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Renovating and Reupholstering a Set of Four Solid Oak Carved Back Chairs

When presented with a problem I like to find a simple, inexpensive, effective and often novel or innovative solution.

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Beautiful Oak Dining Chairs: A Gift From a Friend

A friend of ours who’s a keen DIY enthusiast picked up a set of rather scruffy but very ornate solid oak dining chairs cheaply from a junk shop with the intention of renovating them himself.

He got as far as stripping one chair down to the bare springs with the intention of replacing the springs with a plywood seat, cushioned with foam and reupholstering with material rather than the existing red leather.

However, on realising what a big task it was, and the time it would take, he offered to give the chairs to me, knowing that I would make a good job of it and make good use of the chairs; a gift that I couldn’t refuse.

Musical Chairs

It’s not as if we needed more dining chairs; we already have a plethora dotted around our home and in the shed.

When we were first married, we bought a set of cheap modern dining chairs and over the years replaced them with older, better quality ones that were acquired and inherited.

Therefore, after renovating these chairs, we will get rid of some of our existing chairs and move others around the home.

Assessing the Extent of Renovation Required

Having got the chairs home from our friend, the first thing was to give them a good inspection and itemise what needed doing to renovate them.

If our friend hadn’t stripped one of the chairs back to the bare springs, apart from replacing the missing stretcher to one of the chairs and regluing the legs and back supports, I might have been tempted to have just given them a good clean and polish.

On the initial visual inspection, apart from the legs and back needing regluing and the need to replace the missing stretcher on one chair, there wasn’t much wrong with them other than the leather and wood needing a good clean and polish.

However, as one chair was already stripped down, it seemed logical to strip the other three down to the bare wood and reupholster all four. Fortunately, our friend had kept the leather seat from the one chair he’d stripped, so I’d be able to reuse the original leather.

Although not obvious on the initial visual inspection, I was later grateful for being forced to strip the other three chairs down because in doing so, I discovered one dislodged spring and one broken spring, both of which had to be rectified before reupholstering.

In renovating the chairs, I had a choice between sanding them down to the bare wood and re-staining to make them look as good as new, or just giving the wood a good clean and polish to retain some of the patina. I opted for the latter because we like the look of old furniture, and a bit of patina helps to show its age.

Step-by-Step Guide to Renovation

Below is an overview of each step of the renovation I made, along with the issues I uncovered and how I resolved them, including my repair to a broken spring and replacing the missing stretcher.

The basic steps are:

  1. Remove all the upholstery.
  2. Repair any damage to the chairs, including regluing the legs and back.
  3. Clean and polish the wood.
  4. Reupholster the chairs, and
  5. Clean and polish the leather seats.

Also revealed during the process of renovation was the uncovering of the chair's history and manufacturer, giving the chairs some provenance.

#1 Removing the Red Leather Seats

To remove the leather seats required removing all the upholstery tacks. The proper tool for doing this is the ‘draper tack lifter; but a suitable screwdriver and needle-nose pliers can be just as effective, albeit it will take a little longer.

There’s no point in rushing, as if you intend to reuse the leather cover, you don’t want to tear or damage it.

Using a long sturdy screwdriver with a thin flat head, gently prise it under the upholstery and twist the screwdriver slightly so as to raise the head of the tack slightly. The whole tack may then just pop out, or if it doesn’t just gently pull it out with the pliers.

#2 Peeling Back the Layers

In removing the leather, it quickly became obvious that this was not the original seat covering. Not only had the seats been previously upholstered, but as I took off each layer of upholstery, I discovered another layer underneath until after the fourth layer, I eventually reached the original padding.

The four layers of upholstery, in chronologically order from most recent to oldest being:

  1. Red leather (as the most recent covering).
  2. A striped pattern with small flowers.
  3. Large flowers on a golden background.
  4. Large diamond flowery pattern (the original upholstery).

Provenance

As I was peeling back the layers, I came across the manufacturer’s label:

‘Webber Furniture, Made in Croydon’

On looking on their website, they are a family-owned business in Croydon, England, which has specialised in finely made oak furniture since 1919.

They still make the same design chair to this day as the one I’ve renovated here. So the chairs could be anything up to 100 years, and although it’s difficult to know their exact age, considering how many times they’ve been reupholstered it would suggest they’re quite old.

In browsing their website, I noticed that they offer a full restoration service of their old furniture; which if you had the money and wanted an authentic restoration rather than a renovation (as I’ve done) then it’s certainly an option for such quality furniture.