Friday, 8 July 2011

Rescuing old furniture

Amazing. I've been looking for a decent couple of chairs for ages, and at the Vide-greniers in Nogent le Roi I found them - for one euro each.

They're balloon back chairs - one a 'plain vanilla' balloon back and the other with three little cusps on the back, both with cabriole front legs, and both with a little woodworm to eradicate. One of them has a cane seat, a bit distressed but still complete; the other one used to have a cane seat. And they are both covered in hideous dark brown varnish.

So work begins with sanding. I'm using 80 grit to start on the worst (thickest) varnish, because I need to remove the thick layers of varnish, and then a layer of dark stained wood, before I get to the natural colour of the wood. On the other chair, the varnish isn't so thick, and there's no stain, so I start with 180 grit instead.

One of the chairs is robust. The other is wobbly, so I take it to pieces before I start sanding. It's fairly simple; find the joint you want to loosen, position it so you are knocking the mortise away from the tenon, ensure there are no little nails or wedges keeping the joint together, then - using a small piece of waste wood to protect the chair - knock it sharply with a hammer or mallet till it pops out. The side stretchers, which keep the legs together, are the first to go; once they're gone, there should be enough play to take the seat out - it slides forwards.

It takes two days to strip both chairs down to an acceptable finish. First doing an overall job, then raising the grain by sponging the chair with water and leaving it to dry, and then going back to see where there are patches of discoloration, dents and dings and scratches that I want to remove.

I'm sanding by hand. You could use a powered sander, but I'm loath to do so - I might lose the fine mouldings, or put flats into the wood. These chairs are all curves - it would be a disaster if I sanded any of the curviness away. (And power sanders usually come with paper that is much too coarse. I use them for stripping tabletops and shelves, which are meant to be flat, but even then I ensure I don't use too low a grade of paper.)

There's something rather Zen about hand sanding the swooping curves of a cabriole leg in the sun, sitting outside, hearing the wind and the blackbirds and the combine harvester two fields away. (Must remember to put sun cream on the back of my neck next time.)

Then on to higher grades of paper - 240, 360. The wood starts feeling smooth, like skin; you want to caress it. I look for infinitesimal scratches to see if I've sanded them all away - they're the scratches from the first sanding. The figure starts to come out in the wood - the grain was already visible, but now I can see the little flecks and iridescence of figure that cuts across the grain.

Now time for my best friend; woodworm exterminator. Cuprinol in the UK, Xylophène in France. It could be that there are no living woodworm in the chairs, but I'm not going to wait long enough to find out. Painted on, and squirted into the holes with a small syringe. Should exterminate the lot. (Because I don't want to exterminate myself too, I'm doing it outside, and wearing a mask.)

Then the final stage; finishing. Some people like a waxed finish, but I use Rustin's Danish oil or Liberon finishing oil. I'll be rubbing it on with a rag, and equally importantly, rubbing off a couple of minutes later to ensure I don't get a nasty shiny plastic-effect surface. Then sand down, another coat, and a third coat as well, and I've got a superb finish, much lighter than the original varnish.

This all takes time, but the reward for your time is the lustre of natural wood, and a piece of furniture that looks splendid. And the level of skill required is low - the one thing you really need to learn is to be perfectionist, never to go on to the next grade of paper before you're really sure you have got as far as you can go with the last one.

Now I just have to upholster the seat for the one that's missing its cane. Or possibly, re-cane it... but that's another story.