Monday, December 24, 2018

I Don't Do This For The Money

Time to Walk to Work

I see today in the news that the California lottery is something like 350 million dollars.  In my life I have never been tempted to buy a single lottery ticket.  Perhaps the scientific part of my brain tells me it is more likely that I will be sent to the moon by Musk someday.  And I don't want to go to the moon any more than Mars.  I happen to like Earth and hope that Mankind will soon wake up and begin to save ourselves from extinction.

The last time I worked for money was when I was employed in physics and I quit that job in 1973.  Since that time I have pursued my desire to be happy and productive and "save the past for the future."

Many of my clients are millionaires and several are billionaires.  I have been in their homes, seen the cars in their garages, walked around their private grounds and seen what they keep in their drawers.  I have never wanted to live in a 20,000 square foot mansion with a marble entry way larger than my home.  Too much money breeds stress and anxiety.  Not to mention paranoia and, in some cases, greed.  At the same time there are wealthy individuals and corporations who devote a good portion of their income to support the arts.  For them I am very grateful.

I am fortunate to have a nice home (which I built with my three sons) and a nice car and a wonderful family.  I have all the materials and tools I need and a large business with a good reputation.  I can work every day or take trips any time I feel like it.  I have said many times that life is good.

When it comes to my activities, I have an obsession to solve problems and reverse the damage to furniture caused by age and human stupidity.  In general, modern citizens do not consider the value of old wood furniture and how to prevent damage.  When something breaks they go to the hardware store and buy the wrong glue and just hold it together with tape or sheet rock screws.  I cry when they then bring it in and I have to repair the repair.

I sympathise with the old growth timber which was cut down over the years to make hardwood furniture.  I feel sorry for the sea turtles and elephants who died so their teeth and chutes can be used for decoration on high end furniture.  Now that these raw materials are considered "endangered" they are no longer used, and the only source is in extant antique furniture.  That makes them extremely important and worth conserving.

The other reason I value old furniture is the respect I have for the process of creating wood chairs, tables and cabinets using only water, wind and human power.  No carbon footprint here.

Lately, since the resale market for antiques is still in the dumps, I have been collecting wonderful pieces at very low prices.  In some cases, they are just free.  Several times I have been contacted by clients and strangers who want to donate their old pieces to someone who will want them, rather then sending them to the landfill.  I am happy to oblige.

Last week I took a rather simple chair out of the back room and decided to restore it to its original condition.  This chair was given to me some time ago by a good friend and collector who no longer wanted it.  It was a Chippendale country chair, made in a faded cherry, from New England, and certainly late 18th century.  It was loose in all the joints and missing the seat.  It had suffered a broken back leg and side stretcher, which was badly repaired.

I had it fumigated, as the seat rails showed evidence of powder post beetle.  I pulled out all the pegs and repaired the mortise and tenon joints with hide glue, replacing the hand shaped pegs and making new ones where they were missing.  I stripped the finish, and repaired the side stretcher.  I decided to leave the back leg foot repair in place, as it was still functional.

I sanded the wood and applied several coats of shellac and paste wax and it started to look better.

Yesterday I soaked some cattails and wove the rush seat.  As I was weaving the seat I thought to myself that this work was done to this chair when it was new by women who were paid very little.  Rushing seats and hand caning were activities that many women did so that they could earn some money in a world where men dominated the work force.

Natural Rush, Clothes Wringer, and Water Bath

Weaving rush seats is a calm and peaceful activity.  You wet the rush and use a wringer to press out the air, making a popping sound as it passes through.  Then you take a couple strands and start twisting.  You need to continue weaving until the entire seat is done.  If you stop and continue another day it will not work: the old rush will dry and change color and the seat will be uneven.  It took about 4 hours to weave the seat, allowing for coffee breaks and thus would cost around $300.  Adding the fumigation, repairs and refinishing, the total cost for this chair project would be $750.  I expect that in the current market, IF I could find a person interested in buying this chair, I could get about $100.

So, why did I take the time to do it?  Because the chair is honest and simple, and has served its purpose for over 2 centuries.  It will continue to survive for another century now that it has been reconditioned.  I did it because I can and because, if I didn't care about it at all, it would be buried in the landfill with plastic bags of garbage and forgotten.  This chair deserves better.

