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.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Why Not Period Glue?

Synthetic Glue Sucks
I joined the Society of American Period Furniture Makers in 2000, when they first got together.  I really enjoyed going to Williamsburg, even though it was in January, and I had been there dozens of times before.  The reason I had so much fun was the experience of spending a week with like minded furniture makers, from all over the country.  We talked about furniture styles, different methods of construction and tools from different periods, finishes and just about every aspect of our craft that was important.

Usually, when I am in a social environment and others find out I work in wood, the topic of conversation ends up with someone discussing their efforts to build a coffee table or birdhouse.  It is a completely different situation at these SAPFM events.  Furniture design and construction is a real passion with this group, and nothing is too esoteric or obscure to merit hours of intense dialogue.

What fun.

I was an active member in the early years.  I was fortunate to be asked by Roy Underhill to tape a segment on his show, The Woodwright's Shop, which required me to ship a large container of tools and materials back East.  At the same time, since I was there with all my stuff, I demonstrated on stage during the SAPFM conference and made a short video for them about the chevalet.

It was interesting, since there are two back to back sessions of the "Working Wood in the 18th Century" event, and I had a conflict with the second week.  Therefore, I asked Silas Kopf to stand in for me and use my props.  During my presentation, I had each segment of the talk prepared in boxes ahead of time.  Each box was numbered so all I had to do was reach under the bench and pull out the next box which had the materials for that segment of the talk.

I worked fine for me, since I was familiar with all the props, and had a time tested presentation developed over several years of talks at the Getty museum.  It was not so easy for Silas, who does his marquetry using a completely different method.

I need to stress at this point that I think Silas is the greatest marquetry artist working in the US.

As it turned out, he made the effort to use my props and present the talk on French marquetry methods that we had agreed to.  But, after about 15 minutes of his talk, he abruptly changed direction.  "That's the way Patrick and the French do it.  Now I want to talk about how I do it."  His presentation was excellent, but not what we had planned.

I also wanted to contribute to the new Journal of the SAPFM, called "American Period Furniture."  For issue #1 I wrote "Form Follows Process," which analyzed the different methods of work used by craftsmen before and after the Industrial Revolution.  For issue #3 I wrote about my research into the Price Guides of the early 19th century, documenting the time required to make each aspect of furniture using hand tools, "Period Productivity".

1820 Cuban Mahogany with 1980 Synthetic Glue
In Issue #2 I did something different.  During the first session I attended, I was amazed that all the woodworkers there were passionate about choosing the right woods, following period design exactly, understanding period finishes, and so on.  There was a certain amount of divergence in whether or not to use only hand tools, and that I understand.  Most of the members had access to power tools and the general consensus was that it was ok to use power as long as a certain amount of hand finishing was involved.

The area which startled me involved glues.  Practically every person I talked with used modern synthetic glues to make their period furniture.  I could not understand this "blind spot" in an otherwise very academic group of individuals.

So I wrote an article for issue #2 called "Why Not Period Glue"  I took the position that traditional glues were used for centuries and worked fine.  If there was a modern glue which did something better than these traditional glues, show me the advantage and I will use it.  The only one which comes to mind is epoxy, which can be used to repair metal parts.  Of course epoxy should never be used for wood repairs, or worse, tortoise shell, ivory or any other material.

Missing Tenon/ Covered in Plastic Glue
Most of the woodworkers used glues like yellow glue, carpenter's glue, white glue, and other glues with fancy chemical names I never heard of.  Hardly a glue pot among the entire group.

Only those who made their living restoring antiques seemed to understand why it is important to use traditional glues.

Cleaning Surface with Toothing Iron
I was reminded of this article today, as I worked to repair a broken leg on a period Baltimore dining table.  The leg was originally attached with a double tenon to the apron.  One of the tenons had broken and the repair was made by adding yellow glue and clamping.  That repair did not work, of course.

Old Brown Glue Ready for Use
In typical fashion, the clamping was not done properly.  The wood surface was not cleaned in advance.  The missing tenon was not replaced.  And on other legs of this table, the repair was "enhanced" by a series of nails, which did nothing but damage the wood.

As I removed the leg to begin the repair, it was obvious that the synthetic glue did not stick to the wood.  Using a sharp chisel, I was able to pick off most of the glue chips, which came away like flakes of paint.  I think of synthetic glue as a plastic, and plastic does not stick well to wood.  I typically use a toothing iron to scrape away the glue residue and tooth the surface.  You must be careful to not remove wood; just glue.  It takes a bit of care, and the toothing iron helps.

Tenon Replaced, Ready for OBG
 I just felt good, when I was ready to apply the glue for the repair.  All the wood surfaces were toothed and clean of plastic glue.  The tenon was made and installed.  The clamps were ready and clamping blocks were installed.  (See the post on Vector Clamping)

I warmed the glue, brushed it on and applied the clamps.  Another antique repair done professionally, using the same glue that the original maker would have used some 200 years ago.  I'm sure he would approve.

