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Why Some Old Chairs Make Squeaking Noises Over Time

Avatar of Autonomous Autonomous | Nov 6, 2020
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We’ve all experienced it at some point. Sitting down on a chair squeaks it. Leaning back makes it creak. Rolling it around makes grinding noises. All sorts of little noises add up over time, and they can get worse and worse until they’re dealt with.

So what’s happening? Why are they squeaking, and what can you do about it?

Reasons Why Old Chairs Squeak

Fixing chair bottom

First of all, you need to know why old chairs squeak. We’re talking specifically about modern office chairs, gaming chairs, and chairs with cheap plastic construction or some metal-framed chairs. If you’re looking for an old wooden chair’s squeaking issues, you might be better off looking elsewhere.

There are a few distinct reasons why a chair might start to squeak after a while.

First: factory lubrication has worn off. Chairs have moving parts, and moving parts are meant to move. Chairs are primarily designed to roll, to raise the position of the chair, to lower the position of the chair, to lean back, and otherwise adjust according to the range of possible adjustments designed into your chair. All of these moving parts are lubricated at the factory, typically with something like machine oil, silicone lubricant, graphite, or another lubricating compound.

Over time, as your chair is used, various things can cause this lubrication to wear off. First and foremost is age. Lubrication can dry up over time, and repeated motion can push it out of the way and off to the sides. Oil can get gummed up with dust and grime, as well as tiny metal or plastic shavings from the pieces rubbing together. Friction can use up some of the lubricants as well.

All of this means that your chair will, over time, lose its lubrication.

Second: screws or fasteners are loosening up. Screws hold the leg apparatus onto the seat pan, and the back of the chair onto the seat pan. Other screws or bolts might hold the lumbar support or headrest to the back of the chair. Armrests might be attached to the seat pan or the back, depending on the style of the chair.

Repeated motions will loosen screws over time. You see this in all manner of fasteners; nails loosen up, screws work their way out, pins wiggle loose, and so on. With chairs, since you’re often meant to assemble them yourself, you’re looking at a standard array of screws or bolts.

Over time, these fasteners can loosen up, which can cause squeaking in two different ways. The first is when you sit or lean on the chair, the part that is held in place by the fastener rubs against the screw, creating the squeak. The other is when the two pieces held together rub against each other in a way the screw is meant to prevent, also causing a squeak.

Loose bolts are generally the number one or number two most common cause for squeaks in an office chair, gaming chair, or other wheeled chairs. This is why you often see the number one suggestion for dealing with a squeaking chair is to tighten all of the screws and hope that works.

Third: parts are wearing out and bending or rubbing against each other. Sometimes your screws or bolts are still tight in place, and the looseness comes from the parts themselves wearing out. Metal can abrade and erode over time, plastic can wear out or loosen, and wood can gradually compress or splinter. No matter what material your chair is made out of, chances are good that it can wear out over time, especially in places where there’s repetitive stress and wear.

When two pieces of a chair wear out, there’s not much you can do to prevent the squeaking. Lubricant can be replaced and screws can be tightened, but plastic cannot be un-worn and metal cannot be un-rusted. You have options, which we’ll discuss below, but it’s somewhat more difficult than other squeaks to repair.

Fourth: moisture and ambient liquids are rusting metal parts. Many mid-to-high-end office and gaming chairs have a metal frame. Some of them are made out of aluminum, some out of steel, and some of them are made out of other kinds of metals. Over time, your metal can corrode or wear away. Rust is always an issue with certain kinds of metal, particularly anything containing iron, like steel. Aluminum can corrode as well, which is why it’s usually coated, but that coating can scratch or be worn away itself.

When this happens, a squeak might be the least of your worries. A chair can become dangerous when the frame starts to degrade, either as a hazard for falling apart, or something more dangerous like an exploding gas cylinder. This is rare, but not entirely unknown.

Fifth: repetitive stress is slowly breaking the chair. Sitting down, standing up, leaning back, adjusting the height and other repetitive motions can all damage every part of your chair over time. Seat pans can crack, plastic can wear down or crack, wood can splinter and crack, metal can bend and crack; see the pattern?

The more your chair degrades over time, the more it will squeak. Some squeaks can be fixed, but others cannot.

Diagnosing the Source of the Squeak

Fixing chair wheels

Before you can consider fixing a squeaky office chair, you need to figure out where the squeak is coming from. In some cases, you may be able to figure it out on your own, but it’s often better to enlist the aid of a friend.

Have your friend sit on the chair. Have them swivel back and forth, lean back, raise and lower the chair, or take whatever other actions necessary to elicit the squeaking noise. Keep your eyes and ears peeled and look for the specific area where the squeak is coming from.

