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Wood is a curious medium. Some objects built from it don’t wind up lasting a long time, while others endure through the ages. Mostly it’s a revolving crap shoot of conditions, abuse, and maintenance. And sometimes it all comes together, and you get a chair like this one that is well over 70 years old.

This child’s rocking chair has served four generations of my wife’s family and 19 children have called it their own. It was constructed by her great grandfather from a set of plans he sent away for and then built himself, mostly from solid oak. And it has seen better days.

With the passing of time each father of the current owner(s) has done his best to keep it in service. It’s been through no less than three seat bottoms, four rocker repairs, two paint jobs, and an extra nail or two to keep it together. And through all those 73 years the wood has never been replaced — sanded, split, glued, and tacked back together, but never replaced. The last rocker problem was the most epic. The wood split clean through during my wife’s era. (Which I’m told got her sent to her room.)

I sat in the garage with three of the many caretakers of this chair a few months ago as they ran down the checklist of the repairs. The great re-seating of 1948, the chemical stripping of 1963 (to remove the lead-based paint), the re-gluing of 1979 — it was all there, each former guardian giving me the eye and telling me with out really saying that I had a great responsibility to live up to. Not from them — honestly, they were glad to be done with the thing — but from each of their wives who had grown up in that chair and wanted it ready for their own sons and daughters.

The thought that I was somehow a link in a virtually unbroken chain of neverending repair on a family heirloom is a lot to deal with. It sat in the shop for a good month before I could bring up the nerve to cut the rotted bottom off it. I learned the rope had once been blue.

Once finally underway on my own repairs, I could easily see the fingernail and teeth marks that pitted the finish. They were marks that, after a bit of thought, I could not bring myself to sand or fill. The sheer wear of decades of happy play could be seen everywhere.

From the cat scratches on the foot to the divot on the right arm where my other half’s mother landed a lawn dart with a solid “thwack,” together we concluded that those records would stay with the chair and not be removed.

Still, it did need a little freshening. Okay, a lot of freshening. The last paint job left much to be desired, and splinters and such needed to be removed as well as the aforementioned seat bottom. The bottoms of the rockers were heavily pitted and in bad shape as well.

After roughly four hours of careful sanding with 120-grit sand paper, I removed the splinters and the worst of the rough parts, flatted out the gobs of paint from the last rattle-can job, and removed the mud wasp nests, cob webs and other such nastiness from its last tour in the attic.

After inspection from the local “family restoration department” I applied a generous coat of the same red color that has adorned the chair for the last few decades. Then after dry time, I flipped it and did the bottom end as well.

Next will be a few coats of clear — and then it’s on to the seat bottom repair.


8 Responses to Project: Old But Still Rock’n, Part 1

  1. BJN says:

    I think I’d have satin clearcoated the sanded, distressed old paint.

  2. Sean OHara says:

    Actually something along those lines would have been my choice as well but it was not really my call.

  3. Edward says:

    Great story Sean, especially the part about the restoration committee. I recently passed my rocking to my one year old daughter and would love to have it continued to be passed down don’t know if it will ever have the character of your chair… lawn darts are harder to find!

  4. For antiques and heirlooms I like to use milk paint. It’s a lot closer to the type of paint that was used “back in the day” and can be laired and built up to make some really awesome “antique” looking finishes. http://www.realmilkpaint.com/

    Schwarz also did a good writeup about a chair that he painted here:

  5. Mrten says:

    Time to break out the hide glue!

  6. cheerIO says:

    Awesome back story. I wish I had heirlooms to take care of. But our family is so small and dispersed, this situation would never arrive. You have a big responsibility and by looking at your previous projects, I know this one will turn out great.

  7. Mac says:

    Great story. Look forward to the follow-up post(s).

    Agree with BJN, but sounds like you could not get approval from the committee.

    I have a similar scenario with a kids table and two chairs. Only on the third generation though. A lot of sweat went into that, only because of my percieved obligation to those that came before me, and those after.

  8. Dee Evans says:

    Hello Sean, Nice story and great chair. I have to tell you that today I have received a rocking chair that I used when I was a kid. Well come to find out it’s around 90 years old. It was my fathers sisters when she was a kid and she is 90 years old to this date. The good news is that it looks very similar to yours. The armrest is the only difference, but everything else is the same, down to the red paint. I feel good knowing there are others out there like this one. Thank you!

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