Restoring Regency Style Chair Backs

Mahogany Carver Chair - Late Regency/William IV

A typical late Regency/ William IV carver chair

A feature of Regency style chair design is the way in which the top rail doubles as the chair back without the use of a vertical  back splat.  The design usually incorporates a horizontal centre stretcher which is often decorated, unlike the rather plain example in the above photograph.  This form of chair back was in use from the early 1800’s through to around 1840 or so.  It includes a distinctive method of attaching the wide top rail to the two upright members, one which now forms a common structural repair problem for the furniture restorer.   In essence the top of each back leg is fashioned into a long dovetail section of typically 50 to 75mm in length which then slides into a mating dovetail socket cut into the back of the top rail.

This form of construction provides a notable weak point.  Invariably people lift chairs using the top rail alone causing the not inconsiderable weight of the chair frame and its upholstery to react by pulling the back legs away from the top rail. This fractures the dovetails and sometimes the sides of the mating sockets on the top rail and the top of the back legs as well!  When a job of this kind is brought into my studio it is generally evident that this kind of fracture has occured before and often the past repair attempts have been badly executed and typically involve screws!

mahogany carver chair back legs

The tops of both back legs and the dovetail joints are fractured.

In this situation there is no alternative but to re-build the fractured pieces.  If the dovetail sockets on the top rail have been also damaged the first task is to cut-in new timber and then reform the correct profile and angle of slope of the sides of the socket.

New false dovetails then have to be made for the tops of the back legs. These are made individually to match the newly re-formed sockets which are unlikely to be identical and probably never were when first made.  This is a difficult task not only because the two opposite sides of the required trapezoidal section slope at different angles but also because the section tapers slightly from bottom to top!   Its shape has to be formed by gradually removing small shavings and then test fitting it into the socket each time until it slides all the way home with a good fit.

Mahogany false dovetail sections

Two tapering dovetail sections under construction.


Any other damage to the tops of the back legs has to be repaired in order to provide a good mating surface so that the newly made false dovetail sections can be attached


Back leg re-built and false dovetail fitted in place

Newly rebuilt back leg with dovetail section fitted in place


Finally the top rail is re-fitted to the newly re-built legs and the visible new timber is coloured and polished to match.

Regency carver chair

A newly restored top rail on a late Regency carver chair

After many hours of careful work damage such as that described has been rectified and the chair given a new lease of life.  Hopefully the top rail will no longer be expected to support the entire weight of the chair when it is moved!

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