Introduction: Replace Worn Arm Rests on a Secondhand Chair // Furniture Upcycle
This might seem like a small thing, but SO many people I've talked with have experienced office chairs with worn-out arm rests!
And of course many people will have to buy replacement parts or even a whole new chair!! - which is not a very sustainable solution.
This was the case with the office chair that I got second hand from a local business.
It is a very well made, comfortable chair - except for the plastic on the arm rests - and it is well worth the effort to make new again.
I was faced with two options:
- reupholster the arms in some sort of fabric or vinyl, or
- make something completely new out of wood
I chose the latter obviously, and here's why. No matter what fabric I choose - it WILL wear out again, and WILL NOT age gracefully either, as it gets older it'll get tatty and gross looking before we end up in the exact same situation we are today!
OR, I can do this ONCE and it will last a very long time with the proper care.
I know what you're thinking - wood is less comfortable than soft foam - and I would answer, "humans have been making arm rests from wood for hundreds(thousands) of years, it's fine, you'll get over it. If I'm sitting so long my elbows start to hurt, it's probably time I took a break anyway!
So let me show you how you can completely fix the scourge of worn out arm rests!
Step 1: Here's What You Need
Things might be slightly different for your individual chair, but I bet they're similar enough that the same process can work for you too!
Just for reference my chair is a Knoll Formway Life Chair
They can be off-cuts or band new pieces from the local home center. It doesn't really matter, so long as you have enough to cover the length and width of your old arm rests.
This is for creating a template of your old arm rest.
Nothing special, just regular old white glue.
After all your hard work, you'll want to protect the wood with a good quality finish. I used Danish Oil but I would also recommend a wipe-on polyurethane.
You'll need them to dismantle your old arm rest and put the new one on.
Some way to cut a curved shape in wood:
This can be done with a coping saw, jigsaw, bandsaw or even a rasp. You can get a good result from all of those tools - some just may take a little longer than others.
Rough to fine grit (120gt, 240gt at least)
You may find a powered sander handy also or a handplane.
Step 2: See What You're Working With
Start by removing the existing armrests to see what components to use as a starting point.
In my case there was a couple of screws on the underside, which once removed, let me take apart the entire arm rest.
What you are looking for is a piece that you can trace around, to get the shape and side profile from, so that we can make a template in the next step.
Step 3: Create a Template
Take your dismantled arm rest piece and trace the side profile from it by holding it on its side like in the photos above.
If you are very lucky and your arm rest doesn't have a curve to it you can actually skip the next couple of steps!
For the rest of us (pun intended?), trace the side profile of the arm onto some stiff cardboard and then cut it out with scissors or a craft knife.
Step 4: Cut Your Wood Down
Now this will vary depending on the amount of wood you have gotten and what tools you have to cut it with.
If your wood is thick enough to fit the side profile template you've just made within it, you may skip this step.
If you are like me and the piece you have isn't quite thick enough, you can do the following.
Cut strips from it that are wide enough to fit your template, and then turn them 90 degrees and glue them back together - see above .gif
You can choose to glue them back together now, or after the next step.
Step 5: Trace and Cut
Trace the template onto your wood and cut out.
If you are using a coping saw, jigsaw or a cheap bandsaw (like me) you may find it beneficial to cut the side profile into individual strips, rather than a whole block at once.
This will take longer but will give you better results as you'll be more accurate with smaller pieces.
If you are working from a larger block, consider cutting it down lengthwise first so that you are not cutting through as much wood.
Step 6: Glue Up
Glue the strips back together.
When gluing the strips, take your time to align each piece nicely next to each other. The better you get it now the less work you'll need to do to smooth them out in the next step.
Step 7: (Rough) Smoothing
Use sandpaper/powered sander/handplane/rasp to roughly smooth out the side profile.
It's better not to get it perfect just yet, we just want to remove any major rough spots or alignment issues.
I used a hand plane going across the grain to get the shape roughly smooth. This may create a little bit of tearout at the edge of your pieces, so that’s why I did this step before cutting them to their final shape.
Step 8: Cut the Outer Shape
If your arm rest had a flat side profile, welcome back, it's good to see you.
Use the piece of old arm rest to trace its shape onto your wood then cut them out.
After all the trickiness of the last couple of steps this one is satisfyingly easy.
Step 9: Final Shaping
NOW you can go to town with making it nice and smooth!
I rounded the edges with a handplane first. Then sanded. a . lot. of. sanding.
Moving up through the grits 120gt -> 240gt. I used hand sanding because of the organic shape. With a power sander it’s very easy to accidentally put flat spots in your work, which will be noticeable at the end.
Step 10: Apply Finish
Finally the best part.
I finished my arm rests with a couple of coats of Danish Oil. I like Danish oil because all you have to do is wipe it on, let it soak in a bit and then wipe off the excess - much less likely to get runs on a curved surface. The downside is it takes 4-8 hours to dry between coats :/ I can also recommend wipe-on polyurethane, very similar application - but it dries in half the time.
Step 11: Reattach
Attach the new wooden arm rests to your chair.
Again this will vary from chair to chair, for me I just screwed them down through the pre existing holes.
Step 12: Finished!
I was stoked with how they came out. It's been a couple of months since I made these and I still look at them and think "these look awesome".
But mostly I'm just glad I've got a 'new' chair and it's not going in a landfill anytime soon!