Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Spectacular Find of Late 6th Century Furniture

A couple weeks, ago, whilst reading various topics related to the peoples of Europe at the beginning of the Medieval Period, I stumbled upon a picture of a small table which was found in a grave in Trossingen, a town in south-western Germany, renowned today for the harmonica. I was immediately transfixed by the picture, and began looking for more information about the table and where it came from. I actually found quite a bit about it on the internet, but almost all in German. Since most of the readers of this blog will be English speaking, I thought it would be good to dedicate this post to sharing this information so that the English speaking world can also share in the fascination of these early artifacts.

A fantastically preserved lathe-turned maple table from
a late 6th century grave in Trossingen, Germany.

I am not sure why someone would be out doing archaeological work in the snow, ice, and rain of winter, but according to the official web page of the Archäologische Landesmuseum, Baden-Württemberg (State Archaeological Museum of Baden-Württemberg), related to this archaeological find, that is precisely what was taking place in the winter of 2001/2. What they uncovered seems to be well worth whatever misery the archaeologist might have encountered whilst conducting their dig.

The treasure they were unearthing was a grave of an unknown person of the upper class of the Alemanni, a Germanic tribe in what is now the state of Baden-Württemberg, in south-western Germany. According to the information on the museum's website, and further reading I did on other websites, the occupant of the grave is believed to have been an approximately 40 year old warrior or knight. This conclusion has been drawn from the fact that he was buried with a shield, lance, sword, riding equipment (saddle and tack etc) and held in his left arm, an unbelievably well preserved lyre with figures of warriors facing one another, depicted on the front.

The lyre alone is an unbelievable find, not least-wise because it is seemingly the best preserved of some 15 similar objects found to date; but also because of the complexity of its construction. (more on that later) However, from the standpoint of this blog, it was an incredible find, overall, for the quantity and quality of all the furnishings found in this grave.

Bear in mind that these items have been undisturbed, in a low mound in the earth, for more than 1400 years. To find a single scrap of wood from that time period is remarkable, but to find whole identifiable pieces of furniture is truly amazing. This preservation was made possible because at some point in time, not long after the entombment of the deceased, the site was flooded, leaving a thick airtight layer of fine clay over the grave. (That must have been a miserable year for the residents of the region!)

The contents of the grave included a chair, a bed which had been cut down and converted into a sarcophagus, a table, a candle stick, and various treen ware, (small household objects made of wood). Because the time of this burial was at the very beginning of the Middle Ages, it is useful to study them for what they can tell us about the evolution of furnishings over the course of the next millennium. What I had already noticed from the 5+ years of research I have been involved in, primarily by examining manuscript illuminations, was the very slow changes which occurred with most forms of furniture during the course of much of the Medieval Period. Though this observation had been largely drawn from the study of medieval artwork, the goods from this grave bear witness to the accurateness of many of my conclusions. 

Lathe turned chair
late 6th century

Beginning with the chair; I will explain some of what I mean. I have already published a couple postings regarding the early medieval history of the chair, and you may refresh your memory here, and in other posts on the blog as well. What this 6th century chair shows, is that from the beginning of the Middle Ages through the 17th century, there was very little fundamental difference in the design of this type of turned chair. The artwork from the 7th century through the 12th, when we again find actual surviving objects, 'fill in' the gap in history, now that we have an actual example at the starting point.

Below are two photographs from a book in my library, written by Victor Chinnery, entitled Oak Furniture, the British Tradition. This is an excellent book and I have read it several times. Mr Chinnery is obviously fascinated with post medieval furniture, so does not touch on pre-16th century topics much, but in his book are several examples which show how medieval designs persisted even after the end of the Middle Ages; now we can see that some of those designs were indeed very long lived!

Turned chair from the late 17th century
Fundamentally, this is the same chair
but with the addition of arms, and
subtle changes in turning forms.

There are some easily observable differences in the two chairs pictured above; the most obvious being the inclusion of arms and a higher back. Other differences would be that the 17th century example has a solid seat, whereas the 6th century one had an "unidentified organic substance" (in other words, most probably, leather) which has not survived, and that the joinery in the earlier version goes right the way through the legs, but the later one has a more conventional "socket" mortise. Additionally, the 17th century chair is narrower at the back, and the turnings are more fluid/less static in form.

Notwithstanding those differences, look at the similarities; the finials to the back are near identical, the lower rung on the front has a double inverted arch form, all four legs are connected by horizontal stretchers near their base, and the back is comprised of round horizontal members filled in with reel shaped turnings, as is the back of the 6th century example.

So-called King Stephen's throne from Hereford Cathedral
This chair is missing several parts, but is overall, in
a good state of preservation.

Now consider another chair, also from Mr Chinnery's book, which he takes great pains to argue the fact that this chair "... may be an archaic product of the 16th century." To be fair, he does cite some possibilities of it being older, and admits that stylistically, it is nearly impossible to pin down to an accurate date. In his world of 16th-18th century furniture, when stylistic changes were taking place every decade or so, he has fallen into the pit of attempting to place a precise date on something which has a form spanning much more than a thousand years. What my research has shown is that throughout the medieval period, styles and even more so, forms, changed very slowly, if at all. As a case in demonstrating the conflict of these two ways of seeing the subject of dating an object, take one of Mr Chinnery's arguments for a later date of the chair, in which he cites the turning of a "circa 1680" candlestand as being "exactly" (he supplied the italics) the same as the turning on the back of the chair in question.

