While cleaning out a storage shed at my sister’s house I found an old dining chair. I was instantly reminded of eating french toast, spaghetti, and many other home-cooked meals in this chair. This chair had unfortunately seen much better days. The seat was busted into three different pieces and unattached from the frame of the chair and the entire thing needed some attention. So I cleaned off a spot in the shop and went to work cleaning and taking everything apart. Luckily the mainframe of the chair was still in pretty good shape and the wood was still strong.
The first thing I did to the chair was to finish taking the seat of the chair off of the frame. There were four wood screws still holding pieces in place. Three of the screws were the same size, while the final screw was slightly shorter. I made sure to put these in a safe place where I wouldn’t lose them. After the seat was free from the frame I put the frame in a different area to work on later.
Now that the seat of the chair is loose the first thing I did was to put my PPE on. I was about to start making a bunch of sawdust and I didn’t want to breathe it in, especially since this chair still had some of the old sealer on it. I have no idea what was used to seal this chair 30+ years ago but I do know I don’t want to breathe it in. Luckily I have several dust masks and pairs of safety glasses that I keep in my car, honestly it’s kinda ridiculous where all I have random PPE stashed even before COVID. So now that I had PPE on I went to work sanding the seat down. I only sanded the edges of the seat that needed to be glued back together at this point. I only sanded this part because I didn’t want to have to sand the tops and bottom twice, once now and once again after they were glued back together. On each board of the seat where it glues to the other ones, there is either a slot or a little raised area that fits into the slot. It is super important not to sand the raised part away and to clean out the slot. Having them glue together this way gives the chair more surface area to glue and changes where the tension goes when the chair is sat upon or stood up, or jumped off of like when I was a kid. After you have all the old finish and dirt sanded off the chair you can glue it all up. (chair glue1 and 2) I decided to glue this up in two separate glue-ups. In the first one, I glued up both halves of the seat together and then glued the two halves together the next day. It’s very important that when you are gluing this up that you keep everything flat. If you don’t then the seat of your chair is going to be cupped and that’s not too comfortable if the cupping isn’t in the exact right places.
While the glue on the seat was drying I started working on the frame of the chair. As I said before luckily the frame of the chair was in fairly good shape and didn’t need too much work. The first thing I did with the frame was to find and mark with a pencil any places that had started to spread apart. I only found one or two small areas that had started to slip apart and it was a simple task to use a toothpick and push some glue in the cracks and clamp them back together. While these small gaps were drying I started the most time-consuming part, sanding. I started with 120 grit sandpaper on my random orbital sander and started sanding all the flat planes on the chair. After all the flat planes were sanded back down to clean wood I hand sanded the rounded parts of the front legs, making sure to get inside all the tight little places. This is very time-consuming and honestly kinda a pain but the end result is well worth it. After the front legs were done I moved to the top part of the chair that has the little peak in the middle. For areas like this, an electric sander just doesn’t work and sanding by hand takes forever, so I used a card scraper. If you have never heard of or used a card scraper stop what you are doing right now and watch this video.
They are super handy especially for places with gentle curves like this piece has. After your glue has dried completely and you are done sanding you can clean the entire piece. I used water and dish soap. I used an old dish brush so that I can get deep into the tight areas. After washing and rinsing the frame I left it in the sun to dry fully.
Back to the seat. After both halves of the seat have been glued together to make the seat whole again I started sanding it as well. Since most of the chair is fairly flat a random orbital sander works perfectly. I sanded and washed the seat of the chair the same way as I did the frame.
Now that both pieces were sanded washed and dry I did it all again but using 220 grit sandpaper. This didn’t take as long since I wasn’t having to go through the dirt and old sealant. You always want to go up in numbers when sanding. The point of each grit is to erase the marks made by the rougher grit. The higher the number the harder it will be to see any marks left behind from the previous sandpaper. I have gone up to 1,300 grit sandpaper on some of my hand-carved eating utensils but for a project like this 220 is perfectly fine, I mean when was the last time you took a close-up look of the chair you were sitting on. Now that both the frame and the seat were sanded to 220 grit and cleaned I put them back together. I used Titebond 3 to glue everything together, mostly because that is what I use for most projects. I put glue on all areas where the seat will come in contact with the frame and clamped it together. Then I took the screws that I had taken out before and put them back where they had been, making sure that the shorter one went back in the right place.
Now that everything was dry and glued up it was time to put the finish on. For the first coat of finish, I used tung oil. I applied a fairly heavy coat over all areas of the chair. I like to use tung oil on furniture because it soaks in and gives the wood a glow. After the first coat had soaked into the wood I wiped off any of the excess and applied a second coat. You should give about five mins between when you apply the tung oil and when you wipe off the excess, you should wait about 24 hours before you apply your second coat. After the second coat of tung oil was dry I used my homemade wipe on poly. To make this all you need to do is put equal parts poly, tung oil, and mineral spirits. You can use an old shirt or cotton rag to apply this poly and it will turn out fantastic. You will want to lightly sand between the first couple of coats to ensure that you don’t have any high or low spots. You should give it an hour or two between coats if you use a thin coat. I applied 4 thin coats since I had already used the tung oil. I would have preferred to apply a couple more coats of poly but time constraints, it was a surprise for my sister and she was coming back soon so had to call it done.
That is it. Restoring old hardwood furniture is not that hard if you have the time to spend doing it. So go look in your shed or look around estate sales for projects and see what you can fix. Just remember if you are planning on restoring an old table or chair to make sure you have plenty of dust masks on hand.
Adam Kittrell is the Wood and Metal Shop Foreman at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. He has been working in and around shops since middle school and has only cut his fingers on a saw once. His shop teachers would be proud.