Gentrify Your Neighborhood, One Abandoned Chair at a Time

I live in what you might call a “gentrifying” neighborhood. When I moved here 14 years ago, my hood had exactly half a coffee shop. And now we’ve got  least five, one of which installed metal plates over their outlets to keep creative/work-at-tome types like me from loitering all day on our outdated laptops. *


Mean neighborhood coffee shop that won’t let me steal electricity or wi-fi, with name redacted.

Here’s yet another sign of gentrification: After the original owners died, the two-flat** next door is being gutted and flipped by developers.  Don’t worry Scooby-Doo, the house is not haunted.

Last week, while harvesting icicles in the alley (for the children to duel with, of course), I noticed an elegant piece of wood sticking out of the snow between two trash cans next door.  Since the contractors were gone for the day, I snuck back and dug out a beautiful mid-century wooden captain’s chair.


View from my back window. Can you spot the orphaned chair?

I JUST HAD to rescue this chair from its snowy grave! But – even though it was clearly bound for the landfill – technically this chair was on private property, so I let it be. If only there was a version of Children and Family Services for neglected mid-century furniture!

That afternoon, I casually mentioned my ethical dilemma to Scott.  When he arrived home from work, he brought me a little present:


Oh yeah… THAT’s why I married this guy.

This poor orphan was gorgeous and seriously solid, with neither a wiggle nor a creak in its joints. It was born just across the Hoosier curtain in Jasper, Indiana:

IMG_3310Maybe I’ve been watching too much “Sherlock,” but I’ve seen enough old chairs to know that this sticker included the words “Property of” and “Illinois.”  So my stolen chair was itself stolen from Illinois taxpayers. Sorry to confirm any stereotypes you may have had about Chicago.

IMG_3434Despite its solid bones, Orphan Chair was water-damaged and pockmarked from decades of abuse. Let’s take a closer look…

chair1WARNING: The following images may be difficult for our more sensitive readers…

IMG_3419IMG_3422Once I let the snow melt and the wood dry, it was time to get to work.  My goal was to give this chair a complete makeover without spending a dime. Here’s how I did it:


STEP ONE – SEAT BACK CUSHION:  This chair’s vinyl cushion was mostly intact, but so permanently filthy that it can only be described as “Dirty Cow Tongue.”**


See?  Cow Tongue.

Best just to re-cover it. Luckily, I had just enough white-and-grey chevron oilcloth from my IKEA bench recovering project to get the job done. First, unscrew the cushion from the back of the chair.

IMG_3357Due to decades of accumulated backsweat (and maybe some glue), I had to then pry the cushion off with a flathead screwdriver.

IMG_3362Take a moment to compare the exposed vinyl to the “virgin” vinyl in back, which could best be described as “nuclear bubble gum:”

IMG_3366 Now don’t freak out, but we’ll have to re-cover both the cushion and the PIPING. Remove the piping, which is nailed on to the back of the cushion. Go ahead and toss those little rusty nails on the floor, where you’ll never see them again.

IMG_3375Next, pull the cord out of the pink vinyl enclosure.  To make new piping, cut a piece of  fabric that is the length of the cord and 2 inches wide.

IMG_3383Wrap the new fabric around the cord like a taco, pin it in place and then sew it together. Put aside for a moment.

IMG_3388Next, cut a piece of the same fabric in the shape of the cushion, plus about an 2 inches extra.

IMG_3393Starting in the center and moving out towards the ends, staple the fabric VERY TIGHTLY to the back of the cushion. Since this cushion has a curve in the middle, it was tricky to staple it on without unsightly bunching.  Just keeping pulling tighter and stapling harder, making sure to throw in some swear words for your effort.


IMG_3400Center your piping over the top of the cushion.

IMG_3405Starting at the top center, staple the piping to the back of the cushion over your new fabric. Position it so that the piping perfectly frames the sides of the cushion.

IMG_3411Since position is so important in this step, I found it helpful to tape the piping in place as I stapled it down.

IMG_3414When your piping gets to the bottom center of the cushion, simply insert one end of the cord into the “taco shell” of the the other end and staple shut, so that no cord is exposed.  This concept is pretty much impossible to explain in photos:

IMG_3416_arrowSee, that wasn’t so bad!

IMG_3417STEP TWO – REFINISH THE WOOD:  We’ll have to sand down this whole chair for two reasons: 1) to even out the scars in the wood and, 2) to remove the original shiny finish so that our new stain will “take.” This requires the use of a power sander.

PRO-TIP!!  This winter has been particularly brutal for crafty types without basements or garages. But don’t let that stop you from sanding, drilling and  painting all season long!  Simply find a room near the back of your house, preferably with plenty of windows (in my case the dining room). Use two pants hangers to drape an old sheet over the door to keep the fumes/dust/poisonous gases from reaching the lungs of delicate family members. SAFETY FIRST!

IMG_3427Now, go ahead and sand the @#$%* out of that chair. Seriously, go to town on that thing, starting with 80-grit paper and finishing it with 150. Remember, the higher the grit number, the finer the sanding.



Sanding the @#$ out of your chair: Before and After

Wipe off the dust with a damp rag and let dry. Next, grab a can of wood stain and finish. I happened to have this can of Dark Walnut, which I also used to refinish a coffee table, my standing desk, and our Credenza/TV stand. If I wasn’t such a cheap-ass, I would have picked a lighter stain, but hey, it was already there, and I really wanted to spend zero dollars on this project.

