About a year ago I volunteered to refinish a set of chairs for a friend who lives out of town. Refinishing is one of my pastimes. I do the best I can to let other people think I’m being nice to them but the truth is that I enjoy working with decent wood furniture: that’s the real lure of it.
I was not really in the way of doing half a dozen chairs. The most I’d ever done in that line was four, and those were rather easy all told. These chairs were different and I can only hope that you have the patience to find out how and why.
Patience is at the heart of furniture refinishing. There is no way to rush the job and no reason at all to do it with any regularity if one only seeks, say, to freshen the varnish on an old bureau. This sort of work is not done for the result but for the process—and the process is slow. One proceeds gradually, in small bits of time which together move the thing and the worker along toward completion together. Completion, in this case, of a single chair, with five others waiting their turn behind.
The first phase of this is assessment: one sees first the material; after that what can be done, and then what can and ought to be done. Sometimes nothing is possible. Nearly always there are surprises lurking beneath the old finish.
The question with these chairs was what lay beneath the ancient sticky dark gunk that had been ladled upon their base wood. It was obvious that nobody would want the original covering replaced. I noted a very dark stain mixed with a cheap polyurethane and upon that spattered black paint intended as camouflage—but for what defects?
The chemical stripper revealed cheap pine wood and awkward joining, knots and imperfections. I felt bad that the base wood was so poor, but it came to seem like a down at the heels gent who only wants a new suit to shine again. And so he got his clothing. Slowly, of course, and over many nights and weekend days.
I have friends who play musical instruments. They tell me that each note brings a thrill of pleasure. So it is with restoring furniture. A stroke of a blade strips away old grime and cover, revealing a sinuous line of wood grain whose curves speak of a tree bending in a winter storm; in another place the growth lines testify in their own voices: here is a rich, fat summer; there two hard, dry years; a reprieve followed by more hard times—such is life, for a tree and ourselves. But the tree is more honest, wearing its burdens and glories in the lumber and then in the chair-seat.
Stripped bare and sanded, coarse and then fine, the wood waits dryly for the gloss of varnishing. Then at last the surface sends its voice to the skies, as the least and slightest feature rises along with the most impressive to dazzle the passing eye. Cleared of grime and the wrong coating, the chair now invites us to sit upon a piece of the forest, a real, almost live thing: warm, friendly, accommodating.
It is to bring out this personality that people rescue old furniture. And of course, to feel the joy in each stroke of the tools. The six chairs will now surround a dining room table, each telling its story, with luck, for generations to come.