Wednesday, November 30, 2016

More Upholstery Conservation

Mahogany Armchair 

I want to show another project in the shop which is being restored.  In my normal business operation I work each week on similar projects for maximum efficiency.   One week will be repairs, another will be veneer or marquetry, the next may be surface preparation and then a week of polishing.  At that point the shop is usually clean so I can do some upholstery.

This past week has been upholstery.  Hence the post yesterday.

Today I want to follow up with an armchair made in the Great Lakes region around 1890.  These lather covered chairs were popular with the railroad and land barons of that Gilded Era.  This one is covered in black oil cloth, which is no longer made so it will be restored in leather.

Missing wheels.  Original wood finish.

Looking underneath I found the label of the last person to work on it.

He was trying to repair the springs by replacing the webbing only.  Note my comments in the previous post on why this is not the best approach.  However, his repair got the chair this far, only because it was in storage for most of that time.

Poor effort to sew springs to jute

One problem with just replacing the webbing is that it is difficult to properly sew the springs in place.  This photo shows his effort, which was insufficient to do the job.

Seat springs from top
This shows the springs after the seat foundation is removed.  Springs are not in proper position and cord is broken.  I removed them, cleaned up the area with a vacuum and used tufting twine to properly sew them in place, tying the tops with 8 no† Italian cord.

Starting the removal of upholstery foundation

Here I have already removed the side arm stuffing.  Next is the careful removal of the seat and back, layer by layer, tack by tack.

Jute webbing failure to support springs

One of the great things about traditional upholstery is that you can learn how to do it by careful observation of the process during deconstruction.  Removing layer by layer teaches the worker how to put it back in the same way.  The main goal is to conserve springs and stuffing while replacing jute, burlap, muslin and cotton.

Front of back spring package
On the back the original method was to secure the smaller springs only with twine, cover †hem with burlap and then sew them to the burlap.  This saves time and money.

Chair laying down with new burlap

Seat foundation material

At this point the original stuffing can be cleaned of tacks, vacuumed and carefully positioned in its original location.  New muslin is tacked over this.

Nice and even work

Getting ready for final stages of work.
Now I need to get some leather and begin tacking the cover.  I can also spend some time on cleaning and waxing the wood.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Simple Upholstery Conservation Lesson

American Victorian Louis XV Parlor Chair

I am always pleased when the client understands at what point they should stop sitting on upholstered antique furniture and find a good traditional upholsterer who can save the stuffing.  Restoring the quality of the seating comfort on antique furniture depends completely on saving the original stuffing, whether it is horsehair, Spanish moss, shredded wool, straw, excelsior or any other period material.

When I was a young man and wanted to restore cars I got some valued advice from an expert mechanic.  I thought I could just get away with a valve job, and spend my money only on the head.  He informed me that, if I only repaired the top end, considering the miles on the engine, then it would be soon that the rings would fail, burning oil.  If I was to repair the valves, it would be a good idea to replace the rings and have the cylinders done.

He was right.

Traditional spring seats are exactly the same concept.  The springs are held from the bottom by jute webbing and tied at the top with cord.  Under normal use and age the jute sags and eventually the springs fall out the bottom.  However, at the same time the burlap on top of the springs gets old and rots.  The cord stretches and breaks or pulls loose.  Many upholsterers simply add new webbing on the bottom and do not address the top of the springs, since that means a lot more work.  What happens is that very soon the springs break through the top burlap and begin tearing into the stuffing. If the seat continues to be used it will be a short time before the stuffing is ruined.

I have always made an effort to conserve what ever stuffing was original to the object.  Over the years and after too many projects to remember, I have worked out a process that I think is appropriate.  Today I did a simple Victorian side chair, which took only a couple hours, and took the time to photograph the process for my blog.  I hope this documentation helps others to understand what is required for proper conservation of antique upholstery.

