Northwind Chair Project

The Northwind chair had been around for my entire life.  I remember, as a child, being afraid to come up to my father’s study in the attic of our home in Sarnia because the severe, mustachioed face on the back of the chair was always watching me.  Somehow the chair stayed with me.  I took it when I moved away and it sat around as a complimentary object; never quite comfortable enough to sit on for extended periods of study, and never quite pretty enough to be commented upon by visitors with an eye for unique furniture.

The caning in the chair had long since been busted out, and somewhere down the line the wood had been covered over with white paint.  The details were obscured.  The spirit of the object was smothered by bad decorating decisions.

When I dropped out of my PhD program at McGill with the notion that I was going to throw myself full time into cabinet making, gradually, as I began to see wood, and see furniture with new eyes, the chair began to speak.  It had been that quiet person who is filled with stories, but had never told them because nobody ever bothered to ask.

 

The cabinet making program, running for a year and a half, all day, and every day, was filled with different challenges; different modules.  When it came time to study restoration, I rummaged through my apartment, looking for something to throw into a chemical bath and strip and, not having much else, I settled on this chair. 

The chemical stripper, methylene chloride, can be wretched stuff.  It is a thick, clear paste, that brushes onto wood surfaces, chewing through whatever paint or finish sits on the wood, peeling it back in bubbling layers, but leaving the wood beneath intact.  But have no doubt that it is a toxin.  On contact with bare skin it burns intensely.  There is no recourse when this happens but to run immediately to the sink and flush the area with water. 

 

Heavy, chemical resistant gloves need be worn at all times, along with protective goggles.  A ventilator mask is a good idea, too; although some people suggest that the mask filters don’t actually do anything for the stripper.  It might still protect you from old lead in the paint, though.  I don’t really know.  I wore the whole kit, but I still burned myself a bunch.  It has happened every time I’ve ever stripped anything. 

The chemical stripper, methylene chloride, can be wretched stuff.  It is a thick, clear paste, that brushes onto wood surfaces, chewing through whatever paint or finish sits on the wood, peeling it back in bubbling layers, but leaving the wood beneath intact.  But have no doubt that it is a toxin.  On contact with bare skin it burns intensely.  There is no recourse when this happens but to run immediately to the sink and flush the area with water. 

 

Heavy, chemical resistant gloves need be worn at all times, along with protective goggles.  A ventilator mask is a good idea, too; although some people suggest that the mask filters don’t actually do anything for the stripper.  It might still protect you from old lead in the paint, though.  I don’t really know.  I wore the whole kit, but I still burned myself a bunch.  It has happened every time I’ve ever stripped anything. 

Sometimes people use less powerful, more eco-friendly strippers.  They are both of the things I describe, eco-friendly, and less powerful.  It’s like getting a job in an office at the top of a very steep hill and then deciding that (for the sake of the planet, and all) you are going to bike to work, as opposed to driving.  Yeah you saved the planet, but you have added time, labour, and misery to your day.  What is the balance between selfishness, and your obligation to every other living thing on the planet?  Only you know.  Anyone who thinks that stripping furniture is an important thing to do is probably possessed of too much free time, anyhow.

There is a whole other thing called a “heat gun”, which maybe just as, or even more effective than methylene chloride, but if you are using it to strip old, lead based paint (and you probably are) then you are sincerely putting yourself in danger.  Plus it is a huge fire hazard.  Anyhow, what are we doing with our lives?  All kinds of people are out there, using these products, taking no precautions whatsoever.  Nobody at a big box store will say anything if you buy this shit.  You can poison yourself, burn yourself, and fuck up the world all you like. 

 

After a few rounds of the stripper, fine details began to emerge from the chair.  It had been intricately carved, beautifully detailed.  Whatever individual, back in the past, blithely slopping white latex over these elegant bits, imagining that such a move would somehow ameliorate the entire situation, ought to have had their hand smacked with a 12 inch ruler.  I appreciate that there are hundreds of millions of self-anointed interior decorators out there who feel that the beast way to freshen up a space is to pour buckets of white paint over finely crafted furniture.  They choose to make everything austere by covering over the brown of the wood with a whitewash.  Worse yet, they cover things over with teal.  These impulses are an abomination.  

 

Somewhere down the line, someone else is going to have to strip the furniture again, and rescue it from petite bourgeoisie hell.  Somebody, somewhere, sometimes, is going to have to snatch back all the finely crafted furniture from the snatchy paws of ETSY entrepreneurs, and midcentury modern meets shabby chic zombies.  Somebody is going to have to remove the stacks of Fiesta Ware from the tops of old oak desks polluted with seafoam and hand painted song birds using a baseball bat of righteousness….but maybe I’m getting off topic.

 

The paint was a challenge to remove from the little cracks, and I was into there with toothpicks, chisels, strings soaked in chemical stripper, which I ran through the grooves to clean them, and an assortment of other ad hoc tools.  On the right here, you can the original cane, still knotted into the holes in the chair.  It is a lot of work, but also meditative.  Maybe not like crystals and dolphins meditative, or like sitting in a drony mountain cave, and not eating for seventeen years meditative, but having something to do like this does allow the mind to find focus and rest.  Something to think about. 

