Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You Read It Here First

As the proposed Federal ban on ivory emerges from the dark halls of congress, more and more people are becoming concerned about how it will affect their lives and the future of any cultural object which contains ivory.  Today, the online magazine Antiques posted an insightful article which addresses this issue in some detail.

Read it here:Online Antiques Magazine: Banning Ivory
Please click on the link in this article to read the text of the ban.

Of course, I posted last December the news that this ban was being formulated, and that there was an urgent need for public input before it went too far.  However, as the Antiques article notes, only one member of the committee who worked on this proposed legislation had any connection with the market place, and that was ebay.

As the article also suggests, it may become necessary in the future, in order to sell your antique piano, that you will have to remove all the ivory keys and have them replaced with plastic.  A note of irony here, in that plastic is made from petroleum.  The logic of this is that we throw away the remains of dead elephants and replace them with the remains of dead dinosaurs!

Looking to the future, I live in a home which is full of period furniture made from Cuban mahogany.  I just purchased last week a wonderful large English Renaissance cabinet made of Brazilian rosewood.  Since both of these materials are also listed on the CITIES endangered species list, do I need to consider sending them to the landfill and buying IKEA replacements, also made with toxic chemical components?

For years I have collected early 19th century American clocks with wood works.  Naturally, all the bushings in these works are little pieces of ivory.  Should I take all the clocks apart and replace the bushings with plastic?

Last week I had a series of frantic calls from a rich client in San Francisco who was concerned about the flame retardant chemicals and petroleum based foam upholstery in her modern Italian sofa.  She wanted the modern look but asked me if I could completely replace the upholstery with jute, cotton, muslin, burlap and horsehair.  When I looked into the construction of the frame, I found it was tubular steel, like a car seat.  The only part I could keep, should I take the job, would be the iron feet.

She also told me that the use of horsehair stuffing was "illegal" in San Francisco.  I found that hard to believe, so I contacted F.P. Woll & Co., in Philadelphia, where I purchase horsehair, and asked them if they knew of anyplace in the country where horsehair is "illegal.  They laughed.

I suspect that the upholsterers in San Francisco don't really know how to work with traditional materials any more, so they just use the excuse that it is "illegal" to be able to sell their foam and staples.  Just a theory.

Where are we headed, if all the traditional materials used in the creation of wonderful works of art are lost or forbidden, only to be replaced with modern man made substitutes?

Just asking.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Proposed Ivory Ban

As I posted several months ago, the proposed language for a ban on ivory is being circulated through the federal process, and will appear later this year for a vote.  It is important for those affected by this legislation to have their voices heard at this time.

I have noted that several countries, including the US and China, have publicly destroyed tons of illegal ivory, in an effort to demonstrate that trafficking in this material will not be tolerated.  I support this action, to a certain degree, but wonder about its effectiveness.

It seems to me that, like international drug trade, the poaching of ivory and wholesale killing of elephants will continue, regardless of laws, as long as there is a black market.  Thus, the destruction of confiscated ivory will have little effect on eliminating the problem.

I have noted that, for the past 50 years, government agents have seized drugs and destroyed them, with no real damage to the drug trade.  Drug dealer just consider the seizure of their inventory and cash as a part of the business.  It really doesn't stop them.

There is a simple solution, which is why it probably hasn't been considered.  That solution is to stop the poachers where they are working.  Stop them in the fields where the elephants are living.  Put our energies into making it dangerous for the poachers to practice their horrible trade.

Today the New York Times ran an editorial in support of the proposed ban.  The headline was "Banning Ivory Sales in America."  The lead paragraph states that 30,000 to 35,000 elephants are killed by poachers every year.  This is unacceptable.  How many poachers are arrested each year?  The editorial doesn't mention that figure.  How much money is allocated for elephant protection?  Again, no indication of the financial commitment to protect these creatures.

The language being considered will prohibit "all commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques," and it will "prohibit exports except for certified antiques.  Sales of elephant ivory across state lines will be prohibited, unless the ivory is demonstrably more than 100 years old.  And ivory sales will be prohibited within a state unless the seller can demonstrate that the ivory was lawfully imported before 1900." "People can still own ivory and pass heirlooms to descendants."

The editorial continues, suggesting that those who make their living in this evil trade will probably not worry too much about forging documents, so that makes it obvious that this legislation will not be effective, except to limit legitimate transactions.

This is a very poor solution for a very serious problem.

Friday, January 31, 2014

And The SAPFM 2014 Cartouche Award Goes To...

