Renovating an antique bench

In the 1960s the Chairman of the British Railways Board, Dr Beeching, famously rationalised the network by closing many branch lines and small stations. Unwanted station equipment was sold off and my parents acquired a sturdy platform bench with cast iron legs, plus a pair of Victorian street lights which had originally been gas-fired. I remember the day they all arrived and were installed in our garden.

Railway bench before renovation

Before renovation

When we moved house some 40 years ago the lamps had to be left behind because they were concreted in and connected to the electrical supply, but the bench moved with us. Later, I became the owner of the legs after another parental relocation to a house with a small garden – the original wooden seat and back had rotted by then. My dear husband treated it to new wood painted green. It has given us much pleasure ever since. I especially like the fact that it reminds me of my father, now dead, who used to have a rest from gardening sitting on it with cup of tea and listening to the cricket or the rugby, depending on the season.

The bench is easy enough to pack away, the wooden planks simply slot through the two legs and are bolted onto them, but we leave it out all year and sit on it occasionally even on winter days when the weather is fine. In summer we have breakfast sitting on it, and afternoon tea, and it is long enough for one person to stretch out on for a snooze if they wish. The seat planks need some attention every year, rubbing down the blisters caused by summer sun and winter rain before re-painting, and one of these days I will replace the softwood with a tropical hardwood that only needs a coat of oil every now and again.

In the 20 years we’ve had this bench we’ve never done anything to the cast iron legs, and I don’t remember my parents ever painting them either. Quite possibly the flaking paint has been there since pre-Beeching days. I looked at the legs the other day and decided they really did need a refurb if they weren’t to rust away entirely.

Removing the rustI dismantled the bench and set to work on the legs with a scraper, a manual wire brush and a wire brush attachment on a power drill. I was quite tempted to take a blowtorch to them or simply build a bonfire around them, but cast iron is brittle and I was afraid that temperature variations could cause cracking. The powered wire brush proved effective at removing the worst of the surface rust, but some of the layers of paint were surprisingly well adhered and needed to be tapped off  – I used a combination of the pointy end of the scraper and the soft end of a masonry chisel because I was again worried that clouting the cast iron with the sharp end might result in a catastrophic crack. This venerable old bench deserves the gentle touch.

GNR letters in the castingMy dear husband came and helped after a while, which was just as well because it was a long process. After an afternoon of scraping, brushing and tapping we got all the loose paint and rust off and could see the initials GNR in each casting – Great Northern Railway. According to Wikipedia, GNR was formed in 1846 and subsumed into the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923, which means my bench (or rather, its legs) could well be over 100 years old, maybe even 170 years old. It definitely deserves some nice hardwood.

Undercoating the legsI found a tin of “straight to rust” primer/undercoat in the paint cupboard. I bought it for using on the rusty bits of radiators and similar, it saves time when repainting if you don’t have to rub down as far as the bare metal. It’s a bit of a funny colour (beige) but it works under both light and dark topcoats. I have given the legs two coats of this paint with 2 coats of a specialist metal gloss on top. Hopefully, that will be that for another 15 years or so, at least.

After repainting the legs

After repainting the legs

About yorkshirecrafter

I live and work in West Yorkshire.  I've always enjoyed crafts of all types, from woodwork to lace-making.  I also enjoy anything mathematical, which makes knitting a favourite pastime, especially complicated designs.  I've been advising businesses and industry on environmental matters for 30 years and also have an interest in green living, especially where it saves me money. I live with my husband and our Maine Coon in a 100-year-old cottage that constantly needs something doing to it.  Fortunately, I enjoy DIY too.
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