How to Refurbish An Old Rocking Chair & Family Heirloom

How to Refurbish An Old Rocking Chair & Family Heirloom

Nearly every time we make a trip home to Florida, I drag home some projects for us to work on.

On our last trip, my dad offered me this old rocking chair that belonged to his great-grandpa, Grandpa Chip. Considering that my Nannie (Grandpa Chip’s daughter) was born in 1919 and this rocking chair was likely older than her, we ‘re pretty sure that it’s more than 100 years old.

I was hesitant to take this project on, because I REALLY didn’t want to mess it up. But it wasn’t nearly as difficult as we thought it would be.

Here is how to refurbish an old rocking chair and family heirloom.

Step 1: Remove the Old Upholstery

Our first step was to remove all of the old upholstery and figure out exactly what we were working with.

The chair was covered in red vinyl, which was honestly not in terrible shape, but we definitely wanted to get rid of it. We began by removing the upholstery tacks around the seat of the chair (there weren’t very many of those at all). Then we flipped the chair over and removed the nails and staples underneath.

We removed everything with only a flat head screwdriver and a pair of pliers. It wasn’t difficult at all, but it was a little tedious.

Underneath the vinyl was a layer of cotton batting, on top of a layer of hay. Beneath the hay on the chair back was a burlap backing and strap, which we decided to leave. On the seat were metal springs. Since they were all in good shape, we decided to leave them. It will help give the chair structure and we won’t have to spend time planking the bottom of the chair.

Step 2: Sand Off the Old Varnish

The next step to refurbish an old rocking chair is sanding. We used our orbital sander to sand off all of the old varnish.

This is probably the only project I’ve brought home that didn’t require HOURS of sanding (unlike this grungy dresser). In fact, I sanded this whole chair in less than an hour. That has to be a record!

Some of the details on the front of the chair were a little difficult to sand. To get in all those little nooks and crannies, I used a sanding sponge or a piece of folded sand paper.

**Note: We also replaced the wooden dowel that was missing in the front of the chair, but I forgot to take pictures of that part.**

Step 3: Stain the Wood

After the chair was stripped and sanded, it was time to stain the wood.

Initially, the plan was to leave the wood bare and just seal it with clear polyacrylic. However, after sanding, we saw that the wood had almost no detail. It was almost completely white and that wasn’t really the look I was hoping for.

So, we decided to stain it. We used a golden oak stain, but it turned out darker and more orange-y than we hoped. (We’ll eventually re-stain it, but for now this works.)

We applied the stain with an old rag. It goes on better and less streaky than using a brush.

Staining the wood of an antique rocking chair.
(Staining the rocking chair.)

Step 4: Make & Cover Cushions

The next step to refurbish an old rocking chair is the most difficult one for us and the one we were most worried about going into this project.

The only other project that we’ve ever done any kind of upholstery was our antique bed, but the cushioning on that was still good, so we left it alone and just recovered it. We haven’t ever had to make cushions before.

Cutting foam for cushions when refurbishing an old rocking chair.
(Cutting the foam this way was way too difficult.)

We did a little bit of research and decided that foam would be the easiest solution. So, we bought 2″ foam pad for the seat of the chair and 1″ foam pad for the back.

One of the biggest mistakes we made was not buying a foam cutter. We wasted so much time and effort attempting to cut through the foam pad with a razor and scissors and we just made a mess of things. The seat cushion turned out okay, but the cushion for the back looked horrible and jagged, even after covering it with fabric. So, we went back the next day and bought the foam cutter.

We placed the seat cushion on top of the springs and covered it with a canvas fabric first to hold it in place using a staple gun. My husband placed the staples where the old ones were underneath the chair.

(After the seat cushion was in place and covered with canvas.)

Then we covered it with our (fake) leather fabric that we found in the upholstery section at Hobby Lobby and stapled it into place too. The most difficult part was getting it pulled tight with no wrinkles. And while we weren’t perfect with this, we managed to make it look decent.

To put the cushion on the back, we first hot glued it to the wood to hold it in place, then covered it with the fabric and stapled it on.

After stapling on the leather, we hammered in some decorative upholstery tacks. And we were finished.

Adding upholstery tacks to our refurbished antique rocking chair.
(These upholstery tacks were the finishing touch on our rocking chair.)

I kind of glossed over the upholstery part of this tutorial. Not because it’s easy – not by any means. It’s a very difficult and frustrating process. I just don’t feel qualified to give advice on this. This tutorial from Family Handyman is one that we referred to a LOT during this process.

We love how our rocking chair turned out! It sits in the corner of our living room for now, but it could seamlessly blend into our master bedroom decor.

Not only is it beautiful, but it’s a cherished piece of our family history and I’m so glad that my dad trusted me to refurbish an old rocking chair. I hope to pass it down to one of my girls one day.

(This rocking chair will stay in our family for years to come!)

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