New England Chippendale Country Chair
I do not care if I ever sell it.  I did not do it for the money.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

50 Years A Teacher

Welcome to my World

I have had a fortunate life.  I have worked very hard to pass on the "secrets" of the trade as they have been entrusted to me by many wonderful teachers.  I am saddened that my mentors have passed on and I only have the memories of time spent at their feet.  Now it is my turn.  I firmly believe that if you leave this earth before you give away the lessons you have learned that it is a crime.

Since I was raised as a scientist in my early years, I believe in sharing all knowledge.  Only by working together in discovering facts and communicating with like minded researchers can this fragile civilization evolve.  Over the centuries men have taken secrets to their grave  and that only hurts our chances for understanding what it means to be alive.  The wonderful essence of the human race is that it thrives on information.  The next generation needs nourishment.  That is our responsibility.

When I started teaching many years ago, California provided life time certificates for teachers.  They no longer do that, for some reason.  However, I have them on the wall above my desk.  I am qualified by the state to teach the following subjects (for life!);

Physics, Mathematics, History, Philosophy, Antiques, Decorative Arts and Related Technologies, Art History and Appreciation 1-3.  I don't have any certificate but I also teach Traditional French Marquetry in my own school.

I enjoy speaking in public and giving lectures.  It gives me purpose to research and prepare a talk, and satisfaction when it is delivered.  I have lost count of the many different groups who have asked me to make a presentation, over many years.

Recently, however, I had a request to speak which gave me a special emotion.  I was part of the first freshman class at UCSD in 1967.  Although the new campus had transferred upper division students in a few years before, we were the first freshman class to complete a full 4 year curriculum.  When we stepped on campus for the first time, we were greeted by the provost, Paul Saltman.  He stood up in front of a very small group of us young freshman and said, "I know you all are here thinking you will be scientists.  I know you all are outstanding students in math, chemistry, physics and other related fields.  However, I want you to know something.  By the time you graduate from this college you will all be Renaissance Men!"

I recall the murmuring among my fellow students at the time..."We don't want to be Renaissance Men, we just want to be Scientists!"

Personally, I just wanted to keep my student deferment so I wouldn't have to go to Viet Nam.  I decided to plan my studies so that I would stay in college for 5 years.  That meant I would delay my major (Physics) and front load as many other classes as I could in my minor (History).  I signed up for music, philosophy, religion, literature, history, and any class that looked interesting.  I learned a lot, and had some fantastic instructors.

Then, in 1968 the draft was instituted and I lost my 2S deferment and received a 1A draft card.  Fortunately, the lottery number I was given was 240, so it was unlikely that I would be drafted that year.  In order to draft me the government would have to draft everyone in 1969 and then go back to pick up the remainder of the 1A students in 1968.  Each year my chances were reduced, so I changed my plans and decided to graduate in the original 4 years.

That decision was difficult.  It was not a matter of cost, since in those early years an education was not expensive.  It was a matter of taking 24 and 26 units a quarter in my Junior and Senior year with only Physics, Math and Chemistry classes.  My brain started to turn to mush.  Although I was able to get passing grades in all my classes, when it came time for finals week, I was on a different planet.  I would take a 3 hour exam in Plasma Physics, then rush across campus to take a 3 hour exam in Calculus, then the next day repeat in different subjects.

I should remind you that this was a time when there were no such things as cell phones, hand held computers, or other digital aids.  Everything I learned was Analog:  think slide rules, pencil and paper.  Many of the Calculus problems would take pages and pages of hand written work to solve.  In one case, a group of us sat in the library trying to solve a problem on a take home test.  When we turned it into the teacher in class, I was designated by the group to ask the teacher how to solve problem #2.  We had not found a solution and wondered what was the answer.

He said, "There is actually no solution to problem 2.  I just take the papers and throw them down the stairs.  The ones that go the farthest are given the highest grades."

When I graduated in 1971 the school changed its policy and decided to allow computers to be used in class.  I was an analog thinker.  I spent my time in school with either a pencil and paper or a piece of chalk and a chalkboard.  I did not want to start over and join the digital revolution, which has now completely changed education as we know it.  We now have Artificial Intelligence.

