My Patio Classics: Steel Lawn Chairs – A Restoration Project For JPC

Spring is here, which brings about one of my twice-yearly urgings to buy an old car.  I successfully resisted the urge last fall (no thanks to a few here who have been the opposite of an “automotive sobriety buddy” – and you know who you are).  Part of my success was due to finding another outlet for my desire to twist wrenches and do body and paint work in comfortable weather while listening to a football game on the radio.  My resto project?  A pair of genuine classic steel lawn chairs.  And if you want to see the “After” picture, you will have to read to the end.  And sorry, this is not as involved as building a camper out of a plain white Promaster, but sometimes a guy just has to stay within his skill set.

I have always had an eye for old stuff.  The styles of the 1930s through the 1950s have always fascinated me, mostly because those objects seldom lived at my own house as I was growing up.  But trips to my grandma’s house was always good for a little retro design heaven.  Among her treasures was a rusty, flaky pair of old metal chairs that lived out on the small concrete slab behind her house.

Grandma’s chairs were so different from our own, which were those aluminum frames with the woven plastic webbing that always seemed to tear when you sat on them wrong.  OK, when you and your sister were jumping on them, right before your Mom shouted “What are you kids doing” and came out to see.  Grandma’s chairs were everything ours were not – heavy and solid, seemingly able to withstand everything short of nuclear attack.  OK, and weather.  They didn’t like weather.  Grandma had given it her best shot, occasionally scraping them with a wire brush and slathering house paint on them in an effort to stave off cover the ever-present rust.

Life with my new metal lawn chairs (at least as I imagined it.)

 

Fast forward about 25 years to when I found myself in my own house.  Instead of the vinyl village of the ’80s or the homes of the Atomic Age that I had grown up in, my first house was a little brick bungalow that was built right about the time Henry Ford was closing down Model T production.  It had a little front porch, and not just any porch furniture would do.  I saw these at a garage sale of an elderly woman who was moving away.  I simply had to own these pieces of Americana that would fit so perfectly with our little Coolidge-era home.  They were a different style from Grandma’s, chairs and in much better condition – at least there was no house paint.  But they needed help, unless I was prepared for a stern talking to from my new wife every time she did laundry.  I should add that new versions of these chairs were being sold inexpensively at big box stores, but those seemed so thin and cheap.  I figured that these old-timers would last a lot longer with a little work.

One of them was an orangy color and the other was a kind of yellow green, both with white arms.  Or rusty white arms.  I started to work and got the lime green one apart.  I spent pretty much an entire day grinding the metal surfaces with an abrasive sponge on my electric drill.  Those tubular legs took a long, long time.  I then sprayed them with an  anti-rust coating (Oxy-Solv from The Eastwood Company) and finally shot it with primer and then some park-bench-green Rust-Oleum that seemed an appropriate retro color.

And then . . . I got busy.  I had some old cars at the time, and got some kids too.  Somehow I just never found time to get to that second chair.  When we moved to our current (Atomic Age) house, it went into a neglected corner of the basement with boxes stacked on top of it where it stayed for, uh, decades.  The green one, meanwhile, served yeoman’s duty on our screened porch.

After we got some new patio furniture, Mrs. JPC began suggesting that maybe I could get to that second chair and repaint both of them to match the other furniture.  a couple of years ago I got it out of the basement and started doing a little research.   I located a company that sells the hardware to refurbish them and made plans to finally get the job done.  But things got busy again, and yeah.

The place where I bought my hardware kits actually sells new versions of my chairs.  With the exception of the shape of the legs, they appear identical.  So it might be that my chairs were originally manufactured by the Warmack Company of Fort Smith, Arkansas, which was the biggest seller.  One little tidbit that I picked up was that the original design incorporated four holes drilled into the seat for water drainage.  It was decided later that the holes actually promoted rust instead of preventing it, and the holes were eliminated some time before 1955, leading me to believe  that these particular chairs go back to the era of the stepdown Hudson and Chryslers with Fluid Drive.

