One of my neighbours had set these chairs out by the curb to be collected on the next garbage day. They likely didn't have the tools or know-how to fix these up and just got a new set to replace them. They saw damaged and out-dated, I saw potential. It would have been a shame to let these go to the landfill when they could be easily fixed up and put into the hands of someone who would use and enjoy them.
In hopes that more furniture like these chairs can be given new life and avoid the waste stream, I will share the process I took to refurbish these chairs.
This Instructable was prepared as a project for the Fall 2018 offering of INTEG 375: Hands-on Sustainability, a third-year course in the Knowledge Integration program at the University of Waterloo. The success of this project largely depended on the tools and guidance provided in the MAD workshop.
Note: If you don't have your own woodworking space, a quick internet search of "woodworking space near me" can help you find a workshop in your community.
Step 1: Assess the Damage
- The top rail of the left chair was no longer attached. It appeared as if the chair had fallen backward and contact with the ground forced the rail off.
- The top rail on the right chair was cracking.
- The upholstery was a very particular style that may have been out-dated and had food stains on it.
- There was a stretcher missing on the right chair.
- The finish was worn off both of the front stretchers where people rested their feet.
Going forward, I will walk you through how to fix all of these issues.
Step 2: Disassemble
For a consumer-built chair such as the one shown, the best approach to fixing individual parts is to isolate them. These chairs were easily disassembled using a flathead screwdriver and an Allen key.
Step 3: Choose New Fabric
New fabric is quite easy to find and relatively low cost. Here, I am using a neutral tone corduroy fabric purchased from Value Village.
If you are not using brand new fabric, iron your new fabric to make sure it goes on nicely with no wrinkles.
Step 4: Reupholster
Reupholstering is very easy, Constance Curry has made an instructable detailing how to reupholster a simple chair cushion, such as the one I have, so I will skip those steps here. The only extra step that I did with my chairs was to staple some thin cardboard onto the bottom of the cushion to clean it up and make it look more professional.
You can ignore the re-attachment step for now, since we need to fix other parts of the chairs before we put the cushions back on.
Step 5: Make New Stretcher
- First, find the dimensions of the stretcher you need to replace. I used the stretcher from the other chair as a guide of what I needed to replicate. Make sure you measure the complex angles on the ends, if there are any.
- Choose your wood. I used maple because that was likely what my chair was made from, as maple is a very strong wood which makes it an ideal wood for constructing chairs.
- Use a planer to bring your wood to the thickness you need, then a table saw to cut it to the necessary width. I recommend making 3-4 of these in case some get damaged in later processes.
- Use a miter saw to cut the complex angles on each end of the stretchers.
- Using a drill and Kreg jig, you can make accurate pocket-holes in your replacement stretcher.
Step 6: Cut Off Cracked Wood and Damaged Supports
Removing the cracked and damaged parts will allow you to securely fasten the top rail onto the back of the chair. Fastening it in this way will help avoid future damage to the top rail.
Using a small table saw, cut all the cracked bits off the top rail for one chair. Then, cut the other top rail without moving the saw blade to ensure both chairs are identical.
Use a hand saw to remove the extension of the back posts that the top rail was originally attached to.
Step 7: Stain
Using 120 grit sandpaper, sand down all pieces of the chairs with bare wood showing. You can then apply stain to all of these areas. Even though you will be joining some of these parts together and most of the stain won't be seen, it is still important to stain all the pieces so that you don't see any bare wood at the joints.
Tip: Remember those extra pieces I told you to make? You can bring one of those into Home Depot and they will help you match the stain on the rest of the chair by testing stains on your scrap piece. Make sure you bring an original chair piece with you as well so you know what colour you need to match.
Step 8: Prep for Application of Protective Finish
The top coat of stain will be a protective finish. Your finish may have a bad reaction with the factory-finished parts of the chair. Cover up all factory-finished wood with masking tape and paper.
Step 9: Apply Protective Finish
Spray on 2-3 passes of the finish and then leave to dry. After sufficient time has passed, remove the masking tape and paper. There may be a ridge between the factory-finished wood and the wood you just finished. You can fix this by lightly sanding it smooth with some steel wool.
For the new stretcher, sand it down again using 320 grit sandpaper on the flat faces and steel wool on the edges, just enough to smooth the surface without removing any colour. Then, apply another layer of top coat. This process ensures factory quality smoothness.
Step 10: Make New Holes to Attach Top Rails
Using a drill bit that is just as wide as the threads of the screws you will be attaching the top rail with, drill three evenly-spaced holes in the back of the chair.
Place the chair-back upside-down on the top rail and align it to where you want it permanently attached. Put screws in the holes you drilled and use a hammer to tap them down onto the bottom of the top rail. This will make marks in the top rail indicating where to pre-drill the screw holes.
Using a drill bit that is just as wide as the shank of the screws, drill your holes in the bottom of the top rail.
Step 11: Attach Top Rails
Screw the rails onto the backs of the chairs.
Step 12: Prep Pieces for Assembling
To assemble the chairs and make sure the connections are strong, you should apply an epoxy at all of the joints. To prepare for this, sand off any previous glue or stain that may be on the dowels and tenons. This ensures the epoxy you apply can form a secure connection with the wood.
Step 13: Apply Epoxy and Reassemble
Mix your speed set epoxy and apply it to all joints. Quickly tighten in all fasteners that you removed when you disassembled the chairs. If you wait too long to do this, the epoxy may have set in the joints and putting screws back in may be extremely difficult. Along with refastening all joints, you may want to use clamps to make sure the epoxy dries with the joint pieces being as tightly joined as possible.
You can leave the new stretcher aside for now.
Step 14: Make Filler Pieces
Because the new stretcher does not have a tenon to fit in the original mortise of the chair, it was okay to leave this part out of the "reassembling with epoxy" stage. However, you will need to make a filler piece to glue into the mortise so that the new stretcher will have something to be screwed into.
Measure the height and the width of the mortise and use a table saw to cut a piece of wood with these dimensions. Next, use a router table to round off the edges of this piece. Place this in the mortise and draw a line indicating where to cut the filler piece to achieve the correct depth. Do this for both mortises.
Step 15: Fill the Mortise and Attach the New Stretcher
Using left-over epoxy or wood glue, secure the filler piece into the mortise. Once it sets, you can pre-drill a hole into the filler piece to screw the new stretcher into. Again, remember to use a drill bit that is just as wide as the shank of the screws you will use to attach the stretcher. Finally, fasten on the new stretcher.
Step 16: Distress and Reattach Seats
The last thing to be fixed is the worn stretchers where people have rested their feet. Instead of restaining this part and putting the chairs in perfect condition, you can distress the chairs. This will ensure that when the next owners scratch, bump, or wear down the chairs, it will fit with the esthetic instead of standing out like a sore thumb.
Finally, reattach the seat cushions and you have some life-proof chairs that can easily fit with a wide range of decor!