Saturday, 21 May 2011

Restoring Ercol Windsor Quaker Chairs.

Restoring Ercol Windsor Quaker Chairs.
My dining room set bought new 25 years ago had the low back Windsor “kitchen” chairs, but I always had a soft spot for the elegant high arched Quaker pattern which my parents had . I successfully bid on a very nice condition extending dining table, (the five legged one), and this came with four quaker chairs whose condition hadn't been described in the listing. I wasn’t bothered about them as I had enough kitchen chairs so when they arrived I wasn’t disappointed to find that they were perilously loose in most of their joints, and on a couple the backs rocked by about an inch and would have come out of the seat given a stout tug. They were also pretty dull and weathered so were consigned to the loft with the long term aim of disassembling and doing a ground up renovation one day. A few years passed and after finding how long Ercol renovation can take on another project I came across a product that offered the possibility of a quick fix.
First though some background on Ercol chairs.
The original Windsor chair was developed after the second world war as a result of Ercol getting a UK government contract to make utility furniture to replace the stuff that the Luftwaffe had reduced to matchwood during the blitz. The elm seat came about by a combination of coming across a large stockpile of the wood and by seasoning methods that kept the wood from the warping usually associated with Elm, The steamed and bent beeechwood back, spindles and braced legs follow the traditional design of chair-making followed for several centuries. My parents had some of the original utility chairs in the kitchen, they were much more square and sturdy than the later designs and took a real beating without complaint.
This no-nonsense design was refined to the much slenderer example which I had to repair.
Many Ercol chairs are 30-40 years old now and have withstood 2 generations of rocking children and the slim behinds which wriggled on them back then have mostly reached a new level of lardiness. In addition to these rigours the chairs have also been subjected to central heating and air conditioning shrinking the wood so it is no surprise that some are starting to get a bit creaky. The high backed quaker chairs are the worst in this respect. The length of their back components multiplies any loosening leverage force and stiffness of the structure is less than the lower round backed models. Integrity of the back arch is only partly due to where it is fixed and wedged into the seat (In effect a cantilever). Much of the strength actually comes from the triangulated support from the back spindles The triangles are very slim though and even on a nice tight quaker and you can feel the springiness of structure when you lean back.
On my chairs all of the spindles were loose, some could even be twisted, and shaking the arch caused visible movement. Googling around chair repair brought up various sites with the consensus that the chair should be completely knocked apart and all old glue scraped off before reassembly using natural animal glue (no epoxy or synthetics!). Initially I was up for a go experimenting with the worst of the chairs which was fit to fall apart with minimal force but whilst the project was on the back burner though I came across references to Chair Doctor glue.

Chair Doctor claims to find its way into loose joints by capillary action and in addition to glueing  penetrates end grain to expand the wood and lock up loose joints. Despite the looseness of my test chair the individual joins were all quite close fitting and it seemed a bit far fetched for the glue to work as well as advertised. The Pro kit with the larger bottle of glue comes with a hypodermic syringe and some blunt needles and I put about 2ml of glue in ready to "shoot up". Even the finest needle goes nowhere near penetrating the loose joins so I dribbled a ring of glue around joints and flexed the back to try and get as much glue penetration as possible. The instructions claim that joints will start to tighten in minutes and I was surprised to find that this was the case so it's important to work quickly and not try to do too many joints at once. Once this point is reached then put the chair away for 12 hours and don't be tempted to have a trial wiggle before full hardening has occured.

On my test chair I was pleased to find that overnight my loose chair had tightened up considerably. The chair felt springy with only a little telltale creaking from a couple of spindles which needed a second treatment.

So a success then? A qualified yes, very encouraging. Judgement is reserved until a few large friends have been to dinner though!

Even if your Ercol Quaker chairs don't seem loose yet it's worth checking them out for any squeaky spindles by gently flexing and twisting. Because the structural integrity of an aged Quaker chair is starting to get marginal any component not pulling its weight will result in more joints failing until you have a problem. It would seem like good idea to try and fix any squeakers with Chair Doctor as preventative medicine.



  1. I might be about to try this myself and have had chair doctor pro recommended by a guy who rennovates Ercol. I have 10 quaker chairs which are all getting darker and are slightly different tomes of golden dawn - so I may even experiment in trying to get these back to base colour as they are scuffed around the arches and chair leg bases - as most 30 - 50 year old pieces of furiture are! I have to say I love the grain texture - so stripping back might reveal more of this. Now english elm is such a rarity it is a pleasure to own a bit of history and to look after it for the next generation of rotund or slim posteriors!


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