To begin with, you need to carefully remove all upholstery, tacks (or staples) and set everything aside.  It is best to wear gloves and a dust mask for this work, as it can be pretty disgusting.  When the wood frame is naked, all wood repairs need to be done.  I like to use liquid Old Brown Glue on areas where the tacks and nails have damaged the wood.

Repair the frame after Removing all Upholstery

To begin with, jute webbing is stretched across the bottom of the frame, using large tacks on each end.  The ends are folded over and a series of 5 tacks is applied in a staggered pattern to avoid splitting the wood.  The webbing is woven over and under and stretched as tight as possible with a webbing stretcher.
Tack webbing with 5 tack pattern

The springs are positioned properly and then sewn to the webbing with a curved needle and tufting twine.  The twine needs to be pulled very tight to keep the springs from moving during use.

New webbing in place, sewn to the springs

On this particular chair the springs were tied using a 4 knot pattern.  This means front to back and side to side.  I prefer to use an 8 knot pattern, since adding the diagonals means more support for the springs and burlap and a longer life for the seat.  Since I determined the original cord was still functional, I added the diagonal strips using Italian spring cord.

Original 4 knot spring cord

Better 8 knot pattern

After the springs are secured, a new layer of burlap is added, tacking to the top of the frame and using a curved needle and tufting twine, sewn to the springs.

New burlap, sewn to springs at top

Now the first layer of original stuffing is carefully examined and all old tacks or staples are removed. Also it is good to use a vacuum to remove any dust or other material which does not belong.  In this case, the original stuffing was straw, which can easily fall apart if you are not careful.

Original Straw Stuffing

Place this layer directly on top of the new burlap.  I use sand bags to hold it down while I tack the edges.  Usually the burlap is fragile and it tears on the edges.  You only need to hold it in place for a short time, since a new layer of burlap is immediately added to secure it in place.

Holding Straw package in place and tacking to frame

Notice the original pattern of stitching which shapes the edge and holds the stuffing in place.  This is what is important to conserve as much as possible.  It gives the shape to the upholstery.

Cutting a "Y" to go around wood frame

Where the burlap needs to be cut for the frame you use a "Y" cut.  This method is used for muslin and final fabric to go around the wood properly.

New burlap stitched in place over old stuffing

This new layer of burlap is stitched in place using a curved needle on the edge and a long straight needle in the center.  This new layer of burlap under and on top of the old stuffing package serves to conserve the original foundation and restore the life of the seat.

Spanish moss second layer of stuffing

The next layer of stuffing in this case was a layer of Spanish moss.  Many people do not know the difference between horsehair and moss, but if you look closely you can see that one is an animal hair and the other is a plant fibre.

50/50 cotton batting

The original cotton batting is discarded, since it is always dirty.  Cotton batting serves to provide a dust filter preventing outside dirt from getting into the seat stuffing as well as inside dirt from escaping.  It also provides a smooth surface for the final fabric.  I always use 50/50 cotton, but many other workers use 85/15.

Burlap tacked on top of frame

It is important to note that the burlap is nailed on top of the edge of the frame.  This allows the muslin and final fabric to be nailed to the face of the frame.

Muslin tacked to front of frame over cotton

On the bottom of the seat a black bottom cambric is nailed to cover the webbing, using small nails.

Black bottom cambric over webbing

After the final fabric is tacked in place an appropriate gimp trim is applied using gimp tacks.  Now you are done and it only took a short time to restore the upholstery professionally.  The seat is ready for another century of comfort.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Am I Really Obsolete?

Tools of The "Forgotten" Trade

I remember vividly in June of 1969 meeting an old man who was a traditional upholsterer.  It was in a  shop around the corner from where I lived, and, in fact, just a block from where I still work.  He was trained in New York in the ways of making furniture comfortable and stylish.  I can still see his muscular hands, even though he must have been nearly 80 years old, pulling the cord to tie the springs, working the muslin to get it even and stitching the burlap, creating a perfect edge from the horsehair.

