The Saga of the Seats

While the Eveleigh team have been busy working on the TAM at the shed, our two highly skilled volunteer upholsterers George and Alan have been doing an amazing job working from their workshop near Penrith in western Sydney. They have taken delivery of the full 5 compartments of seats and bunks, and the following is their story.

There are twenty units in all, consisting of a top bunk, lower bunk/seat back, bottom seat, and a small fold-down dicky seat for each of the five sleeping compartments. All were in poor condition with old discoloured and damaged vinyl and broken and numerous missing parts.

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This seat base had a broken frame.

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All of the fold-down seat backs had some degree of damage and repair to the bottom corners.

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And this lower bunk arrived in this state….note the damage to the springs.

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But this is typical of the bunks…. This is going to be a lot of work. (isn’t it always?)

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The Top Bunks:

We started off with the top bunks. This is what it looks like when the green fabric is removed.

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Originally, all of the TAM seat units were leather covered but while the lower seat and back had been re-upholstered in railway green vinyl, the edge trim on these upper bunks was the original leather. This is how they joined the leather, by tapering and overlapping the edges, a technique known as “skiving”.

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Removing the old upholstery is not all just rip, tear, bust either; upholstery tacks are removed one at a time using a “ripping chisel” and wooden mallet, just like this.

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The idea is to remove the upholstery without unduly damaging the wooden frame underneath. Each of those springs inside was hand stitched in three places to the hessian covering. Most were still intact, so each of those stitches needed to be individually cut and all the edge tacks removed. This is what’s inside….90 springs, yeah, count ‘em, 90 springs, and 90 years worth of soot and filth.

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Next job is to remove the brass hinge pivots which are held on by short brass screws. Many of these screws were broken off inside the wooden frame so an ezy-out was used to extract the screws then each hole plugged and re-drilled where necessary.

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New screws fittings refitted.

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Another important job is to remove the sharp corner from the inner edge of the wooden frame. This sharp corner is the cause of much of the damage to the hessian and outer cover visible in some of the previous pictures.

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Alan mans the vacuum to clean what he can.

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…and any loose springs secured, the original hessian is replaced with canvas. This canvas came from a grubby roll lying around the Eveleigh shed but the washing machine has them looking great although perhaps Michele’s washing machine will never be the same again.

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The canvas is temporarily tacked then each spring is hand stitched to the canvas like this… That’s three stitches in 90 springs in each bunk times ten bunks equals 900 springs and 2700 stitches… no wonder I’m going nuts.

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When I have all the springs secured, George tensions and tacks home the canvas… The next step is to stitch the old underfelt back on. After this, the bunk moves to George’s bench and I start on the next one.

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First George applies the edge trim around the bunk – this is a bit harder than it looks. The ends of the bunk are flat but with a step near one end and the long sides have a curved surface, so getting the corners right took some doing. Cutting around the hinge sections was a bit fiddly too.

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This is the underside of the bunk and it will be covered with one of those beautifully restored French polished red cedar panels.

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Then, on the other side we are almost ready to cover. Here the old underfelt was damaged along the edges, so some packing was required to get a smooth finish.

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When that’s done the cover goes on.

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…then the edge trim and fittings. Note the measuring stick, just to make sure that the studs are perfectly placed.

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It’s the attention to detail that makes this such an amazing job. The quality of the workmanship is truely astoundoing. This is how to disguise a joint in the trim:

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Tada! What joint?

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And this one is finished. Who could believe that an old run down railway carriage bunk could look this good after so many years of service?

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The finish on these bunks would give Ritchie Bros a run for their money!

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There are heaps of hidden secrets in these TAM sleepers. There are three holes at each end of each bunk to let the air escape when someone sits on the bunk. Inside each of the holes is a tiny brass gauze filter, presumably to keep the vermin out while allowing air to flow freely.

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The Seat Backs:

The seat backs are a two sided affair with these units folding forward to make the lower bunk. While these bunks were in similar poor condition to the upper bunks, on the other side the damage was confined to the vinyl covering in the bottom corners so the inner springing was left undisturbed.

