This is the story of a chair. It's not just any chair, it's a special chair. No, it won't fly us around the room, it won't grant us wishes, and it won't run errands or do chores for us, no matter how nicely we ask. But if it won't do any of that, then how is it special? Well, this chair is a time machine of sorts. The chair I'm speaking of is Wendy's great grandfather's rectory chair.

As children of families with deep heritage and histories, we both know stories and have knowledge of our lineage. Neither of us are from any sort of famous, powerful, or particularly wealthy families, and both of our families represent an eclectic mix of hard working individuals. The various sides of our families' roots in the United States were established anywhere from the industrial revolution to the Revolutionary War, all depending on the branch of our respective trees. But no matter the situation, each of our families came here with little, in hopes of providing more for their loved ones. For this very reason, antiques, keepsakes, and heirloom pieces passed from generation to generation are rare and treasured.

As a young girl, Wendy remembers this old, dirty, and wobbly chair sitting in her parents' basement. As the story goes, this chair once sat in a church rectory, and somehow ended up in her great grandfather's possession. Dark and splintered wood, worn with age and use, faded and torn fabric seat, and tattered burlap seat straps did little to tell the story of the possibly rich history the chair possesses. Instead, its current condition acted as more of a footnote to its largely unknown legend.

As a child, Wendy was unaware of the chair's eventual meaning to her. She always knew it was her great grandfather's chair, but figured it was a lost cause from a furniture or seating standpoint and was only being held onto for some sentimental purposes.

As we grew older and began to build an appreciation for our families' history, we both started searching for items that can hold a special meaning in our lives, and in the history of our families. At one point, Wendy asked her parents if they had any plans for the abandoned chair in their basement, and if they didn't, could we have it? Wendy's parents generously gifted the worn and tired chair and wished us luck.

We received the chair in 2004 and began work on it almost immediately. We had hoped to salvage it in some way, but were unsure given the tough shape much of the wood was in. Dry, cracked, splintered, and wobbly, the chair had seen better days. While working on nail removal, one of the pegs slipped from the chair's arm revealing a completely failed glue joint. This joint failure explained the wobbly nature of the chair's structure. We knew we'd need to do a little bit more aggressive of chair surgery if we were going to be able to use the piece for its intended purpose.

After we completely disassembled the chair, we were able to begin working on the chair in earnest. Though we had every intention to restore the chair to its former glory, we had little know how at the time. Still newlyweds and with a "new" very old house, we had a project list longer than we could fathom and few specialized tools (such as cabinet clamps) that would be necessary. We had gotten off to a decent start, but we put the project off to the side, where it sat for an additional eight years.

As luck would have it, our kitchen/sun porch "rethink" rolled around this summer. Knowing we'd need additional seating, Wendy raised the idea of using her great grandfather's chair for the room. She was hopeful we could work it in, but figured it would be more of a decorative element than functional. It's old wobble was so severe, she assumed we wouldn't be able to use it as viable seating. After disassembling the chair, we were left with four pieces that needed a complete sanding and prep.

I did the majority of the remaining sanding using my Fein Multimaster oscillating tool and sanding pads I had cut to a more manageable size. I found using the oscillating tool to be a bit slower, but it allowed me to get into the detail areas of the chair. I also found it was much less likely to leave those tiny little swirl marks you often see with an orbital sander.

After a few more hours the chair's sanding was complete. I went over the whole chair with 220 grit paper and "00" steel wool, we were ready for reassembly.

I've had an internal struggle over sanding this chair for quite some time. I mentioned in a prior post that my inexperience in what we're doing really showed when we were given the chair. Back in 2004 I was sanding everything raw, caulking gaps all over the place, and pocket hole screwing everything to death. I didn't yet have an appreciation for the patina and character that comes with "old." Once I started to gain this appreciation, I began to regret my decision to take off all of the chair's original finish. Perhaps there was something I could have done to better preserve the chair's character?

Through much soul searching I came to a final conclusion. (Can you tell I take this chair seriously?) I determined that, if I had it to do over again I would not have sanded the chair so aggressively. But what's done is done, and I know better for the next time, I just need to be sure I put as much effort into making this chair exactly what it should be with what I have to work with.

With the chair ready to assembly, I broke out my various cabinet clamps. These clamps were absolutely necessary in ensuring my ability to assemble the chair the way it once was and should always be.

I painted wood glue on the various dowels of the chair and also applied glue on the surfaces that accept the dowels.

Painting on the glue rather than just slopping it into place allows the joint to be securely made without having glue squeeze out all over the place. Once all of the glue was applied, I made the necessary connections and clamped the whole chair back together.

The rear of the chair has two steel slot head screws that were the final pieces I had to insert. Once in place, I was able to take a step back at the famed chair finally reassembled.

After allowing several hours of dry time I removed the clamps and inspected the work. The chair was secure and sturdy. Even without a seat I could tell it would be plenty sturdy to act as actual seating. I brought the chair into the sun porch to see how it might eventually look in the space. It was nearly perfect.

I surprised Wendy by completing the chair assembly and putting it in place and I can't tell you how happy she was when she arrived home and saw it. She danced around and gave me a huge hug. We had longed talked about getting this chair back in place and it was finally becoming a reality.

