It’s no secret that we like Eames fiberglass chairs. We bought RAR rockers for each of our children and with another one on the way, it’s time to buy another (like how I slipped that announcement in there? [more on that in the future]). The first and only furniture we’ve bought for the new house so far is a set of eight mis-matched fiberglass side chair shells for the dining room. The condition of the chairs ranges from pretty good to pretty rough. All of them could use some degree of refinishing. In this first installment of a two-part series, I’m going to show you how to refnish Eames fiberglass shell chairs.
The blue chair I’m working on here is the worst one we have as far as the finish goes. It’s dull and lifeless. It’s also the victim of a paint job (the horror). The previous owner tried to correct the atrocity by stripping the paint. They did a fair job, but it seems that once the glass fibers have absorbed paint, they don’t let it go; there are some fibers that are stained dark blue. Never fear though, there’s hope for this little guy.
Paint absorbed into the fibers.
What you will need:
- A good cleaner & degreaser like Simple Green
Lint-free cloths or paper towels (I use blue shop towels)
Gloves (I prefer nitrile)
Mineral spirits (for removing particularly difficult spots)
- A can of Penetrol
- A base to fit your chair (optional)
Inside the can of Penetrol lies the magic. This stuff, made by Flood, is a paint additive that’s supposed to reduce brush strokes. I’ve never used it as a paint additive, but the can declares that it can also be used to restore fiberglass – that I can vouch for. Fortunately I was able to find it locally at Home Depot. It’s about $9 for a quart which will cover a lot of chairs.
1. Inspect it
Carefully look over the chair to see if there’s any damage. Any cracks or chips will need to be fixed first. Worn-out shock mounts can be replaced later. I’ll write another guide for fixing cracks and replacing shock mounts. Most shells are in pretty good shape, so if yours looks good, continue on to the next step.
2. Clean it
It’s important that the chairs be free of dirt and grime so give them a good bath. I like to use a diluted solution of Simple Green with a sponge. Just spray it on and scrub the shell clean being careful to not damage any stickers that may be on the underside. Then rinse or wipe with a damp cloth or paper towel and allow to dry.
Any spots that don’t come up with Simple Green can likely be removed with some mineral spirits, a rag, and some elbow grease.
Many of these chairs were installed in public places so you may run across a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom here and there left by some hoodlum. If that’s the case, scrape it off with a putty knife, being careful not to gouge the fiberglass and hit it with some mineral sprits to dissolve that nastiness and assume the perp has long since matured and moved on to more constructive activities.
Allow the shell to dry completely before moving on to the next step.
3. Shine it
Saturate a clean rag or paper towel (one that won’t leave lint behind) with the Penetrol and just wipe it on the shell. Make long, even, overlapping strokes being sure to get complete coverage.
We’re going to deviate slightly from the instructions on the back of the can of Penetrol. Skip the last step of buffing the chair and just let it dry. This way we get a shine that more closely matches the original finish the chairs had when they left the Herman Miller factory. Of course, if you prefer a less shiny chair, you can buff the surface with a dry cloth after 3-5 minutes.
I like to start with the back and underside. Let one side dry before repeating on the other side. Once the back is mostly dry, after 10-15 minutes, you can loosely attach a base to the chair and flip it over to do the front.
If you don’t have a base handy you can wait a little longer until you’re satisfied that it’s dry enough and flip it over onto the shock mounts.
4. Repeat if necessary
You can repeat step 3, applying another coat of Penetrol, if you’re not satisfied with the glossiness of the chair. I did two coats on the blue chair. Once you get past three coats, you’re probably in the realm of diminishing returns.
After the first application, buffed according to instructions.
After the second application, left to dry with no buffing.
Here are some more before and after pics:
Orange shell before
Orange shell after
Detail before. Some scratches showing.
Some closer detail showing how the appearance of scratches is slightly diminished.
Coming up next
The second part in this series I’ll cover minor fiberglass repairs and replacing shock mounts. We have some shells that are in need of both. Also, these chairs need bases. We like the dowel bases. The wood gives some warmth to a chair with a colorful but hard surface. We plan on sourcing the mounts and bases from Modern Conscience. They offer bases in both wide and narrow-mount configurations which is convenient because we have some wide-mount shells with mounts in good condition so we won’t have to move the mounts.
If you’re restoring your own chairs or are just an Eames enthusiast, please leave a note in the comments. I’d love for you to share your experience.