I remember being shocked when he casually used his magnetic hammer to pick up a bunch of upholstery tacks and put them in his mouth.  Who would even think of doing that?  As he worked he would rapidly put the hammer in his mouth and put a tack on the end, then driving it in place with amazing precision.

This was the first time I saw a worker "spitting tacks."  I had to try it, and almost immediately discovered that I could make a good living restoring upholstery on antiques.  In fact, the ability to not only work on the wood frame, but to be able to upholster as well, put me in a class by myself.  No longer did the client have to take the frame from the refinisher to the upholsterer to get it done.  One stop shopping.

Of course, during those early years a lot of places were able to supply traditional materials.  I would go shopping on a regular basis in my area and get quality muslin, burlap, spring twine, tufting cord, cambric (not the synthetic stuff...actual black muslin), pounds of 100% horsehair, 50/50 cotton batting, coiled springs in various sizes, and boxes of tacks.

Much of that list is no longer available these days as the trade has completely changed.  Foam and staples have become the standard process and more than a few upholsterers I have met have expressed shock and surprise that I don't even have a staple gun.  (Woodworkers also are surprised to find I don't have a table saw or router, but that is another story.)

I charge extra for projects which have been "converted" by other workers who throw away the original stuffing and staple on their synthetic materials.   I hate staples.  They don't hold well and removing them is a pain.  Usually I bleed from some unseen fragment of a staple which gets me as I work the job.  I think modern upholsters use their staple gun like a 2nd amendment enthusiast who goes to the gun range and fires thousands of rounds.  You cannot believe how many staples I find.

Tacks in Different Sizes, Including Gimp Tacks

The simple fact is that I have spit tacks all my life.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds of tacks. All sizes: 18, 16, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, and even 1 1/2.  To be honest, any tack above #10 I don't put in my mouth.  They have a tendency to get stuck in the top of my mouth which hurts, so I just place them on the hammer individually.  However, it is rare to use such large tacks, as a skilled traditional upholsterer will understand to use the smallest tack which will do the job, to minimize the damage to the wood frame.

Spitting tacks is important.  It allows the right hand to work the hammer with precision, as the left hand manipulates the material and holds it in place.  This allows amazing speed and precision.  Most people do not even know how to work the hammer properly.  Notice the head is curved on a radius.  If you hammer from the elbow or upper arm you cannot hit precisely in the same spot each time.  You need to pivot the hammer just from the wrist, holding the upper arm steady against the body.  Since the distance from the wrist to the head of the hammer is fixed you can swing the arc exactly the same each time.

That means you can set the tack and hit it several times without missing.  Also you can work next to the polished wood frame or gold leaf frame of the chair with confidence.  People who watch me work are stunned that I never seem to miss the target and can hammer with a certain force right next to the edge, perfectly and precisely,  all day.

About 20 years ago the local supply house stopped selling tacks.  I bought all the surplus they had, but those are long gone.  I started to shop nationally and even internationally in order to keep my supply of tacks from running out.  One by one the old companies stopped production.  Nobody bought tacks so nobody made them.

As a side note, one day a ballet teacher came into my shop and showed me a #12 upholstery tack.  She wondered if I had any like that.  I showed her several boxes, each weighing a pound.  She was shocked.  "These are special tacks for ballet slippers.  They are sold in Florida and cost $12 for a package of 6!"  I handed her a dozen and said "Have a good day."

I also remember using tacks to attach my cleats to my shoes when I raced bicycles.  That is another application which is no longer done.  Toe straps are gone and you buy a bicycle without pedals!!

A Cobbler's Tray 

In desperation recently, I found a supplier in New York who said they could get me tacks.  I ordered and received 50 pounds of #3, since that is the most common tack I use.  They tasted terrible!  They were crooked and different sizes and I imagined they had been gathered up from the floor and put into a box.

