In my ongoing efforts to bring more accuracy to reenacting seating, I recently purchased two BJ Harrison folding chairs from Ebay for only $120 shipping included. This style of folding chair was common during the war, though I don't have any provenance placing these exact chairs during the conflict. I wanted to show my restoration process to provide a resource for other people considering taking on a project like this. My philosophy of restoration is to put antiques back into service and enjoy them as they would have been.
After quite a bit of research and inquiries by Mrs. 1st Sgt, we learned no one reproduces period style rug squares to replace the original seat. Not having the time to get into making my own, custom-sized hook rugs, I decided on leather. Stylistically, I'm a sucker for leather and wood. With that decision being made, I began the restoration process.
Being an experienced woodworker, I know that shellac dissolves in alcohol. Using only paper towels, 000 steel wool, and denatured alcohol, I removed the original shellac. At no point did I use sandpaper. By gently removing the old shellac, the 150 year old tool marks revealed themselves. The perfect spacing of the marks indicates that these pieces were made on a lathe with a replicating jig. An amateur attacking this project with sandpaper would have removed this important element of the chair's history without even knowing it! Once cleaned, I put the screws in my bucket of Evaporust to remove all the rust without having to abrade them. I left them overnight and wiped them dry the next day.
With the wood and hardware prepped, I began the leather work. Using the remnant of the original seat, I recreated the pattern on my piece of 7-9 oz vegetable tanned leather I got from Tandy. To reinforce the holes for the screws, I used 1/4" eyelets which you can buy affordably on Amazon. I then beveled the top edges, wet them, and used a burnisher to put a slick, professional finish on all of the edges. I then gloved up and put on two coats of Fiebing's black dye. I let the seat dry over night and oiled with some Obenauf's Heavy Duty LP and buffed with a horse hair brush.
For wood finishing, I chose a tung oil finish. I'm a big fan of tung oil in general but I also wanted to nourish the 150 year old white oak with a good oil. The other added benefit of tung oil, is that you can reapply in the future if you need to with very little prep.
Once everything was dry, it was time for assembly. Before running the screws home, I dipped them in my "Lacker for Small Arms." I'm very happy with the end result and look forward to completing the second chair. They are very comfortable chairs and hold me easily and I'm no small guy. I look forward to eventually getting around recreating these from scratch on my lathe someday. If you have any questions, be sure to let us know either on the blog or on our Facebook page. Also, if you happen to need a scan of the brand sticker for this type of chair, let me know and I can post it online. Both chairs were stamped with B.J. Harrison but only one was issued with a sticker.