How to repair furniture like a pro without attending woodshop ;)

Repairing loose or damaged joints in furniture.

There are many different wood joint types that you will encounter if you play with a lot of furniture, both machine made and hand made.  Below are some of the most common and how to fix them.  We’re not looking to make you into a master carpenter here, but adding a few of these skills to your tool kit will enable you to buy the pieces that you really want rather than passing them by.  I’ve overheard lots of conversations while at sales and flea markets between shopping partners about how they’d love to have “it”, but they don’t have anyone at home that can make the repairs for them.  We’re going to fix that.

 

Dowel joints: 

Dowel joints are utilized in handcrafted furniture and mass-produced furniture, though it is certainly more common in the latter.  It is a very common occurrence to find chairs and tables with loose dowel joints.   Sometimes this is simply a matter of knocking the joint apart and re-gluing, but at times can require drilling out and replacing a broken dowel or more extensive work.   I personally hate dowel joints and seldom use them when building furniture because they are inherently weak and prone to loosening.  

 

There’s an important lesson here about inspecting before you buy.  If there are just loose joints that need glue and clamps then you’re probably in good shape, but if the side has blown out of a joint, you might want to pass on that piece unless it’s really cheap and you’re confident you can fix it or repurpose it into something that negates the need for repair.  As I write this, I have an Eastlake style easel in my workshop that looks like a cruel puzzle, but it was really cheap and we sort of happened upon it in the basement of an old building in downtown Memphis, and that’s kind of cool.  We’ll get it back together one day.

Learn more! Get our ebook, Furniture Refinishing Demystified.

 

Chairs with spindles: 

Similar to dowel joints, chairs with round spindles and rungs can often be “tightened” with a bit of glue and patience.  I remember as a kid sitting in my mom’s wobbly, old pressed-back chairs at home.  I’m pretty sure I first learned how to glue up chairs on those.

 

Gluing up chair legs and their respective stretchers and rungs requires that you carefully consider the order in which the chair has to be put together.  Preplanning is important here and a dry run is advised.  On more than one occasion, which probably indicates that I’m a slow learner, I’ve had all the joints buttered with glue and start inserting rungs into their sockets only to realize that my order was wrong.  Sometimes it is difficult getting that newly glued joint apart without damaging the pieces; it is always messy.  Be certain to have damp rags handy to mop up spilled glue.

 

Once you get all the glued parts together, a bit of string with a stick to use for tightening works very well as a clamp.  This isn’t merely a method used by those without the proper tool, but is, in fact, very effective.

Learn more! Get our ebook, Furniture Refinishing Demystified.

 

Mortise and tenon joints: 

These are very strong joints that have much greater holding power than dowels.  They don’t often loosen.   Probably more common is to find breakage where there’s been some trauma to the joint such as a very hard blow to a table leg when moving.  Glue joints, when well made and properly designed, don’t usually loosen or fail at the glue line, but often just of it in the wood itself.  The wood almost always yields before the glue gives up.  You probably won’t get a lot of opportunity to repair this type of joint unless the piece in question is old enough to have animal glue (hide glue) and has been exposed to a great deal of moisture, heat, or both, which often causes the glue joint to fail rather than break the wood.  Conservators and instrument makers still use hide glue instead of more modern glues because the joints can be loosened on purpose if needed for future repairs.

Learn more! Get our ebook, Furniture Refinishing Demystified.

 

Dovetail joints: 

Dovetails are usually associated with drawer construction, but can be used for any casework, or simply put, box building.  After all, a great deal of furniture is made up of different size boxes, right?  Dovetails are very strong and provide a large surface area for glue contact.  They, too, rarely loosen unless poorly made or subjected to harsh environmental conditions.  Dovetails are strong mechanically with their interlocking design and this sometimes will keep a joint together even if the glue isn’t doing much work.  Once, all dovetails were laid out and cut by hand by skilled craftsmen.  Some hobbyists and high-end furniture makers still do this, but it is a laborious task.  Hand cut dovetails are a thing of beauty and ought to be admired. 

 

Repairing them is usually only a matter of cleaning up any old glue that might prevent the joint from fitting properly and re-gluing with clamps used to hold it together until the glue sets.

