Jeff on Chair Maintenance

Dismantled piece of a chair ready to hold up some green beans

I didn’t set out to become an expert in portable reclining chair repair. It happened out of necessity and curiosity. Working in a community acupuncture clinic, I am around these portable reclining chairs all week and am a witness to their constant use and eventual breakage. Since we do over 35,000 treatments a year, our chairs get a lot of use. Some of the chairs have been around since we first opened in 2008! These older chairs have probably held 10’s of thousands of butts in their time. 

With all that heavy long term usage, the chairs often break. Most of the time when they break, it has nothing to do with whoever just sat in it. So rest easy, if you are in a portable reclining chair at your local community acupuncture clinic and it begins to sag, snap, and unravel underneath you, it’s likely due to nothing you did. It’s just time for that chair to get a tune up too. Or get retired. It’s remotely possible that the chair just died. We’ve come up with so many ways to repair chairs that it takes a lot for them to finally die. In the meantime, they break, unravel and snap in so many ways.

I remember our first chair repair session back in 2011. We got together at our Laurel Avenue clinic on a Sunday. At that time, the clinic was closed on Sundays. It was our core group of punks (a.k.a. Community Acupuncturists) at the time: myself, Cait, Roselle, and Whitney. We got together to attend to the first thing that break on these chairs: the bungee cords that attach the center fabric of the chair to its frame. We had sailed along for a while with some MacGyver style repairs which usually involved quickly retying the bungees together in the middle of doing tons of acupuncture. Eventually, the bungee would break too many times and there wasn’t enough extra string to re-tie them. Whitney had gone to the hardware store and bought a massive roll of bungee for us to completely restring the half dozen chairs with bungees that had snapped beyond repair. At the time, I thought there was no way we could use all of that bungee cord. Over the years, every single chair, at some point, has broken its bungees and now we are on our second roll.

Once the bungees were fixed and the chairs’ lives extended, other problems began to surface. One major problem was that the locking mechanism on the side of the chairs began to break. Each chair has little tabs under the armrests usually around where your wrists would sit. When you recline the chair back, you can lock the chair into place so you don’t feel like you are on a squeaky see-saw. But, if you lean forward with the chair lock, the lock can’t stand the stress; it slips forward making a loud screeching noise. I’m not sure how many times this needs to happen to break the lock, however, eventually, one of those times, there’s a component inside the locking mechanism that snaps in half, disabling the lock permanently. 

This happened to a few of our new chairs that were under warranty, so we sent them back thinking that they would be repaired and returned to us. Instead, the company just sent us brand new chairs. My first reaction was, “Yay! New chairs!” Then I thought about that poor broken chair, otherwise intact, getting tossed in a landfill with all our other junk. It didn’t sit right with me. Waste fiercely irks me.

A few months later one of our chairs died a glorious death. Bolts had fallen out, metal had grossly been bent, and welds had ripped apart. The warranty had expired long ago. It was beyond repair. The chair had to be totally dismantled. This was early 2013 at the Laurel Avenue clinic. It was late on a Sunday afternoon because we had recently added a new shift on Sundays. Cait worked until 3 pm. I brought a six pack of beer. At that point I’d become an expert in re-stringing the chairs’ bungees and was showing Cait my fancy techniques. While she re-strung, I dismantled the dead chair, careful to inspect the locking mechanism, its inner workings, figuring out why it broke, and how it fit into the chair. It was then that I had the revelation that the locking mechanism could be taken out of one chair and transplanted into another chair. So that’s exactly what I did. I took the locks out of that irrevocably broken chair and put them into a chair that was fine, except for the broken locks, and it worked! The second chair was saved by the death and salvaging of the first. It was a lengthy procedure but worth it not too add another chair to the landfills of California.

I’ve gotten better at the lock transplanting procedure, but it still can take a while. About every third or fourth lock will have bolts that get jammed in the chair and have to be drilled out with a hardy drill bit that can chew through metal. If that happens, it’s not just a longer process, it’s hazardous as bits of the chewed up metal get strewn about. I wear protective gloves and goggles when I do this. As I drill, I will get stabbed with tiny bits of metal in my exposed skin. The irony of this isn’t lost on me. It’s as if the chair has been around so much acupuncture, it’s decided to do some on me. 

So. The next time you are sitting in one of our chairs and you engage the locking mechanism, please, please, be careful NOT to lean forward with the locking mechanism engaged. This will save me from the long and intense process of replacing that broken lock with a scavenged locking mechanism. It’s also a really loud noise which doesn’t go with the vibe we are trying to create.

The plastic at the joints on the armrests can break, so that the arm rests need to be scavenged from another chair. Other bolts break and need replacement, and sometimes the center fabric will rip and need to be replaced. All of these repairs, like the locking mechanism, require a transplant from a chair that has died. So when a chair is beyond repair, all of its useful parts of scavenged and saved in a special purple bag that lives on a shelf at the clinic. 

The pieces that are left have to be taken apart and broken down so that they fit in our trash cans. Except there is one section of the chair that cannot be broken down without serious hardware like an oxy-acetylene kit to cut through metal. This is a section at the foot of the chair. It’s the piece of the frame that holds up your body from your knees to your feet. If you lift up this section of the chair and look underneath it, you’ll see that the two sides are joined by a large arching piece of metal. This arch gives the chair better stability when it is working, but once a chair is retired, its sturdiness keeps it from being broken down to be small enough to fit in the trash.

We had collected a few of these before I realize that they could used in my garden. I plant them as armatures in places where green beans, snap peas, and cucumbers grow, partially restrung with green garden twine. They work great and it sets my soul at ease to know that no part of the chair has gone to waste. After a long life holding up thousands of people and their suffering in a dark clinic, the chair is finally set free into the sunshine of the garden to be wrapped in the warm embrace of lush garden plants.

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