Is this chair factory made or handmade? Both. Keep reading if you are curious to learn more.
The best way to describe this project may be Frustration Free Furniture Restoration. This is counterintuitive, I know. The words “furniture restoration” remind me of sanding, staining, repair, and headaches. It is just not for me, thanks. A long time ago, I refinished a cabinet for my wonderful wife. That project went so poorly that I sold my profile sander and swore to never refinish another piece of furniture, but a recent post on Woodnet may make me eat those words.
The “refinished” chair
Justin, a fellow Mississippian (transplant), posted some pictures of a Windsor chair that he completed in a day. The project was a mix between a rebuild and a refinish. From the pictures I hope you can see why I was impressed with his handiwork and requested permission to blog about it.
The “kit” (after a quick demolition) – a chair that Justin originally described as “clunky”
Justin started his project by selecting a chair that he found in an antique store. In Mississippi, “antique store” = piles of junk, stored indoors. He liked a few things about this chair; it was inexpensive, the spindles were made from straight-grain stock, and the crest rail was steam bent – not sawn or laminated. With the proper subject (aka – kit), he began by knocking the chair apart. Reportedly, all the joints were loose so this was not a violent process.
Original (left) and refined (right) spindles
After the chair was reduced to a pile of pieces, he put the legs and larger spindles in his lathe. Those were reshaped to match styles of other chairs that he preferred. The smaller, straight spindles were resurfaced with a spokeshave, adding facets that can only be a result of a skillful hand guiding a sharp edge tool. These two steps were pure genius in my book. All of the pieces now look (and were) hand finished and he eliminated the need for sanding.
Major reshaping of the crest rail
Not stopping there, he reshaped the crest rail with some judicious saw cuts, chisels, spokeshaves, etc.
Next up was deepening the dish of the seat with a gouge, scraper, and sandpaper. This makes a big difference in appearance and should make the chair more comfortable.
What Windsor chair seat can be shaped without a drawknife?
All of the hand finished pieces ready for assembly
With all of the pieces “refinished” (actually reshaped) the chair was ready for reassembly.
The chair – reassembled and painted with red milk paint
One more construction note. The joints were loose when he started, so epoxy was required to make the joinery stable. Justin highly recommends a slow curing epoxy. Assembling one of these chairs takes time and fast setting adhesives makes the process more stressful.
The red was nice, but the end result is a step up
Add to the red milk paint a coat of black shellac and judicious rubbing and Justin has a really nicely finished chair.
There are at least three great points with this approach to a “hand made” Windsor. First, there were no special tools required. Making a Windsor from scratch requires a significant investment in specialty tools (tapered reamers and such) that many woodworkers are not willing to buy for making one or two chairs. Second, all of the joinery was pre-cut, which eliminated the most time consuming part of any scratch built project. Third, no sanding away the old finish. No further explanation needed on that point. Thanks to the “kit”, Justin was able to take the chair from a loose collection of pieces to “finish ready” in a day.
Good spindles = chance of a good kit
Are you wondering how you could begin a project like this? The primary ingredient is a good starter chair (AKA – the kit). Look for a chair with as many traditional details as possible – round, delicate spindles for the back (rather than flat or bulky) are a good indicator. Many factory-made Windsors have leg turnings or construction details that are a significant departure from traditional design. These chairs should be a avoided if you want a traditional look. Also look for components that were made from straight-grained hardwood (maple, beech, or oak are really nice). Finally, it is best if the crest rail was steam-bent (look for continuous grain all the way around with no layers like plywood).
If you find the right chair (or one close enough to it) and the price is right, snap it up, knock it apart, and get to work. Enjoy the refinish with minimal (or no) sanding required. I may even give furniture refinishing another go now that Justin has shown me a method that does not require a profile sander.