Creating a sturdy wooden rocking chair is the mark of an experienced woodworker – it’s not an easy task. That is especially the case for chairs made before the advent of power tools and everything that makes a carpenter’s life easier. Despite their lack of electricity and what we consider essential tools nowadays, carpenters back in the old days made exquisite pieces, ones with real warmth and vitality. These pieces of furniture can and do last for a hundred years or more, especially if they receive even a bit of love and care along the way.
But even chairs that have been neglected and experienced some wear and tear along the way can be repaired, restored, and given new life – if you have the right idea how to go about it. One such piece in need of some loving attention that we recently got and brought back to life is this exquisite Victorian splat back fireside rocking chair. It has turned arms and a double H stretcher – a sign of a skilled craftsman making a high-quality product. The makers initial indicates it was made around 1880, and for the condition that is in, it has kept remarkably well. Still, there are a few things that need mending and attention, so let’s get into that.
This old chair has a couple of issues – firstly, one of the arm spindles is a bit loose. We’ll deal with that by carefully taking apart the top half of the chair, disassembling the slat back. This’ll allow us to remove the arms and their support spindles from the rest of the chair. This is done by carefully tapping the armrests outwards from the two back supports and then upwards with a mallet, to detach them from the spindles. When we’ve done that, the support spindles will be removed as well, since the problem looks to be in one of the holes that they fit in on the seat itself. If they were stubborn, I might have drilled a small hole through the bottom of the seat and used a center-punch and hammer to tap them out, carefully twisting them out, so that they don’t break. It’s better to remove them whole than rush through it, break a part of the spindle off, and then have to repair that, too! But as it stood, the outer spindle for the armrest was actually too loose, and that was what I wanted to fix.
Once that was removed, I decided to do what any furniture restoration enthusiast who wants to conserve old and beautiful things does – I made preparations to give the chair a nice new coat of varnish. It’s one of those things that should be done well, and if is, gives the chair a nice, protective layer that also looks great. Since I was pressed for time and working on this chair in a different workshop than my usual one, I decided to use a power tool – a BO5041K 5-Inch orbital sander from Makita – to strip the wood of existing varnish. I’ve found this to be the best orbital sander for such work, but you can use any small power sander to do the job. Power tools can be very time-saving, but remember that slow and steady wins the race, even (or especially) with an orbital sander. We don’t have to spend as much time doing things as our woodworker predecessors did, but you should take care when mixing power tools and old furniture.
Anyway, that’s the obligatory word of advice of an antiques saleswoman who has learned this the hard way! In any case, you should do the sanding slowly and carefully, in increments. You don’t want to take off too much varnish and sand down into bare wood, but you don’t want to barely scratch it either and then end up with more layers of varnish than you need. This entails finding a middle ground, which is easy enough if you’re careful. This particular chair had also had some woodworms at some point in its life, but I saved myself the trouble of eliminating their visual traces and you should too. Unless it is distracting, such things are a fact of life for many pieces of wooden furniture and can be a dignified sign of aging. Or so I tell myself! In any case, getting rid of all signs of the previous inhabitants would have meant sanding off a lot of wood – too much, I would say – so that was not going to happen.
When I was finished using the orbital sander, I turned my attention to the hole in the seat where the outer spindle fit. Don’t make the mistake of simply jamming some more glue into a hole which already has old glue and then putting the piece or dowel back in. Glue doesn’t stick to glue! Instead, you’ll want to remove any old glue using a small drill bit or chisel, sand the immediate area around the hole down a bit, and only then add new glue.
Once everything is glued back together, you should give it all a nice new coat of varnish. Remember that it’s accepted practice to give furniture a few coats of new varnish, and in between coats you lightly and gently sand down (with fine-grit sandpaper) the previous new layer of varnish after it has dried. The more coats, the thicker and more durable the finish – but try not to apply more than four coats, that’s certainly enough for most varnishes.
Finally, enjoy your newly-restored and rejuvenated Victorian-era rocking chair! I know I did. It’s a beautiful piece of furniture, and whatever piece you’re working on, you can take inspiration from this little restoration walk-through. I certainly hope this gave you an idea of the process and helped you appreciate how wonderful it can be to care for your old furniture and give it new life. Good luck with all your projects!