Learn more! Get our ebook, Furniture Refinishing Demystified.

 

General gluing instructions: 

Invest in a few good bar clamps for simple repairs and add to your tool kit as necessity dictates.  In a pinch, heavy household items, tape, and string can be used to bring two pieces back together for glue to dry.  A ratchet tie-down strap can be helpful when clamping chairs and similar pieces.

 

Yellow carpenter’s glue is a good choice for most of the repairs that we’ll talk about here.  Contact cement or heavy duty spray adhesive works for light duty veneer repairs.  For our purposes, I’d avoid polyurethane glues like the popular Gorilla Glue brand due to some of the properties those glues have that makes it more difficult for a novice to use properly.  Polyurethane glues expand as they cure and are very difficult to remove from some surfaces, your hands for instance.  Yellow carpenter’s glue can be cleaned up with water while it’s still wet.

 

Clamping time varies with temperature and humidity, but the bottom line is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.  A good rule is to avoid temperature extremes, too hot and the glue sets up too quickly (short open time), too cold and it takes a really long time to dry.  Generally, a glued joint should be clamped together a minimum of an hour or so when using yellow carpenter’s glue and should not see heavy handling or use until 24 hours have passed.  

 

Preparing table corner braces.

Preparing table corner braces.

Repairing Damaged Veneer:

A good bit of the furniture that we encounter will have at least a few veneered surfaces.  And a sizeable portion of that furniture will, at some point in its life, have lifting or damaged veneer.  From our vantage point as furniture fixer uppers and repurposers, we can approach those repairs from a couple of ways.  We can make what traditionalists would call a proper repair in which we reglue the lifting veneer or cut a patch to fit a missing section, or we can remove the veneer to reveal its substrate which can sometimes be a nice solid core of poplar wood or just a smooth layer of veneer ready to accept paint. 

 

Removing veneer can sometimes backfire on us, though as seen in the picture below.  This is caused by dimensional movement of the wood, which is usually kept in check by layers of veneer glued together in alternating directions perpendicular to each other (think plywood).

 

Notice the crack across the curve on the top on this waterfall chest?  We goofed when we removed the peeling veneer on this one, which cause the unstable lower layer to eventually split along the grain.  We’d have done better to reglue the veneer.  There wasn’t enough layers remaining keep it all together as it contracted as the weather cooled.

Notice the crack across the curve on the top on this waterfall chest?  We goofed when we removed the peeling veneer on this one, which cause the unstable lower layer to eventually split along the grain.  We’d have done better to reglue the veneer.  There wasn’t enough layers remaining keep it all together as it contracted as the weather cooled.

 

We removed the top layer of veneer on this waterfall chest and painted the parts that were in poor condition to give the piece a cool two-tone look.  But on one cold day, the layer of veneer remaining split, as you can see.  I was in the room working at the computer when it happened and it gave a loud crack as it split all the way across.  Wood moves, man.

Learn more! Get our ebook, Furniture Refinishing Demystified.

 

 

Balancing a piece that has lost molding: 

Like a hockey player’s absent teeth, sometimes we run across furniture that used to be better adorned that its present state.  If the absence of a particular piece of molding isn’t a detriment that you can’t live without, we can balance both sides of the piece to reestablish symmetry.  This works pretty well.  Obviously, we don’t employ this technique on priceless heirlooms or museum pieces, but for non-historically significant pieces, this will provide balance and pleasing aesthetics that delight you and your purse.  Occasionally a piece will look funny without replacing some molding, if you aren’t confident that you can replicate the look to your satisfaction, pass on the piece.  If it just needs balancing, grab it up at a bargain!  Of course, use the missing molding to your advantage when negotiating price.

This piece came to us with a bum top and missing moldings, but a balancing out of the moldings, replacing the top and giving it a paint job saved it from its life of decay in a barn and gave it new life as a coffee bar for a customer.  

This piece came to us with a bum top and missing moldings, but a balancing out of the moldings, replacing the top and giving it a paint job saved it from its life of decay in a barn and gave it new life as a coffee bar for a customer.

 

Learn more! Get our ebook, Furniture Refinishing Demystified.