How to Refinish a Vintage Midcentury Modern Chair

Iconic midcentury furniture is known for its high-quality construction, use of beautiful woods and great modern design. Learn what to look for when buying a vintage piece and how to properly refurbish it.

By: Christopher Ekstrom and Dan Oldejans


3 Things to Look For When Shopping Retro

Here are key elements of a genuine midcentury modern piece of furniture:

1. The wood. Most midcentury pieces are made of solid teak, rosewood or walnut. You may find veneers in these species on tabletops and other flat surfaces, but that doesn’t mean it's not good.

2. Seamless construction. A true classic is rarely nailed or screwed. The Danish (who were at the forefront of this design) mastered the technique of fitting wood together using dowels and threaded bolts. This makes them easily repairable.

3. The finish: Midcentury mod finishes are almost always natural, showing off the true beauty of the wood. Occasionally a piece may be painted a solid color such as black.

We found this teak chair at a retro furniture store. Even though it looked shabby, the chair still had good bones. None of the wood was broken, and the denting and scratching on the surface were minor, less than 1/8 inch deep, which is crucial on a natural finish; if you can't sand out the damage, it will show through on the finished piece. Also, the chair had the original seat cushions, which meant it'd be easy to duplicate a new set of cushions.

Here's What It Looked Like Before


Getting Started

Remove the cushions and the loop springs that hold tension under the seat cushion. Fortunately the loops on our chair are in good shape — these can be the hardest part to replace on one of these chairs. When purchasing a chair to refurbish, make sure the loops are intact or at least get a steep discount on the price if they are missing.


Apply Stripper

We used Jasco brand stripper because it contains wax that will help keep the stripping vapors locked onto the surface of the wood longer. Wear safety glasses and rubber gloves. With a paintbrush, apply an even coat of stripper over the entire chair. Have water nearby in case of a mishap. Apply liberally and don't brush over areas that are already coated because it will break down the chemicals and they won't work as well.

To speed up the process time and help the stripper along, cover the chair in black plastic garbage bags for about 20 minutes. It doesn't have to be completely sealed, but if you can fit the whole chair in a big bag, that is the best. After the 20 minutes, remove the bags and use a metal paint scraper to remove the finish and stripper from the chair.



Deactivate the Stripper

Use odorless mineral spirits and a plastic-bristle brush to scrub off the access stripper and finish. Mineral spirits will deactivate the stripper and if any got down into the pores of the wood, it will be safe to refinish over a trace amount. It should be turning a bit white at this point, but don't worry; it can be sanded off later.


Disassemble the Chair

You may ask why now and not earlier. Stripper is a bear to work with when you have nothing to grab, so keeping the chair intact while doing it makes the process a lot easier. Plus, it is easier to sand (with the grain) when in pieces. Separate the chair into as many pieces as you can easily take apart. Our chair has four pieces: a right side, left side, seat and back.



Machine Sand

This is where you make or break the project, so take your time and be methodical. Use 150-grit sandpaper on a palm sander and follow the contours of the chair. (Good sandpaper is worth the extra cost, so buy the good stuff. It will last longer and won't tear as quickly.) Sand everything evenly, and be careful not to "chatter" the sander on the edges, as it will leave marks on the wood you are trying to smooth out. If you get into a tight area, just leave it for hand sanding.




Hand Sand — Very Carefully

Cut sandpaper into manageable squares. You should be able to get four squares out of each full-size sheet of sandpaper. Fold each square in half and start working in the hard-to-reach areas that you couldn't get with the palm sander. Try to sand with the grain even if it means going in short strokes when butting up against a constricting area.

Very Important: All of the sanding marks will show through on the finished piece. The key to a professional-looking job is in the sanding as much as in the finishing.


Apply and Wipe Off Teak Oil

To get the rich golden-orange color of the teak, apply a coat of teak oil. It will penetrate into the grain of the wood and seal it, and at the same time bring out the wood's natural color. Start by pouring a small amount from the can into a container that you can dip a brush into. Use a chip brush to spread the teak oil all over the chair pieces. Coat it thoroughly and let the oil stand for about 5 to 7 minutes (in warmer climates, maybe 3 or 4 minutes). Then wipe down all the pieces with a clean rag.

Very Important: Be sure to remove all the excess teak oil or it will gum up and take days to dry. Once it is thoroughly wiped down, let all of the pieces sit for at least 12 hours.




Top Coat Options

At this point, there are two options. You can stop and just have a thin hard coat of the teak oil bring out the wood's natural beauty. You will have to re-apply another coat of teak oil every couple of years, or when you begin to see wear. If you keep up with it, you will not need to strip and refinish. This option will give you a much flatter finish look and is not for high-traffic usage.

The second option is to spray lacquer on the piece to add a protective clear coating in a satin sheen. Although it is still permeable to liquids, you should get 15 years out of a finish like this. Spray on two to three coats of lacquer (we used Deft brand). Hold the can 8 to 10 inches from the surface and follow the contours of the chair. Don't stop in one spot; keep your hand moving in a fluid motion to get even coverage. Sand lightly between each coat with 320-grit sandpaper, just enough to knock down roughness in the finish, but do not sand through the layer of teak oil. You can use a brush-on lacquer, but if your piece of furniture has a lot of curves or edges, it might be hard to stop the drips and runs.





Let each piece dry for 24 hours before you put them all back together. Assemble the pieces in the reverse order of how you took them apart. Make sure everything is tight but not over tightened.

Upholster the Cushions

Unless you've got a lot of sewing skills, you're probably better off finding a local upholstery shop to make the two simple cushions and covers. You should need 2 1/2 yards of fabric if using a solid pattern and 3 1/2 to 4 yards if using a repeating pattern. Make sure they add a decorative welt cord for the edges of the cushion cover to give it a professional look.




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