Anyhow, I finally got busy with the process, which began with disassembly.  It was interesting to see how both the 1940s and 1990s paint had faded.  There was a part of me that wanted to start with some rubbing compound on the red one to see how much of the finish could be brought back, but I immediately slapped myself and realized what a stupid idea that was.  There was far too much surfact rust to make it usable and I have enough such work on my hands with a Miata and a Honda Fit with single stage paint finishes that require annual buffing.

Once I was ready to get underway, I did one thing smarter than before:  I called a metal-stripping company to check their price.  The short story is that Redi-Strip of Indianapolis did a fabulous media-blasting job on them.  I believe that he said he used silica as the blasting medium, but we chatted about other things and I have forgotten.  At $35/disassembled chair and a 24 hour turnaround, I would make this trade over two full days with my drill any day.

It is amazing how good the hardware was in the original chair.  I figured that vintage hardware deserved the use of some vintage tools, which also worked well.  Every fastener came right off with the first twist of a wrench, which is more than I can say on my 1990 refurb, where every single (too-small) bolt snapped off as I tried to remove the nut.  Hopefully the new hardware will be better.

The silica blasting worked like a charm, particularly the part that required zero labor from me.  The metal finish was slightly rough, all the better for primer adhesion.  A quick blasting with some air and a wipe with a tack cloth and we were ready for primer.

My next decision was for paint.  One of the few things automotive that I developed some actual skill at was wielding a can of Dupli-Color automotive spray finish.  It is not as easy or forgiving as something like Rust Oleum or Krylon, but with the right technique, the look and durability of the finish can’t be beat.  Plus, there is a wide selection of automotive colors available.  The environmental authorities have not eliminated single stage lacquer in spray cans yet, so I decided to go with what I know while I still can.  The color choice?  GM Dark Bronzemist Metallic.  According to Paintref.com, it was offered by every Division but Cadillac pretty steadily from 1999-2005, thus ensuring easy availability in an aftermarket spray.  And Mrs. JPC liked the color.

A string of warm, dry days in October made the decision for me to get busy with the spraying.  I prefer to do this outdoors and not in the garage (where dust can be more of a problem) but falling leaves (and walnuts) made my decision for me.

Spray, let dry, wet sand, let dry, turn over, repeat, and so on.  Spraying primer is always a low-stress proposition.  Yes, bugs and dirt can fly into your wet paint, but it isn’t a finish coat so who cares – every flaw can be fixed with some more sanding and another coat.   This low-stress situation stops when you begin spraying the color coat.

Everything started out so nicely.  I kind of wondered why I was not getting the nice wet gloss I had become used to with Dupli-Color, and then it hit me:  this was no longer your father’s single-stage lacquer.  Dupli-Color had tricked me into having to learn a two-step color/clear system.  Drat.

Oh well, we all need to learn something new, right?  I was less sanguine about the doubling of materials cost, but waddyagonnado?

In the end it all went quite nicely.  Other than one gust of wind that blew a bit of crud into one of the chairs at the wrong time.  Fortunately these will be going onto my back porch and not into the Museum of Modern Art so the issue was not catastrophic.  Final assembly with my new hardware went off without a hitch and my classic/vintage/retro metal chairs were once again presentable.  With one little home-cooked improvement – did you know that pieces of old-fashioned rubber garden hose are just the right diameter to make little feet that will keep the steel legs from scraping on concrete and starting the rusting process all over again?

About that – I took the “after” pictures in my living room.  And for a few days I held out hope that perhaps these very, very, very expensive chairs might make the cut to augment our indoor furnishings.  But – – – no.  “Very nice” said Mrs. JPC “but they’re still going back outside.”  She was right, of course.  And soon the weather will be warm enough to bring them out of storage and onto the porch.  Which will make me probably the only guy in my neighborhood with porch furniture older than his house.  They certainly have a better paint job.