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Re: Restoring Bentwood Chairs

Posted By: Colin Petty <colin@petty1717.fsnet.co.uk> (user-2287.lns6-c10.dsl.pol.co.uk)
Date: 9/11/5 00:32

In Response To: Restoring Bentwood Chairs (Dani)

I have brought quite a few Thonet and other bentwood chairs back to life, usually after they have been 'improved' by someone else with thick layers of paint. Back in the 19th century, Thonet offered its customers two finishing options: sprayed-on coloured varnish (cheap) or hand-rubbed French polish (more expensive). I prefer to re-create the latter, using the following restoration process. I'm not claiming this is the best way to go about it, but it's what I have arrived at through trial and error and it works for me:

1: Dismantle the chair as much as possible. Bentwood chairs are held together with screws and bolts. Some of the screw heads will be covered with round beech plugs; prise these out.

2: Often chairs which started life with caned seats will have had a replacement plywood seat nailed on. Remove this and throw it away, then remove as many of the nails as you can. Those that won't come out, drive them below the surface of the wood with a fine punch.

3: Strip back to bare wood using a scraper and 0000 grade wire wool; always work with the grain. Don't use a heat gun (burn marks will show through the new finish) and don't use any kind of chemical stripper - it ruins the wood. I use Bahco scrapers, and they are great.

4: For splits where the wood has separated along the grain, glue with wood adhesive and clamp. For splits where the wood fibres have separated, either fill with fine-grain wood filler (I use Liberon) mixed with powder stain; or cut away the damaged section altogether and replace with sound wood taken from a scrap chair, trying to match the curvature of the grain as closely as possible. Cut the replacement piece oversize, glue and clamp, and then gradually take it back down to the right profile using a spokeshave, rasp and sanding block.

5: Fill any small splits, nail holes etc with fine-grain wood filler mixed with powder stain, and rub down with fine abrasive paper.

6: Stain the chair parts with a solution of Van Dyke crystals to a medium brown. Because this is a water-based stain it raises the grain slightly; rub down with 0000 grade wire wool.

7: Apply a coat of boiled linseed oil with a rag. This gives some depth to the colour, and as my father used to say, "it puts some nature back into it". I was never quite sure what he meant by this but it sounded reassuring. Boiled linseed oil dries faster than raw oil. When it's dry, go over the parts again with 0000 grade wire wool. The surface should be silky smooth by now.

8: Start applying the final finish. I use ordinary french polish, either making it up from flake shellac and methylated spirit if I'm feeling enthusiastic, or ready-made if I'm not. Apply with a 'rubber': a piece of lint-free cotton rag (old bedsheets are good) with something bulky wrapped up in it to hold the polish. The books say use cotton wool, but I've found this tends to result in 'threads' of cotton wool escaping and sticking to fingers, bits of chair etc. Old towelling works well. Pour the polish onto the crumpled-up towelling, wrap it up in the cotton rag, and wipe it onto the wood, squeezing the rubber to force the polish out through the cotton. The polish dries almost immediately, and you just keep applying more and more coats. Pause after every three or four coats, let it dry a bit longer, and go over it with 0000 grade wire wool again. The more polish you put on, the better; it acts as a very fine grain filler in the early stages, then gradually builds up to a superb shine.

9: After you have built up a decent layer of polish, reassemble the chair. Make new wooden plugs to conceal the screw heads where necessary: I use a plug cutter in an electric drill to make new plugs from scrap beechwood. Don't use dowelling; you want the plugs cut across the grain of the wood so that they will blend in. Glue and clamp the plugs in place, making sure the grain runs in the same direction as the surrounding wood, and leaving the plug standing proud of the wood; when the glue's dry you can pare them down to a flush fit with a chisel. Stain, oil and French polish the plugs to match the surrounding wood.

10: Apply more coats of French polish until you have the finish you want or you just can't be bothered to apply any more. With the last coat, either leave it mirror brilliant, or cut it back gently with 0000 grade wire wool and then wax it. This gives less of a mirror finish, but a deeper patina, which more wax will enhance over time.

11: If the chair has a cane seat, weave new cane. I prefer cane seats to the pressed plywood kind. Caning is not a difficult skill to acquire, and I find it therapeutic. Alternatively have the chair professionally re-caned, but be warned: caning is labour-intensive, so it's expensive to pay someone else to do it for you. If you're trying for the first time, rectangular seats are easier than round ones.

As I said, I'm not claiming that this is the definitive restoration process, but it works for me. I'd welcome suggestions from other restorers.

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