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.
Dismantling and sanding the seat
First thing for the chair was to remove the seat from the frame. There were four wood screws still holding pieces in place. Three of them were the same size, while the final one was slightly shorter. I made sure to put these in a safe place where I wouldn’t lose them. After the seat was free, I put the frame in a different area to work on later.
Next up, time to put on my PPE. I was about to start making a bunch of sawdust that I didn’t want to breathe in—especially since the chair still had some 30-year old sealer on it. I have no idea what was used, but I knew I didn’t want to breathe it in. Luckily, I keep several pairs of safety glasses and dust masks in my car—a habit that actually started long before COVID.
With my lungs protected, I got to work sanding the seat, focusing on the edges that needed to be glued back together first. No need to do the tops and bottoms at this stage since I would need to glue all of the pieces together again. I didn’t want to have to sand them twice. Note that I avoided sanding the area on each board where it glues to the next one. Usually, there is a small slot or raised area that fits into a slot. Don’t sand the raised part away but do clean the slot so that the two pieces fit well. This is actually a necessary part of the join that both strengthens it and changes the location of the tension when someone is sitting, standing, or jumping on the chair—as I did when I was a youth.
Gluing the seat together
After the old finish and dirt have been removed from the chair, it’s time for glue. I decided to do two separate glue-ups. In the first one, I joined the outer pieces to the inner ones to create two halves which I glued together the next day. It’s very important when you are gluing these pieces to keep everything flat. If you don’t then the seat of your chair is going to be cupped—resulting in a seat that isn’t very comfortable when the cupping isn’t in the exact right places.
Repairing the frame—and, of course, more sanding!
While the glue on the seat was drying I started working on the frame which was luckily in fairly good shape and didn’t need too much work. Looking it over, I found and marked with a pencil any place 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. With these small gaps drying, I started the most time-consuming part, sanding. First, I used 120-grit sandpaper with my random orbital sander and focused on all of the flat planes. Once these were back down to clean wood I sanded around the curved and rounded parts of the front legs by hand, making sure to get inside all the tight little places. This is very time-consuming and honestly kind of 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.
Card scrapers are super handy—especially for places with gentle curves like this piece has. After your glue has dried completely and you are done sanding, clean the entire piece. I used water and dish soap with an old dish brush so that I could get 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 were glued together to make a whole, it was time to—you guessed it—sand. Since the seat of this chair was fairly flat, a random orbital sander worked perfectly. I sanded and washed the seat of the chair the same way as I did the frame.
And more sanding
Now that both pieces were clean and fairly smooth, I sanded it all over again. This time using 220-grit sandpaper. This didn’t take as long since I wasn’t having to go through the dirt and old sealant. Always go up in numbers when sanding. The point of each grit is to erase the marks made by the lower-numbered, 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.
Gluing the seat to the frame
Now that both the frame and the seat were very smooth and cleaned, it was time to join them back together. I used Titebond 3 to glue everything together. This is what I use for most projects. I put glue on all areas where the seat would 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. First, I applied a fairly heavy coat of tung oil 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 the excess and applied a second coat. Give it about five minutes to soak in before you wipe off the excess, but wait 24 hours before applying your second coat.
After the second coat of tung oil was dry I used my personal own personal wipe-on poly recipe which is just equal parts of poly, tung oil, and mineral spirits. You can use an old shirt or cotton rag to apply it for a fantastic finish. Lightly sand between the first couple of coats to ensure that you don’t have any high or low spots and be sure to let it dry for an hour or two between thin coats. I applied 4 thin coats since I had already used the tung oil. Normally, I would have applied a few more coats of poly but this was a surprise for my sister and time was a constraint.
That is it. Restoring old hardwood furniture is not that hard if you have the time. Take a look in your shed or around estate sales for projects to see what you can fix. Just remember if you are planning on restoring old furniture to have plenty of dust masks on hand—and protect your lungs.
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.