Sometimes you just happen onto a gem. I found this very old, very neglected Herman Miller LCW in Kansas at a junk store for $30. Maybe I offered $25. Regardless, it was an amazing find. I took it apart to ship it back home and my Ma sent it to me and it sat in parts for at least a year. I finally decided to try and restore it, and then it took me about another year to post here! Sorry for the wait, but here we go.
First of all, this chair has always been one of my favorites. The LCW is short for Lounge Chair Wood. Designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1946, it was cutting edge in its use of bent plywood to make complex shapes. It's an amazingly sculptural piece and likely the most comfortable wooden lounge chair due to the perfect proportions and curves. I have owned versions of their plywood chairs before, but never this one. I wanted to just do a light restore, as I knew it would never be mint due to the poor starting condition, but also I like pieces that I'm not afraid to use. I'll never have to worry about making the first scratch.
The main problem with the wood was that the finish was nearly gone and heavy water marks and mold were within the grain. It's not advisable to sand plywood, as the layers aren't very thick. I removed the tiny amounts of finish with some fine sandpaper, being very careful not to remove much wood. Next step was to use a wood bleach - oxalic acid. I've used this before on furniture and it works really well. It's a process of mixing the right amount of crystals to water and brushing it into the wood. After many coats, the finish was lightening and the dark water spots were gradually fading. By no means is this method perfect, and especially with this chair, the damage was just so great. However, it went a long way to even things out.
When choosing a finish, I went with an amber shellac. It's easy to apply, was likely used on this furniture originally (please correct me if you know otherwise!) and because of the amber tint, will bring back some of the wood color while camouflaging some of the dark areas.
It helps to thin the shellac and apply in even, thin coats. I ended up with three coats total. The color was very rich, and shellac always has a unique look when applied to wood. Poly is too plastic, wax is too thin for this type of use, but shellac worked just right. Beware of drips, and know that each coat will somewhat re-awaken the previous coat. Patience is key.
One other minor issue was to re-glue a shock mount that had come loose. I used a wood epoxy and it was easy, especially because the mount was a bottom attachment and not on the chair back.
All in all, I'm extremely pleased how it turned out. Not a fine furniture level finish, but just the right amount of restore to provide another 50 years of constant use.