Thursday, January 22, 2015

Is Your Glue Reversible?

King Tut "Before"

I often wonder about furniture makers, both in the studio and in the factory, who choose to use glues which are "permanent".  I guess that is because in my career I have seen every possible type of damage that can occur with "normal" use of furniture.

I have also seen "unusual" damage in my time.  One case in particular was when a rather embarassed man showed up with a spindle back rocking chair.  The crest and the entire tops of all the spindles were shattered and broken in one hand and the topless rocker was in the other.  When I asked him how this had happened, he quietly replied, "I was practicing my batting swing in the living room."

I didin't believe him.

Another time there arrived at my door a wonderful curly maple Chippendale chest of drawers.  However it was neatly severed completely across the middle, leaving broken drawers and backboards in splinters.  I was told it was a "moving accident".   It was a lot of fun putting it back together.

That story I believed.  Movers can do a lot of damage.  For example, there was the triple pedestal mahogany dining table the movers put on the truck and then loaded boxes of heavy stuff on top until all the legs broke off at the same time.  What fun it is to reattach every cabriole leg on the table so it looks undamaged.

Some 30 years ago I was doing a lot of insurance claim damage and thought I should help solve the problem.  I went to several different moving companies and offered my services.  I thought if I could be paid a reasonable fee for a short course of instruction, I could teach them how not to damage antiques.  Things like knowing about card tables opening when you lift them,  removing the pendulum and weights when transporting long case clocks,  not loosing keys or finials, how to move corner cabinets, etc.  I assumed that by reducing their damage claims they would be happy to pay me for basic information.

The uniform response I got from all of them was "no".  They actually considered damage claims as a basic "cost of business" and something that was expected to happen.  It was very discouraging.

Dining tables seem to attract a lot of attention from stupid people.  Once I got a frantic call from Newport Beach and drove up there to see for myself what had happened.  This client had paid a moving company to deliver their Cuban mahogany double pedestal Georgian dining table and set it up.  The driver carefully laid out blankets on the cement and put the top of the table face down on the clean blankets.  Then he proceeded to set the pedestals in place and attach them with screws.  Each pedestal took 6 screws.  Unfortunately, the sheetrock screws he used were not only modern but 1 inch too long.  As he turned over the table in front of the client, you can imagine her response.

I managed to solve that problem with a bit of experience, a good protein glue and magic.

Another table I was asked to repair had shattered glass imbedded into the top where the chandelier had fallen on it from the ceiling.  At first the owner had assumed that the hook holding the chandelier had failed, but my investigation focused on the housekeeper.  She informed me (in confidence) that her method of cleaning the chandelier was to stand on the table and turn the fixture while wiping the glass crystals.  Eventually she unscrewed the fixture and gravity took over.

I kept her secret, she kept her job and learned a valuable lesson.

I guess my point here is that all furniture suffers damage in its lifetime.  Unless it is repaired with a glue which is reversible, there is a chance that it will not be repaired properly and could be lost.  This is one of the biggest problems I have with modern work.  Using glues and finishes which cannot easily be repaired is a death sentence.

King Tut's Beard

Today I found a news article which is not related to furniture but in fact demonstrates how important it is to use reversible glues.  Workers in Egypt were cleaning the death mask of King Tut, certainly one of the most important artifacts in history.  Imagine their surprise when the beard snapped off in their hands.  I'm sure their response was similar to the client in Newport Beach.

Instead of stopping work and researching the solution properly, one of the ladies cleaning the mask called her husband who picked up some epoxy and repaired the beard.  To make it worse, in cleaning off the epoxy residue from the joint, the surface of the gold was scratched in many places.
What Glue Would The Pharaoh Use?

Not the best solution, to say the least.  Remember the basic rule: "Do No Harm."


Jonas Jensen said...

This is the best read I have had in a long time.
I think I will start using hide glue in the future.

Thanks for sharing those tragic (but funny) stories.


Rev John said...

I read the New York Times article and it implays that someone 'up stairs' ordered repaired ASAP like yesterday and so...
I agree, the first run is First, do no harm.

Federico said...

I fully agree. A good furniture is a quality item that can be handed down to posterity. Ultimately it is our legacy for those who will come after us. I constantly see people who build furniture with modern styles with traditional techniques. Dovetails, important woods, beautiful veneers, many hours of work, a lot of effort. And then always stick with modern glues, aliphatic resins, vinyl, and so on. And if 100 years from now someone will have to repair them? How do I remove a sheet of veneer? How unmounting a joint without breaking it? The Hide glue for me is always the best. Take time and experience but I can fix problems without even a piece of furniture in 1600 without having doubts. Actually do not understand why build a piece entirely handmade, hand planing, sawing dovetails perfectly and then paste it all with a modern glue. Are great for disposable items such as a kitchen, a closet, the bathroom furniture or for the garden. Buy them, use them and then one day they throw away.