Gigi Inspecting Protein Glue

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Got Ivory? Got Tortoise Shell? Got Cuban Mahogany? Dalbergia Negra?

First of all, I want to say that I care about the rape of the wilderness, the destruction of the rain forest, murder of elephants, pollution of drinking water and general stupidity that permeates the world these days.  Not to mention fossil fuels creating measurable warming of the atmosphere, ocean and dramatic melting of the ice caps.

(Wow, that was depressing!)

In my small way, I consider myself a recycling restorer.  I salvage materials which would have been lost in the dump to repair and restore other objects that are on their way to the dump.  Therefore, I have chunks of Cuban mahogany, pieces of tortoise shell and ivory and rosewood carefully stored in boxes ready for the repair project to appear.

I have not had a need to record how and where I got these things.  Much of that stuff was acquired some 40 years ago.  It wasn't until the C.I.T.I.E.S. ban on endangered materials was signed in the 1980's that I realized these materials were protected by international law.  At that time, I began to record purchases of pre-ban ivory, tortoise shell and other materials, which I acquired only from recognized professional dealers in that field.  These dealers were required by law to keep accurate records of their inventory, where it was purchased, how much they had, who it was sold to and so on.

In fact, their records were more detailed and examined than records of gun sales, but that's another story.  (Elephants don't kill people; people with guns kill elephants!)

One of the dealers who participated in the formation of the C.I.T.I.E.S. act was Patrick George, the veneer dealer in Paris, where I purchase my veneer.  Another respected person who keeps these records and sells ivory, as a 5th generation ivory dealer, is David Warther, who has a museum of ivory in Ohio.  In fact, the jewel cabinet which I made that is featured at the top of this blog has turned ivory feet and knobs which I purchased from Mr. Warther.  He supplied authorized papers with the ivory that documented where and when the ivory was legally harvested.  That ivory came from Kenya and was imported into the US in 1963.  The document records the Tusk Identification number for the Federal Government reference.

When I decided to make a pair of Louis Philippe tables in the 1990's, I wanted to use satinwood and Brazilian rosewood (dalbergia negra).  Since it was protected, I purchased from Patrick George some old stock which was harvested in 1952, and legally brought it into the US with appropriate papers.

Louis Philippe Tables

If you try to purchase protected woods from outside the country you need the following:

What you should do to make sure the wood you are interested in purchasing is to contact the supplier, ask them to provide you either (1) a copy of the CITES pre-Convention certificate, stamped "cleared" by USDA/APHIS to show legal import if the wood came into the U.S. after 6/11/96, or (2) an invoice showing they purchased the wood in the U.S. before 6/11/92 (showing that it was imported before the listing date), or (3) if they imported the wood themselves before 1992, documentation of that import to prove the pre-1992 date (customs documents, shipping documents, bill of lading, etc.)

If they can't provide one of the above three documents, don't buy from them!


Ron Vandervort
Permits Biologist
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Division of Management Authority
4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Room 212
Arlington, VA 22203
800-358-2104 X2312
703-358-2312 Direct Line
703-358-2281 FAX 

I support legislation for protecting endangered species, but I also recognize that the same law doesn't work in all cases.  For example, protections against killing elephants for their ivory tusks works.  It is possible to keep track of the legal ivory, properly harvested, and work to prevent poachers from doing their horrible job within the country borders.

On the other hand, it is impossible to protect sea turtles with the same law.  The difference is that poachers do not normally kill the elephant for the meat.  But sea turtles taste delicious.  Therefore, turtles are killed and eaten and the shell is thrown back into the sea, leaving no evidence.  I wonder how many sea turtles are killed by petroleum leaks?

At the same time, in Brazil, rubber trees are naturally protected by the farmers because their sap is valuable.  But the result of making rosewood illegal is that it has no value, so it is not a problem for the same farmers to burn down acres of wild forest to create grass land for cows.  What if the rosewood trees were worth a lot of money and could be properly harvested?  Would they be so eager to burn them down?

I live in California, and I have noticed a recent trend by activists to seek out people on ebay and Craig's list who list materials such as ivory, tortose shell and so forth.  In some cases, armed federal agents arrive and confiscate the object, as if it were a threat to our security.  I note that the auction houses are starting to list tortoise shell as "faux" and ivory as "bone" to avoid problems.

