Grandpa's High Chair: How to Refinish and Update an Antique
From old to new---following family traditions
January promises to bring many changes for my husband and me as we're expecting our very first child! Aside from our trepidations about being new parents, we're preparing to the best of our ability by purchasing the obligatory crib, changing table, stroller, car seat, diapers, and burp cloths. The one thing we did not put on our registry was a high chair---and not just because baby won't need one until she can sit up. In my family, we have an heirloom chair that has traditionally been passed from father-to-son since it was first purchased in 1914 for my expectant great grandmother. Fortunately for me, my older brother and his wife already had a sleek and modern plastic high chair for their first born, although my niece did use the chair during weekly visits to Grandma and Grandpa's.
In traditional Victorian fashion, this beautiful, solid oak piece was designed to act, not only as a high chair, but also as a baby rocking chair. Granted, the gears and springs that make this piece convert from high chair to rocker do not meet current safety standards, but four generations have had their meals without losing any fingers. The original piece also had some other design features that have since been modified to accommodate changing generations. In the tradition of my father and grandfather, I'm also making some modifications of my own that will bring this family heirloom into the 21st Century. But before I get lynched for destroying a 98 year old antique, I should point out that, although I'm usually a purist when it comes to restoring furniture, this piece has been modified so many times, it no longer retains its value as an antique. It does however, retain its value as a sentimental piece and family tradition.
An original version of my antique high chair
Updating an antique
When my grandfather first started changing the high chair he, his four siblings, and some 50 foster children used, it was no antique---changing any part of the chair was no different than if I were to pick up a piece from the 1980s, call it "vintage," and replace the vinyl. As my father likes to tell me: "form follows function and a family heirloom is only as good as it is useful." Living in a small house, I tend to agree with this sentiment, so when Grandpa and Grandma found out they were expecting and my Grandpa changed the design---purist or not---I can't say I blame him.
The original chair, as you can see from the image to the right, had a tray that lifted up and over baby's head. As the child grew into a toddler, the tray would inevitably start whacking the kid in the noggin each time they were secured or removed from his or her seat. My grandfather removed the hinges and built a tray and mechanism that slides onto the arms and locks. This process destroyed the caning in the back so he also reupholstered the back and the seat with the greatest, waterproof material available at the time---naugahyde. He also removed the wheels to prevent baby from rolling away during dinner.
When my dad inherited the high chair, he didn't have the time to change the puke-yellow upholstery before my brother moved in and took over, but he did have time to replace the pine tray with a beautifully crafted oak tray made to match the quality and wood of the original. Now it's my turn to make some changes. After 98 years of babies and storage, the wood was in need of some serious cleaning and conditioning. Additionally, the ugly, cracked, and crusty naugahyde needed to go and be replaced with something that could be removed and cleaned.
Stripping and preparing to refinish
The first step to refinishing anything, especially something with so many bolts, screws, and gears, is to take lots of pictures. To strip and refinish a piece like this, it's necessary to take everything apart. Photos will not only allow you to see your progress, they will also give you a point-of-reference when you go to reassemble your furniture. The more photos you take the better; I forgot to take pictures of how the teeth of the gears fit together and had to take apart and redo the angle of the front legs. It's better to take more photos than you need than to realize you don't have enough!
Before you begin any stripping process, you'll need a few supplies on-hand. You can wait to purchase your varnish or stain once you're done with the stripping, but for this first step you need to have all your supplies within reach. In addition to your paint stripper, you'll also need paint thinner to remove and neutralize excess stripper. You'll also need a ready supply of at least two grades of steel wool; one medium to coarse, the other fine, no more than 00. You'll also need a couple of stainless steel or plastic bowls or buckets for your stripper and your paint thinner.
Remove all the hardware and store it in a bowl or bag. If your parts are rusted and grimy, clean them with a little WD-40, or a solution of water and CLR. Gently scrub the dirtiest pieces with some steel wool or a wire brush to remove the worst of the grime. Don't leave metal parts to soak in water. When you're done with the cleaning, carefully dry each piece.
Once you've taken everything apart, set up your pieces for stripping and refinishing at a comfortable height with enough room for you to work with each item. Stripping chemicals are extremely destructive, so protect your work surface with lots of layers of newspaper, cardboard, or other disposable material. Work in a well-ventilated space. Outdoors is best, but if you have a garage or workshop, keep all doors and windows wide open. Even if you're not pregnant, consider wearing a mask while working with these chemicals. Protect your hands with heavy rubber gloves.
