I was definitely off my rocker … (part 2)

So having endured the stinky, dusty icky stage of stripping the chair back to its bare frame, then repairing the frame, I was ready to begin sanding.

At this stage of the game I had no power tools at all. Australia has different voltage to the States, so when we moved I had to get rid of my sander (sniffle), my jigsaw (sob), my power drill (boo hoo) and – hardest of all – my dremel (WAAAAAHHHH!). You will notice from the photos I also had no work bench. All this was done on top of a packing crate full of my sculpture.

Sanding: bad enough with electrical assistance, but a herculean task without it. It clearly needed to be done, when varnish is this far gone, there is only one thing to do. Remove it. All of it down to the bare wood. There is only one way to do these things. And that is to get on with it.

The old varnish showing crazing and chipping.

It was at this point I made a liberating discovery. No, I didn’t press gang my children into doing the sanding as punishment for the slightest misdemeanor, nor did I find enlightenment and discover the zen of sanding. I challenge anyone to find the zen of sanding. It does not exist. It was the bolt you can see in the center of the above picture. There were several of them. Someone, at some point, had repaired the frame of my rocker using bolts through the side of the frame.

One of the bolts

Everything I had read about repairing the frames of antique chairs strictly admonished you NEVER to do anything like this because ‘it will destroy the value of the piece, effectively making it worthless’ (you need to wag your finger as you say this). I couldn’t have been more delighted. Seriously, I skipped around the garage singing a little song of joy when I found those bolts.

You see, when I originally bought the chair, I naively thought it was probably early 20th century, maybe 1920s – 30s based on the shape of the back and the way it was upholstered. But when I started stripping it back, I started thinking it was much older. There was too much evidence to suggest it had been re-upholstered multiple times, I mean look at all the holes I filled in the image above. So I consulted Prof Google, and after looking at some images on antique sale sites, it seemed that it was more likely made in the 1880s.

Some of them very similar to mine were selling for upwards of $800. Some even as much as $2000. I began to feel nervous, and a little concerned about potentially ruining a valuable antique. Particularly as what I wanted to do with it was to make it funky, retain its character, yes, but zhoozsh it up a little.

So you can imagine my joy when I found out that my potentially valuable antique rocker was worthless. This meant I could do whatever I wanted to it, completely guilt free. There was nothing I could do that would make it worth less than it already did. Not that I was ever planning to sell it.

See, I hate sanding so much, I even avoid writing about it … I began sanding …

Sanding in progress

The problem with sanding is it is really really boring. And dusty. This strange thing happens after I have been sanding for a while. I suddenly remember something else really important I have to do like: picking lint off all my sweaters, or vacuuming the dog, or cleaning out the fridge using cotton buds. The things I never normally bother with overly much suddenly seem incredibly important and a great idea. I will do anything. Anything. ANYTHING. To avoid sanding.

Suffice to say this stage took a l-o-n-g time. Not just because sanding does, but also because I kept avoiding it. You could eat your breakfast off my floor, my garden was weeded, all the washing was done, the dog started running away whenever I emerged from the garage, and the sanding dragged on, and on. And on. The finishing point of this project seemed to disappear off the edge of the horizon.

Actually, the only true way to sand something is NOT to think about the end point. Because then you just give up. You have to section it up. Today I am going to finish the front of the side rail. Today I am going to do 1/3 of the top at the front. And so on. You reward yourself when you reach your target, and beat yourself up when you don’t. The rocker sits sadly out in the garage, silently calling to you while you are busy avoiding the sanding. You grit you teeth and say ‘today I am going to finish the right side of the stand’. It goes on interminably. You hate your life. And still you sand on.

About this stage I started to feel like this:

Pablo Picasso ‘Naked Woman in a Rocking Chair’ 1956

This is such a strikingly different image to Munch’s. Picasso’s gestural brushstrokes and his use of sgrafitto (scratching back into the paint) give the work an aggressive, tense feel. The fractured woman’s body adds to the thrumming air of stress, highlighted by the combination of geometric patches of black, lime green, bright yellow and orange in the background, which seem to leap out at the viewer, and jangle. This woman clearly needs a rocking chair; you can imagine her rocking back and forth with tense stacatto movements, while twitching her upper foot obsessively. Clearly, the painting suggests, rocking chairs are not always relaxing. Something I learned while sanding my rocker.

Slowly, very slowly, the walnut began to emerge from over a century of grime and varnish.

The walnut begins to reveal itself …

Suddenly, I found that I owned a dremel, and a detail sander. I really don’t know how that happened. This nice man turned up in a UPS truck and handed them to me. My credit card balance altered a little, and my beloved muttered ‘we are supposed to be saving money’ under his breath. And I had cause to remind him of our wedding day, when he vowed he would ‘never question how much money you spend on art materials’. Mine to him was ‘I will never ask you a question before you have had coffee in the morning’, which I have inadvertently broken a couple of times. So I wasn’t too cross at his breach. For the sake of peace and universal harmony, sometimes you have to forgive your partner. Apart from that it was all good.

My new Skil detail sander. What a brilliant thing … and look how clean it is. Not for long!

