Friday, January 4, 2013

Reader question: How do I fix a chair so dry that it's grey?

Reader Elaine asks:

I have two mid century chairs that were oil finished and then left outside. the wood is now grey. I want to rehab the wood(teak) I believe, and then stain and wax. How do I go about rehabbing the wood? I was going to start with sandpaper. Do you have any suggestions? 

Hi Elaine! Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, if the wood is grey, this is a big project and it will take me several posts to explain just how to go about fixing it. First, if the chairs have sentimental value or you know they are worth quite a lot (say, it's a Sam Maloof rocking chair), I'd take them to a professional refinisher and get his opinion since I'm just an amateur. If they don't have sentimental value and they aren't Very Good or Excellent on a antique scale of 1 to 5 (i.e. you know who made them and what they're worth), this probably isn't a project I'd personally tackle because of the level of effort it's going to need. If you intend to sell them, you certainly won't be able to get your money out of them unless they're by someone quite famous. Lucky for you though, I learned that by hard experience so I can tell you what you're going to have to do if you're determined to try.

Don't mind the husband and the puggle. They're not the relevant piece here.

Enter my sad Yugoslavian knock-off Danish modern lounge chair. I picked up this chair for $20 out near Annapolis. It was rickety and dry and not even a very good example of its breed. Basically, a 1970s knock-off of a much more famous and much better put-together Danish modern chair.

I suppose it doesn't look that bad here, but it's what Cher would call, "A full-on Monet." From far away it's okay, but get close and it's a big old mess.


See that gap there in the wood? Well, that was caused by shrinkage. This chair sat in the sun and wind and rain for just a few too many seasons after it lost its finish. It might not look that serious, but unfixed, that gap and the others like it will eventually cause this chair to collapse under someone's weight. In fact, if you look close enough, you can see that this one already has and been inexpertly repaired. They glued the little shards back onto the joint and left it. That won't work in the long-run. This repair is so bad, it probably won't even work in the short-run. Frankly, if I hadn't wanted the practice, at this point, I would have thrown this chair in the trash. Sorry, but it's true. Some things aren't worth fixing.


You might not be able to see this unless you click the picture above and blow it up, but there is a small crack in the center of that leg. The front of this chair here is being held together by what's called a "mortise and tenon" joint. Basically it's a hole in the side of the vertical leg glued to a protruding piece on the end of the horizontal stretcher. Click here for a better explanation. This is pretty much the best way to put together a chair. But the expansion of that protruding piece and the contraction of the hole has started to create a crack that runs along the grain. This doesn't happen when a chair is properly made and properly cared for.

Which pretty much brings me to point Number One about fixing old wood stuff. 

Always fix structural issues first. 

A piece as dry as the one Elaine describes is probably going to need to be knocked apart and glued back together before you can work on refinishing it. There is almost no way the joints haven't weakened if it's put together with traditional joinery. If it's screwed together, you're going to need wood filler to help fill the screw holes. On this chair, I needed both, but I had to take it apart before I could put it back together.


When you take apart any piece, it's really important to catalog everything so you know how it's supposed to go back together. I just use pieces of painters tape. This piece was intended to come apart to be flat-packed so that's where I started. From there, I required a few tools. Namely, a hammer and a spare block of scrap wood.


For a mortise and tenon that isn't pinned (a small dowel across the joint, which you'll see as a small round piece of end grain) using a rubber mallet or a hammer and a wooden block so you don't dent the chair, lightly tap to separate the joints. If you do have a pinned joint that needs fixing, you can drill out the pin and replace it later, but I've never done it.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of this step of the process since I never intended to blog about this embarrassing purchasing failure of mine, but the piece above basically separated into six pieces with mortise and tenons on each side. Once the piece is apart, you need to clean off any old glue, which you can do with white vinegar and/or sandpaper depending on the type of glue. If you don't clean off the old glue, the new glue won't stick. After the joints are clean and dry, using wood glue and bar clamps, glue and clamp the piece back together and let dry for 24 hours.



Then do the same with any other joints. Keep in mind that if you fix one joint, you have to fix all the joints. Never try to fix just one that has failed. If you do, you'll be creating weak points, which will cause another joint to fail over time. Now you can proceed to the next step: stripping the wood of any leftover finish. 

But that's for the next post. Good luck!
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