Wood Chair Repair

DEAR MIKE: I have several wooden spindle chairs that have seen better days. After years of use, some dowels have come loose and the chairs have become wobbly. How can I make the chairs solid again? -- Jorge S.

DEAR JORGE: When you're playing poker with your buddies, a wobbly chair can make embarrassing noises and draw accusations from the boys.

It sounds like the glued joints in the chair have failed. This project is inexpensive, requiring some glue and a few tools, and will take several hours to complete.

Find out which parts of the chair are loose. Rock or twist the chair and exert pressure on individual parts. Try to remove the loose parts without disturbing the good ones.

Remember that some parts of the chair may also be held in place with nails, so keep an eye out for them. Pull out nails with pliers but use a piece of scrap wood under the pliers to avoid scratching the chair.

You may also have to use a rubber mallet to tap the parts free. If you are removing several pieces from the chair, you may want to label them with masking tape. Mark arrows on the masking tape to realign the pieces during reassembly.

Once the loose pieces are out, you need to remove the old glue from both the projecting tenon of one piece and the mortise of the mating piece. Use a utility knife and scrape the glue off the tenon, or try coarse sandpaper. Don't remove the wood, only the glue, or you may end up with a joint that is loose.

For the mortise, use a plumbing flux brush. These brushes come in various sizes and have stiff wire bristles that are perfect for scraping out old glue.

Test fit the pieces back together. If they are loose (and it's likely they will be), you can enlarge the circumference of the tenon by wrapping it with wood shavings. Use liquid hide glue and wrap a thin shaving of wood around it.

You can also buy wood veneer at a home center. Brush some hide glue on the tenon, wrap it with a shaving or veneer, and let it dry. If it is still loose after a test fit, wrap it with more shavings or veneer. If it becomes too large to fit into the mortise, sand it until it fits.

If you ever need to disassemble the chair, hide glue is water-soluble. You can also use yellow carpenter's glue, but you will have to work faster because the working time is much less.

When you are ready to reassemble the chair, start by practicing with a dry run. Stick the parts together, but don't use any glue.

You will need some clamps to hold the chair together. Bar clamps cost around $20 per pair and they have nonmarring pads to avoid scratching. You may also need small pipe clamps and possibly a web clamp. A web clamp is nothing more than a nylon band with a ratcheting mechanism that applies pressure uniformly around irregular surfaces. It costs about $10 and is good for clamping around the legs of a chair.

You will likely have to get creative to clamp the chair. The goal is to direct the force of the clamp in line with the joint. Chairs have many compound angles and consequently, you may need to cut wedges to match the angle of the joint. This really isn't as difficult as it may sound.

When you are comfortable with the dry run, remove the pieces and assemble the chair using glue. Apply glue on both the tenon and in the mortise and push the parts together. Clamp the parts gently until the entire chair is reassembled and then snug up all the clamps. You should see a little glue squeeze out from the joints. Use a damp cloth and wipe it off.

Once the clamping is done, check to see that the chair is square and straight. You may need to twist it and adjust some clamps. Let the glue dry for at least a day before you hold your next poker tournament. 

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