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How to Restore an Antique Chair For the Cost of a Sandwich

By Elizabeth Wolff | February 27, 2013 6:53am

NEW YORK — I recently finished renovating a chair and I grin every time I see it. Though it cost me barely anything, if I recouped the hours, materials, transportation and labor the job required, it would be worth thousands.

Luckily, it was a labor of love. And one thing I learned is that if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s free to ask.

Through a class at 3rd Ward, at 195 Morgan Ave., Williamsburg, I met Christopher Anigacz, founder of Double Queue Fine Furniture Restoration and Conservation in Long Island City.

Anigacz, 39, specializes in traditional French polishing and has been finishing and fixing fine furniture for 17 years. Though he teaches a three-night class for hobbyists, he is the first to tell you that you can’t learn how to renovate by doing it once.

"No two pieces are the same. If there's a leg missing we make the leg, if there's a veneer missing we replace the veneer," Anigacz said. "There's rarely a piece that comes into the shop that you strip and refinish. You got to take it apart and fix it. Fix the chips, you know what I mean?"

Anigacz gets all his business word of mouth. He has a hard-to-find website and doesn’t advertise. He charges $90-per-hour in the shop and $140-per-hour for on-site visits.

However, with the right introduction and a good sandwich, you might be able to get him to show you how to do it for free. And that’s exactly what I did. Once a week for about two months, I made the trip to his Long Island City workshop where he let me store my chair. In exchange for a weekly lunch, consisting of fancy sandwiches, he showed me how to restore my gentleman’s chair.

Not too often do you get to work alongside a pro.

Step One: Stripping

During my senior year of college, I got on a kick about architecture and antiques. After working a bit with an architectural salvage dealer, I bought a lot of furniture from a 19th-century estate house in northeast Connecticut. Among the pieces was a gentleman's chair frame, painted a flat dark green. It was beautiful, but mistreated and unusable. I rushed back to my apartment, got all sorts of products and embarked on stripping the chair.

There are few things you should know before you go down this road.

Buy Bob Flexner's book "Understanding Wood Finishing" and go for it. Be picky with what you strip. It’s a bitch. Scrape off some paint with a razor blade to identify the wood first (or consult a carpenter or decorator).  

Stripping paint is far more difficult that stripping varnish. Buy Kutzit Paint and Varnish Remover at your local hardware store or from online retailers. All commercial strippers are weak but this one is the best.

If you really want to get serious — saving time and money — order an industrial-grade remover from Kwick Kleen. The smallest size they sell is a 5-gallon jug. This stuff is highly dangerous and will burn you if it gets on your skin. Larger salvage shops use baths of Kwick Kleen to strip doors and mantles in one fell swoop, cutting down 90 percent of the workload.

When working with furniture, patience is key. Somehow I got through 50 hours of stripping by watching "Law & Order" marathons. Then I got so frustrated, I quit. I put everything in storage and moved back to New York to take a new job.

Step Two: Prepping

Fast forward six years. The chair comes out of a Westchester storage locker. Much further along in the stripping process than I had given my college-self credit for, but it nonetheless needed more cleaning up before I treated it. At the workshop, Anigacz, my self-described "Polish Joey Tribiani" restoration expert, showed me how to use a chisel to chip out the paint build-up in the corners. Then I applied 150-220 grit sandpaper with an orbital sander to further buff the flat surfaces.  

Any repairs the chair needs should be done before stripping, but I was already too late. It’s a step that almost certainly requires the hand of someone who has fixed chairs before. Anigacz checked the chair for structural problems e.g. wobbliness. It is terrifying when you watch him make fixes to furniture. But he knows what he's doing when it comes to gluing, filling in holes with wax and drilling holes for the dowels to secure the front joints.

The most important decision was the color of the stain. I wanted a driftwood gray but Anigacz shook his head no.

"The wood wants to be red. Let it be formal," he said. In just about every scenario, when going formal, less is more but quality is key. Careful not to become gaudy, I decided on a dark club chair color and would match stain to leather with brass studs.

Step Three: Staining and Touch-ups

Anigacz applies most stains and shellacs with what he calls, in a French accent, a "tampon." It's a wad of cheesecloth folded in two, stuffed inside a square piece of white T-shirt cotton, just like you’re making the head of a ghost doll.

Apply the stain or shellac inside on the cheesecloth, fold each corner of the cotton square over the wad and twist the four corners so you’re holding a wet round ball of cloth with your fingertips.

We put on a coat of the reddish water-based dye from Abbot Paint and sealed it with a coat of shellac.

Touch-ups afterwards are for all those little corners with paint, chips or blemishes in the wood. For the chips and nicks, apply the closest matching bondo wood filler and apply it with quick scalpel-like precision. (See more specific instructions on activating bondo here.) Mixing pigment powders with shellac on a little surface, match the corners with the rest of the chair. Use a tiny paint brush but still be sure to tap your brush on a napkin before applying it to the wood.

Before my next visit, I went to W.D. Lockwood, a hidden dye and pigment store that’s been in business since 1895, and bought a yellow-green pigment to cut down the hint of purple in the wood. Mixed with shellac and applied with one or two coats, the wood became more orange.

Step Four: Shellac and Finish

I must have spent two days just applying shellac. Shellac, then 320 sandpaper, shellac, 320, shellac, 320 — five or six times. After the final shellac, rub the chair down with 0000 steel wool — it’s the finest grade. With a piece of T-shirt cotton, apply beeswax. Anigacz makes his own with carnauba, better known as palm wax.

Upholstery is the last step. I had already invested $110 in leather and another $45 on a box of 1,000 studs and wanted perfection. We brought in Anigacz’s upholsterer-on-call, Patricio. He charged $200 because of the studs — and it was worth every penny. Anigacz, me and a carpenter from upstairs all drank cans of Polish beer and watched him work.

Anigacz says if you don’t feel confident about renovating a piece of furniture or if there’s something actually broken, go to a professional. If you want to take wood treatment seriously, he insists you buy the good materials sold at specialty stores.

Where to Shop: Specialty Stores and Resources

Double Queue Fine Furniture Restoration and Conservation, Christopher Anigacz, christopher@dqrestoration.com, 51-02 21st St., Studio 3D. 917-653-7028

For paint and varnish stripper: 
Kwick Kleen. Order online or call 1-888-222-9767

For dyes and pigments:
49 Walker St., 1st Floor  212-966-4046

For wood finishes, varnishes and touch-up supplies:
Abbot Paint
238 Eagle St. Brooklyn, 718-349-2112
157 50th St. Brooklyn, 718-439-2823