How I restored my vintage tulip table and shell chairs

burke dinette set before being refinished

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!

burke dinette chair

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.

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.

But, please note:

Disclaimer: Here on the blog, as homeowners ourselves, we may try new cleaning products aimed at solving our own cleaning problems; if we think we’ve found something promising to consider, we may write about it. But, we are not professional chemists or engineers or home economists. So, please: Do your own research into these products and their suitability for your projects before trying them. More info in Terms of Use.

repairing a saarinen tulip table and shell chairs Above: All done!

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.

repairing a vintage shell chair saarinen burke  Above: The shell chair, restored and purty.

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.

Above: Crest whitening toothpaste in action. I wonder if the plaque-fighting stuff is making any difference.

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.

cleaning white formica Above: Attacking the ground-in rusty gunk with toothpaste, a Dobey and Blue Heaven.

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.

cleaning white laminate Above: Letting the toothpaste soak in.

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.

Again, thanks to 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?

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Comments

  1. Sheila Willis says

    I think I have a Saarinen pedestal table and tulip chairs with the up arrow. My problem they have been painted looks like two different times. I would like to restore. Any suggestions on how to remove the coats of paint?

  2. Monique says

    Hello I am debating
    On getting a set of daystrom vintage tulip swivel
    Chairs they are really cool vinyl on back and seat with thick plastic/fiberglass piece down middle of back and sides. The bases are severly chipped but I lifted up the heavy type plastic
    And the base metal is still textured. Any suggestions? Was the base of these chairs like that. Thank you so much for any help! I can attach pics in an email for further review.

    Monique

  3. Jared Belson says

    My family has this set as well and they want to get sell it. I want to restore it but don’t have room in the apartment. Anyone have any ideas on best places to sell it? Won’t be sure for another week if it’s Burke or Saarinen

  4. Ernest Parra says

    Have 4 vintage X Base chairs Burke #115 and matching table. Had the bases of the chairs powder coated, but the Clear/White Plastic tips on the bottom end of the chairs was worn/torn and some missing. Does anyone have any idea’s for what can be used for replacement tips. They allow he chairs to slide without tearing up the finish on the bottom of the legs. Work sort of like furniture glides but much tougher, and fit in recesses in the bottom tips of the X legs. Any help finding a substitute or replacement would be most appreciated.

  5. Ernest Parra says

    Pam–on your March 18, 2011 post you say your husband after a 6 month search finally find the little “rubber” nubbies ( I think the originals were a tough white/clear plastic) that fit in recesses of the underside of the tips of the X shaped Burke Chairs, that allow them to slide without damaging the flooring underneath.
    In your Dec. 10, 2014 in answer to the same query from another poster you say you have “no idea” where to find them. If it is not too much trouble please ask your Husband to post on this forum where he located the ones that fit in the recesses on the underside of the chairs. Need help bad—the are scratching my floors badly. Thanks—-Parra

  6. Beth says

    I need the top of my Burke table re-done.
    It once was a high gloss and is now dull and has scratches.
    What can I do to refinish?

    • pam kueber says

      I don’t know the answer to this. If it’s laminate, I don’t think there is any way to restore the finish.

  7. Al says

    I originally bought Tulip style(Eames?)set in 1962 and tried refinish
    2 yrs ago but shop painted bases scuff Any suggestion as to where have professionally done.Live now in Fla.
    Thanks.

  8. Nina says

    Hi guys
    I just bought a new Saarinen Table & Chairs. Any idea to protect from the beginning? I am looking for a “protection foil” for the chairs.
    Have you heard about something like that?
    Thanks for your help.
    Nina

  9. Nicholas says

    I have a set of Saarinen Table & Chairs that I purchased from Knoll over 19 years ago and they are still almost perfect. Aside from not letting kids spin around in the chairs or banging the edge of the table, I have been using Johnson’s Jubilee on them since new. It cleans quite well and leaves a protective shine although that laminate tabletop surface takes a lot of elbow grease to keep nice.
    The bases are coated in a material called “Reslan” that is quite durable. Johnson’s discontinued Jubilee a while ago but now a different company is making it again and you can buy it online.
    Also be prepared to dust/clean those beautiful bases occasionally although they eliminate “that slum of legs” they do get dusty. You’ll find that they clean up easier after the Jubilee has been applied.
    I have yet to find a really great solution for sliders for these chairs. (knoll provided several feet of adhesive felt when I purchased them) but it begins to drag for some reason after a while and keeping those little plastic glides stuck to the base is problematic.

  10. barbara says

    I have an original table and chairs and need them refinished. I am in the Orlando area. anyone know of someone who is skilled and able to bring this back to life? Thanks.

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