Micky Callahan and Steven Lash Founded SAPFM
I joined the Society of American Period Furniture Makers the first year they started, and am proud of my membership number 170, since they now have over a thousand members across the country.  I actively participated in each of their early conferences at Williamsburg and wrote articles for the first three issues of their Journal, which has become the premiere woodworking journal in the US.

Here is a short video which talks about SAPFM:  Society of American Period Furniture Makers

However, after several years traveling to Williamsburg in January, which included a blizzard that closed the colonial village down for several days, I got to the point where spending January in San Diego seemed a better idea than looking for snow.  That doesn't mean I lost interest in the activities of SAPFM.  I follow them on the web, talk to other members often, joined the new Southern California Chapter when it was organized last year, and always look forward to the Journal.

Outdoor Seating In Williamsburg
The conference in Williamsburg is held in two back to back sessions each January.  It is titled, "Working Wood in the 18th Century" and is a great opportunity to meet with other furniture makers and collectors, listen to informative presentations and attend the banquet where the winner of the Cartouche is announced.

The Cartouche is a very significant award, but, here in Southern California, not many people understand what it means.  I usually tell them it is like an Academy Award, since it is voted on by members of a group to recognize the achievements of another member of that same group.  In other words it is an award of your peers, for lifetime achievement in a particular skill.  You must be nominated and then a jury evaluates your efforts in various fields, like teaching, awards, creations, publications, lectures, etc.  I am the first person West of the Mississippi to receive it.

Past winners have been craftsmen who made American period furniture, and all of these live on the East Coast.  They include:

2013 Will Neptune
2012  Allan Breed
2011  Benjamin C. Hobbs
2010  Steven Lash
2009  Dennis Bork
2008  Alfred Sharp
2007  North Bennet Street School
2006  Fred Stanley
2005  Phil Lowe
2004  Mack Headley
2003  Gene Landon
2002  Robert Whitley
2001  John McAlister
2000  Harold Ionson

A few of these are no longer with us, but all of them are outstanding in their field, and I have been fortunate to have met all of them at one time or another.  It is a great group of talent.

In looking at the winners and their work, I never considered for a moment that I might be eligible for such an honor.  After all, I am an American who makes period furniture, but my furniture for the most part is European in style.  All of the forms which I make date from 1680 to 1840 and are completely hand made.  They are just not American.  Generally, I prefer English, Dutch, German and French.

So it was a complete shock when I was contacted late last year and told that I had won the Cartouche and should return to Williamsburg to attend the Banquet.  Wow!

Of course, watching the weather during January was discouraging.  Something about an Arctic Vortex?  All I could see on the news was "Freezing Cold!" "Dangerous Travel Conditions" "Stay Home!"

When I landed in Chicago for the transfer, it was 20 below zero and our flight out was cancelled.  We were very fortunate to find another plane which was just departing, although we sat on the runway for over an hour while they figured out how to de ice the plane.  Landing in Richmond, we got a car and made it to Williamsburg for the last 5 minutes of registration.  Then to bed at the Lodge.

Period Furniture Demonstration
The next day I attended the conference lectures and that night got ready for the dinner.  I had brought my suit and grabbed a fresh white shirt from the cleaners which was still in the plastic bag.  What I forgot was that I remove the shirt collar plastic stays for the cleaners, and I did not put them back.  During my talk, as I warmed up, my collars went from straight down to curled up, like the hat on the Flying Nun.  I had no idea why my wife, Kristen, was making those funny hand gestures from the table in the front of the podium until after the talk was over.

I can remember hundreds of lectures I have given over the years, both to large and small audiences.  I have never had the sensation of a packed room of perhaps 200 people rising as one and giving me a standing ovation.  I don't have words to express how that felt.  Holding the Cartouche Award and hearing the congratulations of the other furniture makers is indeed a special feeling.  It was also personally significant, as I have never before made a Power Point presentation of all my work.  With each new image, all I could think was, "I can't believe I made that!"  That thought was quickly followed by "How did I do it?"

Frank Klausz Teaching 9 year old Boy about Dovetails

The weather cleared up a bit on Sunday, and Kristen and I had a chance to wander around the village to see the homes, shops and take some tours.  We stopped in at the cabinet shop to talk with Brian and Bill, the two young cabinetmakers who were presenters at the conference.  They were putting their shop back together and getting back to work.  Since there were few tourists at that time of year, we had a good chance to talk for several hours.

Kristen and Bill in the Cabinet Shop
On Monday, we drove down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to visit Roy Underhill.  He moved about 4 years ago from his home in Williamsburg and purchased a rustic mill house outside Chapel Hill, where he lives with his wife, Jane, and his dog.  It is a charming home, with a waterfall, and he teaches classes there in wild timber technology, for lack of a better term.  Essentially he cuts down trees and makes stuff using only his hands, his tools, and his brilliant mind.