So when I was invited to speak at UCSD recently, it was an interesting mix of old memories and new environments, as the school has grown into one of the top schools in the country, many times larger than the size of the Revelle College campus I attended years ago.  In 1974 the Osher Institute was created, originally as a forum for "retired professionals" to share their experiences and knowledge.  I had no idea, as I had rarely returned to the school after graduation.

The Osher Institute asked me to speak on my work and philosophy and it gave me a chance to thank Paul Saltman for his encouragement, even though he was only a memory to those in the audience.  Here I was, a real Renaissance Man, living with the Workmanship of Risk, and demonstrating to those who attended that life can be rewarding and you can be successful working with your hands.

You may be interested in my talk.  It is an hour long.  With permission from the Osher Institute, I am posting it here:

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Message in a Bottle

As I walk to work every day at dawn, I listen to the neighborhood sounds as it begins to wake up. Fortunately the residential streets are empty, so there are no disturbing fossil fuel sounds.  But I am surrounded by the unique conversation among the birds, and entertained by their flight overhead.  Watching the birds makes me aware of the clouds, which change constantly.  The local dogs and cats talk to me as I pass, each one a friendly stranger.  Most of all, when there is a breeze I struggle to hear the sound of each leaf on the trees as they move against each other.

My journey each day is walking East into the rising sun and, at the end of the day, walking West into the setting sun.  I imagine the Earth rotating under my feet and wonder if my efforts pushing against the sidewalk actually contribute to the energy of its rotation.  The principles of physics, which I was trained in 50 years ago, suggests that force, mass and acceleration are connected.   But then I think of another person, exactly my size, moving in the opposite direction, and everything cancels out...

Kind reader, you may have noticed that I have been absent in posting on this blog this year.  For me, this year has been very busy and I have enjoyed working on large and exciting projects.  The hours of the day are connected by activities which demand my attention.  I have less and less energy for sitting in front of the keyboard and reflecting.  Today I just thought I should stop for a moment and put down what is going through my mind.

Why do I post?  Who am I talking to?  What is the meaning of it all?

I am turning 70 years old soon, and have done the same thing for the past 50 years.  When I say "the same thing" I mean exactly that.  Every day I repeat the motions of the day before.  On one hand there is a comfort in knowing what the day will bring.  On the other hand, there is excitement in approaching the different jobs that sit on my bench at work.  Life is rather easy.  I have achieved all my goals and been successful in my business.  I have good friends and a wonderful, happy family.  My clients trust me and I am able to earn an honest wage.

I have reflected before in my posts about my life.   I was born when TV was invented and went to school when a slide rule was used for calculations.  I worked in physics when IBM punch cards were the standard program, and bought one of the first CPM computers that were made.  I wonder if any kid today would know what a "C>" means?

I had a bit of television experience, when I still believed that TV could be used for educational purposes.  After Reality TV became the norm, I gave up on that idea.  Then the internet was introduced and I became excited about research and communication again.  However, the baser instincts of civilization soon realized that this was a perfect way to spread hatred and jealously.  Emails changed the construction of language into emojis and Twitter finished it off.  No one seriously thinks about what they write any more.  Grammar and spelling have been abandoned.  Coherent thinking is hard to find, and there is even some dispute among us about what a "fact" is...

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I looked at Facebook.  There are always posts which show a mathematical formula and ask "what is the answer?"  Following this post are comments about how to solve the problem, with nasty comments about who is right and who is wrong.  In the middle of this thread, one of the comments was "Just stop.  Seriously, just stop.  It's math!"

I feel that way.  Facts are facts.  Science is important.  We can evolve and improve the world if we only understand the facts, and interpret the research which science is providing.  There can be no dispute that the carbon in the atmosphere is creating greenhouse effects.  There is no future in fossil fuels or nuclear power.  There are more people on this Earth than any time before in history, and just supplying clean water and the minimum requirement of food for everyone is difficult.  People need education and, when it requires enormous debt to get a degree, the world suffers.

I am an old hippie.  I became aware in the 60's and spent a lot of my time thinking about philosophy, history and cosmology.  I still wonder about my place in the world.  How can I contribute, and what will my life change?  I know it is a simple idea, but being kind and honest is still the best way to help others.  Every person is looking for a little happiness.  Avoid personal judgement.  Help them if you can.  The reward is personal satisfaction in knowing you did the right thing.

