Chair refinishing is… finished!

It took a while for this project to come to an satisfactory end. I was working on these chairs between other projects and ran into some unexpected literally last-minute setbacks, but the chairs are completed and they turned out really well.

One of the refinished chairs, complete with Thumper

As I mentioned in a previous post, these chairs have sentimental value for me. They were my paternal grandmother’s chairs and I can remember rocking away in them as a young boy on Christmas morning waiting until everyone arrived to open gifts. I remember sitting in one of them as an adolescent chatting with my grandmother and trying to relate to a woman who had literally built a business with my grandfather including the shop and their house and had survived a depression and a World War. I remember sitting in one of these chairs after hearing that she was dying from brain cancer.

I inherited these chairs after my grandmother passed away and they have waited patiently for me to do something about their condition. Although the worn arms and tattered fabric had a bit of nostalgia to them, they really didn’t represent the dignity that my grandmother deserved. It was important to return them to a state that respected their era, style, and “look”. These chairs were built in Indiana in 1959 (according to the furniture tag located inside the chairs). and you really can’t find chairs like them anymore. They’re small and relatively light weight and the swivel rocker design is simply perfect for rocking gently with, say, and newborn in your arms.

After stripping the finish from the arms, I applied a deep red chestnut oil stain, sealed that with a coat of garnet shellac, applied several coats of gel mahogany stain to get the deep rich brown color, before sealing that with shellac once again. A few coats of polyurethane and the wood was ready for reassembly. I took the chair seats to Bailey Enterprises here in Missoula where he reupholstered them and replaced one of the broken serpent springs in the seat. Once he had the fabric on, it fell to me to get him the finished wood so he could reassemble the arms before adding the back. This is where I made a classic mistake!

On delivering the arms to Paul at Bailey Enterprises, I was ascending the concrete steps of his shop with the arms in a burlap drop cloth. As I was opening the door to enter, I felt one of the arms slip… the next moment was frozen with the stomach-churning sound of wood bouncing down concrete! I looked in horror as one of the arms bounced a final time before coming to rest at the bottom of the steps. I was mortified… I slowly lowered the other three arms onto the shop floor and made my way down the steps. The arms was topside-down and didn’t show much damage, but as I slowly picked it up and turned it over, my spirits sank as I saw the dozen or so dings, scrapes, and gouges exposing the bare wood in places.

I climbed the steps to where Paul was trying to console me in my moment of despair. “They should be okay. I’ve heard of people steaming out dings like that in furniture.” He was trying to be kind. You don’t steam out gaping holes of bare wood in a finished arm. I knew that I would have to refinish the arm’s top completely and hope that it wasn’t too obvious when compared to the others. Paul indicated that he could finish the first chair and get the other ready to go for when I got the arm refinished. It was the Wednesday before Easter and we arranged to have the arm back in his hands by Monday.

The re-refinished arm...

I went home and showed Angie the results of my idiocy. She tried to look less than mortified and managed pretty well. I went downstairs and began the process of stripping the arm to prepare it for refinishing. After two days, it looked passable and a couple more days of fine-tuning it, it looked like a new arm again. The following day, I placed it in the back of the car and made my way to Paul’s shop. I carried it (with both hands!) up the steps and delivered it safely to his workbench. He said that he could most likely have the chairs ready for the following day. True to his word, they were ready the next morning and I dropped by and picked them up. I installed the bases once I was home and scooped up Maddie before giving them the first trial rock.

The arm prior to refinishing

The "before" image

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