The 800-year-old chairs

Along with the garden’s slaving, the chicks’ raising and the table’s refinishing, there’s another project that’s been keeping me busy for night after night these past couple of weeks.

Not, as a startled friend of mine thought I said, a set of 800-year-old chairs, but a set of 8, 100-year-old chairs.

A dear, dear friend of ours has bestowed a breathtaking gift upon us – her grandmother’s chairs. A set of 8 (if we can find the 8th, it’s still hidden in a corner of her attic somewhere, cross your fingers), including a master and a mistress’s chair for either end of the table. As far as we can figure, these chairs were made sometime between the years 1900 and 1915. That’s if her grandmother bought them new when she was first married – they could well be older than that if, say, she got them from her parents. People, these are heirlooms. The kind of thing people go on Antiques Roadshow with. We think.

Well, I was wishing for chairs, wasn’t I? :)

These chairs don’t come entirely free of strings, however. They are in very sad shape – the reason my friend gave them to me, she said, was that she knew I could care for them and restore them. It’s going to be – it is a very hard job.

These chairs are scuffed, gouged, scraped, and chipped. Their backs are out of alignment and sometimes cracked straight through. Their dowels and screw caps are missing. They are as flimsy and wobbly as drunkards, with loose joints that will have to be disassembled, reamed out with a dremel, reglued and reassembled with new dowels. Their wood is so old it is splintering at the edges – it catches the hairs of the steel wool as I strip it – and will have to be thoroughly sanded and filled.

And of course they will all have to be reupholstered.

As I unscrew and strip and prod these chairs, it’s interesting to see how their lives have been long and varied. Many, many people have used, changed, renewed and cared for these chairs – as you can see by the four generations of reupholstery in the photo above.

It looks to me like they were reupholstered in 1940 (red), 1980 (scallops), and close to 2000 (out-of-focus leaf pattern). I had thought at first that the red seats were the original covering, but that turns out to be vinyl while the black is leather – which would of course have been a more widely available material in 1900-1915. Also, there’s only a single black leather cushion left as opposed to the others, which are in pairs.

The cushions reveal most openly the long and varied lives of these chairs. The different uppers are obvious – but I wouldn’t have guessed that also, no three have the same backings, which don’t necessarily correlate to the cloth uppers. They must have been completely refurbished – in sets of twos and threes – in subsequent decades. Some of the undersides were covered by a thin black material so old and brittle that it shredded in my hands like tissue paper.

In the same way, at some point some well-meaning person increased the chairs’ longevity by replacing many of the key dowels with screws; yet some of the original doweling remains as well. Many of the chairs retain their original mahogany stain, but three were at one point refinished in a honey oak color – the master chair, for one. Each of these details that I uncover makes me more and more curious to know exactly what went on, and when, and by whom, and why. And I wish I had a photograph of the original owner.

You can see how dark the original stain was.

I’ve been trying my best to do justice to these chairs. My family is coming to visit at the end of April, and they’ll overlap with my inlaws visit – that makes 7 of us. (Thus, more chairs would certainly be nice. Nice-looking ones even more so.) I’ve been spending about three and a half hours outside every evening, doing nothing but stripping. I’m not even to the refinishing part yet. It’s taking a loooong time, and it’s going to take even longer.

Of course, in the time it took to write this blog entry I might have gotten another one finished. But I’d rather tell you their story.

I’ve only gotten three completely stripped of their first coat, though that does include the two most difficult (the master and mistress’s have some intricate lathework crevices). After trying to work them all at once I’ve settled down to doing one at a time, and I can only get one done per evening. The remaining 4 all have 2 or 3 more sides each to do. Then once nearly all of the dark gunk is gone I will refinish them again in detail, getting the last smudges and drips and using a toothbrush in the crevices. After that, it’s time to take them apart one by one for repairs and sanding; then it’s time to fill all the gouges and sand some more. Only after all that will they be ready to be finished. Originally I had thought a polyurethane would be the quickest way to go, but as I see just how dry and parched the wood is, I begin to think that they need at least a few coats of Tung or Dutch oil before they get sealed.

As for stain – there’s historicity to consider along with personal preference. Should I restain them their original dark stain as a restoration, or keep them light and unstained as a renovation? Our new table is a mahogany color, which seems to indicate that matching chairs are called for, but we generally prefer natural-colored, unstained woods. And some of the grain on the chair backs is very interesting, and maybe ought to be seen clearly.

I am making some difference, though it is hard to keep track of my progress since none of them looks good yet.

Slowly but surely. Once I’m finished, we’ll have a complete set of antique oak dining room chairs – that’s sure something to look forward to. Since we’re close to the one who gave them to us, they’re not just antique, but heirloom, like second-hand family treasures.  It will be worth it. (Though I have to admit, it does make me wish even harder that we’d been able to buy a historic farmhouse like I always wanted… a sadness that has not left me as I had thought it would once we got settled here. Every time I drive past an old historic home, especially the two we had actually considered and reluctantly passed up… But that’s another story.)

4 Responses to “The 800-year-old chairs”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    wow, what a find and what a workaholic.They are going to look so nice. What kind of seat cover will you put on?

  2. diana Says:

    I don’t know! I’m going to take a trip to GStreet and find some fabric that I really love; that will dictate my choice of color for when we repaint the dining room. I don’t even know what color I’m looking for! I know i”m going to have to replace the cushions and everything too because, ew, and I don’t have a clue about how to do that. Some research is in order, I guess! :)

  3. CK Diaz Says:

    These look to be identical to a set of 5 chairs (lost the 6th in a tornado in 1996; the five were put back together) I inherited from my grandparents who acquired them 1900 – 1915. I don’t know if they were new or used then. Originally, the seats were brown leather, but the have been recovered several times, and I am getting ready to redo them yet again. These chairs are part of a dining room set – 60 inch round oak table plus a buffet that once had a beveled mirror at the back (My grandmother “modernized” the set in the 1950’s)

  4. Diana Guillermo Says:

    Thanks for your comment! Sorry I only just now got around to checking the blog. 1900-1915, interesting! Ours are starting to wobble again and I’m wondering if it’s time to hand them off to a better carpenter or someone who appreciates antiques :…(

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