IMG_3435Following the directions on the can, use an old rag (I used baby sweatpants!) to apply a sloppy coat of stain to the raw wood. Make sure to wipe the excess stain within 5-10 minutes, or else it will dry into a sticky, tar-like mess. You can always apply a second coat if it doesn’t seem dark or even enough at first.


IMG_3440Wait 24 hours, get some fresh air, and apply the Polyurethane varnish in three VERY THIN coats, with about two hours dry time between each coat. The varnish will go on in a disturbing milky blueish white, but will dry clear and shiny!

IMG_3449When all your chemicals have dried, screw the cushion into the back of the chair, and take the whole thing into your bathroom to take pictures!

IMG_3464IMG_3462IMG_3463Pretty soon, I’ll have enough old chairs to open a coffee shop of my OWN!

* Don’t worry, there are still at least two coffee shops left in the neighborhood with musty furniture and disturbing artwork.
**Two-flat is a Chicago term for a building with two apartments.  Except that nobody calls their apartment a “flat;” that just sounds snooty.
*** As a certified City Girl, this is only an approximation of what I believe a dirty cow tongue to look like.


21 thoughts on “Gentrify Your Neighborhood, One Abandoned Chair at a Time

    • Yes! I honestly don’t know how they got the original cover on so well. It was vinyl and stretchy, but so was mine. It’s also so hard to get enough power in your stapling arm when you can’t lay the cushion flat on the table. I felt like standing on my head at times to get the right angle.

      Is there such a thing as a power staple gun, and do I need one?


      • Yes there is, and no you don’t! It uses a very noisy compressor, takes up enormous amounts of room, and costs thousands. But if I’m going to do any more of this kind of thing, I’m definitely going to invest in a bench clamp to hold the bendy bits while I squeeze the gun with both hands…


        • Oh yes, good call on the clamp. Throughout the whole agonizing stapling process, I kept thinking, “If ONLY I had a third hand, this would be much easier!” I called my husband in to help a few times, but then came way too close to stapling his finger to the chair cushion.


    • Yeah, I’m not trying too hard to hide my disdain for such an unwelcoming place. Last time I was there, they had even replaced the booth seating with hard cubes. CUBES! There goes the neighborhood!


  1. Perhaps the worst offense of the unnamed coffee shop: They think they should police the quantity of coffee their patrons ingest. In the name of coffee appreciation, they have no large coffee. WTF? America!


    • My understanding of why this certain local coffee chain does not have outlets is because they want you to sit and think about how complex and sophisticated their coffee is, not be distracted by the banality of the outside world.

      Let’s go there soon with an empty Big Gulp cup, and then order 3 medium coffees and dump them all in the Big Gulp, and then add a half a cup of sugar and some ice cubes and drink the whole thing in less than a minute. That’ll show ’em!!


      • Love it. Or, to reference one of your earlier posts, we could rent a generator, run it on the sidewalk right outside their door, plug in a microwave and our laptops, order their petite coffee, and sit there all day, nursing it and periodically microwaving it. That would kill them.


  2. wow! Absolutely kudos to you! I have a facebook page called DIY Eco, all about exactly this – upcycling, recycling, and anything anyone can do to be more eco-friendly. I’m definitely sharing this on that page, and I look forward to other projects you get into 🙂 Thanks for recycling and adopting the discarded!


  3. Flat sounds snooty? How funny, here “apartment” is a kind of pretentious term and flat is the standard one! I love the old-new chair, the fabric is much nicer. And boo to the coffee shop.


    • I suspect “flat” sounds snooty here because that is the British way of saying it, and — for whatever reason — British = Snooty. Perhaps we’ve seen too much Downton Abbey and Keeping Up Appearances. Funny that “apartment” is considered pretentious there.

      Even more strange is that Chicago is the only American city I’ve lived in or visited that uses the term “two-flat” (or 3, or 6-flat) for a multi-unit building. Back in St. Louis, where I grew up, we used to call them “duplexes,” which makes is sound like they’re made of Legos.

      Loving this cultural exchange. When is Australia going to weigh in?


      • To me, an apartment would be a huge fancy place in a big city like London. I live in a “studio flat” which is a posh name for a bedsit… if I called it an apartment I’d be laughed at!


        • OK, now you’ll have to explain what a “bedsit” is? I suspect it is similar to what we call here a “studio apartment,” which has a kitchen, bathroom, and one single room for sleeping/living (i.e., no separate bedroom).


          • It is similar to that, except that the kitchen and bathroom are in the single room (ok, my bathroom is walled off, but it is nonetheless merely the corner of my bedroom/living room/kitchen/entire home). I measured once and determined that my flat is 120 square feet, in total.


  4. what an amazing after!! gorgeous. The Annie of Orphan Chairs. Well done Sissy Warbucks.

    also, I take great pride in never ordering a “tall” coffee at Starbucks–I am an Ammurrican and I want a SMALL!! That should bring them to their knees.


  5. Pingback: Separation of Church and Seat: Resurrecting a Fallen Chair | projectophile

  6. Pingback: The Something Old, Something New, Somethings Borrowed and Something Blue Clock |

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