Well, another year is put in the memory bin. It seems like such an arbitrary moment to change everything and start over. All the invoices, bills and receipts get filed into boxes. New folders are in place, ready to receive new invoices, bills and receipts. New calendars are on the wall, already filling up with dates and events which are planned in the next few months.
Saturday, December 31, 2011
Well, another year is put in the memory bin. It seems like such an arbitrary moment to change everything and start over. All the invoices, bills and receipts get filed into boxes. New folders are in place, ready to receive new invoices, bills and receipts. New calendars are on the wall, already filling up with dates and events which are planned in the next few months.
It seems rather arbitrary to me, since I am a native of Southern California, and there is no actual climate change to signal the end or start of the seasons. It will be in the mid 70s today, sun shining, clear skies, no breeze, just like any other day. I am at work, doing what I always do, just like every day. Pick up trash, put away tools, sharpen chisels, sweep the floor, heat the glue and repair something valuable, talk to clients, and in general just solve problems.
The one thing unusual about the start of the year is that I tend to get rather nostalgic. I often think back over the years and reflect how my life is the culmination of events and decisions which seemed insignificant at the time, but later proved to be decisive and very significant. I am fortunate to be in business and thank my clients for their support all the time. I frequently have clients who mention that I worked on something for them "years ago" and they were very happy with the results. I also have younger clients who mention I worked for their parents or grandparents and now they need me to do a project for them.
Having never believed in spending money of traditional advertising, I realize how important it is to have my named passed around by "word of mouth". It takes years to build a good reputation and only a few mistakes to destroy it. That is why I have always gone out of my way to make the customer happy with my work.
For example, early on in my career I had a decorator client who brought me a standard upholstered club chair. Not really an antique, but a nice frame made in the 1930s. She had picked out a very wild and contemporary fabric that looked like a Jackson Pollack painting. I proceeded to upholster the chair, which took some time. When she came to pick it up, she was shocked. "You put the fabric on wrong side out!" she exclaimed. I showed her the surplus roll of material, and how you can tell the front surface from the back. "This is a brocade weave," I explained, "and the pattern is made by pulling different colors of thread from the back through to the front surface. If you look on the back side, you can see all the loose threads which are not part of the pattern. The front side is smooth and finished." "No," she answered, "the back side is the show surface. I expected you to know that!"
So I took all the material off the chair, turned it carefully over, and put it back in place, wrong side out. She was happy with the results, and I never heard from her again.
Another time, I picked up two reproduction French armchairs with new white upholstery. The beechwood frames were painted a dark color. She asked me to refinish them "natural". I went through a lot of trouble to protect the upholstery, as I used paint remover to remove all the paint, sand the wood and apply a clear shellac finish and wax. When she saw them, she was shocked. "I asked you for a natural finish!" she exclaimed. "Like that!" and she pointed to a piece of "shabby chic" which had been painted white, then rubbed with solvents until most of the paint was worn off.
I returned with the chairs, covered the fabric again and painted them white. The client was happy with the results, and I never heard from her again.
Those clients are part of the past. It took years for me to recognize the subtle hints which indicate whether the client is right for me or not. During the early years, I took every job which walked in the door. I met a lot of people who liked what I did and some who were never satisfied, no matter what the result was. I learned to avoid the latter. It is much easier to walk away and not look back then to get involved with a project that can have no successful conclusion.
These days, because of "word of mouth" and lots of kind articles which have been written about me, I seem to get wonderful jobs and satisfied clients most of the time. In my business, getting references and work is like a miner who discovers a gold streak in the earth. By working for clients with nice pieces, I get referred to other clients with nice pieces. And so it goes...
Certainly the past year was a challenge in many ways. Compared to the year before, it was somewhat better, and I am always optimistic. In the long run, it all averages out. The antique business is a wonderful business. The objects are often extraordinary, the clients are involved, and there is always something new to learn about the masterpieces of the past.
I look back on the choices I have made in the past and wouldn't change a thing. It is always exciting to see what new project will arrive tomorrow.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
I used to travel a lot more when I was young and gas was several gallons to the dollar instead of several dollars to the gallon. I had a nice Ford pick up truck with two extra 20 gallon gas tanks and a fully furnished cab over camper. I was self contained: I could eat (beans), sleep (on a hard futon), wash (with a cloth and hot water in a pan), and even use the toilet (plastic porta potty ((just as much fun as it sounds))).
I spent two decades just driving wherever I wanted to East of the Mississippi, looking for "old stuff" and talking with like minded collectors. Gee, I guess I lived the life of those two guys on TV now who use a Sprinter to find bicycles in barns! Only, no producer thought my life was worth recording at the time.
I met some interesting people. There was a guy in Natchez who made fakes for a well known New York antique dealer. He showed me his private collection in his house, and the entire house was furnished with newly made "period 18th century Americana". I met a character straight out of the pages of Dickens, who owned a large town house on Pine Street in Philadelphia. He had filled several floors with beat up real antiques that were stacked one on top of the other, until they nearly reached the ceiling. When you walked down the narrow isles of mahogany, the floor moved and these large stacks of bureaus and tables threatened to come crashing down. I met a gas station worker in New Hampshire who was so amazed at me getting out of the truck with bare feet that he couldn't even give me directions.
Of all the memories I have from those trips, it is the used bookstore experience that stands out most. Every town and city I visited had used bookstores, usually situated in the run down, older parts of town. Brick buildings, that used to contain banks or restaurants, were full of book shelves, and stacks of boxes of old books. The people who operated used book stores were in a class by themselves. They would sit patiently at their desks, sorting through books, marking each one carefully on the inside page with a pencil price and code. They were proud of the fact that they knew where every book was in their store, and always asked the new customer: "Can I help you find something?"
