Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Final Reward

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

Old and New Protein Glue

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.

So the glue pot sits next to the OBG system in the center of the shop, just a few feet from my bench and the wall of clamps. For the OBG I use a simple tub of hot tap water, which I change from time to time as it cools. The bottle is kept in the water so it is liquid. On top of the water I float a small plastic cup which holds the brush and glue, ready to use. I can take that small cup to the bench, make my repair and quickly return it to the water so it stays ready. In addition to keeping the glue liquid, I can use the tub of water to wash my hands or wet a paper towel to clean up the joint. Very practical and easy.

And I do not have to wake up at 2am and worry.

This project also serves to demonstrate more vector clamping methods. As the regency chair form is fairly common, I always have blocks ready for clamping in place. First I just tape the block where I want it, so I do not have to have three hands. Then I put the glue on the joint and apply the clamp. Normally, if the blocks are made correctly, only one clamp is needed to close the joint. The second clamp serves to hold the block in position.

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 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

All That Glitters

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

7 Billion People and 2 New Toothing Planes

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 a
large 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

Conservation and Restoration

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.