Saturday, March 12, 2016

Little Wheels Go Round and Round

Teapoy Upside Down on the Bench
I have taken apart tens of thousands of antique pieces of furniture in my time.  One thing I hold dear is respecting original hardware.  Furniture hardware takes a beating.  Metal and wood do not live well together and are constantly at odds.

For example, how many outdoor decks have you seen with the nails sticking up?  Ever wondered how that happened?  Little elves in the middle of the night sneaking around with crowbars and lifting the nails little by little?  Same thing with wood screws.  They always are a bit loose after some time.  Do these elves also have screwdrivers?

These are the things I occupy my time with, when I am trapped in elevators, or waiting for my turn in line at some place.  I am not normal, I have been told.

Naturally, the obvious conclusion is that the wood hates the metal and wants to get rid of it, or the metal hates the wood and wants to get away.  That makes perfect sense to me as they are not from the same species.  Wood grows in nature and iron is man made.

On the other hand, perhaps the wood dimensions change as a function of humidity and, by expansion and contraction, there is a force which just pushes out the iron.  Just another thought...

In any event, when I find a screw, or hinge, or other piece of hardware which has stood the tests of time, the environment and the whims of ownership, I tend to respect it and leave it alone.  It is, after all, the absolute proof of age and cannot be faked.

If a screw is blunt and made before 1850 and has never been touched, then the antique is before 1850.  See my earlier post "Respect the Screw," for more on this topic.

Today I am posting about wheels.  I have seen a lot of wheels on furniture.  The earliest wheels were made with leather rollers, held on each side by brass washers.  Then brass wheels appeared, followed by porcelain, iron and then wood.  Each of these materials had their advantages.  The leather was soft enough and quiet but quickly developed flat spots.  The brass rolled smoothly but distorted under pressure.  The porcelain wheels were clean and added a decorative color but could be broken if sharply hit.  The iron wheels worked well, but would rust if wet.  The wood wheels were the cheapest, and depending on the species of wood, lasted for a fairly long time.

A basic problem with all these wheels on furniture is the shaft which held the wheel.  If it got bent then the height of the wheel changed, and the piece of furniture became unstable.  Most of the time, when I deliver a piece of furniture with wheels, I need to instruct the owner to take the time to rotate the wheels until the piece is level and stable on the floor.  It's frustrating.

Not until this week did I realize that there is a solution to this problem.  For the first time in my experience I found a set of wheels that were made by an unknown genius.  There is no name or patent date on these wheels, but they certainly would qualify.

I was restoring an English rosewood teapoy from around 1850.  It had never previously been repaired or restored, so I was the first person to take it apart.

You need to realize that tea and the tea service is one of the most important social habits of the English lifestyle.  It is not uncommon for the wealthy to spend a lot of money on the tea as well as the furniture and materials used in storing, mixing and drinking tea.

This teapoy has a circular lift top which contains 4 circular containers for the tea.  Two wood containers with lids, lined with lead foil, for the tea and two cut crystal containers to mix the blend for consumption.

Hand Made Cast Brass Hinge

As the circular top is rather heavy and there is only one hinge, it needs to be sturdy.  The builder reinforced the area around the hinge with custom brass plates, and the hinge itself is hand filed from thick blanks of cast brass.  Modern rolled sheet brass hinges were new at the time, as several exhibitors at the 1852 exposition included them in their display, but they were not as strong as this hinge.  It is massive.  It also shows that the brass hardware on this teapoy was made by a craftsman who understood design and engineering stresses.

Minor Veneer Damage

Look At How The Veneer Was Added
Some 40 years ago, when I was at Winterthur, during the Summer Institute of 1978, I was approached by Don Fennimore, then a curator who was a specialist in silver, but had been asked to include furniture in his duties.  He was curious if I knew why there were small cut marks under the plinth where the veneer was stuck in the corners.  I pointed out that it made sense to saw a bit deeper in the corners so you could jam the veneer into place, thus holding it secure during glue up.  It was obvious to me, as I had been doing this at work.  However, in his position, he needed to complete a stack of paperwork before he could even remove a single screw.

The pedestal is a carved spiral post in solid rosewood, and the plinth is a shaped flat platform with carved scroll feet.  The veneer is thick sawn Brazilian rosewood veneer.  As the finish had become completely opaque and black over the years, I decided to refinish it to show off the rosewood.  This wood is endangered and it is a visual pleasure to see the quality of rosewood which used to be available some 150 years ago.

Wheels and Screws Made before 1850

As the wheels were carved into sockets under the feet and all the screws had become loose I removed them.  They were original and blunt, so they will be returned to their places after the restoration.  My goal was to clean the dirt and oxidation from the wheels.

To my surprise, as I began cleaning the wheels, I found something I had never seen before.  There was a second, very small wheel, which actually served to carry the load.  This unique design allowed the primary wheel to carry the load without bending the iron shaft, thus keeping it level over time.  This system was in perfect condition on all three wheels, and after cleaning it appeared that these wheels were unchanged and unaffected from many years of use.

Big Wheels and Little Wheels Make It Work

I need to respect the craftsman who designed and built something like this, knowing that it will survive many generations.  Unfortunately, much of the human energy spent on building objects today is wasted, as nothing really is expected to survive for long.

The basic philosophy today is make it last "until the check clears."


Matt McGrane said...

I really hate today's philosophy of making throw-away stuff. I blame capitalism for this (though I don't know of a better system) as it breeds huge landfills, little care for future generations and greed.

I try not to think too much about it (although I do) so I can stay a relatively happy guy.

I really like your work, Pat. You are so fortunate to have changed to this path while you were still young. Thank you for the willingness to share some of your trove of knowledge.

Joe M said...

Here are a few castors (although one set is much larger)

W. Patrick Edwards said...


The first Ebay listing seems to be very similar, but with a patent name that I cannot read. Note that the wheels in the post above have a center rod which is hand riveted to the plate.

The second Ebay listing is much later iron wheels, which I have in stock. These are usually found on Roll Top Desks and other office furniture from 1900.

Thanks for the tip.

Hiltonsister said...

Oh what a beautiful blog. I, like so many others I am sure, share your sentiments and love what you do, and learn how to preserve some of the precious old things.