When I first bought my vintage tulip table and chairs, the steel bases were pocked and rusted… the fiberglass shell chairs were dirty and dingy… and the laminate tabletop and rubber edge were yellowed and soiled. How did I get them to look like new? Secrets revealed today!
Above: A shell chair “after” complete restoration.
First, how to clean and revive the vintage fiberglass shell chair … the seat portion? After buying the dingy chairs, I went online to search for help and pretty much right away found: Chairfag.com’s Original Shell Chair Restoration Guide. I do not like the name of this site at all, but there you go. As part of their tutorial, they recommended a product called Penetrol — it’s available at big box home stores, or you can buy via my little Amazon widget and disclosure: I get a teensy spiff that helps keep the blog boat afloat.
To do this work… and to repaint the metal bases of the table and chairs, I called in a pro — Shaun Guinan of Reworks Vintage Interiors in Pittsfield, Mass. I actually met Shawn at my first garage sale of the summer. He came by and bought some old metal chairs I had for sale. We got to talking, and I learned that he specialized in metal refinishing and repair. So after the sale, he came back, took a look, and gave me an estimate that seemed fair. Most importantly, he seemed to have the caution, patience — and sensibility – that is required to mess with old stuff.
For the metal bases on the table and chairs, Shaun thought that the prep and repainting would be pretty straightforward — and it was. He told me that he sanded down the rust, then primed with two coats of a basic auto body primer (sand between coats), then spray-repainted with a single-stage auto body lacquer with matting agent to bring down the shine. He did NOT put a clearcoat on, because I did not want a super-high-gloss finish. He had all the equipment and the dust-free booth to do the work. And, he even came back once to my house to review some shades of white so that I could pick the one I wanted.
To restore the luster on the shell chairs — he used the chairfag / penetrol method as described – and it worked beautifully. He told me that he cleaned the fiberglass lightly, then used the penetrol, all per the instructions. This method brought the shine right out — the chairs look great. In addition, there was a bit of a chip in the top back of one of the chairs. He filled this with marine epoxy, trying to match the epoxy to the white fiberglass as best he could. Matching was impossible – but he came close enough and honestly, you’d have to really be focused on looking for flaws. Note, read through the comments on the post referenced above, and you can see feedback that trying to fix serious cracks in fiberglass shell chairs can be futile; I hope the little chippy cracky in mine holds up; we’ll see. The guidance seems to be: Find chairs with shells that are intact — preferred. As a final step in the chair restoration, Shaun replaced the old wrecked vinyl seat cushion with a rich cherry-colored leather — he actually had a remmant in his shop and when he showed it to me, I thought it would be fine. It’s a deeper red than the previous candy-apple cushions and looks great. When he took the original cushions apart, he found that the plywood base of the cushion (which is screwed into the chair) is actually contoured. The plywood was grody — but to try and replicate the contour was nigh on impossible. So he cleaned it up best he could, added new foam, and the leather. The chairs … and the table base… look fantabulous.
When it came to cleaning up the table top, Pammy got DIY-crafty. First, the edge of the table — which I *think* is rubber or some such composite – was all scuffy and grody. What should I use? How about Crest whitening toothpaste, which I had in the bathroom. Yes, I was thinking, what can I use that is a bit abrasive but NOT TOO MUCH, and which will whiten? Toothpaste! It worked pretty darn well. But my follow on Step #2 was even more effective: A Mr. Clean white eraser. I read the instructions, used the magic eraser and that brought the edging back to pretty darn clean whiteness. **Note, though, Maria thinks the white eraser is very abrasive — it takes the faces right off of vintage dolls; so be careful — make your own decisions! My table was so darn grody I took the chance. I’ll update if I see any visible longterm consequences.
Now: the laminate tabletop. Here’s what it looked like “before.” Again, I first used Crest whitening toothpaste in the toughest spots. This was working okay, but pretty tedious, so I switched to the Mr. Clean white eraser — and wow, that worked like a dream. Now, there are all kinds of warnings on the Mr. Clean white eraser about testing on hidden spots, etc. I didn’t do that. I just winged it. And it seems fine. Lord knows what the longterm consequences are… so make your own decisions, don’t just do what I did… In any case, my tabletop was in dire straits. If I didn’t get it clean, DH was gonna make me go get it re-laminated. And I did not want THE PROJECT to continue any longer than it had to. Note: DH was VERY IMPRESSED with the project’s outcome; I think he was kind of skeptical, initially. Like, what piece of beat up old crap pardon-my-French have you brought into the house this time? Not that I blame him. I have a bad record on completing projects with half-ass pardon-my-French outcomes.
While that Mr. Clean white eraser seemed to work miracles overall, the deeply embedded ”rusty” spots were still resistant. So I went back to the toothpaste… letting it sink in a bit… and except for a very faint ring, the rusty looking gunk is gone. It’s one of those things where you have to bend your head and look sideways in the table to see the ring, which is very faint but still there.
As a last step, I applied a few coats of Countertop Magic (liquid spray), which was originally recommended by Grace Jeffers of laminate preservation fame. Grace also contributed to our discussion about how to revive laminate – she was the original proponent of Countertop Magic and warns against abrasives and wax. Hmmmm. I wonder how penetrol would work on beat-up laminate…Penetrol is an oil conditioner and laminates like oil, Grace said… I will have to ask her what she think of trying Penetrol on old laminate…
Above: That’s Shaun Guinan of Reworks Vintage, Pittsfield – who restored the shell chairs and table and chair base. Great work, Shaun!
Voila. I am now the proud owner of a restored, vintage Saarinen style tulip table and shell chair set. Shaun found some markings when he took the table and chairs apart. I wrote them down and will research them some time. I tend to this is vintage Burke — which can fetch a pretty penny. But I don’t really care. I usually buy furnishing for my home to live with and enjoy, not generally as investments. For me, the fun is putting all this oddball stuff together in a happy homey unique-just-to-me way. And yes, THE PROJECTS always do make for a better story, don’t they?