I never asked for help. I have been in so many of these stores I had developed an uncanny instinct to go directly to the areas where I could find books on Antiques, Crafts, Museums, Architecture, and even early American History and Travel. I could spend less than 30 minutes, find what I wanted, drop $20 and go on down the road.
Most of all I remember the smell and light and quiet that these stores shared. It was another age. All that is gone now. Even the large retail bookstores have closed. I am sorry that young travelers these days will never know what an experience that was.
The popularity of the internet contributed directly to the demise of these wonderful places where you could find like minded souls. At the same time, most of these book dealers have closed their shops, they have opened virtual shops online. Now you don't have to travel. You just use book search engines. That is, if you know what specific book you are looking for...
For many years I had "hippie" bookshelves. You know, stacks of bricks and pine boards. Very practical, since they can be put up and taken down quickly, or changed to fit the space. Also very ugly.
That all changed a few years ago, when I was visiting a client's home here in town. They are wonderful supporters of my craft, as well as other artisans, and are able to contribute to the arts across the board. They had purchased a large quantity of bookcases, but they were changing their minds and decided to have other bookcases built instead. They asked me if I was interested in having their "old" bookcases. Free.
Gee, I had to think for almost a second about it.
It took several truck loads to move all the bookcases. I now have over 50 cherry cases, with bevel glass doors, and bases and crests, which were enough to fill the school room at work as well as my private library at home and also the kitchen of my partner, Patrice. What an amazing difference!
Now the students who attend the American School of French Marquetry have a real library to access, and we have a rich source of material to examine for our projects. I have every Antiques magazine ever published, from January 1922 to today. I have all the museum catalogues, books on French, German, Italian, English, Russian, and American furniture and Decorative Arts, as well as the related trades and technologies.
At home I have my rare books which I enjoy that are fully protected inside their glass cases.
Each time I open the glass door to extract a volume, I am instantly transformed back in time to the moment I entered some obscure bookstore in some obscure downtown for the first time. I hear the patron ask, "Can I help you?" and I hear my response, "No, I know where to look."
Every time I departed with my purchases, I would sincerely add: "Thank you very much."
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Like a lot of woodworkers, I cannot throw away a piece of wood, no matter how small. I would qualify for one of those shows on TV about hoarders. I can easily imagine them following me with the camera and mic, as I climb up the ladder, searching for exactly the right piece of material. The anticipation of all that wood falling down and crushing me would be perfect for modern television viewing.
I can spend half an hour searching for the perfect piece of wood to make a 10 minute repair on an antique "just right." I seem to remember each piece of scrap wood that I put somewhere, and it is weird that I can remember where it is, even though I cannot seem to remember someone I just met the day before.
I have devised ingenious ways to sort my scraps: by length, width, thickness, species, age, character, color, purpose, etc. I have used boxes, trash cans, racks, bins, and any corner that otherwise was free. No matter what I do there is always the problem of dirt. It seems that lumber storage is the most difficult area of the shop to clean, and, in a finishing shop, that is a problem. At least I don't have power tools contributing to the dust problem.
For the first 30 years the wood just "collected." I never had to throw any out, so it was ridiculous how much out of control it was. When I decided to build the new addition to the shop, I had to move all the wood to storage. That is when I realized that I had enough wood to completely fill a 20 foot room floor to ceiling, stuffed up to the door.
I designed a room in the addition for material storage, mostly for repair pieces. I had a welder create wall mounted brackets which I attached to the upper wall, for short lumber. I also had the welder build much larger brackets to attach to the main wall of the addition for longer material. These brackets are extremely strong. I used a lot of 1/4" thick steel angle iron, which is 2 x 3" in section. For the main lumber, I ordered 7 units made. The piece which attaches to the wall is 8 feet tall, and has 26" angle iron arms welded every 18" apart to support the wood. These units are bolted with 3/4" lag bolts, using an impact wrench, directly to the 2x8 wall studs, spaced 32" apart along the wall. That results in easy storage and access to all my large pieces of wood, and the rack is just inside the roll up door at my delivery ramp.
I am amazed at how much lumber I can keep on these racks, and how easy it is to get at it. I have no idea how much weight is there, but I am confident that the design of the rack is sufficient to carry the load, which includes me when I climb up to get to the top. Since I need to buy lumber which is generally kiln dried, I do not like to use it for several years. That means that new lumber needs to go to the bottom of the pile, and older pieces move up to the top.
The parts room is more of a challenge. I have wood in there which is ancient, for exactly the right repair. 18th century cherry, Cuban mahogany, old pieces of boxwood, Brazilian rosewood,Victorian walnut, old growth pine, and so on are carefully kept in special places, ready for the client who needs them. There is also a huge pile of broken furniture parts: turnings, feet, drawers, sides, table tops, and other elements, which could be used if necessary.
To give you an idea of what I did with the wood from the storage room, when I moved back in to my new space, imagine this: I have a long driveway on the side of the shop, over 40' long, inside my fence. Each trip from the storage, I would just dump the wood on the driveway and begin to sort through it. Over several weeks I culled the wood, picking up the best pieces and installing them in my new building. Towards the end, I would just dig through the remaining pieces for that occasional treasure find, carefully looking at each piece, thinking how it might be useful.
Sad to say, at the end of that job, I ended up taking a full truck load of scraps to the dump. It was the bravest thing I have ever had to do. I understand how the hoarder feels when they watch others dig through their "stuff" and make the decision to toss it. It seems that the minute it is gone, you find a use for it.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
This is the time of the year for seasonal activities. Of course, the holidays bring with them absolute deadlines, which must be met, if the elves are to deliver to Santa their special work product. We all know that elves work day and night; there is no "overtime" in elf land.