I complained and received this note:

"For years our former supplier of the cut tacks "Crown Nail" of England (no longer in business) made the best cut tacks around the world and went the extra step to insure his quality and sterilized products do to the amount of 'spitters' years ago...We would not recommend doing it 'the old fashion way' i.e.; putting them in your mouth any longer as we do not have the same relationship with the Indian supplier as we had in the past with Crown Nail and we do not know the methods of 'degreasing' the products."

I can work around the lack of materials, like silk or 100% cotton damask, silk or wool mohair, and even good quality horsehair.  I cannot work without tacks.

Am I obsolete?  Is the craft of the traditional upholsterer dead?

I cannot believe I am alone in this trade.  If you read this and know of a supplier of good quality sterilized cut tacks, please let me know.

PS:  You may notice the comments to this post.  I am unable to imbed a link in the comments section so here is the link to the "Tack Spitter" Master Tack Spitter Video

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Disposable, Renewable or Enduring?

I was raised in a very thrifty environment, a direct result of my parents working hard to hang onto the lowest rung of the middle class ladder.  I remember my great uncle telling stories about earning 10 cents an hour polishing beans for the local grocer.  I was amazed.  "Polishing beans?" I asked.

"Yes, and I was glad for the job at that time.  Beans would sell for a few cents more if they were shiny, so I would take some wax and dip my hands in the beans and work them until they were clean and shiny."

This man was the same man who never had more than 20 dollars at a time in his pocket all the years I knew him.  I suspect it was the same 20 dollar bill as I never saw him buy anything.  "Everything you need is already at the local dump.  And it's free for the taking."  It turns out that when he died, we discovered he had substantial savings accounts in dozens of banks across the country, so that wherever he visited he had some reserves, if needed.

That durable and practical generation which lived through the Great Depression is now just a faint memory.  What the world experienced in the past decade was shocking but nothing compared to the 1930's.

I have spent my life restoring historic furniture, saving it from the trash heap of time.  I have a deep respect for those who had the knowledge to select the proper tree, and be able to transform it into a beautiful and practical object using only wind, water and human power.  We could learn a great deal of important information if we would just take the time to analyze those objects and understand the process which produced them.

Antiques represent a culture which is enduring and still important for us to appreciate even centuries later.  Of course, not everything was wonderful.  There was disease, poverty, poor sanitation, uneven distribution of wealth, war and conflict.  As I list these problems, I realize that they are still part of our society today.  I guess we haven't evolved as much as I thought.

I ask myself, "What will my generation leave for the future?"  The answer is not pretty.

When I was born the United States had just dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.   I am the child of the first nuclear age, and, like others who came of age during this time, I was fascinated with the prospect of understanding the atom.  So much so that I built an electron accelerator ("atom smasher") in High School and took several awards at the Science Fair, going on to work at Brookhaven Labs and getting a degree in Applied Physics at UCSD.

I know a few things about the atom, I guess.  Enough so that I decided to walk away from my chosen career over 40 years ago when I realized that science could not solve the nuclear waste problem.  Science can create radioactivity but cannot find a way to keep it out of the environment.  Talk about an enduring legacy:  It is a fact that human generated radioactive waste will be polluting the earth thousands of years after the pyramids have fallen into desert dust.  That is what my generation will be remembered for...

At the same time, we live in a disposable society which has no concern at all about making and selling computers and phones with toxic materials, at great expense, only to make them obsolete after a few years of use.  Make, Consume, Discard.  How much longer can we sustain this business model?

It seems logical for corporations to find workers on the other side of the planet who will work for less and make something a few cents cheaper than someone else.  However, what is the real carbon footprint of that object by the time it reaches the consumer?  Take IKEA furniture, for example.  Much of the material used in IKEA furniture is manufactured using toxic chemicals and synthetic materials.  Then it is transported a great distance in shipping containers which are disposed of by the consumer in a landfill.  It is "cost effective" and serves its purpose but lasts only a few years before it falls apart and is replaced by a similar, but cheaper item.

