Furniture Repair: A Reed-Bottomed Comb-Back Windsor Arm Chair

I recently got to exercise some of my prop carpentry skills when I repaired my Mother-in-law’s broken chair.

When my step-father-in-law moved out of our home a couple of years ago after the death of my wife’s mother (his spouse) he left a number of their belongings including some broken furniture.  This past summer while cleaning out a basement storage room, I ran across a remarkably delicate reed-bottomed comb back Windsor arm-chair. I remember admiring the chair  when they moved in and the thin wooden spindle was broken at the time.  My wife wanted to get rid of it but I couldn’t bring myself to give it away to a thrift store like she wanted to do so I kept pulling it out of the “donate pile”  It is not like we need another chair.  I just like it.

Curious pencil-marks on the bottom of the seat

A little research suggests that the form of my chair owes more to the American influence on the Windsor style than to the English prototypes.  Furthermore, the reed seat on my chair is an unusual feature on a Windsor chair.  An examination of the chair itself reveals that it seems to have been made of single-species of a medium to light-colored wood featuring a soft straight grain.  The chair is stained with a dark finish and appears to never have been painted (18th and 19th century Windsor chairs were most commonly painted with milk-paint).  The underside of the chair seat and arm show what look to be saw-made tool marks.  Markings on wooden parts of the seat-bottom appear to have been made with pencil.  Several of the marks are unintelligible, but one sequence appears to be: “16 H B”.   This may be somewhat intriguing, but these observations suggest to me that the chair is of no great age and probably dates no earlier than the late 1800s or early 1900s.

There the broken chair sat on my workbench at the end of my shop…I mean at the end of my garage while I occasionally considered how to go about repairing it.  I had gotten far enough to decide that I needed to replace the broken spindle with a  a new one. This required disassembling the top member and arm sweep in order to replace it.  Lacking a lathe I was a little stymied as to how to replace the broken spindle.  After working with the cherry hardwood when building the table for my kitchen and having some left-over wood from that project, I  was inspired to attempt shaping a new spindle using a bench sander.  I started by ripping a blank from the scrap cherry wood to slightly larger than the outside diameter of the other outside spindle.  I spent about a half of an hour of sanding, with frequent pauses to compare diameters of different sections of the other outside spindle to the one that I was fashioning using a caliper micrometer before I judged that I had sanded away everything that wasn’t spindle  Constant turning during the sanding process yielded a very round cross-section.  I continued sanding by hand with 100 grit sandpaper to further shape the spindle to match the graceful curved taper of the companion.  A succession of sanding with progressively smother sandpaper left the spindle with a butter-smooth surface.

Even though I don’t think that the chair has any great intrinsic value, I didn’t want to destroy the original finish by completely refinishing all of the old parts, but I did want to give the new part a similar appearance.  I used some dark mahogany rubbed stain on the new spindle and wiped it down with a rubbed polyurethane finish.  Then I used a product labeled Howard Restor-A-Finish in walnut that I have used on some of my older furniture to rejuvenate the finish by darkening scratches and blemishes on the original parts of the chair.  I reassembled the chair, scraping the old glue off the tenons and out of the sockets and used epoxy glue to secure the parts.

I am both pleased and slightly surprised at how quickly and easily the repair of the chair was.  It took no great craftsmanship and only the simplest of tools, yet the rehabilitated chair is study and whole with small evidence of the repair.  I only wish that all of the chairs that I have been called upon to repair for theatrical productions had been as easy and as successful.   While the repaired chair may not be valuable, I do believe that it is quite handsome and  I expect to use and treasure it for years to come.

For information on windsor chairs, check out the following:

That’s enough for now! Have fun!  Be safe!

SJM

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One Response to “Furniture Repair: A Reed-Bottomed Comb-Back Windsor Arm Chair”

  1. That is a very unusual chair. You did a great job saving and refurbing it, well done! I too have found great satisfaction in repairing and refurbing old pieces, rather than the default “send it to the dump ” option. Sometimes it just needs a patch or 2 or a replaced component, or even just refinishing. And I like that patched repaired look. Even on top class antique pieces (which unfortunately I dont own and cannot even afford) there is often evidence of past repairs-it adds to the sense of history and character I think!

    The seat construction on your chair looks highly original, they evidently did away with the need to use wide 2 inch boards as is the general standard. Is it a pegged mortise and tennon arrangement? Ive only ever seen rush seats on ladderback chairs, and then usually only on English pieces.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this project, cheers
    Jonathan

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