Ladder Back Chair Restoration:
Louise Biggs restores her client’s faith in her much-used family dining chairs.
Louise Biggs restores her client’s faith in her much-used family dining chairs
My client’s father was a cabinetmaker who many years ago made an oak dining table and six chairs. After decades of everyday use with his family, and now with his daughter, the chairs were in need of some restoration. Two chairs from the set were in a worse condition than the remaining four, so we decided to focus on these two and do the remaining chairs in pairs at a later time.
• The rush seats were sound, although a little soft and stretched in the middle, and the reeds were very finely twisted.
• The seat rails into the back legs and the side rails into the tops of the front legs were loose.
• Stretcher rails and top/mid rails in the back frame were loose.
• All of the edge trims were loose.
• One edge trim was broken, several of these were split and they all had damage due to re-fixing with nails and screws over time.
When the seat rails are only a little loose, you can sometimes part the rush enough to knock a joint out and get some glue into it without removing the entire seat. As all the joints were loose it was decided to remove the seats and have them re-rushed in the same pattern. The downside is that there is no way to artificially colour rush; it changes with light, air and general use, but has to do this naturally, which leaves a stark difference between old and new for a period of time.
• Glue pot
• Animal/hide glue
• Utility knife
• Masking tape
• Screwdrivers to suit
• Rubber mallet
• Restorer’s cat’s paw
• Side cutters
• Old cabinet scraper
• Chisels of various sizes
• Fine toothed saw
• Sash cramps
• G-cramps (if required)
• Drill bit
• Drill stand or hand drill
• Plug cutter
• Polishing materials
• PPE – breathing and eye protection, gloves
• Oak (Quercus robur)
Wedged joint on turnings
A wedged joint on a turned section is often seen on Windsor chairs. In most cases, the turned section will pass right through the seat or rail to be wedged from the other side, so the wedge is clearly visible.
In the case of these chairs, the tops of the legs and the wedges are contained within square blocks on either end of the front seat rail. The hole for the leg is tapered, just like those in Windsor chairs, but within the top block, with a saw cut in the top of the leg.
The thickness and length of the wedge has to be judged correctly so that when the joint is glued up, the wedge opens up the top of the leg into the tapered hole, while being pushed down the saw cut until the top block and leg come together. Too long or too thick and the wedge will have done its job before the joint has fully tightened.
Stages of restoration
1. The first step was to remove the edge trims. The screws were easily removed, although some did resist.
In this case, I generally tighten the screws up a little which then releases them to be unscrewed. It was easier to punch the nails right through so as not to cause any further damage to the edge trims when levering them off
2. The rush seats had to be removed carefully as they were required as patterns. It took a little manipulating, but I cut through the rush on the four edges and then taped the top edge to keep the twists of rush in place
3. By supporting the underside and working around the four edges, I then pushed the seats down through the middle of the frames until all four edges were released and the seats could then be removed
4. Having labelled the various sections with low-tack masking tape to keep the components of the two chairs together, I knocked the frames apart using a rubber mallet. With the front and back frames separated, I moved on to the front legs. If more weight is required, use a hammer, ensuring you hit against a protective softwood block to avoid damage to the chair frame
5. With the side rails removed, I poured a small amount of methylated spirit into the holes, allowing it to soak into the wedge and the top of the leg. This helped to break down the animal glue, releasing the wedge and the leg. If the polished surface is to be kept, be very careful that the methylated spirit does not dribble out of the hole or from any gaps. Applying a bit of gentle force, the legs were prised out of the blocks and the front stretcher rail released
6. As with many chairs of this type, the top rail of the back frame had been nailed through from the back of the leg. The nails had to be prised out without causing damage to the surrounding timber. Using an old chisel, I carefully removed the wood from around the head as I only needed to grasp the top of the nail. Using an old worn cabinet scraper to protect the surrounding wood, the nail was eased out using a pair of side cutters. If nails are embedded and space permits, lever the top rail from side to side
7. The old glue was removed from all the joints and the remaining old wedges were removed from the front legs. A fine saw was used to clean out the wedge, keeping the saw blade within the waste material so as not to increase the size of the cut
8. Using animal/hide glue, the back frames were then re-glued, adding sash cramps and protective blocks. They were checked across the diagonal and the cramps adjusted as necessary in order to pull them square then measuring again until both sides were the same
9. The front frames were the next task. To re-glue the front stretchers, the seat rails were put in place while dry and the stretcher rail glued in order to get the frame square
10. Once the glue had set, the size of the new wedges was worked out and the seat rails and wedges were glued in place using two sash cramps to pull the rails down upon the legs. As I use animal/hide glue in a glue pot, this stage needed to be worked quickly before the glue started to set. The sash cramps applied the correct pressure needed to push the wedge into place and tighten the joint
11. With the front and back frames glued up, these were then joined by re-gluing the side seat
rails and stretchers
12. My attention then turned to the holes left by the nails, through the back legs and top rails. If only to spare a thought for restorers following behind me, I drilled out the holes to take a dowel. This would strengthen the joint while covering any damage caused around the hole when the nails were removed. A piece of masking tape around the drill bit acted as a depth stop. The dowels were formed of oak, by hammering a square section through a homemade dowel plate
13. With the chairs re-assembled, the screw holes in the seat rails, that had been left by the fixing of the edge pieces, were plugged with timber and the splits in the edge strips were cleaned out and glued up, then held with masking tape
14. On the one broken edge piece, a long joint was planed to remove any damage caused by the break and a section of old oak was then prepared to size and rub-jointed onto the edge piece. When the glue had set, this repair was shaped in to the edge strip using a spokeshave and abrasives
15. With the edge strips glued up, the various old screw and nail holes were drilled out using a standard twist bit to clean up the damaged areas before they were plugged with old oak
16. The various plugs were trimmed back flush to the edge strips then finished with abrasives. The chairs and the edge strips were then treated with Bald’s Balm, which cleans the surfaces and revives the finish
17. The repaired areas on the edge strips, the dowels through the top rail and any other areas were then stained with a mix of oil stain colours to achieve the right colour match
18. Once they were sealed with shellac sealer, these areas were then polished up. At this stage, further colouring could be carried out. I tend to use a blend of red and black polish with earth pigments if required. The top rail dowels were coloured out to blend in, with the chair on the ground
19. In order to get the colouring right on the edge strips, I had to simulate the position they will be in when on the chair; they were held in a vertical position. If I kept them horizontal, the light would give a false reading for the colour and they would then look wrong when pinned back on to the chair
20. The rush seats proved to be a headache even for my expert colleague, Frances White, due to the very fine twist of the rush. Once completed, the edge strips were then pinned back in position. As the pins were going in different positions to the original ones, a fine hole was drilled to the diameter of the pin, so the strips did not split again. With the pins hammered in, the heads were left just under the surface with the use of a pin punch, so they could be filled and coloured out
21. The two chairs were then given a good coat of tinted wax and buffed up before being returned
to my client