Roy Is Always So Serious!
The next day, we drove to see his school, which is in a 1907 storefront in town.  It is a beautiful school room, and he teaches hand craft woodworking to a wide variety of students.  The cool thing is that he has an antique tool store on the second floor, and it is one of the most comprehensive collection of good woodworking tools I have seen in years.  The prices are right, and the tools are ready to go to work.  The owner of the store is Edward Lebetkin and you can reach him at

I left there with a nice boxwood plough.  Like I need another plough.  I can't help it.

You may have seen the news about Atlanta.  All day long on Monday and Tuesday there were weather reports about the storm, set to arrive that afternoon.  The low pressure system off the coast was full of water and the cold front coming down from the North was fast moving and really, really freezing.  Conclusion: Snowstorm in the South.

We raced up the freeway to get back to Richmond before the roads became impossible.  We were sitting in our nice hotel room watching the snow fall when we got the message that our plane had been cancelled the next morning.  They were working to reschedule us later in the day.

We were the first plane out of Richmond after they cleared the snow off the runway.

Back At The Shop With Cartouche
The older I get, the more I like the climate in San Diego.  Heartfelt thanks, SAPFM!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Complex Curve Repair Simplified

Another Day Another Chair Repair
I work very hard at being humble and modest.  People who know me will laugh at that statement, but I rarely, in fact, say that I am the "best" at anything I do.  That is because I know others who are my inspiration, who are dramatically better at what they do than I am.

However, I often walk home from work thinking to myself, "I am the best chair repair man in this city."

I don't say it out loud, since, these days, other pedestrians will think I am talking to someone on the phone while I walk.  (In the past you had to be mentally unstable to walk around talking to yourself; these days it is the norm.)

Yesterday I was thinking, with a bit of satisfaction, how well this particular repair had gone.  I visualize in my mind all the elements of the repair and the way it will survive the stress of use and, if every little element of the project went well, I know I earned my pay.  Perhaps I'm obsessive.  No, to be honest, I AM obsessive!

This project was a pair of Louis XV revival 19th century armchairs which had a brass leaf gilt finish.  They had been poorly repaired over the years, including many small brad nails sunk into each of the joints and missing areas filled with epoxy filler.  Using nails to repair furniture is a crime.  First of all, it just doesn't work.  Second, it prevents the actual repair, since the joint cannot be opened easily.  Third, it requires some amount of damage to remove the nails, either by punching them out, or digging them out with tools.

All the nails do, in fact, is prevent the chair from falling apart, while at the same time allowing enough movement that the chair becomes a rocker.

One of the chairs had its crest rail broken and repaired several times.  All the wood around the mortise was damaged, and the tenon in the style was messed up.  There were several elements of the wood which were fractured and areas which were built up with epoxy.  In effect, there was nothing left structurally of the joints.

A Single Clamp Pulls Joint Together
I cleaned each of the small fragments and, over several days, rebuilt the cheeks of the mortise.  Still there was not enough wood to hold properly.  Therefore, I drilled two 3/8" holes by eye into the ends of the tenons and also into the sockets of the damaged mortises.  You need to do this carefully, since there is no mechanical way to accurately align the holes.  I put some light tack masking tape on the wood, each side of the joint, to provide at least a line of sight.  The rest is experience.

Note that the crest and back of these chairs are curved in two directions.  Therefore, this is a perfect example of using vector forces to create proper clamping cauls.  Look at the joint and visualize the single vector which bisects the surface of the joint, in the center, at 90 degrees.  That is where the clamp force needs to be applied.

Search this site for other posts on Vector Clamping.

Now take soft wood, like poplar or pine, and make wood cauls that you can clamp to the frame on each side of the joint.  These cauls need to have a fairly large surface area, so they don't slide and can be clamped securely.  Also these cauls need to have a "purchase" spot where the final clamp will grab.

Perfect Alignment

Note the two cauls on either side of the joint are held by two pony clamps each.  Then the longer single pony clamp is applied which pulls the joint together.  Finally, a second pony clamp is used to provide alignment top to bottom and a "C" clamp is used, with some plexiglass, to align the faces front to back.

The plastic allows visual inspection as all the clamps are tightened, in sequence, to pull everything together.

There is also a weight used on the front of the seat to keep this chair from falling backwards and spoiling my day.