Slather the stripper on your wood surfaces using an old paint brush you don't mind ruining, a disposable foam brush (though these fall apart fairly quickly once they start to absorb the stripper), or a spackling knife. Cover all the varnished surfaces of your wood being careful to get all the grooves and crevices. If you have metal pieces that couldn't be removed, try not to get any stripper on the metal by covering it with painters tape. The stripper won't hurt the metal, but it can ruin the patina of older pieces, or leave a residue that is difficult to remove. Let the stripper sit for at least the manufacturer's recommended amount of time before trying to scrape off the varnish. You can usually tell just by looking if the stripper is done doing its job. The varnish will start to pucker, wrinkle, and peel.
Use a putty knife to scrape the varnish and the stripper off the wood surfaces. Be careful not to push too hard with the scraping tool so as not to gouge the wood. Once you're done removing the the big bits of varnish and stripper, pour paint thinner into a bowl or pan. Dip your coarse steel wool into the paint thinner and scrub the stripped surface of your wood. Scrub with the grain of the wood. When you've cleaned all the stripped wood with paint thinner and the course steel wool, repeat the process using the fine steel wool. This process will remove the last of the varnish and neutralize the stripper.
Set your pieces aside and let them dry. Once all the wood has dried, you may need to wipe it down with a damp rag to remove the last traces of steel wool and grime. Lightly sand the pieces with 220-grit sandpaper. When it comes to antiques like this one, the wood has a beautiful patina that you don't want to remove with a power sander or excessive hand sanding. Use a damp rag again to wipe off the dust.
For this particular project, the original varnish was high-gloss, and I want to keep with the original look despite never having actually worked with varnish before. I've refinished furniture before, but always using stain because I love the richness of the colors and the way it really brings out the grain of the wood. Varnish, though not hard to work with, isn't like stain because you have to control the thickness and watch for drips; it therefore requires more vigilance during the application.
Because this high chair is not just an antique, but one that will be abused by spoons, toys, and anything hard that comes into baby's hands, the finish needs to be hard enough to withstand scratches and nicks. Oak is a naturally a very hard wood, but some finishes are more susceptible to showing scratches than others. For this reason, I chose to use Spar Urethane. Using a polyurethane provides a finish that is more flexible than varnish, but still dries hard and provides a scratch-resistant surface. Using a high-gloss polyurethane means brush strokes and over-working the finish is a concern, so I chose to use the foam brushes for the application.
As with the stripping process, set up your pieces for varnishing with enough space to reach all the crevices. For projects like this that have lots of details, working one side at a time will ensure you cover everything. Again, because of its very nature, the polyurethane will pick up the texture of the drop-cloth, so work slowly and give your pieces lots of time to dry before turning them over. Once you've finished the first coat, let your pieces dry for the manufacturer's recommended time period, or longer to ensure the finish isn't tacky before sanding and applying the second coat.
Before applying the second coat, lightly sand the first coat with 220-grit sandpaper. Again, sand with the grain of the wood and wipe the dust off with a damp cloth. Apply the second coat and let it dry before reassembly. Most polyurethane and varnish manufacturers recommend at least 2 coats, but if you feel like your furniture could use extra UV protection or just extra coats, there is nothing wrong with putting on a third coat.
Now that I've cleaned up the wood and given it a facelift, it's time to bring this antique up-to-date with new padding and a removable seat cover that can be washed or replaced if necessary. But before I could put the new padding in place, I had to reassemble the legs and put the fabric in the back. Reassembly was relatively straightforward using the photographs I took before disassembling. As part of the reassembly, there were several joints that had begun to come loose. Because furniture was made much more carefully back in the day, the high chair joints are mortise and tenon construction and easily repaired. Using a block of wood wrapped in a rag, hammer the pieces until the joint is tight again. The block serves to distribute the force of the hammer and the cloth prevents scratches. A rubber mallet works the same way if you have one.
For the bolts that go straight through the wood and are secured with nuts, a small amount of grease on the bolt threads will protect the nuts and bolts from seizing up and rusting together. Be sure to use only a very small amount of grease so as not to force the grease to ooze out when the nut is tightened into place.