Compare that with a piece of antique furniture.  The tree was either locally harvested by hand or transported by ship using wind power.  The wood was processed by water driven saws and shaped by human talent.  It was transported overland with water or horse power, and later by steam.  It was only when steam was created by burning coal that it started to produce a carbon footprint.

That same piece of antique furniture produced subsequent jobs for workers who repaired, polished, upholstered and restored it from generation to generation.  It created memories and connections to the people who used it, strengthening family history and direct connections to the land.  It provided comfort and a sense of culture as times changed, providing a constant reference point in a world of flux.

In simple words, it was a renewable source of material culture, and will continue to function in that important capacity as long as we respect its integrity and original purpose.  That is why I have devoted my talents to restoring antique furniture.  It gives me a great deal of pleasure knowing I have saved something from the past and that it will continue to exist long into the future.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Time Is The Only Real Commodity

Clock #7 (Left) and Clock #6 (Right) 

This past month I have not posted, as you may have noticed.  Business has returned to pre 2008 levels and I have been occupied with a lot of interesting work, arriving and departing.  Since the antiques market has hit rock bottom, I have noticed a renewed interest in clients finding and restoring old furniture.

At the same time I have been celebrating the completion of 47 years working at the bench, restoring wonderful high quality antiques.  Since I work every day of the week, every week of the year and only take time off to travel I calculate that I have been standing at that bench working with traditional hand tools and exotic materials for something like 16,000 work days.

I have been fortunate to have been healthy almost the entire time, and I have even come to work when I was sick, since I am a little obsessive/compulsive about my routine.  With any luck I still have about 10,000 more days left in this body to be able to finish all the projects I have started for myself and which wait patiently in the back of the shop.

As Hector Berlioz noted: "Le temps est un grand maitre, dit-on: le malheur est qu'il soit un maitre inhuman qui tue ses élèves."  Loosely translated: Time is a great teacher, we say: unfortunately it is not human and kills its students.

As a devote historian and builder of clocks, I have been a student of time all my life.  I know how it ends.

Speaking of clocks, I have finally started building two clocks, which have been on my "to do" list for a year.  These will be my 6th and 7th examples, and all the previous clocks have been sold.  One of these (#6) is already sold and I expect #7 to find an owner before it is finished, if the past is any indicator of what to expect.

Joseph Windmills Resting Quietly

Clock #6 is the smallest body clock I have ever made, designed after a famous clock I had the pleasure to restore years ago for a famous actress living in Los Angeles.  That clock was from the Wethersfield Collection of English Clocks and was made by Joseph Windmills, in London in 1690.
At that time I found a clock dealer in London who made her an offer of $150k to purchase it, but she turned him down.  She would rather have the clock than the money.

Wethersfield Collection Page 22

This Windmills clock is interesting and has some dramatic marquetry, using olive oyster frisage decorated with ebony and boxwood pinwheels and fans.  Very modern for the time.  It also has a very narrow body, where most clocks need a 10" swing for the pendulum, this clock only needs 9".  I searched for many months online until I found a period clock works which had the required dimensions.  I am having David Lindow make a new period engraved brass face for these works, with my name of course.

Unlike the original case, I do not have access to good aged English oak for the carcase, so I am building it out of tulip poplar, which is the best I can get locally.  After all, I choose to live in Southern California, so I need to compromise with my wood selection.  I used to use Honduras mahogany for all my secondary wood carcase construction, but those days are long past.  The only real choices I have are beech, oak and poplar.  Pine is out of the question due to cost and poor quality.

Did I hear Jorgensen Clamps Were Out of Business?

My normal method for making a tall case clock case is to dry fit the pieces together, getting all the joinery right.  Then I take it apart and press the veneer surfaces on each board, leaving the edge banding off.  After the sides and front are glued together I can add the edge banding, covering the corners and edges.  Since I am using all sawn material (1.5mm thick) there is plenty of thickness in the veneers to work with.