Often, the squeak will come from the base of the chair, near the screws holding it together. If that’s not the case, it’s often the spring tension that keeps the back upright, that squeaks when leaning back and straightening up. If this is the case, look at the bolts and screws holding the chair together. You may also want to look at the spring to see if it needs cleaning, lubricating, or replacing.

If the squeak does not seem to be coming from a joint or the spring tensioner, you may need to look at the materials itself. Chairs that have a wooden seat pan might have that wood degrade over time, and a small crack can cause it to squeak. You can also look for points on the frame where it may have broken, such as at a welding point, and look for fasteners that have degraded.

How to Fix a Squeaky Office Chair

Disassembling chair

Fixing a squeaking office chair, gaming chair, or other chair depends on finding the location of the squeak. Here are the different ways you can try to repair a chair.

Tighten all of the screws or bolts. Start by turning the chair over so you can access it more easily. Using a screwdriver or wrench, depending on the kind of fastener, tighten each of the screws. Some might be loose, others might look tight but can use another half-turn or so to tighten it back up.

Make sure to get all of the fasteners, including those holding the back in place, those supporting the lumbar cushion, those holding the arms in place, and any others you can find. While there might not be squeaks coming from some of those, they may start to squeak eventually, and it’s better to tighten them before that happens.

If this solves the problem, great! You can now continue using your chair until another issue crops up. On the other hand, if this doesn’t entirely stop the issue, but does reduce the squeaking, you may want to further tighten them.

If you find a fastener that is loose and will not tighten, such as a screw that has stripped its threads, you will be unable to repair the chair. You can do DIY hacks with glue, but it’s generally better to simply replace the part, or if it's old enough, you may consider replacing the entire chair itself. Remember that replacement parts are not always easy to replace, and can often be as expensive as a replacement chair themselves.

Lubricate all of the joints. This includes places where a chair can be lubricated, including the spring, any adjustment point, and the wheels. In some cases, where the gas cylinder connects to the chair can also be lubricated. You may want to refer to the chair’s owner’s manual before doing this, both to find the appropriate places to lubricate, and to find the right kind of lubrication. Generally, oil or silicone spray is the best option here.

Avoid using WD-40. This chemical is not a lubricant, it is a solvent, and while it might work initially, the chair will start to squeak again quite quickly. That said, the company that produces WD-40 has made other lubricants under the same brand name, so you can find silicone lubricant as a spray in their style bottles, for example.

Spraying a lubricant into the offending areas will generally stop the squeak for a while, but it will come back when the new lubricant wears off. Depending on the reason, this may be sooner rather than later. You may need to physically take apart and clean the chair before lubricating it for the best effect. A thorough cleaning, including cleaning all of the screws themselves, can extend the life of a chair but is a lot of work to do so.

You can also apply some machine oil to the screws themselves. This will not make them any less effective at holding the chair together but will provide enough lubrication that it can prevent a squeak if they loosen again. The risk here is that if a screw works its way loose, it may fall out without you noticing.

Look for cracked or breaking parts. If any part of the frame or support of the chair is breaking, you will need to replace it. In some cases this is easy; a gas cylinder, a wheelbase, the lumbar support system, the armrests, or a caster can all be replaced fairly easily. In other cases, such as parts of the frame, you will need to spend a lot of money and a lot of effort to replace the part. It doesn’t make sense to repair a chair when the cost of repairing it is as much or more than the cost of simply buying a new chair. For antique furniture, sure, but not for an office chair.

When to Buy a New Office Chair

Old office chair

Office chairs suffer through a lot of wear and tear. Extended periods of use can wear them out, and it may be a better idea to buy a new chair rather than trying to diagnose and fix a squeak.

If tightening the screws on a chair is enough to fix it, great. If lubricating the spring is enough to fix it, wonderful. Anything more than that, and the cost/benefit analysis of repairing the chair starts to look pretty terrible. Replacement parts can be a pain to order and install, and they can be too expensive to be worthwhile. Also, replacing one part doesn’t do you any good when the next part fails, until you’ve created the chair of Theseus.

Office chairs should be replaced on a semi-regular basis, but how long they last will depend on the quality and brand of the chair. A cheaper chair might only last for 1-2 years, while a high-end chair might last 10+ years with only minor repairs. Refer to the manufacturer to determine how long your chair is intended to last.

When it comes time to replace your chair, consider looking into chairs with higher quality materials, better fasteners, and better lubrication. Often, high-end chairs have much better quality materials, because they’re correspondingly more expensive. A higher budget might not seem like an attractive prospect when you’re chair shopping, but a chair that lasts ten years is better than ten chairs that last a year each.

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