It is also the time of the year in San Diego when we can actually wear unusual clothing, like long sleeves, flannel shirts and even sweaters. There is always a hint of "rain" in the air, and a "chill" which natives complain about and others, who migrated here from distant parts of the world, seem to actually enjoy.
Currently, Patrice and I are building a series of late 17th century letter boxes, inspired by an original which recently sold in Europe. The exterior is covered in marquetry, with Gaboon ebony background and 22 different exotic hardwood species comprising the design inlay. All this work is done using the rich inventory of sawn veneer material I purchased from George, in Paris, some 20 years ago.
These "Painting in Wood" boxes will have interiors that use olive wood, kingwood, boxwood and tulip, to contrast with the exterior. I am currently working out the details of the release for the secret panel which hides the secret compartments that these boxes usually have. I love designing secret escapements. I think about them all the time. First you imagine complicated mechanisms, with sliding arms, levers, springs, gears, string, wire, magnets, etc. Then you throw all those ideas away and reduce it to the most simple function you can think of. Then you simplify it again, and it might work.
The design of a secret release system needs to be durable, to work for centuries. It needs to also be repairable, in case it fails. It needs to be hidden, but accessible. It must be simple to use, and not difficult to reset. A good design is always a challenge.
While I was building the case for the box, using beech wood and full blind dovetails, Patrice has been busy with the marquetry for the exterior. He started out designing the overall pattern, for the top and sides, while I assembled the veneer into packets. He then went to work on the chevalet, cutting all the elements in 4 copies at the same time. We decided to use the Classic Method, since we want to make a series of 4 boxes with the same marquetry.
As he completed trays of parts, I then put them all into the proper area for inventory control. This means we have several trays with stacks of 4 identical pieces for each element of the design. Trays for the top half of the top design, bottom half of the top design, front and back panels and side panels. Each tray is carefully handled, and covered at night, so Gigi (the shop cat) will not mess them up.
There are something like 1500 elements in the marquetry for one box. With 4 boxes to build, that means 6000 tiny pieces of wood. Each element of the design needs to be placed in hot sand long enough to create a shadow by slightly burning the wood. I guarantee you that this is the most essential and most boring stage of marquetry work.
That is why I am pleased that it is winter! It is "cold" here and working over the hot sand is rather pleasant, especially with a nice cup of coffee near by.
Patrice spent the entire day yesterday (12 hours) listening to French books on audio, drinking coffee and carefully placing marquetry pieces in the sand. Sometimes it takes 10 seconds, sometimes longer, but each species of wood reacts differently to the heat. It takes all your concentration not to loose a piece in the sand, or let it combust, and the work means you are constantly moving pieces, with tweezers, from the tray to the sand and back again.
What you see in the photo is the tray with the top half of the top design. Today Patrice will start the tray with the bottom half of the top design, and "so it goes." The first box in this series was purchased the day we started, and is supposed to be under the tree soon.
How soon is Christmas again?
Sunday, December 11, 2011
It is not too far from the truth to say that I spend all my time at the shop. Since I am fortunate to live only 6 blocks away, it is easy to walk or bike home for lunch, and I enjoy the short walk to work each day as my primary physical activity. I go home to shower, eat and sleep, but the rest of the time is spent inside this large building I constructed over the years for my "sport".
It started out as a run down 1926 Craftsman home, located in a commercial district in historic North Park. Across the street is Jefferson Elementary school, where the happy sounds of children playing have provided the background music at work forever. In the years just after the second War, the previous owners added a 500 square foot stucco showroom to the front of the house for their business: repairing tube type televisions. When tubes went out of style, they closed up the shop, and I got it. I am the second owner, and I began to remove interior walls to make room for my business.
Now, over 40 years later, the building is completely converted to my use and includes a large 2 story addition where the back yard used to be, bringing the total size to about 5,000 square feet. It is what you might call a big playground for woodworking. I have everything I need to exist: tools, materials, hardware, veneer, wood, projects, food, kitchen, showroom, school, etc.
Frequently, people visit for a tour. We have found visitors from all over the globe knocking on our front door, asking politely to see what is inside. We enjoy these visits, and have a standard 5 minute tour which usually takes longer, depending on the various topics of interest.
One of the neat things about my workshop is that I have the luxury of space and the shop is set up with a variety of designated work areas as well as specific storage areas. Looking at it from the visitor's perspective, I can see that it would be informative to showcase some of these areas on the blog. Others, who wish to set up a business, or are just curious as to how I work, might enjoy this series.
To start, I chose the room I built for my veneer storage: the cave a placage. In many ways, it is my veneer vault, since most of my profit over the years sits on these shelves, waiting for a project. Many woodworkers who have veneer store them improperly. I have seen lots of shops where the veneer is placed high up on a shelf where it gets heat and dries out. It also gets dusty and dirty. It is difficult to sort through and gets broken.
When I designed my addition, I added a room just for veneer. It has 10 foot ceilings and is about 150 square feet, with welded steel shelving on all walls. It has 8" thick walls and is completely insulated on all sides, as well as being air tight. Therefore, it remains extremely stable in both temperature and humidity. Note the monitor on the shelf. Usually the reading is about 65 degrees and 65% humidity.
Veneer storage is exactly like cigars, wine, cheese and mushrooms. Not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry, and no light. This room provides that perfectly. I have seen the humidity drop overnight here in San Diego, when the Santa Ana winds blow in from the desert. It can go from 70% to 10% in under 24 hours, and unprotected wood goes into shock from the sudden loss of moisture. Inside the veneer cave, it remains stable, as long as the door is closed.