The next step in reassembly is to build a new seat for the chair. When my grandfather removed the caning, it left an opening in the chair platform with no support for the padding. To resolve this, my grandfather screwed a metal plate to the bottom of the chair platform, filled the space with various cushioning material, and covered it with the naugahyde, which he nailed to the wood using upholstery tacks. To make the seat removable, I used the old naugahyde as a pattern and cut out a piece of masonite as a solid surface on which to secure the padding. To hold the masonite in place without drilling more holes in the high chair, I installed 1-inch-diameter dowel pieces in the corners of the masonite. The masonite covers the holes from the upholstery tacks, so to ensure proper placement of the dowels, I held the masonite in its final position and used a pencil to trace the opening in the chair platform. Drilling 1-inch-diameter holes in the masonite at the corners of the marked opening, I pushed the 1-inch-long dowels, through the holes and used carpenter's glue to prevent the dowels in place. The corners of the opening are not square, but are rounded so the dowels fit snugly into the corners and prevent the platform from moving from side-to-side.
Reupholstering using existing features
Now that all the hardware is back in place, it's time to put away the screwdriver and wrenches and pull out the foam, fabric, and needle and thread. The fabric I chose for this particular project needed to be waterproof, easy to work with, and easy to clean. For the uphostery, I chose a solid fabric and a matching, gender-neutral print for the seat and back-rest, both of a fabric called PUL, which is a waterproof polyester/polyurethane blend. For the padding both in the back-rest and the seat, I used high-density foam, which is available in multiple sizes at your local fabric store.
For the back-rest, I had two sides of the chair to close off with fabric, but before closing the opening left by the removal of the caning, trace the opening onto your padding (I forgot this step and had to resort to measuring and trimming). Cut a piece of fabric slightly larger than the opening to create the back piece. Using a staple gun, stretch your fabric across the opening and secure it in place with your staples. To ensure the fabric is evenly stretched and tight, start staples in the center of one side and then place the second staple in the center of the opposite side. Work outward from the center of the opening, securing all four sides until you reach the corners.
Once your back fabric is in place, push the foam into the opening. Cut a second piece of fabric that will fit over the foam and beyond the edge of the opening. After removing the caning, the groove left provided the perfect means of securing the new fabric in place. Use spline---the kind you find at the hardware store for screen doors---to hold the back fabric in place. Carefully measure the length of spline needed for the circumference of the opening. Holding your fabric over the foam and the groove, and using a spline roller---also available at the hardware store---push the spline into the groove, making sure to catch the fabric under the spline. Trim the excess fabric as close to the spline as possible.
To cover the spline, you'll need a trim. I chose to use welting because it is relatively inexpensive and can be covered with your choice of fabric. Measure your welting the same way you measured your spline, making the welting slightly longer to account for the ends overlapping. Sew the welting into your fabric, making sure the fabric is longer than the welting. Trim off the excess width, leaving about ¼ to ½ inch to allow for easy attachment. Using fabric glue, run a bead along the spline, and press the extra width of welting onto the glue-covered spline so the welting faces outward, away from the padding. Allow the glue to dry completely before moving to the next step.
Once the upholstery glue dries, roll the welting over the raw edge that is glued to the spline and either using a needle and thread, or more upholstery glue, tack the welting in place.
Sewing a removeable seat cover
Sewing the seat cover was a slightly more complex project, but taking my cue from fitted bed sheets, I used a narrow elastic in the corners to create a fitted cover that comes off and goes back on with ease. But before sewing the cover, measuring the correct fabric size will take the guess-work out of putting any seat-cover together. Attach the foam to the masonite surface with upholstery glue. By its very nature, the foam won't slide around, but gluing it in place will make it easier to take the cover on and off without having to reposition the foam every time. I chose to use 2-inch-thick foam, which I can cut down as the baby gets older. To bring down the volume of the foam, I covered it with batting stretched across each side and stapled in place.
Cut a piece of fabric large enough to cover the padding and base with overlap to spare. Trim the corners to create an octagon. To the back side of the fabric, pin short elastic pieces that are approximately three-quarters of the length of the trimmed corners to the edge of the trimmed edges. Stretch the elastic and tack each end to the corners so the fabric bunches up when you sew along the length of the elastic. Hem all sides and turn the cover right-side-out. The resulting product should look akin to a small fitted sheet. Pull the cover over your padding and base and you're ready to place it into the chair.
The finished product
It's going to be a number of months before I can give this newly refinished chair a real test with a real child, but seeing it sitting in my dining room gives me a sense of accomplishment. Contributing to a family tradition like this one isn't a quick process, and it requires some hard work and old-fashioned elbow grease, but the end results allow me to own this heirloom and feel like I'm a part of its history. I still don't believe in completely changing antiques, but when it comes to creating functional furniture that allows you to enjoy and use the pieces in your possession, it never hurts to make a few modifications.