By Tina Murphy
It was a cool, crisp fall morning and the beauty of the day just called to me to take a drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was enjoying the view of the mountains and the many shades of reds and oranges, mixing with the green of pine trees. I was admiring the scenery and the peacefulness of the drive when my adventure began. I am not sure if I spotted the signs for the estate auction first or the cars and trucks parked up and down the side of the road. People were hurrying to the auction and since I had no particular place to be, I thought why not stop and see what the excitement was about? The antique furniture, boxes of books and the smell of fresh coffee quickly drew me in, and I joined the crowd.
I have always admired the simple, clean lines of Mission style furniture and when I saw a Mission style chair sitting off to the side, I just felt the chair deserved a second glance. The chair was not generating much interest, probably because it was covered in a vivid orange fabric and the wood needed to be refinished. I was debating how much work this would involve as I cautiously lowered myself onto the seat, wondering if I would go through to the ground or if the seat was sturdier than it appeared. Because I am a bit on the short side, it is unusual for my feet to touch the ground when I sit down on furniture. Amazingly, when I sat in the chair my feet touched the ground. I knew immediately I had to bid on the chair, to heck with the amount of work to refinish or reupholster the chair! So, for $3.50, I was the proud owner of a chair that needed a “little work”.
I have always enjoyed refinishing furniture. I like the feel of the wood under my hands, and I like thinking about the people who have owned the furniture and wondering how they lived their lives. Was this leg worn smooth because someone always wrapped their foot around it? Was the dark circle mark on the right arm caused by someone sitting in the chair to drink their morning cup of coffee while pulling on their boots? Then there is the challenge of guessing which color stain to apply to cover up spots worn to the bare wood from rubbing against a wall. You only really get one shot to get it right. Is it walnut? Black walnut? Or is it mahogany which has darkened over time? Ah, the challenge! But what turned out to be the most fascinating part about the chair was when I began to remove the upholstery (down to the coil springs). The history revealed as each layer was removed spoke volumes.
The first layer was an incredibly vivid orange fabric, and it was a textured, durable, tough fabric. It was obvious this fabric was indestructible as it was still in great condition, but the color! I have a hunch this is when the chair was moved out of the house and into his workshop.
The second layer of fabric was printed with pictures of herbs. It was easy to visualize a smiling, plump, woman sitting in the chair next to an empty hearth shelling peas or snapping beans. It was even easier to see the grandchildren sprawled on the floor at her feet, playing with their toys as she told family stories.
The third layer of fabric was a country print. A kitchen chair with arms? This chair was definitely for the man of the house and definitely would have stood at the head of the table. I can hear the chair scraping against the linoleum floor as he pushed back from the table after his meal to light his pipe and relax before returning to the fields.
The fourth layer was a very fine fabric of dark brown with golden threads. Perhaps the chair stood in the front parlor or living room? Even though I could not hear the voices, I could picture the family gathered around to listen to the radio as President Roosevelt gave one of his Fireside Chats.
The fifth and final layer was soft cowhide, which literally turned to dust when I tried to remove the pieces. For some reason I could see the chair placed next to a fireplace in his office. There would be an end table with a reading lamp and a stack of books, just waiting for him to finish his paperwork and take the time to sit down and read.
After removing all these layers that had been expertly cut and tacked down, I reached the incredibly soft lambs’ wool padding. When I was removing each layer of fabric, I thought the red dust in each layer was the Virginia red clay dust drifting on the wind from dirt roads or freshly plowed fields. But when I reached the lambs’ wool padding, I realized the red dust was from the disintegrating cowhide and had, over time, become part of each layer of fabric.
Finally, the chair was down to its coil springs, and it was time to have fun! I used a fine steel wool pad to remove the old varnish and smooth the rough edges of some of the dents and scratches. I like smoothing out the scratches but not removing the scars completely. To me, the scars tell the history of the chair. As I continued to work on the chair, it continued to reveal its secrets. The most unexpected surprise was when I flipped the chair over to remove the varnish on the underside and realized someone had shortened the legs. Fortunately, the legs had been cut down by an expert – the legs retained their curve, and the chair was perfectly balanced. When I stopped laughing, I could hear her asking her husband to shorten the legs when it became her kitchen chair. Since my main reason for buying the chair was because my feet touched the floor, I knew we had to be kindred spirits!
I continued to remove the varnish and slowly the true color was revealed. The dark wood which I thought was either walnut or black walnut in color was showing a hint of red. With a little more elbow grease, the chair gave up more secrets and revealed a gorgeous red mahogany color. The coat of varnish, slowly turning black over the years, had completely hidden the beautiful color.
For me, the best way, and the only way I can apply stain is by dipping a rag into the can of stain and spreading it on the wood. I need to touch the wood and see the way it is absorbing the stain to get an even color. Applying the stain was a slow process but I enjoy feeling the wood coming to life under my hands. The arms needed only one coat, but the legs required two coats. And the front must have been exposed to the sun because it required three coats to match the arms and legs. Eventually the chair absorbed the stain evenly, and the final color retained so much warmth, it was well worth the extra time and effort.
Then the challenge began! The project, which started simply enough and didn’t seem to be much different from other refinishing projects, changed dramatically when I began to reupholster the seat. When I removed the lambs’ wool, I thought it would be no big deal to buy new wool to replace the seat. Nope -- it’s not available even to professional furniture refinishers. So off to the local fabric store for batting, padding and anything else I thought I could use to create the seat for the chair!
After installing the first seat, I knew I needed a new plan because I could feel the coil springs when I sat down.
Fortunately, I had not discarded the old lambs’ wool and now I was pondering how to use the lambs’ wool since it was full of red dust. Another trip to the fabric store in search of ideas but no such luck. Frustrated and disappointed, I stopped at the dollar store for a candy bar and inspiration struck! Why not slide the lambs’ wool into a zippered pillowcase? It was a challenge slipping the lambs’ wool and padding into the pillowcase but once I zipped the pillowcase shut, I knew I had solved the problem and was ready to begin the final phase of the project!
Since I want the focus to remain on the classic, simple Mission style of the chair and the warm color of the wood, I know I need to find a simple but durable fabric for the seat. By selecting such a fabric, the unique craftsmanship of the chair and the beauty of the wood grain will remain the focus of attention, and the upholstery will last for years. I am not sure where or when I will find this fabric – maybe an estate auction or a flea market? But I will know when I have found the right fabric and then the chair will be ready to be placed in the living room and absorb the stories of its new family.
Even though I bought the chair because my feet touched the ground, the refinishing project gave me an opportunity to slow down and take my time. By taking it slow, I also discovered how much I had in common with this chair that needed a “little work”. By refusing to smooth out all the scratches and dents, the chair has kept its identity and will continue to tell its story. Just as my own bumps and bruises have helped make me who I am today – someone with her own story to tell.
Tina Murphy is currently employed by Central Virginia Community College as the Veteran’s Coordinator. She is originally from Eastern Pennsylvania and currently resides in Amherst County, Virginia