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Retro Armchair Restoration

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

This story has been months in the making. I brought home these retro armchairs, refinished their frames, made some upholstery, took numerous missteps along the way… but they’re finished, both of them, and I have two beautiful midcentury recliners to show for it.

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush AvenueRetro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

This story begins late last year, actually. I’d been wanting a couple of retro armchairs for our living room, so I kept an eye out for them at the usual joints (thrift stores, tip shops, Gumtree). These two turned up at the Recovery Shop Glenorchy, and I nearly cried real tears when I realised that the frames matched, despite the differing wood stains and upholstery. SOLD. They were mine for $75 total.

(They went through rigorous Cat Inspection as soon as I brought them home, of course. Thanks Mishka.)

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

These two were definitely project chairs. The frames needed refinishing, and the vinyl upholstery wasn’t doing them any favours. (Although if they both had blue buffalo plaid + mottled lime vinyl, I might have considered keeping it.)

These chairs also aren’t just armchairs, they’re recliners! The inner steel frame is movable.

See that washer on the inside of the back leg? Those washers are the pivot points for movement of the hinged steel frame. The rest of the chair was assembled around the steel frame, so you cannot remove it without dissembling the entire chair and all of its glued joints.

The recliner frame made it more challenging to strip and refinish the timber, as well as sewing upholstery to fit over the back. Huh, well, okay – challenge accepted.

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue
Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

I’ve talked about restoring timber on other projects before, like on this ’60s star inlay table and our hardwood door trims. In the first photo, you can see what the lacquer was like on this chair… and why I had to remove it. It was beyond saving.

I took off the lacquer and stain with two rounds of paint stripper; this was how it looked after the first round. (Sanding off lacquer is not worth it. Just use the chemicals.) The stripper only took a few minutes to melt the lacquer finish, and once I’d scraped off everything, I wiped down the entire thing with methylated spirits to remove any residue.

(NB: I also hit the steel frame with rust-coverting solution in places, with touch-up metal paint where it needed it. They were in good condition, just needed a little bit of looking over.)

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

I sanded each frame with a little palm sander to get the last of the stains out, then finished them off with some 00 steel wool, two coats of Danish oil and one coat of Feed n’ Wax on each. That deep red tone is all thanks to the blackwood timber – I only applied the oil finish, no stain or poly.

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

The second chair has an identical frame, but it’s made of Tasmanian oak, or generic eucalyptus hardwood, instead of blackwood. (For reference, the floorboards are also Tassie oak; it naturally comes in varying shades of medium-blond.) I wanted this chair frame to match its sibling, so I added a light coat of cedar stain before the oil finish. Tasmanian oak doesn’t have the same silky lustre as blackwood, unfortunately, but it’s durable.

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

As for the upholstery… this was a big job that I dove into without stopping to take photos. I had leftover fabric from my roller blinds for the study, and I thought the linen-weave would also be stylistically appropriate for these chairs. So I picked up another metre of the same upholstery fabric from Spotlight, a few snap fasteners and two zippers, and I got to work.

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

You guys, I made two huge mistakes with my upholstery on this chair. Good thing I already had half of this fabric, or I’d really be kicking myself over the money wasted.

Mistake 1: I wasn’t thinking and I threw all the fabric in the wash. Big no-no. You don’t need to do it with fresh upholstery fabric, especially if it’s been stiffened and fire-treated and whatnot. My beautiful fabric got badly wrinkled in places and no amount of ironing could get it out. Most of it looked fine after the cushions filled them out, but you can still see wrinkles and bubbles on the chair backs.

Mistake 2: WHY DID I THINK PIPED EDGES WERE A GOOD IDEA? It was tedious to do and it made all the edges look weirdly ragged. I thought it would make the cushions look more polished – it’s done the opposite.

And now that I got that out of the way (whew!)…

Each chair has two cushions: a 3″ thick box cushion with a zipper (pretty simple); and an elongated cushion for the back, which has to slip onto the back of the steel frame and over the recliner’s pivot points (less simple). The original foam was in good condition, thanks to the heavy vinyl covers, so I reused it for these new cushion covers. The old covers were a useful template for the measurements.

