Refinishing a Bentwood Rocker

I picked up this beauty at the Habitat Restore for $25.  I had no idea that Bentwood Rockers were a “thing” that other people would recognize, but apparently they’re a much loved antique.


The problem?  The finish was atrocious and I’m not a fan of cane seating.  Once I’d removed the seat and backrest (they’re attached with nuts and bolts, so that’s pretty straight forward), I set to removing the laquer finish to prep for painting.  DO NOT try what I first tried.  I used Citri-strip Spray stripper – a paint and lacquer removing goo – per suggestion from Frugal with a Flourish.  Probably, her technique would work fine on a flat surface (which, in fairness, was her use case), where you could easily scrape off excess goo.  That said, I would not recommend wasting the 3 hours that were required to cotton swab every nook and crevice of the bentwood rocker clean.

Instead, just use a sander.  I have a Mouse Black & Decker sander, which will run you about $35.  An orbital sander would likely work better, but they’re more expensive.  Cover as much area as you can with your sander until the lacquer is removed and you can see naked wood.  Since you won’t be able to get to every single curve in the bentwood, I’d recommend a light hand sanding for those areas.  Even if you can’t get down to the raw wood, just removing the lacquer will make the new paint look much better.

Next, wash off all the sanding dust with a wet rag.  ALL OF IT!  Any residual dust will make your paint job look speckled and rough.  Make sure your chair is fully dry before you break out the spray paint.

bentwood spray paint

I chose an antique white spray paint.  To attain full coverage, you’ll likely need 2-3 coats (about 3 cans).  Make sure you let your chair dry in between coats.  If your chair will see a lot of use, I’d finish with a clear spray sealant or protective coat (1 can).

Now its time to cover the cane seat and backrest.  You’ll need 2 yards of cotton batting, foam, and 2 yards of whatever upholstering fabric you chose.  Per The Family Handyman, you’ll want to cut and layer your fabric, batting, foam, and seat like so.


Source: The Family Handyman – How to Reupholster a Chair

Once you’ve done that, break out your staple gun.  Stretch the fabric around the foam and batting, pull taunt, and staple to the inner rim of the seat, starting at 12, 6, 3, and 9 (if your seat was a clock), alternating sides and working towards the corners.  As you approach the corners, begin making small folds as you take the turn.  This will slowly take up the excess fabric, without you having to do it all at once at the corner (like wrapping a present).


Use small folds around the corners to make a gradual transition

The process is the same for the backrest.  But, before you repeat, trace out the backrest shape on another piece of fabric that you plan to use to cover the back.  Cut this piece with a 1” margin around it.  Fold the edges in and over about 1 1/2” from your cut so that the they’re protected from fraying.  The extra ½” reduction allows the fabric to stretch and prevents your back cover from folding over onto your lovely upholstery.  Ideally, I’d recommend that you sew the edges, but you can probably get away with skipping this step if you’re good with hammering in brass tacks.

bentwood tacks

Once your backrest is upholstered, stretch your back cover over your upholstery staples and hammer in the brass tacks.  Again, I’d start with 12, 6, 3, and 9 on a clock and slowly work towards the corners.



Now you’ve finished your seat and backrest!  To reattach them to the frame, put them in position and push a marker through the bolt holes to mark the fabric.  Depending on the thickness of the upholstery fabric, you may need to poke a hole where your marker leaves a dot (I did this with an ice pick).  After that, just reattach the nuts and bolts and you’re done.  Good job!

Reattached nuts & bolts

Reattached nuts & bolts


4 thoughts on “Refinishing a Bentwood Rocker

    1. Anonymous

      Wonderful! I have an old Brentwood rocker and I didn’t know how to bring it back to life.
      What is the material at the back of the chair!


      1. Ryn

        The material I used on the back of the chair is a type of canvas, which is very affordable. That said, any heavy-weight upholstery fabric should do the trick if you’re looking for some color!

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