How to Fix a Split Seat - Popular Woodworking Magazine

How to Fix a Split Seat

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

One of the most exciting (and frightening) aspects of building a Windsor-style chair is the ever-present possibility that you will split the seat when you drive the legs home.

I always tell students: Keep hitting the leg’s tenon into its mortise until the very next strike will split the seat. Then stop.

This is not always possible. Today, I split a seat twice. Both splits occurred in mortises for the  front legs. That’s typical. And it’s an easier fix than the back legs (more on that sort of repair at the end of the entry).

When you split your seat, immediately remove the tenon from the mortise. The glue can still set up and make things worse. If your seat didn’t completely split into pieces, you are going to have to figure out a way to open the split (gently) so you can get glue in there.

Luckily, you are holding a fantastic lever in your hands: the chair’s leg.

Insert the leg’s tenon about halfway into the mortise and lever it toward the centerline of the seat. The crack should open nicely. Do this a couple times so you can get a feel for how much leverage you need to open the split almost 1/8”.

Now prepare the glue. You can use yellow glue or liquid hide for this operation. I used yellow glue because I was almost out of liquid hide and wanted to use the hide glue for the joints (not for the splits).

Thin the glue with water until it is the consistency of a thin varnish or lacquer. It should stick to a popsicle stick and run off in a thin stream when you pull the stick out of the glue.

Thinning the glue will slow its curing time and make it easier to wick into the splits. Thinning the glue can also weaken it a bit, so you want to be sure to get as much as possible into the split.

Open the split by levering the mortise with the leg. Pour the glue over the split and work the leg. The glue should wick into the split. Use your finger to redirect any excess over the split and lever again. After a few cycles of this, you will see the glue start to come out everywhere along the split when you close the split. That’s good.

For a long split, you might have to pour glue over it in a few locations. I had to put it on the end grain at the front of my seat and on the long grain on the top surface. This is not a time to skimp on glue.

After you wick the glue into the split, clamp up the seat across the split. With a D-shaped seat (as shown), this is easy. If you split the rear legs or your seat is shield-shaped, try using a band clamp around the seat to close the split. Then add some pressure across the grain anywhere you can get a clamp to hold.

With the seat clamped up, reassemble the chair. Re-apply hide glue. Drive the legs. Wedge the tenons. Because you have diluted glue spread everywhere, scrub the entire seat and legs. Leave the clamps on overnight.

Finally, cross your fingers that the glue got everywhere that it needed to go.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 18 comments
  • Gaijin Daiku

    I may or may not know someone who might or might not use slightly thinned glue and hypodermic needles to fix cracks.

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      I used that method several times when trying out the kit from Lee Valley for repairing chairs. The needles worked, but the glue was too thin for my taste. But to each her own.

  • BLZeebub

    I’ve used the vacuum trick too but I have another method that works too if the job or split isn’t huge. I always have a short length of polyvinyl tubing hanging around just for that purpose. I simply blow the glue where it needs to be. First I keep some slow-set glue in a sriracha bottle so I can press the small tip to the crack and flood as much as I can get into it. Then finish off by pressing the end of the tubing to the crack and blowing it in. Careful though, if you blow hard and long enough you might end up a bit “silly headed”. LOL I’ve had success with this method with medium to small splits. If I ever split a seat, I’ll be sure and give your method a go. Thanks again, Chris.

  • Renny1

    Any thoughts, advice for an old chair whose seat has split down the middle from front to back?

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      Hard to say without seeing the chair. If the split has compromised the integrity of the chair, you can repair it with a variety of methods, from a simple glue-up to butterflies and dog-bone connectors. A furniture restorer could give you some advice after seeing the split.

      If the split is cosmetic only, I wouldn’t bother. I have crack and wrinkles in my face and hands that are similar.

  • Andy Jones

    Re; dental floss
    Replace the blade in your coping or fret saw frame with dental floss for this purpose.

    • DaveS2

      That sounds handier than a pair of heavy-duty zircon-encrusted tweezers though perhaps not as grand.

      • Longfatty


  • comboprof

    When fixing “mistakes” I prefer to use a white pva glue, for example Gorilla wood glue, LePage or Elmers white wood glue (not the Elmers school glue). They don’t contain the yellow dye added to yellow pva and thus dry clear. And when mixed with sawdust are invisible. However fixing a split as discussed here would be similar to edge joining and yellow pva will be likely be fine and hopefully you won’t see a yellow glue line. I only buy yellow pva, because I can get it by the gallon at our hardware store.

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      White glue is indeed a better choice than PVA when you have it on hand. I didn’t. My top choice is thinned liquid hide.

    • thekiltedwoodworker

      I regularly use Elmer’s School Glue for woodworking projects – boxes and anything smaller than , say, a fishing tackle box. I’ve never had a problem with it.

      Is there any identifiable difference in chemical makeup between white wood glue and school glue? Baring that, is there any identifiable difference in the end results between white wood glue and school glue?

      Like I said, I’ve never had a problem with it and I’ve used it for at least 10 years, ever since I took a class with Frank Klausz and he suggested using Elmer’s school glue for a box we were making in class.

  • Spoiler

    Thinning the GLUE!! Head slap!! I’ve tried the shop vac but never thinning the glue. That The beauty of this tip is that every time I strike the leg from now on I will do so with the confidence that I have the fix in my pocket ready to go.

  • redtaildd

    I use a shop vac on the back side to suck glue into the crack. So far it has worked every time on a variety of shapes and usually without levering the piece. Usually.

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      Yup. Works great. Not all of us have shop vacuums handy when we commit this gaffe.

  • Jim McConnell

    I like to use dental floss to work the glue into cracks like this. The problem is growing a third hand to get it all done.

    • EeyorIs21

      Maybe bending a section of an old hanger into a u-shape and then tying the floss so it pulls the ends closer together to keep the floss tight. Can work hanger/floss with one hand and leverage split with the other. No octopus needed.

  • AKWintermute

    Could you put clamps like you have for the glue up on the chair before you drive the legs to prevent splitting?

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      Yes. And that helps (with the front legs especially). But it cannot stop splits entirely, even after the clamps come off.

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