Now, I receive a note from David Warther, who clearly has a professional interest in these things and keeps up on the law.  Here it is:
Hello Everyone!
Ivory Ban - The Presidential Advisory Committee that met 12/16/13 does plan to recommend a total ban on ivory sales, within the US, to the task force on Wildlife Trafficking.
If you want to oppose that action please email ACWT@FWS.GOV before December 28th when they file their report. I have attached a letter beneath my signature (below) that you can use by cutting and pasting but feel free to change it as may fit your interests and work.
This is not a ban on new ivory but rather a ban on the sale of ALL ivory that is in any form. This includes pre-ban and antique ivory in musical instruments, knives, guns, cues, etc. and will make Grandma's piano illegal to sell if it has ivory keys. This sounds ludicrous but it is true. If this passes then it will take the form of a bill that will be set before Congress in 2014.
Presently this ban on the sale of ivory is to include fossil mammoth ivory as well as pre-ban and antique elephant ivory.
Please forward this information to everyone you think may want to voice their opposition to this type of government control.  
Sincerely ,
David Warther
2561 Crestview Dr. NW
Dover , Ohio
Letter :

Dear Advisory Committee,
 I stand against a total ban of all ivory sales in the US.
As called for in the Presidential Executive Order I ask that the recommendations continue to allow for "legal and legitimate commerce”. 
The ivory market in the US is stable and /or declining, and the seizure records indicate that a high proportion of the seizures made were personal effects lacking the correct paperwork, not the “blood tusks “ spoken about in the media. The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) analysis indicated that the amount of ivory (by weight) seized annually has not increased in recent years. WE are not the consumers of the poached ivory. Therefore banning ivory sales within the US will do nothing to save the remaining world population of elephants.
CITES MIKE report (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) September 2013 report, page 64 analysis states "Africa's elephant populations are managed sustainably" and that in 2013 the quota for permits for legal elephants was 1350 animals. There is legal trade that can be monitored with DNA testing and permitting. Enforcing and policing a ban would use funds that should be used to support the ban on imports already in effect.
I fully support the CITES rules, closing international borders to elephant ivory trade, a law already in effect that should be fully supported and enforced. I stand against a total ban of all ivory commerce within our United States borders, a decision that would be an enforcement nightmare. Like prohibition it will cause a new wave of illicit commerce where a legitimate one now exists. Museums, antique dealers, collectors, artisans and individual citizens have invested in a legal and valuable material. Sanctioned trade in ivory that is legal (culled and pre-ban) and comes from unthreatened sources (mammoth, boar, warthog, antique and recycled products) can pose no possible threat to elephant herds in the wild.
I believe our mutual goals are the same and a solution can be reached. Please keep the focus where it belongs. To increase the elephant population the killing must be stopped in Africa and at its borders. 
Respectfully Submitted,
I am deeply concerned at what impact this poorly designed legislation would have if passed in the current form.  Artisans, conservators, collectors and dealers would overnight loose a significant portion of their life's work.  What becomes of the millions of historic objects that become illegal?

As an example: last month I visited a major museum objects conservation lab to examine a wonderful tortoise shell clock.  During the conversation, this topic came up and it was pointed out that another table, with tortoise shell and brass, was to be exported for a museum exposition to another country. So that there would be no problems with customs, several small repairs of tortoise shell were removed, to prevent the possible seizure by authorities, which was a real possibility.

Can you imagine the result of international museum loans, if every suspicious repair of protected materials were removed so that these items could be displayed "legally"?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Got Antiques?

Hepplewhite Work Table
Last week, as I perused the Arts section of the New York Times, my eyes landed on a small headline above a small paragraph, buried in the small corners of the page.  It said "New York Antiques Stores Are No Match for the Web".  The first line read "Manhattan antiques shops founded decades ago are vanishing at an alarming rate, unable to compete with online offerings."  The story continued with a list of distinguished dealers who have closed their doors.

I have been reflecting on the current state of the antiques business for the past 5 years and this article was not news to me.  It is just a sad reflection of how this important and historic trade has degenerated into insignificance during my lifetime.  It is not the internet which is to blame.  It is the business practices of the dealers themselves, as well as the general lack of public education in this field.

I remember clearly walking into Albert Sack's shop in Manhattan some 40 years ago and meeting Albert.  He asked me what I was interested in, and I told him.  He then went to some lengths to show me items in his inventory as well as discuss other pieces which he thought might appeal to me.  I probably spent 2 hours with him, and he did not seem upset that I did not purchase anything.  The entire event was educational, informative and pleasant.

Over the years, the concept of a shop managed by an expert in his field was gradually transformed into a flea market mall, where each "collector" filled his mall space with his stuff, which usually ranged from kitchen items to toys and dolls.  If you had a question, there was no one to talk with.  The person at the front desk simply rang up the sale and took your money.  It was exhausting to just walk through the mounds of discards, looking for the "treasure."