So, this post is a modern message in a bottle.  I am sending it out into the universe, hoping that on some distant beach another person will open it and think about their place in life.  If it provides them with a positive thought or encourages them to be happy, then my job is done.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The American Chevalet

Patrick Edwards demonstrating in a museum
When Pierre Ramond published his three volume set, "Masterpieces of Marquetry," in February 1996 I was in Paris.  I did not know that his new work was out, and I stopped by the workshop at the Musee des Arts Decoratif to see what my friends were working on.  As I walked in the staff gave me a round of applause.  This was not the welcome I usually get, so I asked them what was the occasion.

They said that I was included in Volume II of his new publication, on a full page!  I had no idea.  It was amazing to consider that Pierre had included me, and I could not imagine the reason.  They handed me their copy and I read (in French):

'The perpetual transfer of techniques between continents can be illustrated by Patrick Edwards's (sic) equipment...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."

Now, to be clear, this is not exactly correct.  My French is not that good, and Pierre might have not understood me perfectly.  In fact, I built my first "donkey" around 1976, about 15 years before I was invited to ecole Boulle by Pierre.  Also, the photo in the book shows me working at the Timken Museum, in San Diego, in a small didactic gallery workshop I built for public demonstrations.  I am a furniture conservator in private practice, and, although I have worked on several projects for a variety of museums, I have never been employed as a museum conservator.

The most important aspect of this inclusion in Pierre's book is his suggestion that I was in some way responsible for the "chevalet" itself being exported from France to North America.  That is a big compliment for me.

I have been fascinated with marquetry for a long time.  When I discovered the chevalet I realized that it was an unknown tool in this country.  The original tool I saw was in a private collection of a French ebeniste in Los Angeles, and after that I met another French ebeniste working in New York.  But those were the only two people I could find who owned a real chevalet and knew how to use it.

American woodworkers love their tools and most furniture makers I know try to buy as many tools as they can.  However, none of them had such a tool, and I realized that, if it were introduced and understood, it would be adopted as the best way to cut small pieces of marquetry.

That is why I set up a gallery in a public museum, and made a video, in an effort to promote the process of cutting marquetry using such a tool.  After my experience at school in Paris I was convinced more than ever that this tool needed to be made available in my country.

So when Pierre retired from teaching in 2000 I asked his permission to open my own school in San Diego using his methods and designs.  I understood that the only way to make the chevalet popular was to instruct students in its use.  I needed to make them understand how to build a chevalet that fit their body and how to fine tune it and what it can do for them in the field of marquetry.

The First American Chevalet in Production

Since there was no such thing as a chevalet available in this country, I searched around to find a machinist that would agree to make the specialized hardware.  Then I collected all the miscellaneous bolts, screws, chains, washers and nuts to fill out the kit.  I drew up some plans and offered the hardware kit with plans for my students to build their own.

The ONLY American Chevalet in Production

The biggest problem was that most of the students were interested in cutting very small pieces of veneer, not focused on the timber framing work it required to put together such a large wood tool.

I kept selling the kits, but always hoping that I would find a person who wanted to build the tool as a business, thus making it available for the first time in this country.

Dave Clark and his CNC

A few years ago I was at a national woodworking conference in Kansas City and I met David Clark.  He was a retired woodworker and got excited about the prospects of selling American chevalets.  David and I worked together for some time to perfect the design, making it as close as possible to the best French chevalets that I knew were at ecole Boulle.

ASFM is Ready for Students

This year we achieved perfection.  I ordered 5 of the Clark & Company chevalets to install in the American School of French Marquetry.  Along side the original prototype he made, we now offer 6 different sizes of chevalets made by him in addition to the original tools which remain.

All the Wood Parts Ready to Go

Saw Frames: Hardest Part to Make

I no longer offer the hardware kits and blueprints.  I never made any profit selling them and it was always a hassle to keep parts in stock.  I connected Dave with my machinist so he can continue the quality of the hardware along with his wood parts.

Specialized Hardware
He has really spent time setting his shop up to make these tools.  They are finely fitted and sanded, ready to put together.  They all fit in a small box and, since he is located in Missouri, he is central to the country for shipping.  Each kit is custom fitted to the customer's body size and can be put together and ready to cut in a few hours, without any special tools required.

