Have you ever started something small that highlights something big, that once started is hard to know when to stop?
These chairs proved challenging for this very reason. For example, I noticed the previous finish on two of the chairs was poorly done. It wasn’t just that the surface was aged and signs of wear and tear were visible. It was the obvious drip marks and brush strokes from badly applied stain and finish that became hard to ignore. How could I simply scuff the surface and apply shellac over the top? So, I started the laborious journey of stripping back the old to make ready for the new. Chairs might not be the size of a chest of drawers or sideboard, but they are finicky little beasts with lots of edges, crooks and crannies.
After removing the seats, I washed them down with lukewarm water and oxygen bleach. I tested the surface for the previous finish. Two had a shellac finish, the other two appeared lacquered. First, I tackled the process with my trusty carbide blades and then tried a de-waxer recently purchased from Borma Wachs. My goal is to work smarter, not harder, but sometimes one has to try many options before one gets the best results. The de-waxer helped a little, but the old finish on both sets of chairs remained.
Next, I tried a stain/paint stripper, also by Borma Wachs, a company focused on product development for refurbishment and restoration. This helped remove most of the lacquer, but the shellac finish did not want to budge. So, after cleaning up the noxious mess of the stripper, I then went back to basics, using the carbide blades to remove the finish manually.
Although this was labour-intensive, the hard work paid off. I was not aiming towards new but refreshed. The wood finally showed through the old finish and grime. Really lovely. In order to preserve the aged look of these two darker chairs, I sanded them to a 240-grit level, then stained them with an Antik Patina product, also by Borma Wachs. I gave them a light scuffing in natural wear places to soften the new look.
After sanding all the chairs, and adding stain to two of them, I started applying shellac. It is important to keep each layer thin, and I sanded between coats to take away any dust nibs that gathered. The result is a beautiful sheen highlighting the shape of the chairs and the gorgeous wood.
While stripping back and layering on shellac to the chair frames, I started the process of removing fabric and upholstery. This is when the second ‘small something becoming big’ also revealed itself. Originally, I stipulated to my client that I was not skilled in fixing old seat springs. The decision to just cover the old seats with the new fabric sounded simple enough. When I got down to the work, that idea became nonsensical. The old springs would not survive much longer and make using the chairs a very uncomfortable proposition. After some research, I offered the option of taking the springs out (easy I thought) and using webbing to replace them.
After removing countless staples and tacks (literally countless, I gave up calculating how many were used to cover each chair multiple times), I finally got down to the seat frame. Three to four different aged pieces of fabric for each chair, horsehair, wool fibres, jute, and old springs littered the workshop floor. Staples and tacks piled high into a reused plastic tub. After a quick sanding to remove obvious splinters, and a bit of glue to stabilise rickety joints, I declared the removal process finished.
Now the real fun would start. I used a three-by-three weave using 7cm webbing, covered this with jute as a dust cover, added seat foam cut and shaped to fit, batting to offer a final layer of softness and support, especially for the fabric, and then finally the gorgeous fabric. I used over 1000 staples for four chairs, and the result is worth it.
I held my breath as I placed each seat back into the chair. What if, after all this work, they didn’t fit? I’m so crazily happy to say they fit perfectly. Finished!