A gentler approach to fixing your wobbly legs
By David Edwards, Graduate Diploma Conservation Studies: Furniture and Related Objects
Repairing loose joints in chairs is bread and butter work for furniture conservators. Chairs are particularly susceptible to tension and racking in all joints, but particularly those joining seat frame and legs. Constant stress and overloading of mortice and tenon joints from pulling out and replacing chairs from tables, the shifting of heavy human frames and even (heaven forfend) occasional rocking on the back legs, can cause loosening and eventual failure of joints.
Loose chair leg joints are therefore a common problem. A common solution is to dismantle the joint in order to clean the joint of degraded glue and to allow the conservator to check for the soundness of the timber around the joint. When dismantled, the joint can be cleaned and prepared for new adhesive bonding and thin strips of veneer can be introduced, if required, to compensate for losses or gaps caused by compression within the joint.
However, dismantling the joint should not be considered the only and default option. There may be good reasons to try avoid taking the joint apart. The loose joint may be the only one loose and others around it may be sound and in no need of disturbance. Fragile decorative surfaces on the chair may be damaged by dismantling. And finally significant damage can be done trying to dismantle loose but stubbornly fixed joints, where other elements such as pegs, screws and nails are holding the joint together as well as glue.
It is this last scenario that presented itself in the case of the conservation of a set of 6 mid-19th century oak rush-seated country chairs. These are handsome, well-built, originally sturdy chairs with unusual reeded, curved and crossed splats. Their condition is relatively good, but all of the chairs suffered from loose leg to seat frame joints in both front and back legs. As well as glue, the joints are secured with oak pegs through all of the tenons, so the joints, even when loose, are secure and unlikely to fail completely.