That said, I would sometimes find something important.  Like the time my wife and I were on a "date" driving up the coast.  My terms for the "date" were that I would be allowed to stop at an antiques mall where I would usually be disappointed.  This time, however, I immediately noticed a period English Hepplewhite work table, in its original finish, with a skateboard on top and buried in shoes and dishes. I noticed that my hand was shaking as I presented the ticket to the sales person and paid the $185.  She remarked, "Oh, that piece has been here for some time.  We were thinking of sending it out to be refinished."  I mumbled, as quietly as I could, "No problem, I like it fine as it is."

I sold it the next month to a New York dealer for $15,000.  Then I made a copy for myself, which you can see at the top of this post, and sold that for $17,500.  Sometimes you bite the bear, and sometimes the bear bites you.

The television is alive with stories about antiques which all focus on this angle: You can discover something which will make you rich.  In other words, antiques are like the lottery.  Value and money are represented as the primary reason to own antiques, and the first question is always, "What's it worth?"

Well, I did not get into the business of antiques to get rich, and my expectations were rewarded by not having to worry about lots of money in my old age.  Lately I have been telling clients that the antiques business is the classic "Buy high and sell low" business model.  It is a perfect example of the economic theory of market forces.  You need a willing buyer and a willing seller to set the price.  When there is too much inventory and not enough demand, the market collapses, as it has recently.

The Millennials are not interested in antiques.  The current fashion is Post Modern.  The stuff I grew up with: Danish Modern, simple lines, foam upholstery, light woods and plastics, solid colors and minimalism as a decoration.  It's not that they don't have money to spend; this generation somehow has a lot of equity.  They prefer to spend it on electronics, entertainment, food and drink, and small downtown condos, where they can easily walk to their coffee house.

As a result, their parents, who invested in antiques all their lives, cannot give their precious furnishings away.  The kids just don't want it.  Too much trouble.  Doesn't impress their friends.  They don't even know what to call it.  I had a young couple accidentally walk into my shop recently and notice a rocking chair.  When I mentioned proudly that it was a true Shaker rocker, they looked surprised and responded, "What's a Shaker?"  Where to start?

Part of my success in the business derives from the early years of my career when I actively taught classes in American Decorative Arts at adult schools, universities and colleges on a regular basis (4 days a week for 15 years), as well as creating a very popular TV series on CBS, "Welcome to the Past...the History of American Antiques."  In all these presentations, I rarely mentioned values.  All the material presented focused on the cultural significance, historical context and technological evolution of furniture made between 1700 and 1900.

In effect, I taught the Southern California collectors and dealers how to identify period furniture and how to recognize fakes and reproductions.  That generation of students has continued to support my business over the years, and I realize I had a significant impact on their lives.  By teaching over the years, I became a legitimate authority in the field.  Unfortunately, funding for adult education disappeared and classes like Art History and Decorative Arts are no longer popular.

Where are the next generation of collectors going to learn about antiques?  The internet?  Really?

There's another serious problem with the business of Antiques: FAKES.  I have seen hundreds of examples over the years where a dealer or collector valued an obvious fake as a real item.  Either through sheer ignorance, or even worse, the desire to make a quick buck, these poorly made objects continue to be sold and collected at prices that make me cry.  I remember standing in front of a French Buffet Deux Corps in Los Angeles at a very high end shop years ago, when this form was in demand.  The obvious fake Buffet was priced at $65,000 while standing just across the room was an authentic Buffet priced at $15,000.  The difference was that the real Buffet was rather plain, but the fake Buffet was highly decorated with fake carving.

If all the dealers in the business would purge their inventory of fakes, the result would be rather empty shops, but the remaining items in these shops would be real, and their value would rise significantly.  We need Antiques shops strictly for real antiques and Decorative shops for objects which only have decorative value.  They are not the same.  When you mix them together, people get confused.

Another problem with the business is that the dealers typically do not pay enough for good inventory to keep up the resale part of the market.  They are more than happy to sell to clients at inflated prices, but when that same client wants to sell it later, they are not interested in offering a reasonable price.  Clearly, if you have invested in stocks and need money, you just call your broker and the check is immediate.  If you want to sell your valued antiques, good luck.

In the last five years there has been activity which has not been discussed.  This has resulted in a flood of inventory through the auction houses.  High end dealers typically keep surplus inventory in storage units.  Since it is not good business for these high end dealers to paste signs in their windows like "Huge Sale" and "Prices Drastically Reduced!" they simply dump the unseen items directly from storage to auction.  No one knows who is selling the items, and the market is flooded, driving down prices.

It seems to me that this is one of the real reasons high end dealers are closing their shops, not the internet, as the Times writer seems to assume.

I am surrounded by antiques.  My home is full and I work every day with marvelous and beautiful objects.  I am being honest when I say that I look at them as historical artifacts that have survived through wars, floods, clumsy movers and dozens of owners.  I don't think of them as piles of money.

As Billy Pilgrim realized in Kirk Vonnegut's "Slaughter House Five," I have become unstuck in time.