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Regluing your wood chairs.

It's not as difficult as you may think

Our wood dining room set was beginning to show signs of coming unglued. The chair rungs kept popping out of their holes and two of the chairs had one front leg break off. Blame it on wood heat, blame it on four children, blame it on old age, but something needed to be done.

Over the years we had tried carpenter's glue. That hadn't worked well: the joint soon popped apart again. We tried a special glue that was supposed to magically swell and glue the joints. Injected with a syringe-style nozzle, the special glue failed to make the joint permanently tight.

A course was offered in chair repair at the local tool supply company. Over several hours, and the repair of one chair, a lot of the mystery was taken out of the process.

Before I go on I have a disclaimer I should mention. If the chair is very valuable don't try to save money. Get a professional to give you a quote. The professional who taught the course mentioned some tools and processes he would use in special cases that simply aren't possible for the ignorant to pursue. For instance, in some cases, the finish of the entire chair has to be removed before regluing can start.

We were in the proper category: Too poor to consider anything else. The chairs were becoming unusable. If necessary we would have to make new chairs or buy used ones to replace the broken set.

Once every generation

Most wood chairs need to be reglued once a generation. The reason most of our repairs of the rungs failed was because the whole chair needed to be redone. Small movement of a loose seat joint will probably cause the glue in the chair rung joints to fail.

The other detail worth mentioning is that the longer a chair has play, the harder it is to get it to glue tightly together again. The combination of the friction between loose parts and the fiber compression of the dowels being pinched while the chair rocks leads to greater play the longer a repair is put off. Considering a chair can be disassembled and reglued together again in several hours it is better to do the job sooner than later.


You need two special aids to repair most chairs. You need the proper glue and you need a dead-blow hammer. The recommended glue is a fish glue. They take the slime from fish, remove the smell and package it in a $10 plastic bottle. The glue is high tack, which means pushing two surfaces together results in a pretty tight bond. It dries slowly, which is important when you are trying to reassemble an entire chair before it sets up. Finally, it is water soluble, which makes it easier to clean up and easier to disassemble later. I did five chairs and have enough left to do 20 more, or something really large like a table.

The dead-blow hammer is plastic with some lead shot free to move inside the head. When the hammer strikes something the lead shot moves towards the face of the head. The dead-blow means it transmits all its impact without rebounding. They are sold in various weights. One-pound, one-and-a-half-pound and two-pound weights are common. A one-pound hammer can create all the force you need. It is a good size to fit into some of the spaces you need to smack. A one-pound dead-blow hammer costs between $10-20.

I was worried about damaging the chair's finish but the problem just didn't seem to come up. If a lacquer surface shows signs of damage, the teacher mentioned that a fresh layer of lacquer will often fix it.

Searching for nails

Before starting the chair's disassembly, search for hidden nails. The glue the manufacturer used would take hours to set up. Rather than tie up clamps, small nails would often be driven into the parts to provide the clamping action. Look for small marks in the finish that indicate a filled hole. Consider whether the joint that is nailed needs to be taken apart. These nailed joints are often found in the backs of the chairs where the vertical back section meets the bottom cross bar.

If the disassembly requires the back to be taken apart, the nails will have to be pulled. The instructor had special, bent, right-angled diagonal wire cutters he could dig into the wood to grasp the nail head. You are on your own on this. DO what you have to do, preferably with some repair in mind to cover your digging. In my case I found the nailed joint the hard way. You normally use carpenter's glue and clamps to repair any joint or piece of wood that has been split. Once the split piece of wood has been repaired the whole chair can be reglued with the fish glue in one session.

The other glue that must be mentioned is epoxy. These two-part glues require mixing the glue just before assembling the pieces. Epoxy is the nuclear bomb of glues. It is final. Any future attempts at repairing the joint will require drilling and cutting and grinding. Carpenter's glues are generally in between epoxies and fish glues. Sometimes the joint can be loosened using methyl hydrate if carpenter's glue has been used.

In chair repair you sometimes have to deal with a dowel that has sheared. Sometimes simply gluing the faces together will work. Sometimes the dowel has to be drilled out. The good news is most dowel holes are oversized. As the furniture company sharpened their bits they made them oversize. This works to your advantage as a new drill bit should remove the dowel without enlarging the existing hole. Don't worry too much about this I didn't have to resort to this step in any of my chairs.

I fixed all the rest of the chairs by leaving the back nailed. The vertical piece of wood was fastened at the bottom and floated in a slot in the top cross piece. Once identified it became apparent this area didn't need regluing.

Begin with the seat

Normally you start with the seat. Some wood chairs have a screw holding the back continuous leg to the seat. These screws are hard to remove and almost impossible to replace. Try cleaning out the slot before attempting to unscrew the screw. Try to get the proper size screwdriver for the screw head. There is a special paste that fills the space between the screw slot and the screwdriver blade, that does help. Tricks like tightening the screw slightly sometimes helps.