Fits in a Small Wood Box for Shipping

David Clark is located at 2429 NW Ashurst Drive, Lee's Summit, Missouri 64081.  His phone number is 913-486-0344.  His website is Dave Clark Chevalets

Email him at for information.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Stone Age Woodworking Tools??

I have been following Christopher Schwarz's research into early woodworking benches for some time.  I admire his dedication to travel and study Medieval and Roman woodworking tools and benches to understand the history of our craft.

I have been focused during my career on the post Renaissance woodworker, so each time Christopher posts something I am fascinated by the "new" evidence he presents of "old" work.

His post today just stopped me cold.  Never in my imagination did I think that Stone Age people would make something sophisticated using stone tools!  It was normal to think of them throwing spears at mastodons or using rocks to crush bones or something primitive like that.  But to think of them making a mortise or cutting down a large tree with a stone tool?  Not possible.

Just watch this video for your self:  Stone Age Woodworking

Just one question:  When I need to sharpen my stone axe, do I use a water stone or an oil stone???

POSTSCRIPT:  If this interests you just go to YouTube and search for "Primitive Technology."

Friday, April 13, 2018

Pocket Screws

The Gimlet Tool

When dating furniture it is essential to closely examine the clues left behind by the worker and his tools.  The process of shaping and joining wood will always result in some evidence of how it was done.  Over time, newer tools were introduced, and that provides a clear dating feature for students and conservators to understand.

Today I thought I would just show a simple example for collectors who may not have noticed it before.  To me this feature is obvious, but I have been doing this for so long I just take it for granted.  I take satisfaction in knowing that I am educating clients as I point out tool marks and dating methods so that they can gain a new appreciation of what they own.

Years ago I posted on the history of the screw (search: "Respect The Screw").  Today I want to continue that thought by discussing the gimlet.

The gimlet tool was a staple of every woodworker's tool box.  It looked rather like an old fashioned cork screw, in that it had a wood handle attached to a long metal shaft with a screw tip.  Since all the screws made before 1846 were blunt it was necessary to start the hole first with a gimlet.  This would create the screw tap for the blunt screw to get started.

When pointed screws became available the gimlet lost its function and sat abandoned in the bottom of the tool box.

However, something else happened at the same time.  The gimlet tip (a pointed screw) was added to the twist bit on the drill.  Instead of the blunt spoon bit or spur bit shape the gimlet pointed twist bit became quickly popular, since the gimlet actually helped to pull the twist bit into the wood.

Post 1850 Gimlet Tip Twist Bit

One application of this new twist bit was how it changed the method for installing "pocket screws."

I am using the term "pocket screw" here knowing it is a modern term.  Today a pocket screw device is rather common among modern cabinetmakers who use it to fasten face plates to kitchen cabinets, among other uses.  It is actually a continuation of the method developed centuries ago for installing a screw on a 90 degree joint.

Before 1850 the only way to install a screw on a corner was to use a gouge chisel and carve a "U" shaped entry.  First the proper distance from the edge of the wood was marked with a scribe, depending on the size of the screw.  That would allow a flat chisel to cut into the wood, leaving a surface for the screw head.  At the same time the gouge would be used to clean out the wood allowing for the "turn screw" (the traditional name for the "screw driver") to properly reach the screw.

This is what it looks like:

Before 1850
Many workers were quite careful to make this look clean and proper, even though it was never used on outside, finished show surfaces:

This Worker was Skilled and Proud of His Work
After the gimlet bit drill became popular the method of attaching screws changed.  The drill was used to create a hole in the wood and the screw was then introduced on the edge.  It was perhaps quicker, but it made it more difficult for the screw driver to properly approach the screw.  On this photo you can see the slight marks left on the edge of the hole by my screw driver as I removed and then re attached the screw:

Note the Center Mark left by the Gimlet Point
Normally, I find this feature common on furniture made around the time of the Civil War.  Old traditional workers did not abandon their methods over night and it is possible to find the chisel method used even after the Civil War.

