A 19th-century chair gets a new life

The Naked Chair

I was contacted some time ago by a client who found this chair at an estate sale and had essentially made it the centerpiece of the living room/office in his modest Italianate-Victorian brick row-house (itself a restoration work-in-progress). While he loved the chair, it was clear that a century of use had left it rather fragile. My mission was to revive this fascinating piece of furniture so it could enjoy another century of life.

The formerly-scarlet velvet that covered the chair was faded to a orangey-pink, and the spring supports had failed. As well, the structure of the chair was loosening, and continued use in this state would eventually cause irreparable damage to the frame.  In short, everything had to come off.

I retained the original cover as a pattern, and was pleased to discover that a certain amount of the original inner structure was re-useable. But the frame was starting to separate.  Also, there were several edges and corners that had been chipped off or badly marred by decades of wear and tear, and one of the burl veneer appliques had bubbled and chipped out. There was a lot that needed to be done.

Where the edges were chipped, I planed the areas flat and glued on new wood that could be carved into a seamless patch. I made the decision to use hide glue anywhere I was re-gluing the chair, because it has the useful property of being reversible. If a repair needs to be made in the future, one needs only to apply heat and moisture (say, with a clothing steamer) and the joint can be coaxed open again. In contrast, modern glues make permanent bonds that are stronger than the wood itself, so trying to re-open such joints can be a destructive process.

Reinforcing blocks in place – each one, by necessity, custom-fitted.

The seat frame was the site of most of the joint instability, so those joints  connecting the frame elements to the legs were both re-glued and supported by newly-installed corner blocks.

With the joints renewed, the chair frame no longer shifted and racked on the bench, and I’m confident that it will stand up well to future use.

To repair the chipped veneer,  I tinted clear epoxy to match the colors in the grain and daubed it in to fill the gaps. After the epoxy had fully cured, I carefully shaved and scraped the patch flush with the surface of the veneer. The new finish blended the patch in nicely.

New (L) and old (R) casters

I also removed the casters that terminated the front legs of the chair. One of them was still in decent shape but the other caster was rusted solid and neither rotated nor spun, so they had to be replaced. I looked at a lot of restoration hardware online before selecting the one pictured below from Van Dyke Restorers. The new casters were slightly taller than the old ones so I had to inset the mounting plates into the ends of the front legs by almost 1/4″ or the chair would pitch slightly to the rear.

I followed all the structural work with three coats of shellac and then paste wax to protect the finish and give it a nice shine. It’s an odd thing, but the carvings didn’t look right without the darkness in their deepest recesses (caused by dust and uneven polishing of the highlights by handling) so I had to custom-tint some paste wax with Transtint liquid dye and work that into the carvings, then buff it off to make the arms look “right” again.

And now on to reupholstering…

2 of the original tacks, installed more than a century ago, which I retained when I stripped the chair. These will be used to tack the new seat-webbing onto place.