Friday, January 31, 2014

And The SAPFM 2014 Cartouche Award Goes To...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Klausz Teaching 9 year old Boy about Dovetails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Complex Curve Repair Simplified

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search this site for other posts on Vector Clamping.

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

Perfect Alignment

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Upholstery Conservation

Home Sweet Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

Wool Mohair With Cat Hair Added

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

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

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

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

Original Stuffing In Place

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

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

Professional Upholstery Conservation

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