Imagine creating a form of furniture decoration that is inherently unstable and extremely expensive that somehow has lasted over three centuries. Not only creating the decoration but having your name associated with the design, the process, the material and the end result. Also having the most important trade school in Europe named after you.
That is the legacy of Mr. A.C. Boulle, cabinetmaker to King Louis XIV. His work was so significant that the King gave him a large room in the Louvre to set up his workshop.
Only the very rich could afford to have Boulle furniture. Only the very skilled and highly specialized furniture makers and restorers can create and maintain these objects. Even if boulle furniture is kept in a controlled environment and protected from extremes of temperature and humidity the complicated surface will begin to lift within a decade or so. Such is the problem of gluing brass, pewter, tortoise shell, ivory, mother of pearl, horn and other non wood materials to a wood substrate.
The reason is that all these diverse non wood materials expand and contract in different ways than the wood they are attached to. In the hot dry climate the metal expands and the wood shrinks. In the cold damp climate the metal shrinks and the wood expands. Only one type of protein glue seems to work: fish glue. In addition to using this specific glue the metal needs to be toothed on the glue side and rubbed with a fresh clove of garlic just prior to application.
This method was perfected in the last decades of the 17th century by Boulle and others, and in the subsequent centuries no modern adhesive works better.
Perhaps the most serious threat to this type of furniture is the ignorance of furniture repair shops, who think they can repair loose elements with epoxy or even nails. They do not realize that the unique quality of fish glue is that it allows the surface to actually creep during environmental cycles and remain stuck. Using nails or epoxy fixes those repairs to the wood substrate and when the environment changes it causes other elements to lift, creating new damage.
|Nails Damage the Surface|
|Animal Horn, Hawksbill and Green Turtle Shell|
|Recycled Scraps of Antique Tortoiseshell|
|Thermal Fax Paper with Tortoise shell Elements|
|Match The Repair Element Above with These Losses|
|Patrice Lejeune at Work|
|Before and After Cleaning|
|Always Dramatic Results!|
The biggest problem with it was that all the shell elements were dry and blistered and falling off.
|Apron Before Conservation|
|Wrong Key and Keyplate|
|Sitting in Open Barn|
|Gilt Bronze Mounts with Horrible Modern Finish|
We left them standing in the barn to decide their next step. It turns out that they took my advice and posted it online at a very modest price.
The next month a client came into my workshop with this very same table for restoration. They wanted it done right and could afford the price, which was not cheap. However, our workshop is one of the few actually qualified to do this kind of work, so we took the project. In my career, this was the most difficult boulle restoration I have every attempted.
Initially, Patrice and Luke Addington began the process of rehydration of the shell surface. Luke is a serious furniture conservator in Tucson and was invited to help us in this project, as I had other jobs to do at the time.
|Missing and Lifting Shell Elements|
|Vacuum Bag Rehydration of Glue|
We had help from the client himself who hired a person to clean the gilt bronzes. He did a wonderful job and saved the client a lot of money. Usually we send these mounts to Paris, but with the current Pandemic this was not an option.
When the table was finally put together this week I just stood back and appreciated the result.
I love my job!