Thursday, March 24, 2016

American Chevalet Made In The USA!

Page 62, "Masterpieces of Marquetry" 1996

In 1990 I was hired by the Timken Museum here in Balboa Park to provide public education on the topic of French marquetry.  It was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in conjunction with the San Francisco Legion of Honor as they were rebuilding the museum in SF and needed a place for some of the furniture while they completed construction.

It was a two year contract, and we selected 5 different French cabinets, each one illustrating a different method of marquetry.  The name of the show was "France in the 18th century, the Age of Elegance."  I provided a 10 minute video, which was nominated for an Emmy, as a documentary.  I also installed a Didactic Gallery installation, which included a chevalet, a foot operated frame saw, and all the materials and other hand tools used to make marquetry.

My job required me to lecture in the gallery twice a week for several hours, and, when I was not there the video played on a screen near the "workshop" so visitors could imagine what was involved in creating the marvelous decorative surfaces on display.  It was a great job, since my workshop is a few miles from the museum, and I could just ride my bike there, through the park and into the museum where I could change into my work clothes in the guard's room.

Immediately after this contract was finished, I was invited to attend ecole Boulle, in Paris, by Pierre Ramond.  Over the next 4 years I became good friends with many students, teachers, and museum conservators in Paris, thanks to the support of Pierre.

On one of my trips, as I walked into the conservation lab at Musee des Arts Deco, I was treated with applause.  Surprised at the reception, I asked why they were celebrating my arrival, since they had never done that before.  They simply put a copy of Volume II of Pierre's latest book, "Masterpieces of Marquetry" on the table and opened it to page 62.

Imagine my surprise to see a photo of me, sitting on my original chevalet in the Didactic Gallery at the Timken Museum.  The copy said "The perpetual transfer of techniques between continents can be illustrated by Patrick Edwards' equipment." (translated from the original French)  "After a training period of several months at the Ecole Boulle, this American craftsman built his personal donkey as well as a model for his hometown museum, where he is in charge of furniture restoration."

This was a nice compliment, even if the facts were not exactly correct.  In fact, I had spent part of 4 years "in training" at Ecole Boulle.  Also, I had built a chevalet some 15 years before I went to study there.  Finally, I was not in charge of restoration at the museum, but in charge of public education.

Still, I got the applause from my peers at the museum in Paris, and left the lab walking on air.

I am still working to introduce the chevalet to North American marquetry workers.  My efforts at the American School of French Marquetry have been rewarded by all the students who have passed through these doors, and sat on our chevalets.  Many dozens of them have purchased the hardware kits and built their own tools.

And now there is a wonderful woodworker, David Clark, who is making the wood parts for the chevalet at a good price, with excellent results.  His wood kit is designed to work with my hardware kit, and you can just order it, wait a short time, and put it together with very little effort.

I mentioned his work a few posts ago, so just scroll down to find his information, and see the results.

You can email him directly with your questions or to place your order.  Just send it to:

I want to thank him for creating a check list of the parts, and providing names and part numbers for this tool.  Now, when I communicate with anyone about the chevalet, we can use the same names for the parts and clearly understand what is going on.

Click On Picture to Enlarge

In Pierre's first book, "Marquetry", he illustrated blueprints for the tool, with his parts list.

This tool is measured to be 54cm tall.  Pierre notes in his copy that, since the workers today are much taller then they were a century ago, he suggests we add 3 to 5 cm to the plan.  Than means the typical French worker would use a tool in the size from 57 to 59cm.  Of course, Americans are generally  taller then French (my experience), so we have tools as large as 62cm here at the school.

To determine what size tool you would use, just measure (in metric centimeters) from the top of the seat to the base of your throat, while you are sitting comfortably, slightly bent forward.

Since it is absolutely essential that the tool be adjusted to cut perpendicular in both the X and Y axis, you make a test cut to check it, after initial set up or when ever it is taken apart and moved to a new location.  Here is the test cut, as shown in Pierre's book:

Move the Vertical or Horizontal Adjustment Arms until correct

The test is done with a piece of wood, like tulip poplar, which is easy to cut, and about 1/2" thick.  Note that adjustment is usually a combination of the X and Y adjustments, which can take a bit of time.  Once it is dialed in, it will be fine for a long time.  At any time that the piece you are cutting resists falling out of the packet, it might indicate a need to check the adjustment.  Doing this test with a finer blade than the one you are using for the work will increase the accuracy.

Now, for the first time in history, you can order an American Chevalet, made in the USA.  I have fulfilled Pierre's wish and transferred the "secret" technology from France to North America.

It only took 20 years!

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."

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Critical Analysis: Evaluating Condition and Age

"Excuse me, but do you own a Mercedes?"

We all look at objects from different perspectives.  Whether you realize it or not, your ability to gather information visually is controlled by your priorities in collecting data.

Years ago, when I was actively racing bicycles, and investing in expensive custom frames by well known frame builders, I would look at other bicycles differently than my wife, who always went with me to the races.  She would constantly ask me why one frame design was superior to another, since they all looked the same to her.  I would point out the rake in the fork, the wheelbase, the height of the bottom bracket, the relationship between the top tube length and the down tube length, and continue this lesson until her eyes glazed over and she lost interest.  To her, the paint job was most important.

On another occasion, just after a rather windy storm had blown through San Diego, I received a knock on my shop door.  Opening it, a stranger said the words no one wants to hear: "Do you own a Mercedes?"

"Yes," I replied, "Why do you ask?"

"There's a palm tree on top of it."