Of course, I only use Old Brown Glue for chair repairs, since it is the best glue "in the universe" for this type of work.  I don't brag about my talents, but I do brag about my glue.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Upholstery Conservation

Home Sweet Workshop

I love having a business in a historic commercial district which is unique. What surprises me is that I have continued to exist in this location for so long without spending a dime on advertising.  All around me are restaurants, theatre events, clothing shops, gift shops and just about everything you would need for a diverse shopping experience.  Then there is my shop.

My store/workshop/school is just off the main street and directly across from an elementary school.  Like living next to the ocean and listening to its perpetual sounds, I have enjoyed the sounds of children playing and singing "happy birthday" for as long as I can remember.

My storefront looks like an old house, and there are trees and plants, and the windows are full of mahogany furniture.  I prefer the low key image.   I work here and, if you ask anybody in the business, this is where you go when you need specialized antique restoration.  Same place.  Same business.

So, one of the neat things about working like this is that I never know who is going to ring the doorbell.  Sometimes it is for antique restoration, sometimes upholstery, sometimes people want to see the school, sometimes it is for odd jobs which I refer to other businesses.

Last week the bell rang and I discovered an elegant Victorian walnut parlor chair, in the Renaissance Revival style.  It had its original finish, original brass wheels, and what appeared to be an early upholstery job with wool mohair.  There was some evidence that it had been re upholstered only once before, perhaps 80 years or more ago.

Wool Mohair With Cat Hair Added

When I removed the upholstery, my suspicions were confirmed.  There was the original upholstery, where the maker had used horsehair for the tufted back, and straw and Spanish moss for the sprung seat.  Then there was a second effort, when the springs were repaired and the mohair was put on.  During that effort, the upholsterer took the time to conserve the stitched edge of the seat foundation and all the stuffing on the back.  He simply added a bit of horsehair to the top of the seat, and some cotton filling in the button area to improve the tufting.

Original Stuffing with Cotton Added
Cord Held By Second Knots On Back
I removed all the upholstery and nails, saving everything.  I repaired the wood frame and reset the springs, adding new jute webbing, sewing the springs to the webbing, tying the springs with Italian cord (8 knot), and adding new burlap.  Then I carefully replaced the original stitched edge and all the straw and moss and stitched them in place.  A top covering of new burlap completed the seat restoration.

First Knots in Place, Cord Removed
As to the back, I was careful to keep the stuffing in its place.   This is not easy, as the hair was put into the channels in clumps and these clumps move around when the covering is removed.  I noted a neat trick that the original upholsterer from 1850 or so had used for the tufting.  Normally, we use a small bit of cotton to keep the knot on the tufting twine from pulling back through the burlap.  In this case, the worker used a length of spring cord, which he placed along the tufts to keep the knots from pulling through.  Neat trick.

To repair the back, I first tacked new burlap to the frame.  Then I carefully placed the original stuffing in place on the back, making sure all old tacks and rough edges of the original burlap and muslin were cleaned up.  I kept the cotton repair the second worker had added, as it now had become the shape of the tufts.  I measured out the spacing on the new muslin, transferring the pattern from the mohair fabric. To do this, I first iron the mohair fabric to return it to its original dimensions.

Original Stuffing In Place

I have found that visually laying out the tufts is better than trying to measure them and be precise about spacing.  The reason is that the early upholsterers were experienced in this work and would tuft by eye. They were pretty good, but not precise.  When you try to use old stuffing and be precise, it doesn't always fit.
New Muslin Ready for Fabric

That is the reason that, when I was done and looked at it, I noted that the third channel on the lower left was wider than the one next to it.  I thought I had made a mistake, so I went back to the photos I took of the chair before I took it apart.  In fact, I had exactly copied the work of the original maker.

Professional Upholstery Conservation

That was a relief and a confirmation that I was doing a good job.  In another 80 years, I am sure that the next guy will discover the same thing, if he pays attention.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Respect The Screw

Absolute Proof of Authenticity
I refinish and restore antique furniture.  I have taken apart and repaired or refinished over 10,000 pieces of antique furniture in my 45 years.  I am fortunate to see the "guts" of some amazing pieces.  I get to see the tool marks and construction details up close.  I get to examine the nails, screws, hinges, pulls and all sorts of other interesting hardware that exists on these pieces.

Over the years I have developed a deep respect for original hardware which is still in its place and has never been removed.  I think it is certainly one of the most important clues as to the actual age of the piece.  Fakers are usually more concerned with the wood elements and hiding the new wood or cut wood edges with fake patina and stains.  Until recently, they have not been so concerned with using period and appropriate hardware.

In fact, it is possible to recycle old hardware onto newer reproductions, but more difficult to find enough old hardware from the same period that matches.

