I’ve been working for several months on a project that was at the head of my list of priorities and projects for this year. Before I could start on the big pass-through countertop juniper slab, I needed to refinish a set of dining room chairs that belonged to my mother-in-law, Virginia, and which go with the table presently in my kitchen. The table has been in continuous use in the house since it was moved here some twenty years ago, but the chairs had been languishing in the barn, getting ever more worn and decrepit with the years. I moved them to the barn twenty years ago because there was no room for them in the house, and by the time we cleaned out the barn in the fall of 2016 so that we could put a roof on it, the chairs were in bad shape. I decided that I had to try to restore them, and I put them on the deck, under the porch, where I intended to work on them during the winter of 2017. My plan was to begin sanding and stripping them after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Flu intervened early in 2017, and then two more illnesses followed that took months to diagnose and treat, and it was October of 2017 before I was on the road to health again. Of course, by then there were all the “getting ready for winter” chores to do, the end of the garden harvest to deal with, and then the holidays again, and it took every ounce of energy I had to get through those things. The chairs had, at that point, been sitting on the deck for over a year. One had a split leg, one had a broken arm (side rail on the top of the frame), and one had severe joint arthritis, and all were weathered, dry, splintery, and looked as if a squirrel had been chewing on them in the barn. They all had my sympathy.
Finally, in January 2018, during the mildest winter we’ve had here in many years, I began to work on the chairs. Because of the arthritis in my hands, I was only able to spend a couple of hours a day sanding and stripping. But every day I could, I was out working on those chairs. They were so badly damaged, there were times I despaired of getting them smooth. I thought sometimes I was going to sand right through a piece of wood before I got to the point where I stopped raising splinters. The original finish, some kind of varnish, was worn, but stubborn, and had penetrated into the open grain of the wood. I sanded and sanded. I used a small palm sander when I could, hand-sanded when necessary, over and over and over. I got sick of those chairs, I can tell you. There were five of them, instead of the original six belonging to the set. One of the captain’s chairs went to a family member years ago and was disposed of when no longer needed. I wished at first for the full set, but by the time I finished the fifth chair, I was glad I didn’t have another one to do.
It took months to sand off the old varnish, strip the backs where the fine detail made sanding impossible, then fine sand again. All of this had to be done outside, so the worrisome dry winter was something of a blessing for this project. I worked on the lower deck, under a roof, bundled up when it was cold. I had to figure out ways to save my back while I was sanding, including sitting in patio chair, and balancing the dining chair on my thighs and shoulders.
I didn’t work when it was really windy or when the temperature dropped below freezing, but I was out there on lots of days when it was 35 degrees. Sanding is warm work. When it came time to strip the backs of the chairs, I had a problem. I don’t have a workshop, and you can’t use stripper outside at 35 or 40 degrees. It just doesn’t activate and loosen the finish. I needed a space I could heat to at least 60 degrees. I tried the pump house first, but with two freezers in it, it was too crowded and rather dark. Then I thought of my greenhouse. Even when it’s chilly outside, if there’s sun, the greenhouse warms up to at least 60, and I had an extension cord already out there, so I could plug in a small heater and warm it up a bit more. I ended up stripping four of the chairs in the greenhouse, and it worked out well. It was nice and bright out there, and since I could only work a couple of hours at a time, I was usually finished before the sun went behind the trees and I lost the good light.
When I finally had the chairs sanded and stripped and finish sanded, and we had completed some structural repairs on several of the chairs, mending what was broken with screws and glue, it was time to apply a new finish.
For the finish, I wanted to use a product I’d used before, years before, on some benches I bought unfinished. It was called Bartley Gel Varnish, a rub-on finish that was so easy to work with and has held up very well on my benches. Unfortunately, the company had been bought out some years back, and the finish went out of production for a while. I took a chair down to the local hardware store, The Woodsmith, to talk to Norm about it, since he was the one who’d turned me on to Bartley’s and sold me my first can of finish all those years ago. I wanted to ask his opinion of the wood in the chairs anyway. He thought the wood might be beech. He said definitely not oak, which I also knew. The grain and softness of the wood is all wrong for oak, we both believe. As for the finish, he said Bartley’s was being manufactured again by the company that bought Bartley’s, and I should be able to find it online, although he could not buy it for the shop because of California regulations.
I did find the finish online, now made by Seagrave and renamed Bartley’s Clear Coat Gel Stain (bizarre contradictory renaming, and it gave me some trouble figuring out it was the same varnish), but I couldn’t get it shipped to California. It’s difficult to get some kinds of chemical products here now because of state regulations, so paints, stripping products, even cleaning products are less effective than they used to be. I ordered two quarts of finish (thinking ahead to other projects and the cost of shipping) and had them sent to my daughter’s house in Reno. I picked them up about a week later. Then it was time to turn my living room into a woodshop.
The beauty of this finish is that it is a thick, wipe-on finish that gives a gorgeous, fairly hard, hand-rubbed glow to the wood. It doesn’t run or drip like polyurethane. Because of that feature, I could spread old sheets and towels on my oak floor in the living room and not worry about messing up the floor. The finish is also not terribly strong-smelling, so all I had to do was crack the living room door and open a window, and keep the air circulating. The other beautiful thing about the Bartley gel finish is that you do not have to sand between coats as you do with poly. It also dries very quickly, so you can do three coats in a day if you want to. I generally put on a coat in the middle of the day, and another one at night, or a coat at night, and another in the morning, whatever worked best with my schedule that day. It’s a rub on, rub in and off process, so it goes very quickly. I worked with one chair at a time, because by the time I was done bending to coat that chair, my back did not want me to bend any more for a while. I did plop a little finish onto my floor a couple of times, and it wiped right up and never left any hint it had been there. But the chairs took on a beautiful golden glow. I used two coats on most of them, but on a couple of the chairs, the ones with the most badly damaged wood, I used two coats to stabilize the wood, then lightly sanded the slightly rough spots and recoated a third time. They feel like satin to the touch now.