I mention this, since I loved that car, and I wanted it restored to pre-tree condition, so I contacted my insurance carrier.  They sent out an estimator to evaluate the damage.  The front was crushed, and I stood there watching the person take notes about the condition of the car.  As she walked around the back, she made some notes, and I asked her what that was all about since the damage was to the front.

"I need to note that the rear quarter panel has been replaced," she said.

I was incredulous, since I had examined the car when I bought it (used, of course) and had owned it for several years, and I had never noticed it.  I opened the trunk and still could not see anything.  She patiently pointed out to me small areas of work which supported her claim.  Obviously, when I bought the car I was more interested in the engine and rims than the body.  Point taken.  Had I seen the body work I could have negotiated a better price or avoided the car all together.

Moral: If your emotions are stronger than the facts, stop and take a cold shower before continuing.

Second Moral:  If your insurance gives you more than the car is worth, don't be stupid and repair the car, which is what I did...because I was emotionally attached to it.  The next time it went in for a smog test it failed.  Completely.  Had to crush it.  By law.

The reason I am writing this post is not about bikes or cars, but to demonstrate how people tend to look at things.  As a serious furniture conservator, I look at furniture differently than most people.  Collectors look at the overall style and quality.  Conservators look at condition and, in particular, repairs which have been done in the past.

It is a general rule that high quality pieces tend to live in nice homes, and responsible owners tend to pay what it takes to maintain and repair their objects.  Not always, but in general.  Thus, a very well made piece of furniture will often have very well executed repairs.

American Walnut Corner Chair

This week I picked up a nice and rare American 18th century corner chair, which had the end of the arm broken off.  First thing I did was point out to the owner that the arm had been previously broken and repaired with a dowel, so there was no "loss of value."

As I normally do I examined the object closely while it was on the bench and thought I would document some of my general observations for this post.  These are the kinds of things that you should look for, if you were interested in buying something like this, or asked to evaluate it for the prospective purchaser.  I also provide this analysis for certified appraisers, who adjust the value up or down in relation to my findings.

Corner chairs are rare, so it is important to study the examples in books and museums carefully.  In many cases the chair maker saved money by making the rear leg straight, thus saving the cost of carving another foot.  Also, triffid feet (three toed) are extremely rare and valuable, so they need to be examined to determine if they are original.

I always start with examining the object upside down.  That is where the most clues are hiding.

Let's look at the feet:

Can you guess which two feet are not original?  It appears this chair lived on a wet floor for many years, as the two original feet are completely eaten by dry rot.  The other two are either new or repairs.  In particular, note the wear patterns, as a function of either actual age or efforts to "age" the foot by the repair man.

Here is a side view of one of the feet.  The one with the nails. There is no effort to hide the repair.  New wood is carved to fit and there is a shellac stick fill on the areas where the dry rot had damaged the wood unevenly.

 Let's turn our attention to the rear leg, which could have started out as a simple straight leg.  It is standard practice with these chairs to make the three legs (sides and back) out of a single board.  That is a structural necessity.  Looking at the two side legs confirms they are original:

Front leg looks good, with old corner blocks

However,when I looked closely at the rear leg I found this:  (look very closely!)

New corner blocks are also a clue

Just a faint line where the woods join

There was a join, carefully hidden under some old "patina" but clearly a joint where the lower leg had been spliced into the upper post.  Both the corner blocks were new, and from the outside the wood grain was completely different.

Different woods

Looking at another leg, it is clear the corner block was also replaced, as there are serious cross grain scratches where the surface was aggressively leveled to match.

Be more careful than this 

Finally, looking at the lower edge of the apron we find the expected marks of the rasp, which was generally the last tool used to clean up the saw marks on these edges.  Lower edges would not necessarily be examined by the user, who rarely turned furniture upside down, so it is nice to find the evidence of traditional methods still obvious after 250 years.

Another traditional method was to chamfer the back edges of the splats, which made them appear thinner in profile then they actually were.  Here we see that work which is well done.

Nice splat.  Note the center scribe on the shoe rail.

However, under the top there is another repair, not so well hidden, but reasonably effective in keeping the chair together.

No effort to hide this repair.

Like my Mercedes, which had the rear quarter panel replaced, unknown to me, this corner chair has had the rear leg replaced, also unknown to the owner.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

It's A Gift To Be Simple

One of these days I am going to post some of the experiences I had some 30 years ago, visiting all the Shaker villages, and, at the invitation of Faith Andrews, having lunch with several of the last living Shaker sisters...those were the days!

However, as my posts tend to be lengthy and "wordy" I thought I would just post a simple thought for today.  (As the King says in the movie, "Mozart", "too many notes!)

In the past I posted my methods of vector clamping, and you can use the search box to find that.  Today I was cutting some more clamping blocks and I thought that it might be interesting to some of you, as a kind of a "Shop Tricks" feature.

I am not related to Dunn-Edwards!

Whenever I visit the paint store for stains or paint, they always hand me a bunch of stir sticks.  Even though I might actually need only one, they generously hand me a dozen or so.  My first thought was, "Hey, they are cutting down the forest to make these, so be careful how many you give out!"  But, as I approach my 7th decade on Earth, I am resigned to the fact that the majority of humans really don't think about how their actions might affect the rest of us.

Quick and Simple

So I take this handful of clean white wood sticks and cut them up at the band saw into small pieces.  This wood is nice and soft, so it makes a perfect clamping pad for any clamp.  I always keep a small box of them at the bench or wherever I do my clamping.  They last for a long time and are free.

Clamp pads in use

Another trick is to take some thicker wood and cut it into small blocks with a "V" sawn on one side.  Now, when you need to apply a clamp on the outside corner this "V" block provides a perfect clamping pad.

"V" Clamp Blocks

Just thought you would like to know.

Works Every Time