Over the years I have restored quite a few tables, chairs and wooden what-nots salvaged from thrift stores, attics and occasionally, the curb or a trash bin. All I have to show for it is a single drop-leaf table. Therest of the stuff goes to friends. This is not so much out of generosity as from self-preservation: nobody has the kind of room for that much furniture.
Most of my rescues date from the thirties through the early sixties of the last century. The reason for this is simple: there is nothing worthy of preservation after that period and very little available from before. The lifespan of a chair or bureau is perhaps thirty years if the piece was well-constructed and not abused too badly. The only material that survives long-term use is hardwood, and hardwood is largely a thing of the past. Your grandmother’s hutch might have been constructed entirely of maple or oak; your mother’s hope chest from veneers of those woods; your own kitchen table is likely of plastic, metal, veneer or inexpensive soft wood, if wood it is at all. The modern craze for painted wood furniture arises from the fact that most of the modern wood supply is not beautiful in itself; that and the fact that it is cheaper and much easier to slop on paint than to deal with the vagaries of a material whose appearance can vary considerably from piece to piece.
Maybe you have been fortunate enough to have had grandma give you her table and chairs. Perhaps there were eight to the set but one of them is lame and another cracked through the seat. Even so you are lucky to have the remainder, for such things are now scarcities and even new ones, when available, are expensive and moreover lack the character of age.
Old chairs and tables creak and groan under loads. This is because they are pieced together in the old-fashioned way, which is to say, correctly. The old sailing ships were essentially wooden puzzles whose pieces were intended to shift and flex, to “work” against and with one another. Grandma’s chairs were likely joined without screws or nails, their pieces simply thrust into one another, perhaps wedged here and there. They will let you know when the humidity drops and also tell you that they are, like grandma, shrinking with age, their bones withdrawing to the smallest possible compass as moisture departs the cells of the old lumber.
I have in my shop a pair of old chairs—made during my own youth and so certainly along in years—that tell the story of such things. I got both of them at the local thrift store but several weeks apart. The chair to the right with the small arms is at least sixty years old. For its day it was considered inexpensive but adequate; the wood seems to be maple and the construction fairly good. The arms aren’t held on very well but haven’t failed yet—I will have to reinforce them.
The other chair also seems to be maple. It has a deeper “honey” finish and a dished seat. Note that both chairs’ seats are made of several glued pieces. A chair of this type with a one-piece seat would indicate a much earlier time of manufacture and would be more valuable, but I like to see the different pieces of wood together and their contrasting grain structures show up well when given
a transparent finish.
Both of these chairs were sticky-gummy. This was from the oil polish used by their owners and the deterioration of the original finishes, which tend to separate into their constituent parts, especially under heat.
These chairs ended up at the thrift store in the same way. On the bottom of each chair was a sticker from a van and moving company. Some person moved these chairs to storage and then abandoned them to their fate, which was to be sold at auction. Neither of them sold. Apparently they were written off and trucked to the Salvation Army store where I found them.
There were other chairs along with these but they were either hopeless cripples (“functionally challenged”) or not of the type I like to deal with.
Here you see what the wood of the first chair looks like after chemical and mechanical stripping, sanding and scraping. This represents about five or six hours of work, or as I say, about two ball games. I listen to baseball on the radio and this piece has taken me through two Dodger losses so far.
Chemical stripping is as nasty as it is effective. The only good thing about the process is that it does no damage to the wood and takes less time. Even so these pieces will require a good deal of careful hand-sanding before they are ready for whatever finish I decide to apply. This is where restoration becomes something of an art.
Chairs like these will require at least three different grades of sandpaper, a few scraping blades and many different techniques, none of which have proper names. There is no way to teach the way to smooth wood. The best that can be said is that each piece is different and that the whole thing is done by feel.
Usually the stripped piece is fairly smooth already, unless (as is the case with these chairs) usage has been such that there are dents and other flaws to deal with. Chairs reveal their histories quite plainly. People bang them about, set their heels on the rungs, and grind objects into their surfaces. Some of this can be removed but the rest has to be shrugged away, simply left as a reminder of heritage.
If you do not like sanding wood you will not like finishing furniture. Mind you, by this I mean hand sanding. No machine can do this properly. We are not finishing planks or flooring here but a complex piece whose features include cuts, bends, curves, rods and scallops. Take a machine sander to this and you will end up with kindling. No, you’ve got to deal with this with your palms and fingers.
I like to use “shop rolls” of sandpaper, ribbons of various grit coarseness that can be wound around a chair leg. Of course I use standard sheets, mainly of 150-220 grit. Your smart refinisher buys his sandpaper in bulk to save money. Where possible I use metal scrapers. This is risky business but done with care gives good results.
Is this work enjoyable? That depends on what you like to do. If you are of the type who enjoys hand work you may want to give this a whirl. I suggest good lighting and classical music as essentials, especially for those nights when the Dodgers are not playing well.
Come on by some evening. I’ll be in the garage making sawdust.