How to upcycle a wooden settle

Unprepossessing brown furniture can be transformed over a weekend. Helaine Clare shows how to give a chunky Victorian settle a makeover. Included a full list of tools and equipment you will need to complete the job

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I was at an auction recently, on the lookout for a bargain, and came across this 19th-century oak settle in a rather sorry state. But beyond the damaged split wood and the layers of dirt and grime, it had the potential for reinvention.

At auction, buyers and antiques dealers are often reluctant to bid for items in need of repair because it can significantly add to the final cost. If you’ve got the time and the know-how, this is when bargains can be had. As well as fixing the crack, I decided to paint the settle to give it a new look, then as a final touch I added a cushioned pad for comfort.

A settle is a traditional piece of furniture dating to at least the 16th century. Its high back and winged arms kept out draughts long before screens were invented, and settles were often drawn around the fire in a kitchen. Sometimes a slim cupboard was incorporated into the back, or storage beneath the seat. Today they remain as adaptable as ever, often found in pubs or in the halls of country houses.

Who’d have thought that a very modest amount spent at auction could so easily translate into this lovely piece of furniture, made from a fine piece of wood? That’s the satisfaction of being a rescuer.

You will need…

To repair wood

  • Small paintbrush
  • Wood glue
  • Sash clamps
  • Sponge To paint settle
  • Medium grade glasspaper and block
  • Sugar soap and cloth
  • Acrylic primer/undercoat
  • Acrylic eggshell paint
  • Screwdriver

To make seat pad

  • Reconstituted foam
  • Cotton wadding
  • Barrier cloth
  • Fabric for cover
  • Scissors
  • Gimp pins
  • Enamel-coated nails
  • Felt pads
  • Tack hammer

1. Repair the crack in the wood: Clean off dust from the split wood using a paintbrush, then apply wood glue. Position a sash clamp and tighten until the wood is pulled together. If the piece is to be left unpainted protect the surface with off-cuts of wood on the jaws of the clamp. Wipe off surplus glue with a damp sponge and leave overnight.

2. Abrade to make a key for paint: The settle has a varnished finish. Use some medium grade abrasive paper held around a sanding block and rub down the wood until it looks dull. This will provide a good key for the first coat of paint. Wet and dry paper used with water contains the dust making it less messy and minimises any dust inhalation.

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3. Clean away dirt and grease: Use a solution of sugar soap and warm water to clean the wood from dirt and grease. Mop up the surplus water as you work to avoid saturating the wood as this will raise the grain and roughen the surface. Take some clean water and wipe over with a cloth to wash away greasy and soapy residues.

4. Apply undercoat and paint: When the settle is completely dry, apply a coat of acrylic primer/ undercoat. If working outside choose a warm, dry, still day and allow four hours before over-painting with the topcoat (here, Sage Green acrylic eggshell from Little Greene). Leave overnight for the paint to fully harden before the next step.

5. Add a touch of comfort: In keeping with the utilitarian nature of the settle we wanted a comfortable yet firm seat so chose to use a base of reconstituted foam, softened by a layer of cotton wadding. If your material of choice has not been treated with a flame retardant, add a final coat of barrier cloth.

6. Trim padding to size: Cut away excess wadding and trim barrier cloth, leaving half an inch allowance. Start at the front, fold under the turning and secure with gimp pins. On the opposite side smooth fabric, pull firmly and tap in gimp pins. Secure the shorter sides. Finally fold in the corners neatly before securing with gimp pins.

7. Arrange the fabric on foam pad: Lay the top fabric on the seat. Make sure large patterns are positioned centrally and stripes are evenly placed. Turn under the front edge and secure with gimp pins and then proceed using the same method used previously. Trim away excess fabric and turn neat corners – bumps and bulk will cause problems.

8. Knock in the decorative nails: Along the front edge we covered the gimp pins with decorative white enamel-coated nails. To avoid damaging the heads ideally use a nylon-tipped hammer, but for occasional jobs just stick a self adhesive felt pad on the face of the hammer (the type of furniture pad used to protect a wooden floor).

Fabric used is Acorn & Leaf from Vanessa Arbuthnott