When I started buying veneer in the 60's and 70's, I could order from Constantine, in New York, and spectacular veneer would arrive in the post. I could get sawn Brazilian rosewood for 28 cents a square foot. I could spend $50 and get the "marquetry pack" which contained a gold mine of shorts, more than I could ever use. All these veneers were 1/28" (0.9mm) or thicker.
During the 80's and early 90's the quality and availability of veneers declined dramatically. I realized that I should buy as much as I could afford, since I could see that the "end was near." In 1995, in Paris, I witnessed the demise of the largest veneer processing plant in France. All the machinery was sold for scrap and the business changed forever. The only place left for me to purchase good material was Patrick George, who was a 4th generation French veneer dealer. He operated a veneer saw, the "scie a bois montant" which I have discussed in an earlier post. Be sure to check out his video.
His sawn veneers are the best in the world, and the price reflects that quality. They are all between 1.5 and 2.0 mm in thickness and sold by the weight. They average between 100 and 350 euros per Kilo. For many years, when I returned to Paris, I would drop about $10,000 on his veneers, stocking up my vault with the most wonderful woods, ranging in color from Gaboon ebony to English holly. I have a treasure trove of materials to select from, including bone, ivory, horn, shell, and brass and copper.
Now I don't have the extra money to spend, and much of the material available is not up to my standards. I realize I need to be very responsible and conserve what I have for the next 40 years. It took me 40 years to stock my cave and it will take me 40 years to consume it.
I am a very fortunate woodworker.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
I often think that I could have gone into the medical field. I might have been a plastic surgeon or a "bone doctor" for example. As a plastic surgeon, my job would have been to repair cosmetic damage in such a way that it was not obvious anything was done. As a bone doctor, my job would have been to repair complicated broken bones so that the person was made whole again. Either way, I would have had a lot more stress, and more money by this time.
By my estimate, I have restored over 10,000 objects in my career. I think that may be conservative, but I only really count the larger projects. Like the baby doctor who has delivered hundreds of babies into the world, it is hard to remember all of them. Each one is special and unique at the time of delivery, but the next day there is another job to do, "and so it goes."
Here are two photos of jobs we just completed this week. The first is the chair, which I did for my own pleasure (ie: I was the client) (in other words: no money). The second is the mirror which Patrice did as his first gold leaf project.
The chair project was very rewarding. I was able to completely conserve all the original materials which were in the upholstery, and I had a piece of fabric and some trim which was perfect for the job. You will note the work I did on this chair in earlier posts. The fact that this chair was found in the trash and on its way to the dump in a pickup truck when I got it is even more satisfying. One of the most important reasons I am in this profession is to save (recycle) important cultural artifacts from the past which would otherwise be lost forever. This chair is now ready for the next century of use, and I trust that, when it is dirty, broken and torn, a person who appreciates it will take the time to put it back together.
The mirror is also very exciting. Patrice worked very hard on it, and it was a difficult first project due to its Rococo carving and condition. He added gold leaf to the entire frame (again I refer to earlier posts) and created a patina which the client desired. We both spent some time discussing whether the patina was enough or too much or not enough. The client was very pleased at the result and Patrice should be complimented for his effort. I told him that, without him, I would never tackle such a job.
All I did for this project was clean the mirror.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
I have had the cast iron glue pot cooking near my bench for over40 years. Every day I turn it on first thing when I open up the shop and every day I turn it off when I turn off the lights. There has been a note inside the front door which asks: "Glue Pot Off?" for as long as I remember. More than once in my career I have woken up at 2am and returned to the shop to see if I forgot to turn it off. About 30% of the time it was on; the rest of the time I just mumbled something and returned to bed.
For the past two decades I have also been developing and using a liquid form of this glue, Old Brown Glue. The demand for this glue has grown tremendously through word of mouth and the fact that it simply works great. It has a long open time, bonds well, penetrates better than hot glue and is much easier to clean up.
Currently I am repairing a nice set of English Regency mahogany chairs. Doing the gluing on a large set of chairs at one time requires that I use a glue with a fairly long open time, so I use the OBG. In some cases there are small fragments of wood which are broken away from the joint. For that I use the hot glue pot, since the bond is almost immediate.
And I do not have to wake up at 2am and worry.
Looking closely at the photos, I need to make two comments: First, the wine bottles are full of water based stains, not what you think. Second, there is a belt sander on the floor...one of the few nasty tools I have used and not something I am proud of. However, have you ever tried to hand sand sharkskin? It has the density of teeth!
Saturday, November 5, 2011
I have a very small company. My wife, Kristen, sits in the office all day and works the phone and paperwork so I can be at the bench. Without her doing that part of the business, I would not be half as productive, and have a lot more gray hair.
She also teaches the design and art part of the class when we have students in the American School of French Marquetry. She was a high school art teacher for many years and understands "negative space" which is why she can live with me.
I also have a business partner and friendly agitator, Patrice Lejeune, who shares the work. He graduated from ecole Boulle and worked in Paris restoring and creating furniture for several years before he contacted me and we successfully brought him here on a visa. His wife, Agnes Penot-Lejeune, is finishing her PhD thesis at the Sorbonne on the 19th century art market, and is working on that project on the web here in the shop.
Patrice has his own style, and has developed a type of marquetry which is unique. You can see his work by checking his link on this blog page (top right side). He also is able to do all the diverse projects which I refuse to do, since I am too old to learn anything new. For example, he does the parchment and sharkskin projects which have recently become part of the business as well as constantly experimenting with formulas for stains and finishes. I find bottles of stuff all over the shop, and always have to ask him "What is this?" before I either throw them out or put them away. (A small complaint: he refuses to label them all the time.)
