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Renovating and Reupholstering Oak Dining Chairs

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Four completely refurbished, solid oak vintage Ercol dining chairs.

Four completely refurbished, solid oak vintage Ercol dining chairs.

An Inheritance in Need of Renovation

We inherited a set of four vintage oak Ercol dining chairs years ago. But we already had a good set of vintage oak dining chairs in our dining room and were more recently given another set, so we just put the Ercol chairs in our loft for storage (they are far too nice to dispose of lightly).

In working through my DIY ‘to-do’ list, however, these chairs have worked their way to the top of my list; the time came to renovate and re-upholster them.

Last year, I got one of the chairs down from the loft, which my wife is now using as her sewing chair in our conservatory. Of all the chairs we have, it’s the one she finds most comfortable for sewing. Therefore, renovating them now also has the added advantage of giving a new lease of life to one of them, as my wife’s preferred sewing chair.

Ercol Furniture

Before starting on the renovation and reupholstering I looked on the bottom of the chairs to look for any manufacturer’s labels, and found a paper sticker on each one that read 'This is an Ercol Production'.

In searching the Internet I quickly discovered that Ercol is a renowned British furniture manufacturer of quality furniture, based in Buckinghamshire, England, and was established in 1920 by Lucian Ercolani (1888–1976), an Italian furniture designer.

Although I couldn’t establish the date of manufacture when searching their website, I got the impression that these chairs were probably made in the 1950s, and that originally they would have been sold as a set of six, including two carver chairs (dining chairs with arms). The set we inherited is consistent with that: although we were only given four chairs, the set came with two spare seats!

An Ercol production sticker on the underside of a chair.

An Ercol production sticker on the underside of a chair.

Extent of Renovation

Unusual for dining chairs of this age, the chairs were structurally good, meaning they were not rickety, so no regluing of joints was required.

However, they were very grimy, and the seats very grubby and badly stained.

Therefore, the intention was to give them a good clean and polish and reupholster the seats.

Step 1: Cleaning the Chairs

Not wishing to lose all the patina by taking them back to the bare wood and re-staining, wiping old furniture down in white spirit and scrubbing clean with warm soapy water is usually sufficient. But the grime was so deeply ingrained into the wood, that no amount of cleaning did the trick, not even white vinegar or a degreaser (used for cleaning kitchen surfaces), although the degreaser did make some inroads into the grime.

Breaking Out the Pressure Washer

As nothing else made any real inroads into the deeply ingrained grime, I finally resulted to the drastic measure of giving it a go with my pressure washer—and that did the trick. Albeit, after cleaning them with the pressure washer it became obvious that I would need to do some wood re-staining before giving them a good shine with beeswax polish.

Step 2: Re-Staining the Chairs

I chose a wood dye rather than a polyurethane wood stain, and I applied it with a cloth rather than a brush.

Both are translucence, but the main differences are that:

  • The wood stain coats the surface giving a shiny protective finish, like a varnish; the wood dye penetrates into bare timber, giving more of a matte finish.
  • Wood dyes tend to be more expensive than wood stains.

Three coats of wood stain would be ideal for a dining table where you would want a good smooth, even, shiny protective, durable finish. For these chairs, however, I wanted to maintain the patina appearance, rather than a showroom look.

Wiping on and rubbing in the wood dye with a cloth ensured an even thin coating that absorbed into the bare wood to give a natural appearance of age.

Step 3: Reupholstering the Seats

Compared to other chairs I’ve reupholstered in the past, this was a relatively simple and quick task:

  • The seat covers are only held in place with a few staples underneath.
  • The padding and webbing were in reasonably good condition and therefore didn’t need stripping down or replacing.

The only issue I had was that in removing the seat covers it revealed that all the seats had been badly infected with woodworm (which is luckily less of a problem these days than it used to be.)

Removing the Seat Covers

To remove the seat covers I just simply pried up the staples with an old screwdriver and pulled them out with a pair of pliers.

Treating the Woodworm in the Seats

Although there was no sign of recent activity and it was only the seats, and not the chairs, that had been infected with woodworm, it’s better to be cautious. Therefore, with the covers removed I soaked the bare wood with a generous application of woodworm killer, applied in several coats by brush, and left overnight to dry.

However, woodworm is less of a problem in Britain these days as they don’t like central heating because it dries out the wood too much for woodworms' taste.

The wood treatment I used to kill any lingering woodworms.

The wood treatment I used to kill any lingering woodworms.

Reupholstering With Recycled Material

The covers removed were not the original coverings, but they did badly need replacing. The question was what to replace them with, such as a durable cloth material like recycled curtains, or covering the seats with recycled leather-like material.

After some discussion with my wife, we decided to use some of the dark brown suede-backed faux leather that I and my son salvaged from an old sofa our next-door neighbours put in their front garden to take down to the local dump. We took the sofa off their hands and stripped it down to salvage the covering and as much wood as we could.

The steps to reupholstering with the suede backed faux leather:

  • Having removed the old coverings from the seats, I used one of them as a template to mark and cut out six new seat covers from the faux leather.
  • Then for each seat in turn I placed the new seat cover on the workbench, face down.
  • Placed the seat upside down on top of the cover, and
  • Using a staple gun, I first stapled one side of the cover to the seat.
  • Turned the seat 180 degrees, then while pulling the faux leather taut first stapled from the middle of the other side, then while still pulling taut, placed a staple either side.
  • Repeated the process for the other two opposing sides.
  • Trimmed off the corners a bit (but not too much), before folding over and staple each corner in turn.
  • Then quickly trim the edges of the faux leather with a pair of upholstery scissors to tidy up the underside of the seats.

In cutting out the six seat covers from the faux leather I was left with a 5-foot zip that was originally used to secure the faux leather to the sofa that we stripped down to salvage the faux leather covering. (Once it’s unstitched it will go into my wife’s box of sewing accessories.)

Step 4: Polishing Chairs and Seats

With all else done, all that was left was a good polish of the chairs with beeswax polish, and the seat covers with leather polish.

Beeswax Polish

Using fine-grade steel wire wool (to get into the wood grain, and smooth the wood), I rubbed dark stained beeswax polish into the wood grain and left it to soak in for a good 15 minutes before buffing to a shine.

I always use beeswax and never silicone oil furniture polish because the silicone oil loses its shine when it dries, and being oil attracts dust which means you are forever polishing. Whereas the beeswax, being wax adds a long-lasting, durable protective shiny finish to the wood that’s easy to keep clean with a simple wipe.

Leather Polish

The two products I use are ‘Leder-Balsam’, and a ‘Saddle & Leather Conditioning Soap’. Which one I use depends on how effective it is and on the results. I always do a spot clean first to check that the product I’m using doesn’t lift the dye from the leather, and gives it a good shine.

Regardless of which product used, I always use yellow dusters to apply the polish and buff to a shine.

The main difference between the two products I use is that the ‘Leder-Balsam’ just wipes on and wipes off (job done), whereas the ‘Saddle & Leather Conditioning Soap’ is rubbed on, left to dry for 15 minutes and then buffed to a shine.

On this occasion, I opted to use the ‘Leder-Balsam’ to good effect.

Job Done

With the chairs and seats renovated and reupholstered, one of the chairs went back to where it was as a sewing chair for my wife in our conservatory. The three spare chairs went back into the loft for storage.

I’ve kept the two spare seats to hand in my shed as they provide added padding to the two iron garden chairs on our patio that I picked up from a dump a while back for just £5 each ($15 in total).