Introduction: Refinishing/reupholstering a Hand Tied Spring Rocking Chair

About: Marine Biologist. Bryozoan-lover. Photomicrographer. Mocha latte addict. Artsy-craftsy and overall dorkus. I love to think of ways I could make something that I can't afford. Also, cats!

Let me preface this entire thing with:

I have never, ever refinished or reupholstered anything.

There, I said it. Now let's move on.

I eyed a dingy, lumpy-seated rocking chair at my local Goodwill store. You see, my brother just moved up my way to do his post-doc and is looking for some furniture. He specifically requested a rocking chair. Also, his birthday is in late March. So I bought it for a whopping $5.00.

At home I realized that it was...kinda sticky and if your hands are wet and you touch it, the finish rubs off. And a previous owner must have had it somewhere where they used white spray paint. And the seat was super lumpy and covered in nasty green vinyl. And, and, and....

At first I was hesitant to do work on it, but that was before I remembered that my brother's birthday was coming up. Long story short, I went all-in. Especially once I started seeing the chair's wood exposed under all the sticky varnish and whatever-else this thing was covered in.

Since I don't have much experience, I know I did some things in a round-about way (which was partly due to me being in an apartment the weather) and I definitely would do it differently if I could go back in time. For instance, I used a can of spray-on paint stripper, then sanded, realized it could use some more stripping, then stripped again with brush-on stripper (which worked waaay better), then sanded again. If I could go back in time, I would have picked up a big container of the wipe-on stripper and let it sit over night.

Anyway, this project overall:

  • costed more (and took more time) than I had planned
  • made the plastic sheet it rested on for the majority of this process look like a murder scene (not to mention the bags of goopy, red paper towels)
  • was really smelly and made everything red
  • has resulted in a minor cough even though yes, I DID wear a respirator/dust mask
  • made me believe I can take on any project now that I did all this

But I couldn't be happier with how it turned out.

Step 1: Remove Upholstery

Materials needed:

  • tack puller or pry bar with nail puller
  • hammer
  • knife or scissors
  • some strength
  • safety glasses
  • work gloves
  • a dust mask is a very good idea

First Layer: Vinyl

I used a mini pry bar with nail puller because that's what I had, but the shape of it was useful to get around the spindles and had a good flat surface for hammering.

First step for me was to cut off as much of the vinyl seat as a could, so I put a knife to that and threw it away. Underneath appeared to be a stained cotton fabric.

Remove the tacks using the puller of your choice, hammering when needed (it was almost always needed here). It seemed to be most effective to go at the tack from underneath the vinyl and hammer in to get a better grasp on it. At some point when I had a strip of the vinyl edge free I realized I could probably just grip it and pull the tacks out. That only worked part of the time.

It was a relief to get all the vinyl up, but looks like the cotton fabric below has its own set of tacks to remove!

Second Layer: Cotton Fabric

Yes, a second layer of tacks, but they look different. Remove those too, attempting to pull the fabric to go faster. This time the tack removal went a little faster, but revealed yet another layer of tacks to remove! This next layer of tacks was what held the springs down and provided a base for the middle cushion layer of...not sure? Appears to be fur of some kind. Might be sheep's wool.

Third Layer: More Cotton Fabric

After removing the cushion layer (which was stained and flat), I removed that final layer of tacks. These were a bit more difficult due to their closeness to the wood.

This last layer is gone and I'm staring at 4 springs tied with twine and (again) tacked to the frame.

Step 2: Strip and Clean

This thing was covered - I mean, COVERED, in varnish etc. Who knows how many layers of it. First and foremost it is very important to get this off.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I took the scenic route through this step, so here I'm only going to go over what should actually be done (learning experience!)

Materials needed:

  • paint & varnish stripper
  • plastic putty knife
  • abrasive pad(s)
  • paint brush or foam brush
  • odorless mineral spirits (if needed)
  • tarp or plastic sheets to protect floor
  • appropriate safety equipment (respirator, gloves, and eye protection)
  • adequate ventilation

Apply Stripper

I used two kinds of stripper a few days apart. First was spray-on Citristrip Safer Paint and Varnish Remover. The second was 3M Safest Stripper Paint & Varnish Remover (Semi-Paste). Both worked well, but my recommendation is to use a semi-paste option like the 3M above. While it may be more time consuming to apply, it is much less messy than the aerosol kind and has little to no odor. It is also water-based and much safer to use indoors.

Apply the stripper as per manufacturer's directions and follow directions for how long to let it sit. One reason I didn't let mine sit long enough is because I had to use the spray-on kind outside and it was supposed to rain the next day. For the semi-paste kind, it was really dry in my apartment and the paste was drying faster than expected. You really have to goop it on there!

Remove Stripper

Remove stripper as per manufacturer's directions. Typically you should use a plastic putty knife to carefully scrape away all the stripper goop. I used this and an abrasive pad to remove stripper from the spindles.

Clean Up

Again, use the directions on whatever stripper you're using to clean the remaining residue off the piece. I used odorless mineral spirits to clean up after the Citristrip spray and only warm water and soap to clean up after the 3M semi-paste stripper.

Dispose of the waste appropriately. You probably won't be able to throw this stuff away in the trash! Contact your local hazardous waste drop-off facility for disposal options or find a date when your town is hosting a hazardous waste disposal day (mine is in October!).

Step 3: Sanding (so Much Sanding)

If I hadn't been so 'round about with the stripping phase, sanding would be by far the most time-consuming step. I don't have too many pictures of this step because I didn't want my camera to get too dusty. Yes, I did this inside my apartment.