Earlier this year, we sent Patrice to Oregon to study gold leafing with Nancy Thorn at Gold Leaf Design (see link). Naturally, I thought, since the price of gold is about 5 times more expensive then it should be, why not start a new business working with gold? Seems logical...
Anyway, Patrice is not one to start out small. After doing a dozen or so samples to work out the process, he started regilding an Italian Rococo mirror for one of our favorite clients. This mirror had fallen on hard times and there was a lot of gold overpaint, as well as missing gesso and broken elements.
As you can see in the photos, with the help of the shop cat, Gigi, Patrice is making great progress and the future is bright (with gold!).
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
The birth of the unknown child yesterday which pushed the world's population above 7 billion made all the news. When I was born there were 6 billion. Hard to imagine...
I would like to announce another birth. The birth of two lovely toothing planes. I received the notice from Jack Ervin by email, along with two photos. They are charming and perfect, as all newborns are supposed to be. I wish them a long and productive life.
Congratulations Jack! You should be proud.
I am attaching photos my first attempt of toothing planes. I was first inspired by your video on Woodtreks about your workbench and the maintenance of the top. What you said about flattening made more sense to me than what others said regarding the subject. When I discovered your blog and read what you had to say in general about toothing planes got me to researching how to procure one. The old tool route was there but distances away. Then I hit on the idea of using a new iron and make my own. Here is the results. The bodies are 6-1/8" and the irons (Lie-Nielsen 212 18 & 25 TPI) are bedded at 80 degrees. I laid out what seemed to be right for the mouth location and used alarge draftsman french curve for the side profile. I have used them for flattening extra figured cherry glue-up panels and will use them to maintain flatness on my bench top.Thanks for the inspiration from the videos on Woodtreks and your blog. I visit your blog regularly and need to reply more to keep you encouraged.Your site is making a difference in a positive way at least to me.Jack Ervin
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
How do we treat cultural objects which have survived generations of changing taste? Are we simply custodians, and, if so, what is our role in their survival for future generations to appreciate and enjoy?
As a "furniture conservator in private practice," I am in many ways free to establish my own work ethic in my business. I could, for example, use epoxy and foam or add a zebra skin to a Chippendale chair, as the market demands. On the other hand, I could refuse (as I did) to cut out the back panels of a Baroque marquetry armoire, dated 1698, to fit the gigantic television of a rich client. (She was very upset that I refused her request, and I lost a lot of work with that decision.)
Conservators are like doctors in that they are supposed to "do no harm." Unlike doctors, we are also obliged to not remove original material. Conservation means conserving. That said, sometimes it is necessary to make difficult decisions to do invasive work for the survival of the object. In that case, the conservator becomes a restorer. Restoration is necessary when a part of the object has become damaged beyond repair, by bugs, rot or accident. Restoration must be as authentic as possible, but not with any suspicion of "faking." It is a challenging job.
Consider, as a typical example, the question of "original finish" which I have discussed here before. I usually tell my clients that there are two questions to consider when they ask me about refinishing. (1): "Is the finish protecting the wood?" and (2): "Is the appearance of the finish beautiful?"
In the first case, if the finish is damaged beyond repair and no longer protecting the wood, I recommend replacing it with an identical finish. In general, the paste wax protects the polish which protects the wood which protects the protein glues from humidity and mold. If the finish fails, the object will quickly deteriorate. In addition, with many homeowners using oil polishes and sprays, a finish which is missing in areas will allow the uneven penetration of these materials which will damage the wood.
In the second case, if the client appreciates the dark, dirty and opaque look of the finish, fine. Many collectors pay a premium for that look. On the other hand, even the most famous furniture dealers on Antiques Roadshow, who complain about the loss of value when a piece has been refinished, have highly skilled refinishers working in their businesses who do exactly that. Their advice would be more instructive if they explained why using synthetic finishes damages the value but restoring correctly the original finish increases value.
I have seen respected museums make terrible decisions about conservation. When I was studying at Winterthur, in the summer of 1978, I fell in love with the Boston lacquer high chest made by John Pimm, spending hours closely examining the decorative surface. It was one of the signature pieces in their collection, and worth a great deal of money, simply because of the condition of the finish. Soon after that, on another visit, I was horrified to discover that they had coated the surface with a new product, which gave it a shiny, plastic glow. When I asked the conservator about it, he indicated that this new product had a special solvent, and in the future (should it be necessary!) this solvent would dissolve the finish without harming the original finish underneath. Why experiment on this particular piece?
At another time, I believe it was in the Met in New York, I came upon a conservator who was injecting gallons of epoxy into cracks in an ancient carved stone statue. That was about 30 years ago, and I wonder what is the condition of that statue today?
In my mind, there are two obvious reasons to keep things original. The first is to protect the original character of the piece, exactly as it was made, and the second is to provide a learning tool for us to understand exactly how and why it was made that way in a historical and cultural context.
This brings me to the prejudice against upholstery as represented by the acceptance of "non intervention" upholstery methods pervasive today in many American museums. While I was at a conference in Williamsburg, the speaker (a conservator) asked the audience at the end of his talk if there were any questions. I was sitting in the front row, directly in front of the podium and I raised my hand.
"Sir, I note that you have objects on display which include many historic layers of finish, and the purpose of that display is to show the changing taste of fashion and style over time. At the same display, you have removed all evidence of upholstery and replaced it with foam and velcro upholstery. Why not treat the upholstery evidence in a similar way as the finish?"
