Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mid-Century Makeover

A little while ago I came across a sort of holy grail of thrift store finds. It's one of those items that I've always pined for but never found. One of those items that I figured had been snatched up by collectors and re-sold by trendy interior designers to their meticulously stylish clients. In other words, I never dreamed of finding one.

I found a vintage student's chair.

A great part of my attraction to the chair was nostalgic. I remember sitting in chairs like this as a little kid, and even then many of them were on their last legs (so to speak). Sitting on them I could feel the threat of loose bolts and splinters, but they were surprisingly comfortable nonetheless.

I found the chair in the parking lot display at my favorite thrift store. Just sitting there, in the first row of furniture, with a $4.99 price tag on it. What were the chances that it would still be there when I happened by?

As I picked up the chair and more-or-less hugged it to my chest, another customer next to me asked, "Is that an Eames chair?"

I said, "No," but the funny thing about these chairs is they are unmistakably inspired by a dining chair that was one of Eames earliest designs.

That means that some time in the fifties there was a designer at a commercial furniture company who decided to put a bit of modernist design into classrooms all over the country.    And it seems like the trend stuck - most school chairs resemble one Eames design or another. After all, Eames designs were originally utilitarian and affordable, and many classrooms were filled with the genuine article before the knock-offs started showing up.

My little knock-off was showing its age with gouges and stains and worn edges. As much as I like the vintage look, I think older pieces should have some polish if possible. Plus, I don't want guests to be afraid to sit on it because it looks dirty or splintery.

After putting on my trusty dust mask, I used rough sandpaper (60 grit) to remove what was left of the original finish. Sanding off finish is hard work. I suggest doing it with breaks to let the blood to start flowing through you arms normally again. I used fine grit (400) sandpaper to smooth out the surface, then wiped all the dust away with a damp rag.

I let the dampness from the rag dry, then got out my chip brush and Minwax walnut stain. I used a cheap chip brush because I didn't want to worry about washing up with mineral spirits after.

So, you're not really supposed to do it this way, but I didn't wipe away the excess stain as I went. I didn't worry about it because it wasn't planning to do a second coat. I didn't want my chair to be too dark. A medium walnut color is very trendy right now.

Here you can see the contrast between the stained seat and the bare backrest.

Stain is supposed to dry in 24 hours, and dry to touch long before that. To my horror, after a day, my chair was still sticky to the touch. I started looking up stain fiascos on the web and worried that I'd have to sand off the stain and start over again. Maybe I should have wiped off the excess. Maybe I hadn't removed all of the original finish, so the wood couldn't absorb the stain.

The solution came down to the weather. The week I did my staining was unusually humid for Los Angeles, with clouds of mist even dropping rain now and then. High humidity can keep stain from drying properly. Once it was sunny again, I left my chair in the warmth of the front porch and it was totally dry a few hours later, and ready for finish.

I have stain, semi-gloss, and gloss in my finish arsenal. I choose the luster based on how the item will be used, and what you would expect that item to have. The chair had a satin-like finish to begin with, so I decided to stick with something similar. I applied a few thin coats of Polycrylic Water-based Satin Finish, sanding between three total coats.

And here's the final product.

The stain reveals how imperfect both the original wood and my sanding job was. I didn't try to remove the years old paint splatters and scratches from the chair's metal frame.  But that's not just character, it's a story. Even though it's been updated, the chair still bears the marks of its half century of existence.

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