Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Restoring the Camp Chairs


It was at Nelsonville 2011 that I first tried to use my new camp chairs, pictured above.  I found out in a hurry that the fabric was questionable at best—the fabric on three of the chairs quickly tore after only a few minutes of sitting in them.

When I originally purchased them a couple of weeks before Nelsonville, in July 2011, they were covered in mold.  The seats had so much mold it was impossible to determine the actual color of the seats.  But they looked promising.  At the time, I didn’t know anything about them—and apparently neither did the vendor.  They just looked a lot like the modern reproduction camp chairs you see everywhere with the white canvas—except these also had a back to them.

I’m not sure about the strength of the back—the design seems that the back gives too much when you lean back, so I’d be afraid to put too much weight against them.  Other than that, they are very strong chairs—much stronger than the modern reproduction camp chairs without the backs that you see at reenactments.

To clean off the mold I simply used a scrub brush and hot (near boiling) soapy water—using Dawn liquid soap.  I tried using Murphy’s Oil soap on one of the chairs instead, but Dawn seemed to work better.  I rinsed them as best I could (that fabric tended to hold onto that soap), and let them dry in the sun.  I didn’t want to keep them in the sun any longer than I had to, but I wanted to make sure to kill off any mold I might have missed.

Bear in mind that at this point my only purpose for purchasing these chairs was to use them as camp chairs at reenactments.  The two camp chairs I originally had both saw their last days recently—the first I crushed as the nails I kept pounding in finally gave way, while the second the canvas had gotten too weak for some other reenactor.  I hadn’t paid anything for either of these chairs—they were campfire rescues—but now I needed something and just happened to stumble on these at a flea market in Springfield, Ohio.  When I first saw them, I almost passed them up—only taking about 40 minutes to finally return to them and ask what they wanted for them.  I had fixed a price of $20 in my head.  The person watching the vendor’s stuff had to call up the guy, and when they said $30, I almost walked away, but I figured I could sell a pair of them off at $15 each and make my money back.
Of course, everything changed once I researched the chairs.  My research on these chairs led me to the 1866 patent (re-issued 1868), manufactured by BJ Harrison and Company out of Arcanus, New York.  I found this eBay link showing one chair (in better condition) for $100, and this other link for one chair that was just the frame for $175.  I also saw a sutler at Zoar selling three of these chairs, with fabric in worse shape than mine, but not refinished (like mine were).  He was selling them for between $55 and $75.

The chairs were beautiful, but I could tell that they had been re-finished, and not really the best job (a fingerprint is visible in a couple of spots, there is obvious dripping in a few spots, and the finish was missed in some of the more difficult to brush spots).  The refinishing also apparently obscured the signing stamp, as I could not find it anywhere—it should have been on the backside of the base of the backrest.  The fabric was a type of carpet and looked very good after I cleaned them up, but had significant wear spots in them—probably from a moth or something.  And as I mentioned, I discovered later that the fabric was pretty well rotted and would not sustain much use.  In my research I found reason to doubt the fabric was original, but it was likely the fabric was from the early 1900s—still very old.

In restoring these chairs my goal was not to restore them to museum quality—simply to where I could use them in camp.  This meant I was not concerned about the poor re-finishing—I could feel safe about that getting messed up in camp.  When that got to the point that something needed done, then I could look at properly refinishing it, and correct the mistakes of the last person to finish it (although I am tempted to take the fingerprint to the police files to track down more of the history of the chairs).

My first step was to remove the fabric from one of the chairs.  I wanted to completely finish the work on one chair before touching any of the others so that I could use the untouched chairs as guides.  I hoped the patent my help, but it really did not tell me much, other than the fabric could be made of cloth, carpet, or some other “suitable pliable material”, and secured “by any appropriate means to the front seat-rail”.

I first removed the part that could be used as a handle when the chair was folded.  This was held on by two flat-head screws, which required a rather small screwdriver to fit in the slots.  After removing the screws, the handle slid off the back posts quite well. Four larger flat-head screws held down a flat securing board, which I removed.  The securing board slid off the post just as easily.  Underneath the board were two slots.  The fabric was nailed with small nails to the base of the back of the chair.  I carefully removed these screws with my screwdriver, hoping to reuse them for the new fabric.  A couple of the nails were bent significantly, so I’ll need to find replacements before securing the new fabric.

Upon removing the fabric, I found two metal rails in the base that fit into the slots of the securing board.  These rails were simply laying snug into slots in the base.  Part of one of the rails would not lay secure into its slot, but this is not an issue since the securing board would hold it all together.