This is an interesting example I found on an 18th century Philadelphia walnut drop leaf table.  Although the original screws were chiseled in as usual, some later repairs were made and the new screws were let in with a gimlet bit.  Perhaps not the best method for repairing pre industrial furniture, but still this photo provides a learning experience:

Don't Do This to Period Furniture, Please.

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.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Eastlake Settee Upholstery

Not Enough Springs and Badly Tied

Dead Foam on Old Cotton on Plant Fibre with Original Edge

Three Days on the Bench for Structural Repairs

More Springs Added and Tied 8 Knot Italian Cord

Original Plant Fibre Edge Back in Place with Burlap

Original Hair Stuffed Arms and Back Panels Conserved

New Horsehair Added for Seat Foundation

Burlap Covers Hair

Front Edge Stitched to Hold Hair

Muslin Covers New Seat Foundation

50/50 Cotton Batting Covers Muslin

Eastlake Sette Ready for New Century of Use

Monday, March 19, 2018

What is the Future of the Past?

My copy of the Center Table in the White House

I remember very clearly watching on television (in black and white) as Jackie Kennedy gave a tour of the White House.  She walked slowly and elegantly from room to room, saying "This is the Blue Room" and "This is the Red Room".  However, on my television it was up to my imagination which was which.

As she stood in the center of the Blue Room and discussed the mahogany center table with white marble top I fell in love with antiques.  Love at first sight.  They spoke to me.  Not as something "dated" or "out of fashion" but instead I had the insight that they were "new" and "modern" when Dolly Madison stood in the same room.

The period of American history between Madison (and the burning of the White House by the British) and Monroe is rich with great design, and artists and craftsmen produced objects as fine as anything in Europe.  America was guided by the strong impression that it was the New World and appropriated design elements from Egypt, Greece and Rome, as they were transmitted to our shores from Italy, France and England by way of Napoleon.  In fact, I contend that the Napoleonic era produced the first purely politically engineered international design: Empire.  In the centuries before Napoleon the designs are always associated with the King (Louis XIV, XV, Queen Anne, etc.) or the designer (Chippendale, Hepplewhite, etc.)

It was Napoleon who dreamed of World Conquest and his love of the ancient world powers and their influence drove him to export the first truly International Style.  It was under his direction that expeditions were sent to Egypt to return with new designs,  as well as incorporating the symbols of Rome (stars, eagles, lions, etc) and Greece (acanthus, classic proportions, etc.)

All of this influence was found in the New World, culminating with President Monroe issuing the famous Monroe Doctrine during his term.  He was saying that America was powerful and would protect the entire hemisphere from any "foreign" influence.  Imagine a young country, in its first generation of existence, declaring that it would stand up to nations which had existed for many centuries.

All of this bravado and new money was reflected in the furnishings of that time.  Ship loads of ancient Cuban mahogany were delivered in all the Eastern seaports, from Charleston to Portsmouth and worked by skilled furniture makers into elegant designs where no expense was spared.  Carving was everywhere, rich veneers were carefully selected and highly polished, imported French gilt bronze mounts were added, all in the fashionable Empire taste, but with an American flavor.

I have been collecting and researching objects from this period for 50 years.  I have watched the market rise and fall, depending on the whims of fancy.  I collect because I want to understand the culture and society which created these forms and lived with them every day.  I have whale oil Argand lamps, candelabra with gilt bronze frames, girandole convex mirrors, coin silver service, klismos chairs, Recamier sofas, console tables with marble statuary,  and polished mahogany everywhere.  That's just in the living room.  In the bedroom my wife and I sleep in a mahogany bedstead with Doric columns and a silk canopy that nearly touches the ceiling at 10 feet tall.  The mattress is so far off the floor we use bed steps to climb in at night.

During the 1960's, when I started collecting antiques, they were often found in thrift stores.  The market for antiques was not well developed, and the true antique stores were run by educated dealers who focused on Old Masters, and furniture made before the Empire period.  Wallace Nutting, who wrote Furniture Treasury in the 1920's was a great influence on these dealers, and often said he believed that the furniture made after 1800 was "degraded" and "inferior" to what had been made earlier.

Mr. Dupont, who furnished over 100 rooms in his house at Winterthur, had the same belief.  He wanted nothing to do with Empire furniture, and it is only after his death that objects from this period were acquired by the museum.  I can take pride in the fact that I had a Quervelle sideboard in my dining room years before Winterthur acquired theirs.  (And mine is better!)