When I look at antique tables, the very first thing I look at are the hinges and screws.  Iron hinges went through a very clear evolution during the late 18th and first half of the 19th century, as did the screws that held them in place. Until the industrial revolution fully took over this job, all furniture hinges were made by blacksmiths.

The earliest iron hinges were straps of iron bent around a pin and forged together.  These hinges clearly show the smith's work and have a distinctive taper to their thickness.  It is pretty hard to break one of these hinges, since you would have to break the pin or tear the iron.  Not going to happen.

Soon they added rivets in iron to hold the straps together.  On all these hinges the bevel for the screw head is hand cut and irregular.  In fact all the holes are where they end up.  Nothing is even or symmetrical.  Just not important, since they were not seen in the finished product.

Note Scribe Lines For Axis Alignment
Note Saw Cuts For Creating Mortise
Eventually, around 1850, a tool was developed that could form the iron or brass into a circle to hold the pin.  There was no longer a need to make hinges.  These "butt" hinges, as they were called, were cheaper and all made the same, which made installation faster.  However, if you pulled strong enough on the door or leaf, the metal would just unwrap and pull open.  Not too strong, but it works under normal conditions, so it prevails.

The screws went through a similar evolution, from completely hand filed to cast to the invention of the modern pointed gimlet screw in 1846.  There is a wonderful research pdf from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, by Christopher White online which illustrates the different periods of screws.

A Thing of Beauty
You can see it here:  Wood Screws in North America
Nothing Touched Since 1820

It is important to recognize that modern screw drivers should not be used on period screws.  Period screws were fastened with two tools, a gimlet and a turnscrew.  The gimlet was used to create the pilot hole, since the early screws were blunt and not tapered.  The turnscrew is the original name for the screwdriver, but the tip was not square.  The tip was tapered, like a "V."  The reason the tip was tapered was because the slot in the head of the screw was not flat bottomed.  Being cut by hand with a blade left the slot slightly tapered.  Therefore, using a modern screwdriver, which has not been modified, will cause the tool to slip out of the slot, damaging the oxidation on the head of the screw.  This is how you can recognize original screws which have never been removed compared to original screws which have been removed and reinstalled using the wrong tool.

The photos of all 6 hinges on this post were taken from the same table.  It was made in Baltimore around 1820 and is in two sections, each with drop leaves.  Each leaf has three hinges, all completely untouched by modern woodworkers.  Although the table was refinished some years ago, the refinisher had the good sense to not remove the hinges.  I would like to thank him for his knowledge and consideration.

Bottom line: when you find original evidence of age, leave it alone.  The future collectors will thank you.

This One Had A Loose Screw

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Spring Clamps...Literally

Hand Surgery

I must have an unlimited source of clamping choices.  When you spend over 40 years repairing antiques you get creative with unique problem solving.

Most of the repairs I see come into the shop which have failed are the result of poor clamping efforts.  Face it, when the wood surfaces do not meet under precise pressure, even the best glues do not solve the problem.  A good example was the last post, where it was obvious that the person who wanted to reattach the table leg simply injected lots of plastic glue and pushed the leg back in place.  The result was a large surface of dried plastic glue which held nothing and prevented the wood joint from closing.

In that case, a simple pipe clamp would have worked, but I suspect that repair person did not have one available.
Clamps Where You Want Them

Not all cases of clamping are that obvious.  Today I needed to reattach several fingers on a carved chair.  This chair was made in Italy and had two "servants" carved at the front to hold up the arms of the chair.  I'm in no position to judge the political correctness of this subject; my job was to repair the broken hands, which had lost several elements.

As with all carving, there was no flat surfaces to clamp and the elements I needed to reattach were tiny. Fortunately, I have spent years upholstering and had a good supply of springs in the shop.  Taking these springs and cutting away loops gave me a good supply of clamps.  This is a neat trick, and I think all shops should have them available.

Available In All Sizes
I know this idea is not new.  There are spring clamps sold, with a special tool to hold them in place.  But the last time I looked, those kits were expensive and I hate to buy stuff, unless I simply have no choice.

Old springs are free, and by cutting the loops I have several sizes to choose from.  I take a file and make points on each end, so the clamp bites into the wood with the smallest mark visible after the job.  I can bend and shape these clamps to suit the job.  The important thing is that the points of the ends line up, creating a direct clamping force.  See my post again on Vector Clamping.

Add Points With File
I made some rough fingers and cleaned up the broken ends so I had a good fit.  Then I just applied a small bit of Old Brown Glue and the spring clamp.  Final result is a good amount of pressure and a repair which will allow me to finish the carving as I wish.

Simple.  Effective.  And Free.