We still have a fair amount of work left before we can call the project done. We need to stain the chair as well as install jute webbing, a burlap cover, and a seat cushion, but we can see the whole thing taking shape. We're planning to stain it a very dark brown a little later this week. We'll be sure to update you on progress.

What do you think of our sentimental heirloom and its placement in our sun porch? Do you have a piece of furniture in your home, that has been passed down from generation to generation? Maybe a family heirloom that you've worked to restore? If so, we'd love to hear all about it.

Comments 22


11/27/2012 at 11:38 AM
That's a great story! And funny, we just posted about this topic yesterday. My kids are now using the beds passed down from their great great-grandparents. Fortunately the beds were still in good condition and didn't need any repair -- says a lot about the quality craftsmanship of antiques. We love having family heirlooms in our home.
Great minds! I love their new beds, way cooler than the white ones, and with a good story to go along with it. I have a feeling they'll last a little longer too.
11/27/2012 at 11:44 AM
I have no doubt that you guys will be able to return this chair to it's former glory. I think it's wonderful that you have such an old family heirloom to take care of! Although I can see it being a bit daunting, haha.
Thanks, Ashley. We sure hope you're right!
11/27/2012 at 12:47 PM
It will be perfect in the sunroom! Do you think you'll have it done in time for the open house?

I purchased a beautiful double pedestal dining table from Goodwill last Jan/Feb for our dining room. My husband loves refinishing furniture and was really exciting about the table. He's been working on it on and off since then, but the detail in the legs has been difficult to sand. I'll have to look into the tool you used. Maybe it will help speed up the project so the table will be ready in time for Christmas!
Fingers crossed, it will be done.

The tool is not cheap, but well worth it in so many ways. Beyond sanding, we use it all over the place on other projects. It's a sander/cutter/minor miracle worker. Might be just what you need to get the table done.
Karin K
11/27/2012 at 1:08 PM
Painting on the wood glue - brilliant! One of those head slappers..... This chair is going to be gorgeous!
I know, right? I have a bag of about 50 glue paint brushes that I keep in the "shop." I try to clean them when I'm done, but they aren't meant for any real wear and start to fall apart after a few uses. When I get down to about 10, I order a new bag.
11/27/2012 at 3:21 PM
Very nice chair! Instead of using wood stain, if it were me, I would finish it in dyed 2# cut shellac. This way, if you don't like the color it turns out, you can wipe it off with denatured alcohol and start over and the wood is not permanently stained. This is the finishing technique that was used up until about the mid-1920s on most furniture.

Whatever you decide, good luck with it! They definitely don't build furniture how they used to.
After much consultation and soul searching, we're actually going to go with an aniline dye. I know it's more of a risk, but it's the darker color we really want to go for. Hopefully we won't be coming back to this post saying "boy, we sure should have listened to Tom and Jada!"
11/27/2012 at 3:32 PM
It looks right at home there!

We dont really have any heirloom furniture, but each of our sons was given a dresser handmade by their uncle specifically for them, so I hope that those dressers will be the heirlooms of our future generations (as lofty as that sounds).

I'm looking forward to seeing the progress on the chair!
What a cool gift. I'll need to keep that in mind if I ever need to do something really cool for a family member. :-)
11/27/2012 at 7:14 PM
I second the shellac comment.

When my mother died we each got a bookcase and one other special piece-mine was four bentwood iced cream chairs of my great grandmothers. It feels strange having them in my own house when they were in her house for so long but they are beginning to look all right here now.
That's fantastic that you have and use your great grandmother's chairs. They sound lovely!
11/27/2012 at 7:22 PM
Great chair.

I love how the design on the chair is similar to the design on the rug.

Can't wait to see it finished.
Thanks, Jan, and thanks for pointing out the similar design of the chair and the rug. I never noticed that before! :-)
11/28/2012 at 9:22 AM
I love that chair - the detail at the top of the back is beautiful!

I am lucky enough to have several pieces that belonged to various family members. And I just gave my great grandmother's dining room table and chairs to my son and his fiancee. It's too big for my dining room and since they will need the seating eventually, it makes sense.

Did you keep the old upholstry to use as a pattern? That curved seat will not be easy, but it will be totally worth it. Good luck.
That's wonderful that you passed down the table and chairs to your son and his fiancee. How special!

Sadly the old upholstery is long gone. I remember the old faded striped seat from my childhood, but even 25 years ago it was torn and in terrible shape.
11/28/2012 at 11:14 AM
Looks good so far! :D
Thanks! We'll have an update coming soon on our progress. :-)
1/9/2013 at 9:41 AM
I was looking through The Antique Hunter's Guide on American Furniture (tables, chairs, sofas & beds) before I returned it to the library and I found a chair very similar to yours. It is a Turn-of-the-century Savonarola armchair. "Savonarola chairs, sometimes called x-chairs because of their interlaced arms and legs, were named after a 15th-century Florentine monk who was martyred by the Medici and who was associated with this type of chair." The chair shown in the book, which is similar but not exactly like yours, is a loose adaptation of a Savonarola chair that was particularly in vogue at the turn of the century. I thought you'd like to have the info to add to your knowledge of the chair.
Thanks, Margie! I just googled a Savonarola armchair and you're absolutely right, it does look like a lot like our chair. Our chair is just a bit more simple, but I can definitely see the resemblance. Thanks so much for pointing us in the right direction.
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