Restoration Project: Mahogany Dining Table & 12 Chairs
In these modern times that we live in, I am told that brown mahogany furniture is out of fashion. I understand that most young people prefer to go to IKEA and purchase brand new items of furniture mostly made out of chipboard. Very few people want brown furniture and as a result there are opportunities to buy fantastic pieces at auctions for incredibly knock down prices.
Being of an older generation, I am less inclined to be swayed by fashion and I continue to be one of those few people who love old well build solid mahogany furniture, even if it is not everyone's cup of tea.
In 2005 I was very lucky to inherit a dining table and 12 chairs (Trafalgar style), or to be more accurate most of a large dining table and a collection of 12 chairs in various states of disrepair. I understand that my grandfather had bought these in an auction in Portsmouth back in 1920. They were ex-navy and presumably came from the wardroom of an old warship. I don't know the name of the ship but it is probably save to assume that in their time these dining chairs were sat on by many of those resolute old sailors who helped support the great British Empire back in the days of Queen Victoria.
So my grandfather bought his table and chairs in 1920 and presumably he didn't pay much for them. He didn't live in a large mansion and so did not need the 4 extension leaves to make the table full length. He also didn't need all 12 chairs, but presumably it all came as a job lot, so that was that. Of the chairs, he put the 4 worst examples into his attic and forgot about them. He kept one of the 4 extender leafs and then chopped the other 3 up to make bedheads and a few other items (I also inherited the bedheads). So in his dining room (that was in the old days when most houses had a dining room) he set up his table with one extension leaf and 8 chairs. He used these for the next 60 years until he eventually died and after that his daughter (my dearly beloved aunt) used them. After she passed away, they came to me.
I had always liked this table with its 12 'Trafalgar' chairs but I now had to figure out what to do with them. My first problem being that I did not have a dining room large enough to take them. At the same time, the table was missing 3 of the extension leaves and the chairs were all well and truly had it (a very very long way past their sell by date). The chair seats were all disintegrating with sagged upholstery webbing hanging underneath, fragments of the original red velvet on the top and in between, a layer of hessian, horse hair, kapok and rather holey calico.
Over the next few years the whole lot was stored in my garage, waiting until I had built an extension onto my house to make my dining room larger. Eventually the extension was completed and it was time to start my restoration project.
Some years beforehand I had managed to buy a wide plank of mahogany (no longer available as most people now realise that we can't continue chopping down the rain forests). In addition a plank of mahogany came out of the back of a piano that some friends of mine were scrapping (selling a second hand piano these days is even more difficult than selling old brown furniture). Making my three replacement extension leaves was relatively straight forward. I chopped the plank up to make two leaves and the plank from the old piano made the third. I did some work to make sure that all the outer edges matched up with the original table and along the inner edges I added a row of holes and some dowels so the new extension leaves would all marry up with the old and everything would lock into place. Then it was a case of applying some wood stain and some polish.
I set the table up in my dining room, extended the two ends out using the old crank handle, added all the leaves, cranked it back up and there is was. It looked fantastic, a massive expanse of mahogany stretching out to its full length of 3.7m.
Restoring the chairs was not as straight forward. Restoring one chair is a lot of work but restoring 12 chairs is 12 times as much work (obvious when you apply the arithmetic and think it through).
About half of the chairs had structural damage to the wooden frames. Over the years various poor attempts had been made to repair them using screws, nails, fiberglass and some of the failed joints had been wrapped up with totally ineffective black electrical tape.
I tackled each chair one at a time, removing the electrical tape and breaking apart the sections in need of repair. I then had to carefully chip out the old glue and other rubbish and in some cases I had to chop out a section of wood, glue a new piece of mahogany back in and then carve and sand the whole thing back to its original shape. Before gluing, it is very important to make sure that you have a good fit with clean wooden joints marrying up together snugly, with no foreign material in between. Ultimate success relies on careful preparation.
Before applying the glue I had to spend quite some time planning out how I was going to fix and tighten the clamps to ensure a strong joint, once the glue had dried. The problem here is that the various parts of a chair are all curved. You can't just tighten up a clamp onto a curved surface. If you do, the clamp and the wood will tend to move. To solve this I had to cut complementary curved bits of soft pine to fit against the mahogany chair sections. I then applied the clamps to the pine and in this way I was able to exert strong pressure but at the same time avoiding any sideways movement.