The instructor was against using soap or anything that might cause the screw to rust during reassembly. A little wax is permitted, but reassembly is always easier than getting a centuries-old screw out.

Mark your joints

In my dining room chairs the seat was screwed onto four corner braces. Getting the seat off was easy. This brings up another important point. If you get carried away removing braces and legs, at some point during reassembly you are going to glue the wrong piece to the right piece. If this is a possibility, use little pieces of tape to mark the joints. Use one-one, two-two, to prevent confusion. After several chairs you will become used to what to watch for. My chairs were wider at the front than at the back, and the rungs had every dowel angled at different angles to fit the joints together.

Another thing you cling to during reassembly is the finish side is up. You can orient pieces by rotating them until the unfinished sides are down.

This whole process is harder to describe in print than in practice. Use gravity to help separate the parts--hold the small part and use the weight of the large part to help pull the joint apart. The instructor had to use a large wood vice to hold one part of the chair while driving one joint apart. I didn't find any part of my chairs needed that step.

Before you find yourself smashing a small wooden part with the dead-blow hammer, stop and reconsider. The front corners of all the chairs were difficult because they were so hollowed by dowels. If the joint doesn't want to come apart, consider it already reglued and let the next generation deal with it.


Start the chair disassembly with taking off the seat. In an all wood chair this is the time to examine the seat to see if it is splitting. The instructor placed the seat in the wood vice and tried to break the seat in two at a split in the old wood. It is better to fix this problem while the chair is apart. If the seat splits use carpenter's glue, or epoxy glue, and clamps to fasten the two pieces together. This is a tricky step as the two pieces often glue together at a slight step at the joint, which results in having to sand and refinish the seat.

None of my chair seats needed repair. They were all thin wood covered with a leather pad. Then I re moved the four braces' screws. You can try knocking all the braces loose. I quickly found these braces would stay with one of the rails, or simply fall out. I drove the seat's side rails free of the back legs, driving the front leg top away from the back. Then I freed the chair rungs from the front legs. The chair rungs were in the shape of an "H". I could drive them off the back legs. Sometimes--when the dowels are known to be round-- it was useful to rotate the joint to crack the glue bond before driving the parts apart. Next the seat's front and sides could be separated from the front legs. The back two legs can have all the cross pieces loosened and then be separated. At this point all the chairs' pieces are lying where they fell, unless you have cleverly placed them in order for reassembly (it took me two chairs to get this clever).

In some chairs the top is joined by a curved rail from the top of one leg to the top of the other. This is another possible point to break out the clamps because the grain of the top piece will often split if too much force is applied. This is a good time to thank the gods you bought the small dead-blow hammer.

I found a pocket knife worked well to cut the old glue off the end of the dowels. If you see the dowel mating holes are crusted with old glue you can ream some of it out. Generally speaking the fish glue will attach itself to old glue, its just nice to regain some of the space for excess new glue to fill.


Use a small paint brush to coat the glue onto the dowels and the face of the joint. I found a tendency to use a lot of glue and, as a result, spent a lot of time cleaning excess glue from the joints. By the last of five chairs I had this under control.

I glued the back two legs back together first. I glued the "H" of the rungs back together. Then I glued the front two legs together. Since some of the braces remained attached to one of the seat rails, I glued them as I came to them. Finally the front and back legs are glued together with the chair seat rails and the rungs.


Install the brace screws. Flip the chair and tighten the seat screws into the seat. Stand the chair up again and check for excess glue. Clean the glue off with a damp rag.

I found some of the braces seemed to pull some of the joints apart slightly. You could take the time to back out the screws on these braces and clamp the joint tightly together. When the chair is dry you could then install the braces again. I figured the brace clamping action was as important as worrying about tiny cracks. My favorite construction quote is, "We aren't building a watch," closely followed by, "the moulding will cover it." These attitudes keep you from becoming fixated on details.

It's easier to do than describe

There can be a fear of attempting these sorts of projects because someone might fall to the ground from a poorly glued chair. As I mentioned, two of my chairs had legs broken completely off. In one case the leg's dowel had broken off the corner. In the other case the corner had split. I repaired both these corners with carpenter's glue and a clamp. Once dry I used the fish glue to assemble the legs to the seat rails. I was worried these corners would fail during our first dinner party. Since one of the guests had just had hip replacement surgery, it would have been just my luck.

My fears were groundless. The combination of all the joints being glued tightly with the reasonable structural design kept everyone safely seated. Compared to a chair with many joints with broken glue bonds, a freshly re-glued chair seems much safer.

Removing rusty screws

If a rusty screw is giving you problems, place a hot soldering iron on the screw head to heat it. Only a minute or two of high heat is all that's necessary to break the corrosion and allow you to remove the screw.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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