Monday, April 9, 2018

I Have A Foot Fetish...

Walnut Philadelphia Chippendale Foot Standing on Wet Floor for Years

I just returned from several days hiking in the mountains.  I hiked a lot when I was young (50 years ago) and have decided to return to the activity again, now that I am still able.  Outdoor gear is a big business, and, as I carefully explained to my wife, since I didn't have a boat or golf clubs, it was fine to spend some money on hiking equipment.

My first purchase was some very expensive old school leather hiking boots made in Italy.  I love leather boots and this is my third pair in 50 years.  They last about 15 years on average.

As I hiked this past weekend, I would pass other hikers on the trail and each time I would look at their feet.  Their choice of boots and the condition of the boots told me all I needed to know about them.  Some were new, some were worn out.  Some were too big and some were just ridiculous and not appropriate for the trail.

My foot fetish is not limited to people.  Most of the time I look at feet on antiques.  In fact, it is always the first thing I examine when I see a new piece of furniture.

Think about it.  Something which has "stood the test of time" has been in contact with the floor for centuries.  Moving around the house.  Often drug across rough floors.  Standing in water or on wet bricks.  Attacked by insects who like to bore into the piece from the bottom.  Being kicked by human feet, or attacked by dogs.  Broken and repaired or replaced by workmen with different degrees of skill.  Being lost completely and replaced by something completely different than the original.

All of these things tell the story of the antique and help to confirm the age and origin of the object.

That is why I always turn a piece of furniture upside down and start my analysis from the bottom.

Currently I am restoring an English butler's bureau, made around 1780.  I thought the feet were interesting and would like to share their history with you so you can have a chance to see how to read the clues like I do.

Back of Bureau Showing Feet Brackets
Note the left back bracket is a different color and wood than the right.

Original Bracket after Old Repair

Replaced Bracket (19th Century) with Cut Nails
Let's look at one of the back legs more closely.  What do you see?

What Are The Clues?
The original pine back bracket was repaired with newer nails and raised up on a spacer.  It retains the original glue block with dark patina, and the original pine glue block on the right remains.  The outside leg bracket is new and held with cut nails, from the 19th century.  A more recent addition is the foot support block, with its dark oil stain, showing fresh wood at the end.

Lets look at the front foot.

Front Foot
Here it is obvious that the outside bracket is a 19th century replacement, and has a shim to fit it to the old glue block.  The front leg bracket is original and made of pine with a thick mahogany facing.  All the replacement brackets are solid mahogany, and not made with pine, as were the original feet.

Look more closely at the tool marks on the original foot.

Completely Untouched After 250 Years
Important Evidence of Original Work

Note that the patina is consistent from the front bracket to the glue block.  Note the chisel marks on the original pine block.  Note in particular how the rasp and saw marks left by the maker when he shaped the bracket foot are consistent across the glue block.

Compare with the other front foot.

Second Front Foot
Here we find evidence that some worker during the 19th century replaced the foot and glue blocks.  He used screws to attach the brackets.  He made an effort to use pine blocks for glue blocks, but the shape and construction is not like the original.

Band Saw Marks, Machine Made Screw, Cut Nails
Tool Marks Do Not Match
Since the cabinet is upside down, it is a good opportunity to look at the evidence of age on the bottom boards.  What a beautiful story they tell.

Original Bottom Boards Dovetailed Into Carcase
This Is What Human Labor Looks Like
Human Effort

You can read every pass of the scrub plane as the worker cleaned up the saw marks.  This is not a surface that would normally be seen so it is not essential to make it nice.  18th Century furniture was made in a hurry and at a low cost due to competition.  Workers did not spend extra time on surfaces which were not visible to the client.  This bottom shows the effort of a skilled cabinet maker to make a surface fairly flat and clean, and the patina of hundreds of years of household dirt and grime.

It would be nearly impossible to fake this surface.  (I said "nearly")

This bureau, which has served an unknown number of owners over the years, is still standing proudly on its four feet.  However, only two of the 8 original brackets remain from its birth.  The fact that one of these brackets has never been repaired or removed is enough to prove its origins and date it to the last quarter of the 18th century.

That shoe has survived the long and winding road.

1 comment:

Russel said...

Regarding hiking boots: First, I'm a 66-yr-old hiker/backpacker myself. Mostly in the Tetons and nearby mountains of Targhee National Forest. I am not impressed at all with most of the boots offered for sale that are look like they've been pieced together with scraps of leather and synthetic fabrics. Solid leather is what I want for my money. I have a pair of White's Smokejumpers that I've used for 35+ years. I sent them back to the factory to be rebuilt about 6 years ago, which they do for half the price of new. (New Smokejumbers cost about $450 now; I paid $180 originally.) They are heavy, but incredibly comfortable--at the end of a long day's walk, I feel no urge to take them off. They're made of leather and thread--no foam or synthetics anywhere except the Vibram soles, which have been repaced 4 times during the time I've had them. I've tried nearly every other type of boot, but go back to my White's after the disappointment.

Hike while you still can.