One by one, I worked my way through repairing all the chairs that had suffered from structural damage. I then gave each a good clean and a polish.
Cleaning old mahogany furniture is another art in itself. You don't want to take sandpaper or heavy steel wool to it, as you will quickly remove all the existing surface and its patina of age. It just would not look right. Instead you need some white spirit, some bees wax and lots of small rags. I mixed the white spirt with the bees wax until I got a gooey mess that was no longer solid but not too runny. Some people also add a little bit of white vinegar. I applied this with a piece of clean cloth (rag) onto a small section and rubbed vigorously until the cloth got dirty. It is important to then bin the piece of cloth and then start again with another clean one. If you keep rubbing with a dirty cloth, you will just be spreading the dirt around rather than removing it. I kept going over it, lifting the dirt off onto the pieces of cloth, until the majority of the dirt was removed and the cloth stopped picking up any more. There were some particularly bad spots and on these I did use a small amount of fine steel wool but I kept this to a minimum. It was a lot of work but the end result looked great. Once cleaned it was then just a case of rubbing in some more wax polish and buffing it up to a shine.
Having restored the structure of each chair the next step was to tackle the seating. These were all in really bad condition and my first observation was that I was missing quite a few of the large screws which held each seat into its respective chair. There should have been 4 screws per seat. Of the screws that were present they all appeared to be different sizes. Some were over size and had been chopped down, so obviously were not the originals. Eventually I worked out that there had been two sizes of screw, 2 slightly longer ones at the back and 2 slightly shorter ones at the front. I could have just replaced these with modern screws but I thought it would be quite nice to try and get originals. I searched on the internet and was very pleased to find a website that specialized in old screws (incredible what you can find on the internet these days). I ordered what I needed, not very expensive, and they arrived a few days later.
The next step was the wooden structure of each seat. I removed the remains of the old red velvet from the top and then the calico lining and the horse hair stuffing. The horse hair was very dusty but generally in good condition and for most of them the thin layer of kapok was still present. The calico and the velvet had pretty much disintegrated. The remains of the webbing straps underneath were not original and there was an incredible number of tacks from various restoration attempts in the past.
Having never done any upholstery restoration in my life, I searched on the internet and found some excellent video's on youtube. After watching some experts restoring chairs I then felt confident that this was a job that I could tackle.
One by one I fixed each seat frame. It took me a long time to remove all the old tacks but I persevered and was glad that I had done so. I had brought a special tool for extracting tacks and this proved to be a good investment. Some of the seat frames had to be completely taken apart and then rebuilt. On some I had to put some wood hardener to strengthen them up. Wood hardener is a liquid that comes in a tin can. You brush it onto the wood where it then sinks into any holes and crevices. It dries in a few hours and becomes very hard, making the wood much stronger.
I bought new web strapping and a special tool to stretch it. I also bought new hessian and new calico. I was very lucky on a visit to the haberdashery shop in my local town when I came across some red velvet that was on special offer and not very expensive at all. It was a great feeling to be able to buy something from a local shop rather than buying stuff on the internet. I like to support local businesses when ever I can. This particular red velvet was made from a polyester based material. I had considered using natural cloth velvet but it just would not have the long lasting, hard wearing, ability that polyester has.
I then tackled each seat frame, first stretching the webbing and fixing it in place using a staple gun. I could have used tacks but modern staples are much easier and much more effective. A two legged stable spreads the load much better than a single legged tack.
A square of hessian was stapled into position above the webbing and then the horse hair was added together with its thin layer of kapok. Over that I placed a layer of calico and stapled everything down. Then it was just a case of adding the final layer of red velvet and again stapling this into place.
This restoration will hopefully last another 100 years or so, after which someone will no doubt start a new project and do it all again. Before I finished the last seat, I had a thought. It would be great to be able to tell that person all about the chairs and their provenance, so I wrote a letter and placed it under the horse hair stuffing before finishing the last seat. I would love the be there to see his or her face when they find it but of course by then I will be long gone. My letter should be a good surprise for them and I hope they will get as much enjoyment and satisfaction out of their restoration project as I have got out of mine.
The dining table and all the chairs now have pride of place in my dining room. Having 12 dinner guests is not a common occurrence in our household but we have used it a few times (fully populated with guests on all 12 seats) and it has been really great. Lots of after dinner stories about my friend's old piano, glued joints, horse hair and webbing, wax polish and of course that letter to someone in a future generation.