Care & Repair: Antique Windsor Chairs Rocking–or Not?

An Ethan Allen dining set similar to the one described below.

Bill called me late on a Friday afternoon, and he was in a panic. His wife had inherited a vintage Ethan Allen dining set with six Windsor-style chairs. A few spindles and legs were loose, and some chairs wobbled a bit on the kitchen floor. Since his wife was out of town, he decided to surprise her by regluing and leveling the chairs.

One chair had a leg that didn’t quite touch the floor. All the legs were tightly glued, so Bill’s solution was to trim the three longer legs. They didn’t need much shortening; just a wee bit. When he was done, he put the chair back into position, and was surprised to find that it still rocked. He was confused; he knew that he had measured and cut with care. So, he tried again. When he phoned me, he had trimmed the chair legs three times, with no improvement in the rocking. The troublesome chair was now a half-inch lower than the others, and he was afraid to keep going. Bill wanted my input into his dilemma.

Bill had misdiagnosed the cause of the chair’s rocking, and his repair efforts had made the situation worse. If this been an expensive set of antique chairs, his misdirected efforts could have destroyed the value of the set.

In Bill’s case, the problem was not a chair issue; it was a floor issue. Of course, he didn’t believe me; no one ever does when I offer this explanation. His house was only a year old, he said, and the floors couldn’t possibly be uneven. I suggested to Bill that he move a chair that didn’t rock into the offending chair’s position to see if it rocked. It did. Bill had shortened a perfectly good chair by a half-inch because he misdiagnosed the cause of the problem.

This set of Ethan Allen Windsor chairs sold for $718.25 in August 2017.

Floors aren’t always the cause of chairs rocking, though; sometimes, rocking is caused by poor repairs. The legs of Bill’s Windsor chairs are attached under the chair seat using a tapered mortise-and-tenon construction. This is my favorite type of chair construction because it provides a solid foundation. But, decades of sliding, rocking, and twisting may cause the leg-seat joints to loosen. Sometimes, dealers or homeowners will try to tighten the leg by “sticking a little glue up there” (into the joint). If the old glue isn’t cleaned from the seat mortise and chair leg, new glue may pool at the base of the mortise, preventing the leg from going all the way into the mortise. When that happens, you then have (you guessed it) a leg that is longer than the others, and a chair that will probably rock.

When we buy vintage Windsor chairs, they often have problems. It’s important to correctly evaluate the type of repairs needed before you start to cut, glue, or disassemble. If you purchase Windsor chairs that rock, and you can’t determine if the root cause is a poor repair or your floor, here’s a method of analyzing the situation:

Flip the chair upside down on a table and measure the length of the legs from where they enter the seat bottom to the tip of the leg. All should be the same length. If one is longer than the others, it has likely been repaired improperly and should be taken apart, cleaned, and re-glued. But, before knocking the chair apart, check these measurements:

  • While the chair is upside down, measure the diagonals across the end of the legs. The right-rear-to-left-front measurement should match the left-rear-to-right-front measurement.
  • Next, measure the distances between the legs at the widest and narrowest points. If everything is square and the measurements match up, then the legs are fine and you should look elsewhere for the cause of the rocking.

A note about glue: more antique chairs are ruined by improper gluing than from any other cause. I’ve seen so-called “professional restorers” use super glue, epoxies, Gorilla Glue, and other modern glues to repair loose chair joints. Then, they guarantee their repairs for life. One would think that this is a good thing, but it’s not.

Modern glues make extremely strong joints; much stronger, in fact, than the wood they hold together. So, what happens when chair spindles and legs are stressed and twisted, but the joints won’t come apart? The legs and spindles break. This is a much more serious problem than loose joints.

This Ethan Allen dining set with 6 Windsor chairs sold for $1,995 in April 2013.

Antiques should always be repaired using the type of glue with which they were originally assembled, i.e. hot animal hide glue. Few homeowners have hide glue or a glue pot to cook it in. If your chairs are valuable antiques, don’t try to repair them yourself; take them to a qualified restorer.

If the chairs you wish to repair are vintage and of modest value, yellow or white carpenter’s glue will work fine. If you make a mistake, carpenter’s glue can be softened with vinegar and the joints are easily knocked apart with a rubber mallet. Handy homeowners with basic woodworking skills, a level workbench, appropriate tools, clamps, and glue, should be able to tighten and level chairs without consequence.

So what did Bill do about his chair issues? He hired me to repair them.

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Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s website at resaleretailing.com or visit Wayne’s blog.

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