His response was quick and shocking: "I am a conservator. My job is not to conserve things."
This is why I am in private practice. My job is to conserve things.
Monday, October 31, 2011
A few weeks ago, one of my marquetry students stopped by the shop and asked me if I wanted a chair. In his pickup was this chair, made around 1880 or so, with all the original upholstery intact, although in very poor condition. One foot was broken off and a carved finial was missing.
I cannot say "no" to free antiques.
After the repair and refinishing, I began to conserve the upholstery foundation. Note the previous post on this site where I am taking it apart.
The method used to upholster this chair is amazing. During the 1870's the art of upholstery reached a very evolved state, and the taste in furniture was for elaborate and complicated upholstery designs. Not only was the fabric and trim exotic, but the method of tying springs to achieve comfort was very advanced.
The opportunity to examine and conserve an example, which has survived for over a century was too much to pass up. Here was another chance for me to sit next to the master who created the upholstery on this chair and learn from his work. Layer by layer, as I took it apart, I understood what he was doing and why.
The selection of stuffing, for example, is revealing. The initial layer of stuffing is straw, which was not expensive, and provided a rather hard edge when stitched. On top of that was Spanish moss, a medium expense, designed to provide a medium layer of resiliency. On top of that was curled horsehair, one of the most expensive materials, chosen to provide a softer top. On top of that was a thin layer of wool cloth batting, which prevented the hair from sticking through the show fabric.
Of course, the burlap and muslin was rotten and torn; that is usual. The proper conservation method is to replace the burlap and muslin, while conserving all the original stuffing, and adding stitching to hold it all in place, like it was done originally.
This series of photos shows the work to restore the seat and sprung back, up to the muslin. The seat has a wire front edge, so the stuffing must be sewn to that, as well as on the sides of the seat to hold an edge. The back is interesting, in that it contains 4 small springs in the center of a stitched edge. As you can see, I needed to re stitch the edges and sew the springs to hold them in place.
The last photos show the chair in muslin, ready for show cloth. I haven't covered the armrests yet, but they are in place.
Sitting in this chair is like sitting in a catcher's mitt...you fit so comfortably you do not want to get up.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
We are still working on projects in these difficult times, but two things have changed. We are accepting more diverse types of jobs these days, like gilding, sharkskin/parchment, upholstery, etc. And we are not able to produce the continuous flow of work we had previously enjoyed for several decades.
In the past we normally had a minimum of 6 months backlog of good work sitting in the shop. At the same time we were putting jobs out the front door, new work was being bid and brought in the back. Therefore, we could work full time and never see the end of the work. The importance of this backlog of quality work, properly bid, meant that I could continue to bid new jobs at the best price.
It also meant that I could bundle projects with similar activities for each week to gain maximum efficiency. One week might be spent hand sanding all jobs that were at that stage. The next week the shop could be cleaned and all those projects would begin the finishing operation. After that, I could spend a week upholstering, since the shop was clean. In a small, two man shop with not a lot of space, this method of processing the work was very profitable.
These days we still have work, but the backlog is down to 6 weeks instead of 6 months. Also, we do not have the quantity of similar jobs, since we are accepting more diverse projects, and it is difficult to do the same activity for a full week. The result of this is that the shop needs to be reset more frequently during the week for each type of project. Much less efficient.
At the same time, a large project, which was not a problem in the past, can completely block the flow of work.
We are building a large Italian Empire Table and matching chairs for a client. It has taken us longer than we estimated, and the client has been patient. (Note the recent post: It Always Takes Longer...) Although it has been in pieces all over the shop for several months, we can easily visualize it in our minds. The client, however, can only look at the parts laying here and there and wonder if we know what we are doing.
Lately, the parts have been coming together. The bases are nearly assembled, the gold bronze mounts will be shipped from Paris next week, and the top is completed and sanded, ready for the polishing to begin.
The top has been on my workbench for the past month. You can imagine how that has interrupted my work space. It takes two men just to move it, so I cannot do it alone. It has been completely fabricated using only hand tools. All the joints were made with hand planes and the top and back of the top were surfaced using a sequence of hand planing and sanding methods.
The single mahogany board was cut into four pieces and the edge was cut in for the Greek key using a basic old fashioned router. Not the router you plug into the wall, but a chisel mounted vertically in a piece of wood, set to a 2mm depth. Using this tool around the top, I was able to remove all the wood evenly for the Greek key to fit flush with the solid top. Then I added a solid mahogany edge to protect the veneer from damage.
The reason I started this post talking about the flow of work is that I need to make several dovetailed drawers and I hope to have this Empire table off my workbench and on its own base soon. I miss my workbench; I haven's seen it for a month!
Monday, October 24, 2011
I was just looking at the photos I posted of the chair with all the clamps. Unless you go through a sequence of applying the clamps it is difficult to fully understand why each clamp is placed where it is. After dozens of clamps are in place it just looks like a mess.
I may be accused of using more clamps then necessary in my repairs. That may be simply because I have collected more clamps then a single person should have over the years. However, it is also because I study each repair carefully to fully understand where all the forces need to be applied.
If the part is shattered or previously repaired badly, it is necessary to take apart all the fragments and clean the glue off of each using small chisels or a small toothing plane iron I keep for that job. I use an Optivisor to see more closely what I am doing and I am extremely careful to not remove any wood.
Then it is important to begin the repair by gluing several small parts together, wait overnight, and continue adding fragments day by day until the repair is complete. Sometimes with chairs I have more than a dozen fragments to assemble just for one joint.