 

I’ve done other repetitive work, like putting can on shelves, and separating pieces of chicken.  Those jobs weren’t meditative at all.  They just made me miserable, and unnaturally concerned with the demoralizing slow revolutions of the second hand on the clock.  However, pulling bits of cane out of the holes of this chair didn’t feel like that to me.  I suppose not being someone else’s wage slave is really the difference.  It isn’t the work itself that is ever the problem, it is who the work is for, and what the work is for that matters.

~~~

I’m writing all this and imagining my classmates from the cabinet making class mocking me and reading these words in a fake pretentious voice. 

 

I wanted to just describe how I worked on this chair, not write a treatise on the state of labour and feelings as they are contextualized by modern capitalism. 

 

On the other hand, how can stripping a chair not be a political act?  We are taking an object from the earliest days of the industrial revolution and subjecting it to modern methods of restoration. 

 

When I finished stripping the chair and started to pull it apart, I found the screws inside were the sort that people used back in the 1850s.  The chair’s uniqueness grew as I got deeper into its guts.

 

A chair this old is a snapshot of the history of mass production.  The hand carving, and the quality of the wood attest to an older model of chair making: each chair is a unique entity unto itself, and possibly tailored to the ass and leg length of its owner.  This chair, though, with its internal screws holding particular parts, and its dowels attaching the legs to the seat, suggest the very beginning of cost cutting and labour saving.  This is the point at which furniture began to be imagined as a thing that could be churned out in higher numbers at lower costs. 

 

The end game of all of this is the garbage we get from IKEA, nearly 150 years later.  The cheapest, flimsiest wood by-products, held together by the most inexpensive hardware, roll off the tongues of infinite IKEA stores and into parking-lots and into the back of SUV cars, and they vanish back into the suburbs.  IKEA’s garbage desks and chairs populate dorm rooms, and the first time apartments of hopeful couples. 

 

A year later those same items, fucked on, and studied on, and witness to a few of the fights of young love, now sit, decaying in the pelting rain, cluttering up alley ways, travelling by the truckload, toward the dump.  Our world, and our sense of the specialness of the things we possess; or the longevity of the things we possess, eroded by degrees, starting with a little box of screws back in the 1850s, that someone decided to use instead of a mortise and tenon.

Repair of Damage

Above you can see a close-up of the old dowels.  The chair had some structural damage here and there, and generally was loose in its joints.  I decided that in so much as I was able, I was going to disassemble it and put it back together as a better, sturdier object.  I think it will always be slightly uncomfortable, but, you know, it was probably made for Protestants or something; probably made for the people of the 1850s, who preferred the misery of discomfort as a means of meeting sooner with their god.  

 

Repeated stress over the lifetime of the chair had cracked one of the front legs right through.  The leg was held onto the seat by a set of four dowels.  I thought about gluing it all back together, but honestly the top of the leg was fucked.  I decided it would be easier to turn a new top on a lathe, and match the shape, then peg the new part onto the old part and reattach everything.  The main thing with replacing parts is obviously figuring out a colour match at the end, so that nobody ever knows there was even a repair.

Similarly, one of the chair’s back legs snapped along the grain at some point in its history.  In order to make a nice repair, I tried to find another piece of red oak that had a similar grain pattern so that once I made the repair, the difference between the two pieces of wood would be as seamless as possible.  In that spot, someone would really have to be down on the floor looking very carefully to notice anything was up, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to make it seamless, anyhow.

 

Red oak is really pinkish when it is raw, but once you add the stain it gets brown and churchy, and the grain patterns assume the heavier contrast that you see on the older parts of the wood.  You just have to be aware in advance that things are going to go that way and envision the end result when you pick the grain.

 

The holes where the caning went through were really a damn mess.  It looks like when the original cane broke, someone nailed a quite nice piece of plywood over the hole.  This plywood had a star shaped far escape pattern of holes on it, and was clearly done a very long time ago, when repairs were almost as nice as the original product.  Nevertheless, I wanted the cane.  The holes on one side were all broken, and maybe rotted out, so the best course of action was to router away all the crap and add a new strip of oak and re-drill the holes.  It looks to me like at one time that whole side snapped off and then was nailed and glued back on.  It was basically unsalvageable.

 

Ultimately, it all went ok, except I drilled one of the holes off centre.  This bugged me for a while, and at the time I couldn’t understand how I fucked up.  But when the chair finally got caned it didn’t seem to matter, and it wasn’t very noticeable.  Also, some of the original holes from 1850 were off centre, also.  This comforted me.  Maybe some idiot apprentice was tasked with doing the job back then and did just as bad a job as I did.  We are bonded across time by our lack of attention to detail.

Colour matching

History of Northwind

It was only in the course of researching everything else about this chair; for example the provenance of its internal hardware, that I discovered that the face carved in the back was a common theme on the backs of chairs in that era.  Boreas, the north wind, who brings the chill of winter with his exhalations, is carved into many chairs from that era.  It was totally a thing.  I would give you more examples, but unfortunately the internet’s image archives are slowly being swallowed by Pinterest.  I don’t want to contribute anything, not even a hotlink, to that bullshit.

 

Suffice to say that such faces are common.  The variation is great.  Some are a lot more gruesome than the one on my chair.  Still, that’s the story of the face.  The chair was in my father’s office when I was a kid, and I suppose he did a lot of work on it.  After it sat around in my life, as a thing I almost threw away a bunch of times, I restored it and returned it to him to put at his desk again.  After he died, my sister took the chair, and not it is at her house.  I asked her not to throw it away since I worked on it so much.  I might send her this page just to reinforce the point that the chair is kind of special.