Monday, April 13, 2020

Three Centuries After A.C.Boulle

Boulle Work

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.

Beyond Repair?

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.

Epoxy Failure

Another more recent problem is that the material itself (tortoise shell) is a controlled substance, listed on the C.I.T.I.E.S convention.  This means that it is not possible to purchase or transport across country borders.  I have been in business for over 50 years and have a good stock of shell which I purchased years before it became a problem.  There is also the possibility to recycle used pieces of damaged shell from furniture that is beyond repair.

Nails Damage the Surface
Animal Horn, Hawksbill and Green Turtle Shell

Recycled Scraps of Antique Tortoiseshell

In our shop we use thermal fax paper to capture the shape of the missing element and then find a suitable scrap of matching shell.  With the French chevalet we are able to cut the proper piece to fill the hole in the surface.

Thermal Fax Paper with Tortoise shell Elements

Match The Repair Element Above with These Losses
Patrice Lejeune at Work

Once the surface is stabilized and properly glued down the cleaning can begin.  There is a unique French product which is designed to clean oxidized brass and polish shell.  It is called "Eau Japonaise" and is slightly acidic.  You use cheese cloth and this product to clean the surface.  The results are dramatic.

Before and After Cleaning
Always Dramatic Results!
Final Cleaning

Several months ago Patrice and I received a call from a client who wanted us to restore their boulle table.  We travelled some 50 miles up into the mountains and down a long dirt road where they met us and took us to a large open barn.  Inside the barn, along with other household goods, was an amazing boulle center table from the Napoleon III period.  It had sat there for decades, exposed to the dirt and heat, without protection.  It also had a finish which was very damaged and not original.

The biggest problem with it was that all the shell elements were dry and blistered and falling off.

Before Restoration

Apron Before Conservation
Wrong Key and Keyplate

Sitting in Open Barn

Gilt Bronze Mounts with Horrible Modern Finish

We were asked how much it would cost to restore this table.  Before I could provide a proper response, I wanted to know if they were going to keep it or try to sell it.  They indicated they wanted to sell it.  Therefore, I advised them to offer it at a low price and sell it without any further investment.  The only way it makes sense  economically is that the person who wants to own this poor thing to be the person to invest in its restoration.  Further the restoration must be done professionally or not at all.

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

It took several months of very precise and tedious work to stabilize the surface.  In addition it involved cutting and fitting elements of missing brass and shell.   When the boulle surface was ready it was time to scrub off the modern finish and polish the brass.  This took a month of work to clean using acetone and Scotch scrubbing pads.

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!

Happy Days


John Collicott said...

Truly a remarkable and recognizable accomplishment! Not my kind of furniture (too expensive I guess), but I can certainly appreciate the beauty and the skill for the original. I suspect the amount of work and skill to restore this piece would be equally appreciated by the original craftsman or craftsmen. Surely it is as difficult to restore as to build it afresh.


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent story, thank you for sharing it with us.

Andy Rae said...

Amazingly good, and so good to see good work restored to it's former beauty. A once-in-a-lifetime performance, Pat! Kudos to you and that motley gang of cleverness.

joseph vercillo said...

The whole story, start to finish, is wonderful. Thank you for posting this Patrick.

Jeremy said...

What an amazing table. Will the polished brass stay shiny indefinitely under the polished finish?