As nearly everyone in the business knows, the market for antiques has suffered since 2008.  It is now at rock bottom.  I have had several collectors in recent years just give me antiques, rather than toss them out.  Just this past week I was given an 18th century marquetry French commode with original marble top.  The marble top alone is worth thousands of dollars (in a good market).

What has caused this and where do we go from here?

The New York Times (March 8) had a full page article, "How Low Will the Market Go?" discussing recent trends in collecting.  It mentions that "prices for average pieces are now '80 percent off'" from 15 years ago.  This is in fact true.  It is certainly a buyer's market, just like it was in the 1960's when I started collecting.

In general, the antiques market is funded by real estate equity.  As home values rise and people move up in the market, they spend money on interior furnishings, like carpets, kitchens, and furniture.  For the same reasons that buying real estate was a good idea, buying high quality antiques was understood as a good investment.

Several factors convened after the crash to change this attitude.  Many home owners were upside down in equity and forced to abandon their homes or sell at a significant loss.  Selling antiques is not always easy in a good market, but in a bad market it is nearly impossible, as high quality furnishings are usually purchased with discretionary money.

Nearly all antique dealers keep surplus inventory in a storage unit, waiting to be put on the floor as merchandise moves.  Rather than put a "50% off Sale" banner in the window, these dealers kept the retail prices as long as possible and dumped large quantities of good inventory into auction houses directly from their storage units.  This flooded the market at a time when there were no buyers, plunging the values across the board.

Investors who held large collections began to sell off their antiques into this market, and began to get new appraisals of their market value to determine a price.  Since appraisers are required to include the most recent "comps" the values indicated by the current auction sales were dramatically low, compared to what the same pieces were appraised at 20 years earlier.

Due to the falling value of antiques there was little incentive for any collector to keep collecting.

There are also other factors, less obvious, which contributed to the lack of interest in antiques.  Most importantly the dealers themselves ruined the market.  There are no real qualifications to be an antique dealer, and many dealers were either ignorant of what they were selling or (even worse) happy to fraudulently represent their inventory as something else to close the sale.  Fakes were easy to make and made up a large portion of the market.

The gradual transformation of the business from a dealer owned store (with his valued reputation on the line) to that of the "Antique Mall" store also made it easier to sell fakes and junk, since there was no individual "dealer" to account for selling merchandise that is damaged, modified or fake. In fact, the "Antique Mall" format, with one person managing the booths, became a real alternative to sellers keeping their inventory in storage lockers.  Rather than pay for a storage locker, it was cheaper to store their "vintage" inventory in a booth at the Mall.

Nothing is more depressing to a knowledgeable antique collector than walking through one of these Malls, looking for the jewel in the junk.

Another factor in the demise of the market is the failure of the workers in the furniture restoration business to do the right thing.  Again, there are no real requirements for a person to call himself a "restorer" and too many workers use sheet rock screws, nails, epoxy, modern glues and finishes and Bondo to get the job done.

I have two prices for work brought into my shop.  One is for the damage which has not been previously repaired.  The other is for the damage which was done by an amateur and requires me to undo his damage before I can address the original problem.

Don't get me started on Gorilla Glue!

Patrice Lejeune Conserving Boulle Table Top

A good example of how poor conservation can affect value is with Boulle.  Boulle work is made of metals and tortoise shell and other non wood surface decoration which is glued to a solid wood substrate.  The only glue which is properly used in Boulle work is fish glue.  Fish glue allows for the expected expansion and contraction of the substrate to occur over time, but keeps the marquetry in place.  When lifting happens, as it always does, most repair men reach for epoxy or even small nails to make the repair.  In fact, by fixing spots of the surface to the substrate with nails or epoxy, the situation is made worse, as new areas will therefore life during subsequent wood movement.

There are very few qualified conservators in America who can properly restore Boulle work and thus the market suffers.

To compound this problem, C.I.T.I.E.S. regulations have made buying and selling antiques which contain tortoise shell, rosewood, Cuban mahogany, ivory, and hundreds of other endangered materials complicated.  The rules are not complete and not clear as to what is legal and what is not. To protect themselves, many sellers who list online are presenting ivory as "bone" and tortoise shell as "horn".  It is very easy to list rosewood as "walnut."  This situation makes it difficult for buyers to actually know what they are getting.