The oysters are purchased from Patrick George, in Paris, and sawn specifically for me.  I always get the first choice of his material, and just last month ordered another $3k worth of olive to replace material I have used.  I am designing a William and Mary chest of drawers with olive oyster marquetry for a good client in Dallas and need the best material for that project.  I am proud to say that this same client owns my first clock, a copy of the Tompion clock at the Met in New York.

Adding The Ebony and Boxwood Sawn Veneers

To produce the decoration for the door, I use a standard assembly board process.  Stretching Kraft paper over a board and building face down with hot glue lets me put together very complicated patterns with ease.

Mastic Filler Added to Back Surface of Design

After I put all the oyster pieces down, I added the ebony and boxwood pieces one at a time, carefully trimming each piece to fit with a rabbet plane.  As each element was fitted into its respective cavity on the assembly board, it was held with masking tape.  After all the ebony and boxwood pieces were set in place the masking tape was carefully removed, leaving the elements in their position.  I then used clear packing tape to hold all the pieces together, trimming around the outside for each design.  This method allowed me to lift out the entire assembly, add some hot glue and then quickly place it back in place, clamping briefly.  Removing the clear tape is the last step.

Face Side After Removal of Kraft Paper

Once all the pieces were put together on the Kraft paper, I applied mastic, as usual, making a paste of hot water, thin glue and Cuban mahogany filtered sawdust.  After this was dry, I lightly sanded the surface, cut away the Kraft paper and used Old Brown Glue to apply the entire panel to the substrate.

Door Ready to Trim to Fit Case

The next day I removed it from the press and used cold water to scrape off the paper and glue from the face.  This exposed the final pattern for the first time.

Clock Before Sanding and Finish 

The next stage of this project is to build the bonnet and get the face from David Lindow.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

American Chevalet Made In The USA!

Page 62, "Masterpieces of Marquetry" 1996

In 1990 I was hired by the Timken Museum here in Balboa Park to provide public education on the topic of French marquetry.  It was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in conjunction with the San Francisco Legion of Honor as they were rebuilding the museum in SF and needed a place for some of the furniture while they completed construction.

It was a two year contract, and we selected 5 different French cabinets, each one illustrating a different method of marquetry.  The name of the show was "France in the 18th century, the Age of Elegance."  I provided a 10 minute video, which was nominated for an Emmy, as a documentary.  I also installed a Didactic Gallery installation, which included a chevalet, a foot operated frame saw, and all the materials and other hand tools used to make marquetry.

My job required me to lecture in the gallery twice a week for several hours, and, when I was not there the video played on a screen near the "workshop" so visitors could imagine what was involved in creating the marvelous decorative surfaces on display.  It was a great job, since my workshop is a few miles from the museum, and I could just ride my bike there, through the park and into the museum where I could change into my work clothes in the guard's room.

Immediately after this contract was finished, I was invited to attend ecole Boulle, in Paris, by Pierre Ramond.  Over the next 4 years I became good friends with many students, teachers, and museum conservators in Paris, thanks to the support of Pierre.

On one of my trips, as I walked into the conservation lab at Musee des Arts Deco, I was treated with applause.  Surprised at the reception, I asked why they were celebrating my arrival, since they had never done that before.  They simply put a copy of Volume II of Pierre's latest book, "Masterpieces of Marquetry" on the table and opened it to page 62.

Imagine my surprise to see a photo of me, sitting on my original chevalet in the Didactic Gallery at the Timken Museum.  The copy said "The perpetual transfer of techniques between continents can be illustrated by Patrick Edwards' equipment." (translated from the original French)  "After a training period of several months at the Ecole Boulle, this American craftsman built his personal donkey as well as a model for his hometown museum, where he is in charge of furniture restoration."