Materials needed:

  • coarse/medium grit sandpaper (100-150; I noticed that it depends on what you're looking at as to what's considered course or medium)
  • fine grit sandpaper (220-ish)
  • sanding block (optional)
  • Dremel tool with abrasive pads and sanding sheets (optional but super helpful)
  • cotton rag(s)
  • tack cloth
  • tarp or plastic sheets to protect floor
  • appropriate safety equipment (respirator, gloves, and eye protection)

Coarse Sanding

Get to it! I did the best I could sanding down past leftover stain to get to bare wood. I used a sanding block for all the flat areas, sanded by hand all of the spindles, then used my Dremel 4000 rotary tool at 10K rpm with a coarse abrasive pad (brown) and sanding wheel to get in all of the spindle crevices.

Always sand WITH THE GRAIN.

Fine Sanding

After coarse sanding, move to a finer sandpaper to make a nice and smoooooth surface. I followed the same procedure as above, just using a 220-grit paper and a fine abrasive pad (black) for the Dremel.

Clean Up

Remove the majority of sand dust with a vacuum, clean & dry paint brush, or cotton rag. Wipe the surface with a tack cloth (pretty much just a cloth with a fine layer of glue on it) to get off the finer particles.

The wood should be completely clean and dry before moving on.

Step 4: Apply Finish

Because this chair has been under an unknown number of layers of stain, varnish, and whatever-else, I wanted the wood (which I found out to be cherry) to shine without any false color. Some research told me that cherry wood tends to be very blotchy, especially as it ages, but I thought that would only add to this chair's personality. Not only is the cherry pretty, but I didn't want to cover up the wood that took me ages to expose!

Thus, I used only a finish and no stain.

Materials needed:

  • wood finish (I used oil-based Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane in Semi-Gloss)
  • natural-bristle paint brush or foam brush
  • fine grit sandpaper
  • tack cloth
  • tarp or plastic sheets to protect floor
  • appropriate safety equipment (respirator, gloves, and eye protection)
  • adequate ventilation

Once again I did this step in my apartment with the windows open to get good cross-flow while working with the finish.

Apply Finish

Apply the finish as per manufacturer's directions. I did one fine layer and waited for it to dry.

Once dry, go over the piece with fine grit sandpaper and then remove the dust with a tack cloth.

Apply the second layer and then wait until dry. Sand again to add another layer (I didn't).

Step 5: Reapply and Tie Springs

I've never done any work with springs, so this was pretty cool to do (and learn about).

Materials needed:

  • hammer
  • tacks or small nails
  • twine or poly rope
  • hammer

I nailed the spring bases back about where they came from, but did not hammer down the nails all the way to leave room to tie twine. Taking the twine, I attempted to recreate how the springs were tied before I cut them.

First, I tied twine around one nail and then used regular loops in combination with holding the springs down to get them in the shape I wanted - a dome. Where the spring's end was at a looping point, I used a clove knot to tie the end to the rest of the coil. To tie off each coil, I simply did a loop around the nail and hammered it in.

Repeat for each set of springs (longways, sideways, and diagonal) to have a total of 6 strings.

I ran out of jute twine and had to switch over to some poly rope that I had available to finish!

Step 6: Upholster

Once again I'm attempting to recreate how the seat was upholstered since I paid attention as I was tearing it apart.

Materials needed:

  • fabric to hold down springs and foam
  • foam pad (I'm using a 2" x 15" x 17" sheet of Airtex regular density foam)
  • upholstery fabric
  • upholstery tacks
  • decorative nails
  • hammer
  • scissors

Cover Springs

Use a basic fabric that will be strong enough to hold down the springs and foam once tacked. I found a good size piece of fabric at my local craft store's leftover bin marked down.

This fabric will be doubled at the edges so there should about a 1 inch extra on all sides. Hammer down the upholstery tacks around the periphery, making sure to stretch the fabric so the springs hold their shape and stay down. Once done, it may look a little lumpy but that's ok, the foam will hide all that!

Insert and Cover Foam

You'll ultimately want the chair to make a uniform, gradually domed seat, reducing the lumpiness and increasing the comfiness.

First, I cut the foam so it would be the right size.

What I did was start tacking the second layer of fabric at the back of the chair, then I stuffed the foam in, pushing the edge in so the fabric held the foam down.

Pull the fabric tightly as you tack so the foam makes a nice even shape. As with the previous, fold the edges of the fabric inward. as you go.

In the end you should have a nice, tight, cozy seat that just needs some prettification!


This step is about the same - pulling the upholstery fabric tight as you nail it down. Decorative nails are perfect to make that nice edge around the fabric. I chose a nail with a black head, but there are many varieties!

I had a hard time with this step because not only do you have to pull the fabric tight, but you also have to get the nails about the same length apart and hammer them in. The nails are difficult to get hammered down straight, so be sure to get an extra package of what you think you might need.

This fabric choice was to reduce the blotchiness of the chair and look somewhat antique. I'm really digging it!

Step 7: Relax!

This project was both terrifying and enjoyable. I feel very connected to this chair and, while I know it's not perfect, it turned out better than I thought it would! My inexperience, the weather, and a week-long sickness made the project last longer and be more of an undertaking than expected.

Overall, I love it and I can't wait to gift it to my brother when I see him in the near future. In the meantime, I'll be sitting and rocking in this chair!

Before and After Contest 2016

Participated in the
Before and After Contest 2016