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

As I said, the back cushions slide over the steel frame, between foam and fabric. Each side has a large slit to accommodate the pivot joints, so I made these little flaps to go underneath the pivots and wrap around to the cushion sides. The final piece was a hessian cover to go on top of the springs, tied in place to the steel frame. My chairs were ready for relaxation!

Or so I thought.

We invited people over, all was well, and then I heard an almighty CRACK from the living room and saw that one of the back legs had split in two. Long-ways. My friend was on the floor, laughing, but I felt terrible that I’d offered up a chair that could break at any moment. Talk about some serious DIY dumbassery. Why not leave this work to the professionals, right?

As it turned out, some of the old glue was starting to wear out, and the back leg split due to one of the joints popping out of place. Luckily, Jamie’s brother Sam came to my rescue – the exact same gentleman/scholar who helped me make a steel bookshelf for the study. He’s a tradie, and he had some magical industrial-grade epoxy called DT that he uses for timber restoration work. They have to special order the stuff, it’s that wonderful. We used the epoxy and sash clamps to repair the split, as well as securing the other wobbly joints.

Can you see the very thin white seam running up the length of the leg? That’s the only evidence of the damage. Thank you, Sam!!

Retro Armchair Restoration | Saltbush Avenue

These chairs have been through a lot, but they’ve been happily living in the living room for a few months now. The grey fabric and natural timber came together well. Pretty classy way to have extra seating if you ask me.

I also like how economical these frames are. That’s the beauty of mid-century design: everything is the size that it should be. They’re not large, but they’re perfectly serviceable recliners. I also notice that these retro armchairs fit into our modest house more easily than oversized contemporary furniture, making the space feel more open. They might not be Milo Baughman but I like their lines just fine.

Next week I’m going to share some more photos of the living room. I don’t think I’ve posted anything about it since, what, 2014? I’ve got a new TV cabinet and some other goodies to share. Maybe kick back in a recliner and I’ll tell you all about it.

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12 thoughts on “Retro Armchair Restoration”

  1. hi! long-time lurker from the US! The chairs look great!

    One idea that might help, if you’re really unhappy with how the bottom cushions look:
    try wrapping the foam inserts with Dacron batting — it will help fill out the covers some more.
    I feel you though, piping is a pain.


    1. Hi Monica, it’s great to meet you. 🙂

      Thanks for the tip about batting – it wouldn’t hurt to add some. Even though the cushions are sized correctly, they could use that little bit extra.

  2. Great going on the recliners, I’m impressed! My parents have 2 mid century armchairs that I’ve been eyeing up to restore but have to confess I’m quite nervous.

    1. Cheers Trixee! Hopefully the restoration won’t be too extensive or messy? If these had more complicated upholstery I don’t know if I would have attempted this.

  3. Excellent! And you threw in an interesting hook there at the end. I’ve been hunting for something like this here, vintage, and can’t find anything close. We’ve been visiting that very chair (the Milo Baughman recliner) at our local DWR…

    1. But everyone on Apartment Therapy seems to find their Danish modern recliners and fiberglass Eames chairs lying in a ditch on the side of the road 🙁 🙁 🙁

      I’ve only been to DWR once, in Scottsdale, and it was cool to see all that iconic furniture in person. I wanted to buy Neutra house numbers, but they had to be special-ordered and I was heading back to Australia later in the week… oh well. I’ve just ordered similar Neutra numbers off Etsy, here’s hoping they come soon.

      I only just noticed that the recliner has a footrest! Swanky. Don Draper’s 3pm hangover would approve.

    1. Good question! Most of what I know about timbers comes from Jamie’s dad and his brother. But Jamie and I did get a locally-made chopping board several years ago, made of different timbers, and it was labeled just like this. So that certainly made it easier.

      (via Tasmanian Timber Products)

  4. Hi Steph. I just bought two of these beauties this morning, I am so pleased to have come across your blog to A) see an exact chair like mine & B) see how they have come up after being restored. I am so new to furniture restoration and your chairs look amazing, you have given me the confidence to have a crack at restoring them myself, so a big THANKS 🙂

  5. Hi Steph, I have a chair just like this I’m wanting to / needing to upholster. Can you tell me what you did to protect the cushions from the springs on the base? Did you recover it in the grey woolly stuff that came with the chair?

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