This was a nice compliment, even if the facts were not exactly correct.  In fact, I had spent part of 4 years "in training" at Ecole Boulle.  Also, I had built a chevalet some 15 years before I went to study there.  Finally, I was not in charge of restoration at the museum, but in charge of public education.

Still, I got the applause from my peers at the museum in Paris, and left the lab walking on air.

I am still working to introduce the chevalet to North American marquetry workers.  My efforts at the American School of French Marquetry have been rewarded by all the students who have passed through these doors, and sat on our chevalets.  Many dozens of them have purchased the hardware kits and built their own tools.

And now there is a wonderful woodworker, David Clark, who is making the wood parts for the chevalet at a good price, with excellent results.  His wood kit is designed to work with my hardware kit, and you can just order it, wait a short time, and put it together with very little effort.

I mentioned his work a few posts ago, so just scroll down to find his information, and see the results.

You can email him directly with your questions or to place your order.  Just send it to:

I want to thank him for creating a check list of the parts, and providing names and part numbers for this tool.  Now, when I communicate with anyone about the chevalet, we can use the same names for the parts and clearly understand what is going on.

Click On Picture to Enlarge

In Pierre's first book, "Marquetry", he illustrated blueprints for the tool, with his parts list.

This tool is measured to be 54cm tall.  Pierre notes in his copy that, since the workers today are much taller then they were a century ago, he suggests we add 3 to 5 cm to the plan.  Than means the typical French worker would use a tool in the size from 57 to 59cm.  Of course, Americans are generally  taller then French (my experience), so we have tools as large as 62cm here at the school.

To determine what size tool you would use, just measure (in metric centimeters) from the top of the seat to the base of your throat, while you are sitting comfortably, slightly bent forward.

Since it is absolutely essential that the tool be adjusted to cut perpendicular in both the X and Y axis, you make a test cut to check it, after initial set up or when ever it is taken apart and moved to a new location.  Here is the test cut, as shown in Pierre's book:

Move the Vertical or Horizontal Adjustment Arms until correct

The test is done with a piece of wood, like tulip poplar, which is easy to cut, and about 1/2" thick.  Note that adjustment is usually a combination of the X and Y adjustments, which can take a bit of time.  Once it is dialed in, it will be fine for a long time.  At any time that the piece you are cutting resists falling out of the packet, it might indicate a need to check the adjustment.  Doing this test with a finer blade than the one you are using for the work will increase the accuracy.

Now, for the first time in history, you can order an American Chevalet, made in the USA.  I have fulfilled Pierre's wish and transferred the "secret" technology from France to North America.

It only took 20 years!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Little Wheels Go Round and Round

Teapoy Upside Down on the Bench
I have taken apart tens of thousands of antique pieces of furniture in my time.  One thing I hold dear is respecting original hardware.  Furniture hardware takes a beating.  Metal and wood do not live well together and are constantly at odds.

For example, how many outdoor decks have you seen with the nails sticking up?  Ever wondered how that happened?  Little elves in the middle of the night sneaking around with crowbars and lifting the nails little by little?  Same thing with wood screws.  They always are a bit loose after some time.  Do these elves also have screwdrivers?

These are the things I occupy my time with, when I am trapped in elevators, or waiting for my turn in line at some place.  I am not normal, I have been told.

Naturally, the obvious conclusion is that the wood hates the metal and wants to get rid of it, or the metal hates the wood and wants to get away.  That makes perfect sense to me as they are not from the same species.  Wood grows in nature and iron is man made.

On the other hand, perhaps the wood dimensions change as a function of humidity and, by expansion and contraction, there is a force which just pushes out the iron.  Just another thought...

In any event, when I find a screw, or hinge, or other piece of hardware which has stood the tests of time, the environment and the whims of ownership, I tend to respect it and leave it alone.  It is, after all, the absolute proof of age and cannot be faked.

If a screw is blunt and made before 1850 and has never been touched, then the antique is before 1850.  See my earlier post "Respect the Screw," for more on this topic.