As I was preparing to finish the varnishing, Dennis and I contacted the local upholsterer, George. He’s retired now, but he still works on cars and does some furniture when he’s needed. George gave me two books of upholstery material to look at, but they all looked like car upholstery to me. That wasn’t what I wanted. I looked at various materials, and I really started to panic a bit, thinking I wasn’t going to find anything that was just right. Then George told me to go to Mill Ends in Reno. It’s what it sounds like, a warehouse of fabric mill ends. I’d been there before, years ago, for another project, but I’d forgotten about it. I found a piece I loved almost right away at Mill Ends, and it only cost $25!
These chairs were originally covered in a red plastic fabric you’d have seen on diner chairs and booth benches in the ’40s and ’50s (and into the ’60s because the stuff was tough). The pattern was called “ice,” we were told at Mill Ends. I wanted something deep red, because that’s the accent color in my kitchen, and it had to coordinate with my kitchen window valance, sewn for me years ago by my friend, Paula. I love the apple print, and I love how Paula crafted the valance, and so the chair seats needed to look good with that valance. The upholstery fabric I found was made of recycled leather with a vinyl top in a deep red diamond pattern, very retro looking, which is what I wanted, given the age of these mid-century modern style chairs, and most important, easy to clean. Food dropped on them will wipe right off with no staining. This was perfect for chairs that’ll be used in the kitchen by the family. After a short delay while we waited for foam padding, George got to work and recovered the seats beautifully. In the meantime, I cut out stick-on felt pads for the bottoms of the chair legs to protect the new floor in the kitchen. I was so happy the day Dennis brought the seats home from George’s shop, I sent him a jar of apple butter as an extra thank-you.
We had a bit of trouble getting the seats back on the chairs. Dennis had started to number them when he took them off, but then he got distracted and didn’t number three of them. We had a time figuring out which seats went on which chairs, and it was important because they were attached by several screws, and the holes had to line up. He also found several holes that had wallowed out and had to be repaired. George had a tip for that. You pour glue in the screw holes, then jam several matchsticks into the hole. When the glue dries, you can insert the screws, and they’ll be tight. When we matched the seats to the chairs, and after replacing some screws that were so long, they might have punctured the new upholstery, Dennis got the seats reattached, and the chairs were moved into the kitchen and placed around the table. Done! Success! Finally!
This project would probably have taken somebody who isn’t disabled no more than a couple of weeks, outside the time it took to find the fabric and have the seats recovered. Somebody with undamaged hands could probably have done the upholstering herself. The whole project took me about two months. During that two months, I had a lot of time to think about these chairs, and why I was putting so much time and energy into them. I love doing this kind of work, but it isn’t easy for me, and sometimes it is downright painful. So why do I bother? Why was I bothering with these particular chairs that were so badly damaged?
Part of the reason I bothered was because they belonged to my mother-in-law. I’ve written about this before. Virginia and I had a complicated relationship. I was never quite good enough for her only son, and I knew it because she made sure I knew it. It’s hard to like someone who makes you feel that way, but I respected her for many reasons, and I grieved for her when she died. She had a lot of courage, and I admired her for that. Widowed when Dennis was only seven years old, already diagnosed with a disease that would cause slow, but complete, physical deterioration over the course of her long lifetime, Virginia persevered. She never gave up on life. In that respect, she was a wonderful role model for me, and I have appreciated her example. Dennis and I naturally ended up with a lot of her things, and I’ve tried to honor her memory by preserving and displaying most of them.
Even though Virginia’s style was not to my taste, she had good taste, and the things she bought were of good quality. The mid-century modern style of her dining table and chairs is not my favorite style; although I do like it, I really prefer older pieces, true antiques, and I like rustic. But these pieces were well-made. Dennis, his sisters, and his niece and nephews grew up eating at that table while sitting in those chairs. I just couldn’t bring myself to send those chairs to the dump. Even though it would have been easier, I’d never have been easy in my mind about that. So the other part of the reason I bothered with these chairs is that I just can’t bear to throw away something I know I can restore and make useful and beautiful again. And the chairs were in such bad shape, I don’t even think I could have given them away as they were. I felt obliged, by some freak or fault in my own nature, to keep them and restore them and love them.
One day, when I was working on a chair, I said to Dennis, “These chairs better not end up at the dump after I’m gone!” He said, “Well, I won’t dump them.” And I said, “The kids better not either, after all the work I’ve put into them.” But I had a lot of time to think about that as I was sanding, stripping, and finishing the chairs. And what I’ve ended up thinking is that nobody should feel under any obligation to keep these chairs if they don’t like them. I know mid-mod is not my daughter’s style, nor is it my daughter-in-law’s style. Why should they have to live with a style that’s not what they like best just because I have made that choice? They shouldn’t. My choices are my own. I make the best of what I find and what I have, and I love these chairs now because I have made them beautiful again. But that doesn’t mean my kids need to make that same choice.
When I am gone, I won’t care about where these chairs end up. However, having put months of work into them, making them pretty and usable again, I’m pretty sure somebody will want them. I think they’re safe from the dump for many years. And that’s really all that matters.