Metal post securing the fabric to the chair.
The fabric was secured to the front part of the chair through a hidden metal post and sewn to itself.  The chairs I found at Zoar were different—these were held to the front part of the chair using the same mechanism as the back of the chair, like I mentioned above.  I cut those threads and was able to patiently slide the carpet back through the slot between the metal post and the front seat-rail.  Once removed, I studied the ribbon that secured the edges of the fabric, carefully removing the ribbon on one side.  I figured that the carpets that Jeff Carte provided would need a ribbon, and I wanted to make sure to match the original ribbon as closely as possible.  The black cotton ribbon was <inches> inches wide and only folded over on the topside.  The underside was sewn flush to the carpet.  I could easily reproduce this by ironing the replacement ribbon, and I hoped that a fabric store would have ribbon that matched the pattern.

Thumbtack covering end of post.
That metal post worried me, however.  It was rather difficult to slid the carpet through it.  But Jim Kletzli pulled out his knife and showed me that the covers at the ends of the posts on the outside of the legs were merely thumbtacks used to secure the post.  Removing these thumbtacks should make the posts easy to slide in and out.  Unfortunately, it turned out that these so-called “thumbtacks” were merely covers for nails that held the post in place.  I tried, per Jim’s suggestion, to remove the nails with a vicegrip, but upon twisting it to pull it out, I broke the end off.  So, instead I used a bolt to pound the post through.  It was not obvious to me until I started pushing the post through that there was a small wood plug on each side.  Once the post was pushed through enough, I could easily remove the wood plug.  Pushed further, and we had space to work with to put fabric through.  It turned out that the nails were nailed into the side of the hole for the post, which is why I could not twist them, and also why they were difficult, if not impossible to remove.  Knowing this will make it easier to deal with on the remaining chairs, but with the nails now damaged, I would have to work a solution for being able to re-used the nail covers.

In the meantime, Jim and I were able to examine the carpets Jeff provided and found that the material would be too thick to fit between the wood and the post, so decided to pass on it.  I did find a close match to the ribbon at JoAnn Fabrics, so held onto a couple of spools for when we found usable fabric for the seat.  At a local hardware store, I found replacement tacks for the back, where the fabric is tacked to the backrest.
Carpet throws found at a yard sale for $5.
I stumbled onto a yard sale where someone was selling some throw rugs for $5.  One of the rugs was long for a hallway.  They were red with a yellow and white flowery pattern—perfect for the fabric we needed.  The hallway rug was just long enough to cut four pieces out of.  They were pretty easy to cut with a utility knife, and I hand-sewed the ribbon onto two of them.  I sold Kletzli the two other chairs, so handed him the other two pieces of rug for his chairs, along with the ribbon for them.
Carpet cut and black ribbon sewn on the edges.  Original fabric
is shown beside it.


Putting the carpet on the first chair was straight-forward.  I simply slid the carpet through the loosened post, pounded the post back into place (pushing the wood plugs back into place as well), then sewed it to itself to assure it being held in place.  I bought new tacking nails to replace the originals and pounded them into the carpet along the back of the chair, then screwed the clamp back into the base and the final wood dowel back at the bottom of the back of the chair.  I left the caps off until I could figure something out later.
The second chair was easy, now knowing what to do.  However, the caps came off a little differently.  The first one came off with its nail—and I realized these were just thumbtacks with large heads.  On the first chair, the heads had simply separated from their nail.  When I went to remove the second tack, its head separated like on the first chair.
I proceeded to remove the wood plugs by first pounding the post with a bold one way until the first plug dropped, then pounding it the other way.  The nail from the second thumbtack fell loose—it was only providing a fa├žade over the wood plug.  Once the wood plugs and remaining nail were removed, the metal post fell loose and was easily removed by hand.  I removed the old carpet and repositioned the post for a small gap—just large enough to slide the new carpet onto it.
The new carpet provided enough tension against the post that I needed to use a hammer to pound it back into place.  I sewed the carpet against itself like the first chair, replaced the wood plugs and the thumbtacks.
And now I had two finished chairs.  I did discover that it was important to be liberal with tacking the carpet to the rear rail. If insufficient tacking is utilized, the carpet will eventually work its way loose with use.  At Monroe a fellow reenactor put a little too much pressure on one of the chairs, causing the carpet to work free.   At least it was an easy fix.


Finished product