Today I am posting about wheels.  I have seen a lot of wheels on furniture.  The earliest wheels were made with leather rollers, held on each side by brass washers.  Then brass wheels appeared, followed by porcelain, iron and then wood.  Each of these materials had their advantages.  The leather was soft enough and quiet but quickly developed flat spots.  The brass rolled smoothly but distorted under pressure.  The porcelain wheels were clean and added a decorative color but could be broken if sharply hit.  The iron wheels worked well, but would rust if wet.  The wood wheels were the cheapest, and depending on the species of wood, lasted for a fairly long time.

A basic problem with all these wheels on furniture is the shaft which held the wheel.  If it got bent then the height of the wheel changed, and the piece of furniture became unstable.  Most of the time, when I deliver a piece of furniture with wheels, I need to instruct the owner to take the time to rotate the wheels until the piece is level and stable on the floor.  It's frustrating.

Not until this week did I realize that there is a solution to this problem.  For the first time in my experience I found a set of wheels that were made by an unknown genius.  There is no name or patent date on these wheels, but they certainly would qualify.

I was restoring an English rosewood teapoy from around 1850.  It had never previously been repaired or restored, so I was the first person to take it apart.

You need to realize that tea and the tea service is one of the most important social habits of the English lifestyle.  It is not uncommon for the wealthy to spend a lot of money on the tea as well as the furniture and materials used in storing, mixing and drinking tea.

This teapoy has a circular lift top which contains 4 circular containers for the tea.  Two wood containers with lids, lined with lead foil, for the tea and two cut crystal containers to mix the blend for consumption.

Hand Made Cast Brass Hinge

As the circular top is rather heavy and there is only one hinge, it needs to be sturdy.  The builder reinforced the area around the hinge with custom brass plates, and the hinge itself is hand filed from thick blanks of cast brass.  Modern rolled sheet brass hinges were new at the time, as several exhibitors at the 1852 exposition included them in their display, but they were not as strong as this hinge.  It is massive.  It also shows that the brass hardware on this teapoy was made by a craftsman who understood design and engineering stresses.

Minor Veneer Damage

Look At How The Veneer Was Added
Some 40 years ago, when I was at Winterthur, during the Summer Institute of 1978, I was approached by Don Fennimore, then a curator who was a specialist in silver, but had been asked to include furniture in his duties.  He was curious if I knew why there were small cut marks under the plinth where the veneer was stuck in the corners.  I pointed out that it made sense to saw a bit deeper in the corners so you could jam the veneer into place, thus holding it secure during glue up.  It was obvious to me, as I had been doing this at work.  However, in his position, he needed to complete a stack of paperwork before he could even remove a single screw.

The pedestal is a carved spiral post in solid rosewood, and the plinth is a shaped flat platform with carved scroll feet.  The veneer is thick sawn Brazilian rosewood veneer.  As the finish had become completely opaque and black over the years, I decided to refinish it to show off the rosewood.  This wood is endangered and it is a visual pleasure to see the quality of rosewood which used to be available some 150 years ago.

Wheels and Screws Made before 1850

As the wheels were carved into sockets under the feet and all the screws had become loose I removed them.  They were original and blunt, so they will be returned to their places after the restoration.  My goal was to clean the dirt and oxidation from the wheels.

To my surprise, as I began cleaning the wheels, I found something I had never seen before.  There was a second, very small wheel, which actually served to carry the load.  This unique design allowed the primary wheel to carry the load without bending the iron shaft, thus keeping it level over time.  This system was in perfect condition on all three wheels, and after cleaning it appeared that these wheels were unchanged and unaffected from many years of use.

Big Wheels and Little Wheels Make It Work

I need to respect the craftsman who designed and built something like this, knowing that it will survive many generations.  Unfortunately, much of the human energy spent on building objects today is wasted, as nothing really is expected to survive for long.

The basic philosophy today is make it last "until the check clears."