Refinish an Antique Rocking Chair




About: The official instructable for Popular Mechanics magazine, reporting on the DIY world since 1902.

If there’s one thing all 21st century wood-workers can claim, it’s remarkable good fortune. We have the tools to make the most tedious job effortless and the trickiest joint flawless—and anything from glue and lumber to paint and hardware is as close as the nearest home center or only a phone call away in a mail-order catalog. But most of all, we have our legacy of woodworking—hundreds of years of design and wooden construction from which to draw inspiration and on which to base our craft.

Sometimes, though, there’s a chance to do more than take from our past—we can give something back by rescuing a piece that’s seen better days. We got the opportunity to do just that when we discovered this old, neglected rocking chair. Even with broken joints and a ruined finish, the chair’s classic lines made it an irresistible candidate for restoration. Although the specific procedure we used to bring our rocker back to life might not match your restoration project, there’s a good chance many of the techniques will be relevant. 

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Step 1: Plan of Action

Exposure to the elements had ruined many of the glue joints in our chair, but surprisingly, some were still sound. Two failed joints in the seat had left one of the seat boards hanging free, and most of the spindles were no longer securely held in their sockets. We decided to leave the solid seat and leg joints alone, but disassembled all the upper spindle joints.

Step 2: Structural Repair

To remove a stubborn seat spindle, bore an access hole in the seat bottom to meet the spindle tenon (Photo 1). Use a pin punch and hammer to tap out the piece (Photo 2). At the arms, use a nonslip pad to help twist the spindles free (Photo 3). As the pieces are removed, label them for easy reassembly.

To restore the failed seat joints, first plane the mating surfaces to provide a good fit (Photo 4). Remove only as much material as necessary to avoid affecting the shape of the chair and the fit of the spindle joints. To glue the seat pieces together, first make a clamping caul by tracing the seatback edge on 2 x 4 stock (Photo 5). Cut to the line with a sabre saw or band saw. Then apply glue to the mating surfaces, and use bar or pipe clamps to hold the seat together while the glue sets. Two waxed 1 x 2 cauls at the top and bottom of the seat at each side keep the pieces in alignment (Photo 6).

To repair endgrain cracks in seat-joint lines, glue thin, tapered maple wedges in place. Use a glue syringe to apply the glue (Photo 7). To make very thin wedges for fine checks, tape the wedge to a scrap stick and feather its edge with a file (Photo 8).

With the seat repairs made, scrape away all old glue from the sockets and disassembled spindles. Be careful not to enlarge the holes or reduce spindle-tenon diameters.

Step 3: Finish Removal

Before applying a finish remover, plug all of the spindle holes with corks (Photo 1). Packages of corks of various sizes are usually available at hardware stores. Use a hacksaw blade to trim the corks flush (Photo 2). Protect the spindle tenons from the finish-stripping operation by wrapping them with masking tape.

We used 3M Safest Stripper to remove our chair’s finish. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, brush on the stripper in heavy coats and allow it to penetrate the old finish (Photo 3).  To apply stripper to the spindles, bore oversize holes for the spindle tenons in scrap stock to create a convenient benchtop spindle-holding rack (Photo 4).

Remove the softened finish by gently scraping with a putty knife (Photo 5). Be careful not to gouge the wood surface. Clean the curved surfaces with a flexible stripping pad (Photo 6). To clean small grooves in the turned spindles, use a piece of twine that you’ve coated with dampened pumice (Photo 7). Use a small brass-bristle brush in recesses (Photo 8). Remove any remaining residue with stripping pads and soapy water, followed by fine stripping pads and clean water.

Step 4: Assembly

When the wood is dry, lightly sand the chair with 220-grit paper to remove any raised grain that can result from the application of water. We used a 3M sanding sponge on the turned members (Photo 1).

Remove the cork plugs from the spindle holes and use a belt sander to carefully level the seat repairs (Photo 2). In the concave area of the seat, use a curved cabinet scraper to remove any marks or dents (Photo 3). Finish sand the seat with a random-orbit sander (Photo 4). With the sanding completed, dry assemble the chair to check the fit of all the parts.

We used Titebond Extend glue for the spindle assembly because of its long open time. First, apply glue and assemble the spindle and arm components with the seat (Photo 4). Then, temporarily install the back crossmember, or splat, to keep the long spindles in position while the glue sets.

To complete the assembly, apply glue and install the back spindles in the seat. Spread glue on the spindle top tenons and in the splat tenon holes with a small brush (Photo 5). Install the splat starting at one end and gradually tilting the other end down as you engage the spindles (Photo 6).

Step 5: Finishing

We used Behlen Solar-Lux American Walnut dye-based stain to color our chair. This is a fast-drying stain so add 10 percent Solar-Lux Retarder to slow the drying time and help prevent lap marks. Working on one area at a time, apply
the stain by wiping it on with a padded cloth (Photo 1).

For a durable topcoat with just the right sheen, we finished our rocking chair with three coats of Deft Semi-Gloss Clear Wood Finish, applied following the manufacturer’s instructions (Photo 2).

Now you can enjoy your newly-refinished rocker for years to come.



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    6 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Can't believe you got Sam Maloof to do the repairs, nice work PM!


    3 years ago



    4 years ago

    I love a tung oil finish. It's easy, gives a soft shine, does not need a dust free space, and will never turn dark if properly cared for My circa 1840 pine hutch still has its original finish and is nearly perfect. I only use old fashioned lemmon oil polish ( NO petroleum products or wax which will damage the finish). When I refinished late 19th - early 20th century furniture, I used Formby's refinisher, which removed the old varnish commonly used back then. Unlike the new finish removers, it did not raise the grain of the wood, making sanding unnecessary, leaving the patina that makes old wood so beautiful. I used a cotton rag to apply the tung oil every 2 days until I had the amount of shine.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Hi, these is an amazing job, and I love the american walnut stain you have used on the chair, the finish looks really impressive! I agree that comparing to the furniture makers in 18th century any DIY job is like a walk in a park, sometimes I'm amazed at the treasures you find in the DIY stores, and it just makes you inspired. You can seemlessly repair an antique chair, if you do have got a knowledge and the right tools. I did come across this American Rocking Chair, which was made c. 1900, yet to my eye the panels in the seating and the back rest feature Art Nouveau design - which is an original design, and obviously they were added by someone later (early 1900s when Art Nouveau was in fashion). I think it looks amazing, and makes this rocking nursing chair a totally quirky and one in a kind item :)

    rocking chair13.JPG
    Tommy D

    5 years ago on Introduction

    I prefer a clear gloss poly-urethane for a top coat myself.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    That is a beautiful chair. Also, I have a lamp that looks very similar!