Monday, 4 January 2016

Renovating a chair : from cane to cushion without damaging an antique

A few days ago we found the most charming set of 6 hardwood chairs advertised for sale on a classifieds site here in the Netherlands (Marktplaats). It's the Dutch Craig's List & eBay rolled into one and if you search carefully you can find some amazing gems. This was one such gem :  when we went to see the chairs, the owners told us they had purchased them in an antique store in Belgium , that they were pre-1900, and hardwood, but that they need to get rid of them because they were broken. The seats are rattan, and the rattan has frayed and broken on 3 of the 6 chairs - but the actual wooden frame is solid and undamaged. Needless to say, I swooped and took them there and then!

First thing to do on getting them home was to gently clean the wood with a wood cleaning soap & damp cloth. For the carving using an old frayed toothbrush was enough to get into the corners you can't normally reach and that gather a layer of dust so solid that it looks like part of the chair. Once the chairs had dried thoroughly, I polished them gently with a no-silicon, bees wax polish. Be careful with furniture polishes from supermarkets - many have silicon in them to get the high gloss effect, but it can cause a horrible white bloom on the wood as a result

Next task was to unpick the cane from the most damaged seat. I had to remove the seat top level as the frame covered the cane weaving holes at the front. I used a Gerber pocket knife and a pair of tweezers to pick the bits out of the holes. You can see in the image that this was a hand woven seat, as it has holes drilled all around the front of the seat. A lot of modern rattan seats are made with a prewoven mat which is pushed into a deep grove around the edge of the chair and then covered with a final cane runner that is glued in to hold the seat in place.  Knowing the age of the chair, I didn't want to damage the chair as part of my renovation - but I really did want to turn the seat into a padded cushion, rather than re-weaving it myself. (Something I might do at a later date, but just not today, far too much on the list already!).

I traced the shape of the indented area on the top frame, and used it to mark out cutting lines for a base on  a piece of 1/2" thick plywood. W kindly cut the plywood out to the marked shape for me - a task of mere minutes for such an experienced wood worker. Once the wood was carved, I used it as the template for drawing around for the thick foam that would form the majority of the seat padding. I then carved it to shape. I think it was a bit scrappier than I would have liked, but apparently all my crafting knives have been used in DIY and the blades were all quite tired and blunt. The foam is really deep :  I particularly wanted a more padded seat than normal - the chairs are just a little bit lower than modern dining chairs. Fun initially as it gives a real Goldilocks sensation sitting at table, but ultimately, not the most comfortable seating. The extra padding is just enough to lift you up to normal height - and no-one ever complained about nice soft seats! 

I also bought a thinner foam as I'd seen a number of sites recommending multiple layers to give more comfort, as well as a final layer of quilt wadding. I cut that a little larger than the base - sufficient to cover the foam and over onto the base by about an inch or so. The fabric was cut another few inches larger to make sure it covered over the foam layers. In the end, I decided that the quilting fabric was overkill - the cushion was already pretty padded and stands up high above the seat.  It took a while to decide which way around to have the fabric - the seat is wider at the front than at the back and the fabric has text on it. In the end I decided to have the text facing you as you look at the seat from in front of it, rather than from behind. 
I positioned the fabric carefully to get the best balance of flowers then laid out the layers - cloth, thin foam, fat foam, wood. I stapled the first two layers (fat foam, covered by thin foam) first. Starting at the middle at the front I put an inital 3 staples in, then stretched the foam over the back to compress the edges into a delicate curve. Same again for each of the sides, making sure to stretch the thin foam smooth, then on to the corners. I don't have any magic tips here - I read lots of articles about how to make single pleats, butterfly corners and far more, but when it came down to it,  I ended up with trial and error attempts to get the least number of pleats, and tidiest looking pleats I could achieve. Lots of staples, and trimming of the excess later and it looked quite reasonable! 
Next was fitting the fabric layer which was basically the same, I opted to make it a bit deeper, so that I could fold the edges under, and ensure that I'd hidden the foam. I believe professionals use a base cover to mask the imperfections : as this is for me, and my home, I was less worried! The corners were even harder to get smooth and simple and the underneath is definitely not the worlds most elegant upholstery work. I trimmed a lot of excess fabric off : lesson for next chair is that I really don't need to leave so much 'just in case' fabric - it just needs to be trimmed when it's all awkward angles and corners.

 Lastly, W has attached four small wooden cubes to the plywood base, one in each interior corner of the seat frame that hold the seat in place without wobbling in the frame. I have decided not to glue it, so the seat will fall out if the chair is tipped upside down, but for all practical purposes, the seat is secure and solid. It doesn't harm the body of the chair, and it means that if I decide I want to go to rattan at a later date, it's a painless step back, just lifting out the padded cushion. One down, 5 to go. That said, I've decided to only do the two badly damaged ones initially, and to see how it goes with the remaining 4. I think the 3rd with damage will need redoing quite soon but the rest act as a comparison between the padded seat & the original design idea. Here it is, in the dining room ready for use!

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