These have a headrest section at the top and as well as being secured around the perimeter, the covering is secured to the frame along the beading at the bottom of the headrest.

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Work gets started on stripping:

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And when the covering is removed, you find the ugly truth…

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This one had been repaired with a patch of vinyl placed under the outer covering and stitched through to the calico and horse hair underneath.

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So with some new fabric and a bit of coconut fibre to make up for a shortage of horse hair, a repair is made.

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So now it’s starting to look better…

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And some expert hand stitching has them looking like new…

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Some packing is placed over the stitching and then the cover goes on; it’s just that fiddly bit around the hinge that brings forth the occasional curse, other wise it’s all plain sailing for George.

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The Seat Bases:

If you thought that lot was hard going, this next bit is even more of a hurdle. This is what they look like from below, all looks pretty straightforward, eh?

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But these units have had a pretty hard life. Another one looked like it had been dropped from a great height or run over by a truck and this metal support had been busted off and bent. The timber frame was also broken. We were able to remove the metal part from the wooden frame to straighten it out.

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Then repair the timber frame and re-install the metal piece and bolt through the timber to give greater strength.

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As well as the impact damage to the underframe, this seat was also in the worst condition inside. Not all of the seats were dismantled to this extent but this series of photos shows just what goes on when you sit on a 1939 TAM sleeping car.

After removing the outer vinyl covering, George decided to take off the next layers to expose the springing underneath. All of these springs are laced together with twine in different places to hold them in position and you can see clearly on the nearest row how this lacing has broken allowing the springs to escape their position. This was the case at numerous places throughout the spring set.

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The springs across the front and ends are short and screwed to the timber frame at the bottom.

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The three rows of springs inside that are all longer and extend down to the frame lower down. Some of these were full length springs and others were shorter springs placed one on top of the other, then laced together with twine. Perhaps they didn’t have enough of the correct length springs, or perhaps it was a later repair.

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Amazing the trouble they went to in the old days in building these seats.

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This is George carrying out the tedious task of relacing the springs.

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The cane edge piece along the front of the seat was not as straight as George would like so that presented a bit of a challenge. By relacing the springs, we were able to straighten this out somewhat.

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Reattaching the seat padding takes a good eye, a long needle and a lot of patience.

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Other seats were in much better condition. This one only required some minor repair to the corners. Note that this one has the cane edge curved around the corner rather than two separate pieces joined at right angles.

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A bit of hand stitching around the ends is the most tedious bit of installing the final cover.

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Producing a stunningly finished refurbished TAM seat.

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The Dicky Seats:

Each of the five compartments has a small fold-down dicky seat, presumably so you can sit in comfort to tie your shoelaces. These were in fairly good condition but we recovered them so that they matched the vinyl used on the other seats.

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They consist of a small timber base, vinyl covering with hessian over horse hair underneath. The reupholstering of these was quite straightforward but the hinges presented a bit of a challenge. We only found nine of the original ten hinges but another four were recovered from two stray seats found in the shed. Out of the thirteen hinges, only four are stamped clearly as making up two pairs.

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Most of the hinges had the short leg which attaches to the carriage wall bent to some degree and so we straightened these in a hydraulic press.

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And here are a couple of the completed seats.

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The only remaining hurdle now is to secure the hinges to the seats and the wall.

The Job Finished:

Now all of the seats have been reupholstered this is how they look. At the front is an upper berth and on that is one of the dicky seats which will be attached low down on the carriage wall. Behind is the seat base and back in their approximate relative position.

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And how the lower berth looks when folded forward.

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Here’s a few of the tools used to make it all happen.

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We didn’t keep an account of all of our working hours; a fair guess would be about 15 to 20 hours on each of the 15 large units but we don’t consider it a chore. It’s not quite finished yet though, George is now working on making up the safety straps for the upper berths. He’s borrowed a sample from another TAM and Todd has found a few of the original fittings so we will have something close to the way it was.

We would like to thank the 3801 Limited crew for allowing us to participate in an interesting and satisfying project and for giving us the support that they did.

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Satisfied: Upholsterers George and Alan pose for a photo after their tireless efforts.

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