Things went a bit more quickly after the miraculous appearance of the electrical equipment. I can hear someone out there asking ‘Why didn’t you just use paint stripper?’. Well, I was reluctant, because I know to my cost that strippers often don’t work on old varnish. (I am trying not to think about how wrong that sentence sounds) And I was pretty sure whoever put those bolts in was w-a-y too slack to bother refinishing the frame, so I figured the varnish was the original from 1880.

In the end, however, my dislike of the never-ending sanding, and getting varnish out of all those pretty little carved bits won out over my gut instinct.

I caved and tried the stuff the guy-who-seems-to-know-something-at-the-hardware-store recommended. You know, the guy you seek out when you go with a question you don’t want a clueless moron to answer. The one who actually knows more than you do. Usually he gives good advice, and tolerates my crazy artist questions, with well thought out, reasoned answers. Q: ‘what do I use to attach this roof flashing to this broom stick?’ A: ‘This glue should do the trick.’ Well, on the paint stripper he was wrong.

Before I applied paint stripper the varnish was brittle and pretty easy to remove. But, not only did the stripper fail to remove the varnish, it had a magical effect on it, refreshing and making it seem like new. It became much much harder to remove. I should have trusted my gut … grrr. I discarded the stripper in an appropriate and safe manner, and got back to sanding. Lucky those power tools turned up, eh?

Please note: if you are going to use power tools to do your sanding, go very carefully. They take a lot off very quickly, and can easily ruin your piece of furniture if handled the wrong way. Practice on a scrap piece of wood first if you have never tried using them before. Always wear safety goggles, dust mask and work gloves. If you have long hair tie it back. Wear closed toe shoes. Read the safety instructions carefully, and follow them. Because not only can this stuff damage your piece of furniture, it can damage you as well.

I sanded, and sanded, and scraped and sanded. Then I sanded some more.

The many ways to try and get old varnish out of grooves

You see the other really tedious thing about sanding is you have to do it properly. You cant do a half-assed job of it, or it shows in the final result. And forever after you will only see that one spot that you skimped on whenever you look at the finished piece. You will never be able to look at the whole thing and feel a deep sense of satisfaction, you will be haunted by that one patch that Could Have Been Better. So you have to be pedantic about sanding.

Finally, the sanding was done. Not ‘good enough’ done, but properly done. I had a large glass of wine to celebrate. And then another one. The dog heaved a huge sigh of relief. [I actually dont really vacuum my dog].

Now I was ready for the fun part. When you finish sanding, you turn the corner from pulling it apart and repairing it, to putting it back together. Putting it back together is way more fun that pulling it apart. It is when you start to see the results of all your hard work.

A couple of weeks before I finally finished the sanding, I started work on my ebonizing solution. Ebonizing is a process where you blacken your wood so it looks like ebony. It is kind of like staining, but it is a more traditional process. If you are interested in ebonizing then check out this article in Popular Woodworking. In a wonderful fit of alchemical joy, feeling rather like the wicked witch of the west, I had mixed my brew of vinegar and steel wool, and left it to bubble away for 2 weeks.

Preparing the ebonizing solution.

The article suggested using coffee filter papers to strain off the solids, but I didn’t have any of those, so I used an old pair of tights to get the big stuff, and some kitchen paper to get the fine stuff. I needed one more thing before I started. A nice cup of tea.

A cup of tea.

Not to drink, but the tannic acid in tea helps the uptake of the iron in the ebonizing solution, making the wood darker, more quickly.

I tested an unseen part of the rocker first, just in case it was a complete disaster.

Well that seems to have worked.

Now before all you well-intentioned purists start to raise your eyebrows about doing this to an antique chair, I will just make 2 points. 1. See my above comment about the bolts, above. 2. ebonizing was, in fact, a popular wood finish at the time this chair was made, so it is ‘in keeping’ with then contemporary practices. So there!

Ebonzing was fun and quick. Such a relief after that never-ending sanding.


Once the chair was dry I was ready to start lacquering. I’ve never used lacquer before, but the nice man in the hardware store (not my usual guy-who-seems-to-know-something-at-the-hardware-store, but another one who sounded like he knew what he was talking about) assured me it was the thing to use. I don’t know any of the brands here, and things are called different names, so I am in their hands, really … alas.

I would never use lacquer again. First, it makes you high as a kite (or at least that is my story and I am sticking to it). So I had to trudge BACK to the hardware store to get myself a proper fume mask. Either that or make friends with the cheerful little green elephants who suddenly appeared to lend a hand, erm trunk. Second, it takes layer after layer after layer after layer … after the 6th layer I was getting cross. At the 8th layer it finally looked nice and shiny like I wanted it to. I was finally ready to upholster. I popped the chair out in the sun to help cure the lacquer and when I came back … it had bubbled. So I had to sand it back and start again. I hate lacquer. I didn’t take any photos of this because I was just too demoralized … it was a low point in the project.


Eventually, it was done. Black and shiny, mmm mmmmm! Perfect! I was ready to start the final stage. The fun stage. The upholstery stage.

Read the final installment of my rocker saga here.


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