Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Splendid Early 20th Century Carved Walnut Chair

For Europeans, the standard age of an "antique" piece of furniture begins at 150 years; Americans begin calling a 100 year old piece an antique. (Some even call anything earlier than 1970 an "antique" actually). For me, I have a personal bias against most machine-made furniture, and therefore think an antique piece was made before most aspects of furniture making were done by machinery; which would be around the 1840's. I generally do not pay much attention to furniture made after that time period, as I usually consider it of inferior quality. This is a prejudiced view, however, and is also hypocritical, as it would, by definition of age, render worthless the things that I, and several other outstanding cabinetmakers that I know, create. I was recently confronted with a piece of furniture which made me reexamine my bias and realise it was just that; an arbitrary notion based on assumptions. 

The item which I am referring to is a chair which a client, who met me at my show in Waterford, Virginia, brought to my shop for restoration earlier this spring. Two things were immediately obvious, even before any thorough examination of the chair took place; the first was that it was early 20th century, the second was that it was produced by a craftsman with phenomenal skills!  

Broken corner of the chair leg

Even though the chair was thick with a terrible coat of varnish and had been badly treated by a previous "restorer", the chair was still  extremely beautiful both for its proportions, and for its meticulously wrought carving.

A healthy percentage of my income is generated from the restoration of antique, and some not so 'antique' furniture. This post will be dedicated to the subject of restoration; primarily to showcase this exceptional chair.

Antiques have been a part of my life, for as long as I had a life to be a part of. I grew up with pieces of furniture ranging from the 15th to the early 20th century. The notion that modern furniture was rubbish entered my head via my grandmother's, and through her, to some degree, my mother's opinions. I remember, as a young kid, going to antique sales a few times with my grandmother, who was quite avid in spotting all the fakes and forgeries; or at least she was in her own mind. I was too young to know if she knew what she was talking about or not, but a couple of my earliest lessons which I remember from before I was 10, were that boots do not wear out table stretchers in such a way as to leave a series of facets, (as would be produced by a drawknife) nor do chains and nails replicate the genuine wear of time.

Somehow, my grandmother's love of antiques must have rubbed off on me, and I have been interested in them my whole life. I also love restoring them for the educational value of the excercise. No better teacher can be found for learning how fine (and sometimes not so fine) furniture was made in previous centuries, than by being able to turn it upside down and inside out.

As usually happens when I do restoration work, I started working on this chair before thinking about getting the camera out to take pictures. I did manage to take a couple pictures of it to send to the client, and that gave me the idea to take enough pictures to feature this chair on the blog. It was not a hard decision, because, though the chair is from the Turn of the Century, the carving is as fine as one could ever hope to come across. Truly whomever produced this piece was a master at his craft.

The saddest part of the condition of this chair was the "repair" of the arm.
The screw was too long and broke out the carving. (Beside the fact that it
did not actually hold anything together.)

The work needed to repair the chair was not a lot, but the biggest problem was that the previous person who had worked on it, somehow managed to break the arm and then tried to fix it with Gorilla Glue and a drywall screw. The two halves were not properly aligned and the screw broke out a piece of the arm. Needless to say, the owner was sickened by the whole affair. Last year at my show, she happened upon my booth, and after talking with me, decided I might be able to rescue the chair. I will let you be the judge, based on the evidence I present.

The rags and string are to absorb the material used to strip the finish.
The arrows point out some of the "dots" broken off when the previous
person removed the upholstery.

Showing the finish ready to be removed

I have developed a process of getting the finish to shrivel and come loose from the wood without the need of lots of sloppy stripping materials or liquid scrubbing. The result is that the finish is removed, but the colour and grain sealers remain.

Gluing the arm back together

Once I had the finish stripped and the arm repaired, I invited the client back to discuss the finish. I had scrubbed a corner of one arm with a brush containing wax, and realised that that was the only finish the chair really needed, but decided to let her see it and determine if she concurred; she did.

Three of the 14 "dots" which were broken off.

Somehow, I forgot to take a picture of this once I
had chiseled out the area for the new wood but the
red lines indicate approximately the area removed.
This block was a guide to help achieve a square cut.

The replacement part; made from the same kind of wood as the original.
Look carefully to see the 'leg' which was carved out from a thicker
piece of wood.

Showing the bit of fielding which had to be cut into the side
of the replacement piece.

The offset 'leg' which was made by cutting away material; not gluing on
an additional block.

The finished replacement corner.

Another problem was that when the previous person removed the old upholstery, he broke off several of the little 'dots' on the border. My client was gracious enough to watch me do some of the repair work, and take pictures as I did so. It is my thanks to her for the following series of pictures of me working. (It is very hard to take pictures of ones self whilst they are cutting or carving something.)

Making new 'dots'; step 1 - a piece of walnut cut to the correct thickness

Step 2; rounding one side with a chisel.

Step 3; marking the pin with a marking gauge.

Step 4; splitting along the line made with the gauge.

Step 5; shaving the other side round with a chisel.

Step 6: 'doming' the end.

Step 7; checking the diameter.

Step 8: trimming the diameter slightly.

Step 9: cutting to length.

Step 10; Shaving a it will go more easily into the hole

Step 11; the finished pin, ready to install

Step 12; Installing the pins

Once all the parts were in place, I sealed the new bits with a couple coats of shellac, then gave the entire chair two good coats of wax.

Finished chair showing the same three pins

Three more of the replacement 'dots'

I chose to replace the 'dots' with end grain pins because glued on little tiny pieces would have been prone to breaking back off easily.

Finished Chair; ready for upholstery
(apologies for the poor picture; I should have 
taken it outdoors.)
I have an upholsterer who I have been using 
for more than 15 years. He did an excellent job
of building a new seat and covering the entire
chair in calico (muslin, for American readers).  

The most interesting part of this chair story, however, is that the client loves to do embroidery and will be making the coverings for this chair. She plans to use the floral sprays from the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series in the Cluny as her inspiration for the fabric. I cannot wait to see that finished. I will put an update to this post once it is complete.

Floral sprays from the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.
She will probably not include the rabbit, but I think he is cute

1 comment:

  1. The chair was purchased from Antiques Revival in Big Flats, NY several years. There were a number of problems with the chair, i.e. the arms had been broken off at some point and glued back on the frame, the chair itself was wobbly and the fabric on the chair was unattractive. But the carving on the chair was the work of a true craftsman and I hoped to have the chair's problems repaired. I took it to a restoration shop in Manassas, VA and the work there resulted in the damage you can see in one of the photos above. It made me so heart sick that I could not look at the chair. Later in the year, while walking through the Waterford Festival grounds, I happened on Johann display of handcrafted furniture and as I spoke with him I began to think that he could repair the chair. As you can see in the above photos, he not only repaired all the damage to the chair but actually improved the wood so much so that it is a joy to look at. My gratitude to such a fine craftsman!