Notes On Restoring The 1880s Gingerbread Rocking Chair

August 10, 2013

At first the chair seemed solid.  But there was some flex…then I noticed the nail heads…then the splits/cracks in the seat at the joints.  Okay, it had to come apart.  The owner said yes, do it really right.

First, the nails had to come out.  They  were rusted under the surface — hard to get out — but out they came.  Then, the chair came completely apart.  My goodness — 39 pieces!   (And that’s not counting the 11 missing pieces I’ll have to make.)

Challenge of the Seat

When did the right front corner get broken up?  Long ago, maybe 100 years, going by the holes that were drilled and the type of bolts used to strengthen it.  Countless summers passed and the cracks widened, filled with glue, paint, and dust of the ages.  It looked unrestorable.  Could I get the stuff out so glue would bond?  Wouldn’t the now-warped-apart wood pull it apart again anyway?  Maybe.   But I dove in.

The water-based glue softened and removed along with the dust.  The paint scraped out – it was only near the surfaces. I decided to try to re-form the warped wood, a gamble with no guarantees.  Thankfully, after some steps, it flattened out.  Then it all glued and held together nicely.  I ended up having to do this on two other corners as well, though without the bolt holes.  All restored well.

Split in seatOnce seat parts were restored I was happily test fitting it together when I noticed, oh oh – that dowel’s too short.  If I reused the old one, the seat might hold together 25 years — or might not.  If I hand made a longer, better fitting one, it would strengthen the seat and probably last a good bit longer.  It’s the same old test.  Rush past, save time, speed the job — OR do it right?  Okay, make a new dowel.  (I ended up making two.)

On the way back to the house to rinse out glue rags, I passed by the Butterfly Bush and noticed a Tiger Swallowtail obviously enjoying the flowers.  Then I saw it was missing its swallowtails and part of its wings.  What happened?  Nearby was another one, everything perfect, as though it just got off the showroom floor.  But they both danced just as happily, undeterred by anything that had or hadn’t happened before.  Hmm, worthy example, indeed.

Next we’ll move through the rest of the challenges to restoring the basic chair, then do some sleuth work: what were the missing parts like?  Then set about making them real again.