Friday, September 10, 2010

English Hepplewhite Card Table

I wonder how many antique card tables exist in the world? I know I have seen hundreds of them over the years, in homes, shops, museums, books, and on the bench being repaired. It is amazing to think that practically every home in America or England before 1850 had a card table like every home today has a TV.

I suppose, when you really look at it, the card table satisfied many functions. It could be simply placed against the nearest wall, either closed or open. If it was open, it provided a nice view of the wonderful polished wood against the wall. Either way, it allowed a perfect horizontal surface for candles, pictures and other object d'art. It also could be used as a stand alone table in the room, providing a place for your tea or book next to the sitting area.

The best use, of course, was when company arrived, or during the slow evenings of winter, when it could be opened and provide a perfect small table for games of chance. How different our lives would be if we did not all sit and face the TV but sat across from each other and engaged in traditional social intercourse.

These tables had several options for their operation. In the Federal period, when Hepplewhite and Sheraton designs were popular, they either had 4 legs or 5. These legs were either square tapered or turned, depending on fashion. In either case, there was one or two legs which were attached at the back of the apron with a finger hinge made of wood. Cutting this hinge was a challenge and required exact hand tool skills for proper function.

There was a variation of this form, called a "concertina" action. In this case, the frame of the apron had two parts which expanded, and both back legs remained attached to the rear frame which slid away from the table, allowing the top to flip over. This method was popular in England and not common in America.

During the Empire period the form changed dramatically. Instead of legs at the corners of the frame, the table was supported on a central column, which was normally veneered with figured Cuban mahogany. Since there was no longer a swing leg to support the fold open top, the entire top itself was made to pivot 90 degrees, and when open rested on the fixed frame supported by the pedestal. This provided an added convenience: the top exposed a shallow till inside the frame where the cards could be kept.

I have made several card tables over the years. I enjoy the form and find it a wonderful way to display matched figured boards or veneer to best advantage. It also gives me a chance to use simple marquetry decoration on the legs and apron, which makes these projects attractive.

When I made this table, I copied exactly the original English table which I had on the bench for conservation. In this case both back legs swing, so I had to make a double finger hinge. My initial effort was done in haste, without much concern for details, since my ego was telling me that it was not really a problem. When that effort failed, I tried again, this time slowing down and trying to do it right. Again, when the legs moved 90 degrees they did not remain vertical.

Finally, I returned to the bench with the proper respect for the job. The third time it worked perfectly. To remind myself of this failure of effort, I kept the first two hinges on the shelf, and when I feel that I am not paying attention to my work, I take a few minutes to reflect on the two failures sitting in the corner of the shop.

Next to the first drawer I tried to dovetail in 1969.

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