased the couch yet, look at something else as soon as you see the X. Otherwise, expect to have to vacuum your couch constantly to prevent any soiling from permanently staining your furniture. Alternatively, you could spend thousands on regular professional upholstery cleaning.

Assuming you’re working with something other than an X, the tips below can help you handle all of your upholstery cleaning needs yourself.

Dry Solvents

Dry Solvents are available at hardware stores such as The Home Depot or Ace. Alternatively, you can try looking for a brand called Blue Coral Upholstery Cleaner if you prefer to shop online. Either way, it is possible to purchase dry solvent even if you’re not used to seeing it on store shelves.

Once you have it, it is important to follow the included instructions to the letter. You are dealing with a potentially harmful chemical, so treat it as such! General guidelines to follow include working in a well-ventilated space and brushing the solvent into your couch using a stiff-bristled brush to dislodge entrenched grime.

Finally, avoid the temptation to use more dry solvent than needed. These products are designed to be used sparingly, so more is not better. You can always add later if it proves necessary, but excess solvent can be just as challenging to remove as the dirt you’re using it for.

Spray Upholstery Cleaners

If you’re allowed to use water to clean your couches (you can with most), there are a few different directions you can choose from. Each requires a different combination of time and money to use effectively, so make sure that you select one that fits how often you use your couch and the length of time you plan to keep it.

Spray or foaming upholstery cleaners are the simplest and cheapest method to clean your couches. Brands such as Bissell and Resolve produce a variety of effective products in this space, so you should have no difficulty finding something good. If the sheer volume of choice overwhelms you, Good Housekeeping magazine has an extremely convenient list of all of the upholstery cleaning products they have ever tested, allowing you to quickly scan the ratings and find something that suits your needs perfectly.

Spray cleaners work better if you can work the product into your furniture’s upholstery, so the stiff-bristled brush mentioned above is also a valuable tool if you can use water. They also work best on smaller stains, rapidly losing effectiveness if your entire couch requires treatment at once. If you ever find yourself in that situation, try bringing in an upholstery cleaning machine instead.

Upholstery Cleaning Machines

Contrary to popular belief, upholstery cleaning machines are not the exclusive purview of professional cleaning services. These machines easily eliminate stubborn stains such as the blue cast from dark denim jeans or the dirt invited in by children and pets.

There are two ways to get an upholstery cleaning machine: renting or buying. Renting one is as simple as asking a hardware, grocery, or home improvement store if you can. Some stores advertise them as “carpet cleaners,” but they remain effective for upholstery as well. On average, renting an upholstery cleaning machine will run you $30-50 per session.

If you need an upholstery cleaning machine frequently, you might be better off shelling out the $100-150 it takes to buy one. A lot of people buy these machines with the best intentions but never take them out of the box, so just rent if you think you’re that person. Bissell also offers budget alternatives priced as low as $50, so you have plenty of options. Used models may be available for even less on sites such as eBay, so shop around for a good price.

That said, you still need to use these machines correctly. First, check your couch’s fiber content on the same tag as the letter above. If it contains any polyester or linen, steam cleaning can cause the underlying material to pucker in a way that is challenging to reverse. Even if it doesn’t, it is best to test any cleaner on a small, inconspicuous area before subjecting your entire couch to it.

To conclude, upholstery cleaning is very much a job you can tackle yourself. Read your couch’s tag, follow all of the directions, and you’ll be fine!