Another question which is universal in this business is "What is the legal definition of an Antique?"
When the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was passed in 1930 it did two things: it was partially responsible for the Great Depression, and it defined Antiques (for duty free importation) as "made before 1830.  This was the original concept which I followed when I started collecting.  1830 represented a general date for the "end" of hand work and the "start" of the Industrial Revolution.

By 1966 the antiques industry was lobbying Congress to revise the act, and Lyndon Johnson signed legislation which changed the definition from "before 1830" to "100 years old."  Instantly all the Victorian furniture made between 1830 and 1866 became "antique."  This created a rush to collect mid 19th century stuff and the excitement of antiques lasted well past the BiCentennial.

Now the date is changing again.  According to the NYT article: "Even New York's prestigious Antiques Show has changed its rules.  Founded in 1955, the show once required that exhibited pieces be at least 100 years old.  In 2009, the organizers and dealer committee changed the cutoff date to 1969 to include mid century objects.  In 2016, they removed the date restriction entirely, paving the way for contemporary design."

 This evolution of the concept of "antique" has completely changed the market.  According to the article, "Custom made pieces by living designer-artisans have 'become 70 to 80 percent of our business'...Indeed, a recent survey 1stdibs commissioned found that professional interior designers used about 65 percent contemporary products in their projects last year, and only 35 percent vintage."

I have been aware of this trend during my career.  In addition to antique furniture conservation, I make and sell museum quality copies of historic pieces.  I have had no difficulty finding a market, at very good prices, for my creations.  I am a living artisan and my work will stand the test of time.

Louis Philippe Tilt Tables Made by Living Artisan

Not so much for those who experiment with modern materials to make their furniture.  Just like Jackson Pollack's paintings are decomposing after 50 years, much of the contemporary furniture is failing to stand up over the years.  In the same section the NYT has another article, "When Furniture Fails the Test of Time."  The opening paragraph states: "One famous designer chair is oozing goop.  Another has exploded into puffs of foam.  A bookcase's shelves bubbled as gases formed within.  The culprits?  Plastic.  And time."

Modern furniture is often toxic, and unstable.  And not easily repairable.  Long after the foam rots and the plastic melts and the catalyzed finish cracks, the Cuban mahogany table with its protein glue and shellac finish will still stand proud and handsome.

Finally, I would like to explain, from my perspective, the current fashion for mid century furniture.  In fact, I am "mid century" being born in 1948 and grew up with this stuff.  Most of my education in the field of antiques was gained from books and travel.  Today, much of the information is gathered from videos, movies and the internet.  What is the material you see most often?  Stuff from the last 50 years.  Young people associate with recent events and have a nostalgia for the culture of the last half century.

Therefore, I have changed my "pitch" about antiques when approached by a new collector.  Antiques are "green" and have no carbon footprint.  The raw material was harvested from ancient forests by human and animal power, transported across oceans by wind power,  sawn into rough lumber by water power and worked into the final form by human hands.  All the materials used were organic and non toxic.  To conserve them and restore them is the ultimate form of recycling.

On the other hand, much of modern furnishings use toxic materials and industrial power and have a huge carbon footprint as a result of transportation by truck or cargo ship.  In addition, modern furniture has, by its very nature, a very limited shelf life and will need to be replaced frequently.

I "retired" from my early career in Nuclear Physics when I realized that nuclear waste will endanger our existence on this planet.  I choose to restore antiques as a personal mission to save something important from the past.

I want to thank Jackie Kennedy for pointing me in the right direction.

Jackie Kennedy White House Tour

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Funny Folk Art Fake Discovered

This article from M.A.D. came across my screen yesterday.  I found it very interesting.

Civil War Secretary

If you search this blog you will find other posts on fakes.  In particular, you should review the post "When is a Fake Antique?"

Unless the museum actually destroys this piece it will become an antique one day.

It is certainly curious and should have been more carefully examined by the "experts."  Unfortunately, the "experts" who are working in the field these days gained most of their experience through books, papers and professional presentations by others.

After standing at the bench and restoring antiques for 50 years you gain considerable insight.