In other cases, the repair is simple and easy. Just remove the modern glue, clean up the wood surface and add protein glue.
In the case of this American Empire center table, pictured above, the two rear legs had come loose. Since the top of this table is marble, there was a lot of force on the joint, which was originally held by three dowels. The owner had had some person try to glue it with the "strongest glue on planet Earth" with horrible results. Part of his problem was the glue and part of the problem was the failure to understand clamping pressure on this joint.
Note the central axis of the joint, perpendicular to the face of the plinth, extends above the toe of the foot, out in space. There is no way to put a clamp there, unless you add a block. That illustrates very clearly what I intend to show about vector clamping. Just by adding a pine block of wood on the foot I was able to create a purchase for the primary clamp. The red clamp is the primary clamp. Since gravity also creates a force downward on the clamp in this position, I added a second, orange, clamp to compensate. These two clamps are all that are required to achieve a correct vector force on the face of the joint.
The entire operation took 15 minutes and made me a profit and the owner of the table happy. I have always guaranteed my repairs for life. Sometimes the project will return for more repair but never in the place where I repaired it. I can say, with some satisfaction, that I have never had a repair failure in my career of restoring antiques. Do it right and forget it.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
I hate bugs that eat wood. Build a house, spend a lot of time and money and what happens? Termites move in from next door and consume your equity in short time.
I once visited an elderly client who lived alone in a very large, rich house. She was the kind of person who, in her late 80's, would wander around in this 10,000 square foot house all day, barefoot and in her nightgown. She called me about bugs in her clock.
When I arrived, I walked into the entry and noticed a beautiful early Georgian tall case marquetry clock. I didn't see any bugs, so I removed the bonnet to look at the works. When I pulled the bonnet forward a kilo of live subterranean termites fell to the floor and started crawling all over the place.
I was amazed at what I saw. Inside the bonnet was a large colony of termites, which usually don't eat hardwood furniture. Moving the case from its position at the wall I discovered a single hole in the floor, under one of the feet of the clock. The termites had eaten through the oak floor, up into the foot and continued along the body of the clock into the top, where they set up shop. The entire clock was crawling with bugs and I put it into several layers of plastic bags before I removed it for fumigation.
At the same time I had to remind the elderly lady to keep away, as she insisted on walking all over the bugs crawling over the floor.
Generally, hardwood furniture is attacked by a pest called a powder post beetle. They leave small exit holes in the surface, which serve to provide a convenient place to remove their waste, called "frass". Frass can be distinguished from fine sawdust in that it feels like small round pieces of sand, where sawdust feels more like baby powder.
There is another bug, which has a more morbid reputation. The Death Watch Beetle is so named because during the 18th and 19th centuries, when a person was on his death bed, his friends would sit through the night next to him and quietly wait his demise. Often the only sound in the room was the loud noise created by the Death Watch Beetle, as it ate the furniture.
The Death Watch Beetle is a much larger insect than the powder post beetle, and the size of the exit holes is the clue which animal you are looking at.
It is fairly easy to determine if something is actively infested. One way is to use a stethoscope to listen for the sound of the bugs as they have dinner. The easiest and quickest way is to use sun light or a strong flashlight and look at the inside edges of the exit holes with the raking light coming from the side. The holes that appear fresh indicate activity. The holes that are filled with dirt or wax or oxidized are old and the bugs have probably moved on.
These bugs are hard to kill. The eggs can survive two weeks in a vacuum. The Getty has developed a method to use nitrogen inside a bag which is able to keep the oxygen out. If the bag keeps all the oxygen out for two weeks the bugs will die. Even a single molecule of oxygen gives them a chance to survive.
I do not recommend heating or freezing antique furniture, as strange things can happen to the wood, glues and finish. Even Vikane gas is not enough to kill the eggs; only the adults.
Methyl Bromide gas applied at a certain concentration for 48 hours is guaranteed to work on all these bugs all the time. I have a company with a sealed container, where I put the furniture every two weeks to have this treatment done. It is the only way I know, and, since Methyl Bromide gas is a serious problem for the ozone layer, it is soon going to be eliminated as an option.
When I asked the customs agents why they don't require fumigation for furniture beetles as the antiques arrive from Europe, like they do for pests on fruits, they answered: "We don't care, since that bug is already here."
The bugs are going to win this war.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Question: Can you have too many clamps?
I think you know the answer...
A lot of woodworkers like to read books, magazines and posts about their craft. There are literally hundreds of authors who discuss dovetail drawers, finishing methods, the best tools, etc. I am no different. I have bought books that I was sure would be poorly written and contain misleading information just so I could read them and be proven right. I have many old and out of print books which also were essential for my career. I not only have all the magazines, but I have the promo leaflet for FineWoodworking which was sent out before the first issue.
In all this material, there is one aspect of furniture which is difficult to address: proper clamping methods. Sure, there are stories on vacuum bags, some on veneer presses, a few on specific clamping issues, and so on, but so far I have not seen an article which clearly addresses what I call "vector clamping."
I am sure that my mathematics, geometry and "proper" education in those fields lets me think differently about clamping, but at the same time it is said: "If you scratch the surface of a woodworker, you will find an engineer." This statement was proven at the first SAPFM dinner so many years ago. I found myself sitting at one of the tables in the front with Underhill, Breed, and a dozen other veterans, in a room with about 200 members. The speaker asked the group, "How many of you are making a living at traditional woodworking?" Most of those sitting at my table raised their hands, in total about 10% of the group. Then the speaker asked, "How many of you are engineers?" It was a clear majority.
So I assume that, when I use the term "vector," many woodworkers will know what I mean. A vector is a little arrow which shows the direction of the force under consideration. So a clamp applies pressure in a direction perpendicular to the face of the clamp. Of course, this pressure is not constrained in a single linear vector, but forms a cone of force as it leaves the surface of the clamp. As an example, my veneer press screws exert pressure over 81 square inches, or a 9x9" area, and I placed them on the press 9" apart to form a grid.
The primary purpose of discussing vector clamping is to illustrate how I restore antiques, which very often have curved surfaces. Tripod tables, cabriole legs, bent wood windsors, and many, many traditional forms of furniture rely on curved elements, which often break. These breaks can occur at a joint, like the leg on a tripod table, or in the grain of the wood, like the foot breaking off of a cabriole leg.
In many cases these breaks are treated in a way which makes my life miserable. The repairman will take some synthetic glue, epoxy or "the strongest glue on planet earth" and paint it on the break, then frantically search for a way to clamp it before the glue sets. The result is a mess, and I am constantly trying to undo the damage, scraping off the glue and starting over.
I usually will tell the client: "If you had not had it repaired before, I could do it for half the cost."
Assuming you have a fresh break with good wood surfaces, the first thing you need to do is determine the center of the break or joint, and imagine a vector line perpendicular to that point in space. (Editor's note: see comments below) If you are able to put pressure with a single clamp on that vector line, it will clamp the repair properly. That is all there is to it.
Now, it is often the case that the vector line which pushes directly perpendicular to the center of the break goes off into air, away from the wood surface. Like the curved leg on a pedestal table, the line goes off the curved top edge of the leg, and a clamp will not gain a purchase there. That is why you need to create a proper place for the clamp to press.
Select a softer wood than the object, like pine, poplar or other wood. Shape the wood to exactly fit the surface of the curve, and leave a length of wood for another clamp to hold it in place. Clamp this new piece in position and locate the vector line on it. Draw a perpendicular line on the new piece which crosses the vector line at 90 degrees and cut to this line with a saw or chisel. This will be the place to put your clamp for the repair.
In every place where you need it to press directly on the vector line for the repair, you will need to cut a softer piece of wood and clamp it in place. Do this before you reach for the glue. Now your repair has little pieces of soft wood clamped all over it in places where you need to make the repairs. Grab your glue and put it on the repair, place the pieces in position and use a single clamp to press the vector line together.
It is rewarding to see a single clamp pull a complicated joint together, without slipping to one side or another. When done, all the soft wood pieces can be kept in a box for reuse in similar jobs which will certainly happen.
I do not need to stress that you use animal protein glues...
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Of all the traditional organic materials used in upholstering antique furniture, perhaps straw is the most difficult to conserve. Straw was one of the earliest stuffing materials used, going back easily to the 16th century. It is commonly available, essentially free, and has fairly good initial resilience. However, it compacts over time and breaks down, so that after a century of use it is in poor condition.
Compare that with the best material, horse and hog hair. Even after a century of hard use, curled hair retains its shape, and is much easier to clean and reuse.
I have focused on conserving straw during my career, since it is a challenge and since it is often discarded by other upholsterers, so that a majority of antiques are being converted to modern, synthetic stuffings. Did I mention I hate foam and staples?
I just started a parlor chair from around 1885 which has its original straw foundation. This chair is from the decade after Turkish upholstery was the fashion. Turkish upholstery represented the high point of the upholsterer's craft in the 19th century and exotic and complicated forms of upholstery were produced, using expensive fabrics, trims and accessories.
This chair carries that style of upholstery on a decorative frame, with spring stuffed back panel and seat, and large arm cushions which curl around both sides of the arm support. These photos show the original stuffing foundation as I took it apart. The first photo shows the chair without its fabric. You can see the basic burlap covering on the seat, stitched with a wire front edge. The arms are also stitched. The back panel has been removed and is resting in place.
The second picture shows the back panel structure. The springs are surrounded by a hard stitched edge with straw stuffing. The horsehair is placed in the center of the top.
The third picture shows the chair laying on its back on my work table. The seat stuffing has been cut away from the springs and is folded back to make it easier to remove it. This stuffing is very fragile, since it is just straw and the burlap is rotten. I use care to keep it intact, vacuum it and transfer it back into its original position during the restoration. You can see the difference in the burlap which covers the springs now (replaced by an upholsterer some 50 years ago) and the torn burlap which is original to the stuffing, holding the straw in place.
The last picture shows the original springs and the method of tying them in place. This pattern is called "8 knot" tie, since each spring has 8 knots. Note the cords tie both the tops of the springs as well as all the centers of the outside springs to hold them in place under load. This is the way I was taught to tie springs. There is also a great deal of broken straw debris which sits on the top of the webbing. Fortunately, this chair was not used much after the burlap became torn. With most upholstery, and straw in particular, if the seat is used after the supporting burlap tears, the stuffing quickly becomes chewed up and damaged beyond repair.
This chair has been properly restored once before me, by an upholsterer who knew what to do, probably 50 years ago. He removed the stuffing exactly as I have done and removed the jute webbing from the bottom of the chair. He added new jute webbing, and then sewed the base of the springs to the webbing to hold them in place. He tied the tops of the springs using Italian cord and added new burlap to the top, stitching it in place to the wire edge and springs. Then he carefully returned the original stuffing to its original position. I will do the same, except I do not need to treat the springs, as they are still in good shape.
One of the clues that I am not the first person to work on conserving this chair is the chalk numbers indicating which corner blocks go where.
When you can feel the springs come up into the seat, stop using the chair. Take it to a traditional upholster and save the stuffing. It's the right thing to do.
I will post more during the restoration so you can see how I do it.