Turned candlestand

I do not have enough knowledge of 17th century furniture to try to argue with him about items from that time period, but I would argue the fact that it is not "exactly" like the candlestand, as the latter has no grooves to the bobbins, and the reels are much smaller on the earlier example. What I will point out, however, is that that the "circa 1680" candlestand does have much closer to the exact same form as the central pier of St Mathew's lectern in the Gospels of Saint-Médard de Soissons from the BNF. (Bibliothèque nationale de France) In fact, this 17th century candlestand would be completely at home in the 7th through 13th centuries, based on the forms of turnings on lecterns, chairs, and candle sticks, as depicted in the manuscripts.

St Mathew, from an early 9th century Gospel book
BNF lat 4450 fol 17v

Going back to the topic of chairs, though, it is also worth noting the similarity of the joinery of the Trossingen example and that of the "unknown dated" 12th century one from Mr Chinnery's book. In both cases, the construction utilises "through tenons'. This type of joinery is observed in all the surviving turned chairs of the 12th and 13th centuries that I know of. This 6th century find informs us that such techniques were already in use at the onset of the Middle Ages.

Other objects from this grave find include a bed, which "has been converted into a sarcophagus". When I first saw this picture, I knew it had been cut down, but thought, "oh, great; now someone is going to think that beds in the 6th century were very narrow." I am glad that the archaeological museum pointed out the fact that it had been re-purposed and altered. It does show more of the same forms of turnings as demonstrated in the chair, and again confirms, as does the turned candlestand and table, from the same grave, of the variety of forms utilised in turned objects. This is especially relevant, because we have actual objects with which to compare the designs illustrated in the medieval manuscripts.

6th century bed, converted to a coffin

Unlike the chair, this bed does not have through mortises. It also has very flat well formed timbers for the side panels. The decorative turnings seem to be sliced off of round turned segments, but look to be much less than true half turnings. Perhaps this is partially because of corrosion and shrinkage caused by the drying process during the post exhumation period. Although much is preserved, a lot has also been lost during these items long interment. One internet article that I found, states that originally, the chair had runic inscriptions on the upper back splat, but they are "worn away, or otherwise so altered" as to be "nearly impossible" to decipher.

Along with these photos from the Archäologische Landesmuseum, Baden-Württemberg, came instructions on the website on how to view high resolution images of some of the objects. In these pictures can be seen a lot more of the details and the remains of decoration, such as incise line carving, and fine groove clusters on the turned objects. Because of long exposure to damp and decay, what is left completely unknown, however, is how these pieces might have been further enhanced by paint, wax, or varnish. Unless things had greatly changed between the end of the 6th century and the end of the 8th, though, based on the miniatures, I would assume they would have been painted, as the people of that time seem to have liked colourful objects.

Oak candlestand 

Of all the forms represented in this group of grave-goods, the most remarkable to me, was that of the foot of this candlestand. As already discussed above, the fact that placing precise dates on objects of unknown provenance is sometimes quite challenging. Look at the base of this candlestand; I am sure that, were it not found with the other grave goods from a date-able period, most appraisers would give it a 14th or 15th century date, on account of the foot. Compare it to the foot of this 14th century ewer.

Ewer from the Copenhagen Museum 1st quarter,14th century

There are many other revelations from this grave find, and many questions which the finds raise. Some of the additional details worth mentioning are the fact that of the collection of more than 11 wooden objects found in this grave, only one was made of oak. (The timbers which formed the roof of the grave were also of oak.) That object was the candlestand. The chair is made of maple and ash, the bed is made of beech, and the table of maple. Other wooden objects include a spear with a shaft of hazel, a shield of alder, a bowl made from poplar and a turned and carved canteen of maple "burl wood". In fact, if the goods in this grave are anything to go on, maple, not the generally accepted oak, was the preferred medieval timber for furniture at this time.

The canteen would fall high on the list of questions which this find begs an answer for. It is made of a large chunk of wood, turned round on the face, but leaving some area from which to carve the handles and spout. In the rear, a separate plate has been fashioned to allow the centre of the object to be hollowed out. What fascinates me, is the question of what method the maker would have used to attach that plate in a 'beer-tight' manner. (it apparently held barley beer) To be watertight is a good achievement, but beer would pose an additional problem of pressure from a fermented drink, and therefore, whatever means was used to adhere the plate would have needed to be even stronger than would be required for water alone.

Turned and carved canteen
The process of drying out items left damp for more than 1400 years has
caused a lot of distortion to the original shape of these objects.
Notice how out of flat and round this opening now is, though it would
have been originally quite properly round due to the fact that it was
turned on a lathe.

Based on the fact that the internet is chock-a-block with pictures of people making all sorts of reconstructions of it, for the average person, the most remarkable object from this find is the lyre. This, too, presents some serious challenges to our contemporary notions of early medieval craftsmanship. There is a good article about this object on Wikipedia but it is in German, so English speakers beware. According to this information, and from the observation of additional photos not provided by the museum, the body of this lyre is made of a solid piece of maple between 11 and 20 mm thick and hollowed out to form the sound box. (it tapers toward the yoke) It is then covered over with a second plate of wood which forms the 'top' or cover, and ranges from a thickness of 1 to 6 mm. This is coming from the time when most people assume everything was carved out of a log with an axe. It must have been one fine axe wielding artist who was able to craft this instrument. Additionally, the top was originally only affixed with glue, but a later repair was made in which 5 tiny nails were used on the right lower edge. This too sounds exactly like the generally held view of life in 'the dark ages'.

In all, the finds from this grave site should give reason for most people to seriously question their notions of life, even in the earliest part, of the Middle Ages. This was a group of people outside the primarily romanised Gaul, Spain, and Italy or the sphere of the Eastern Roman Empire, yet these people had the ability to turn a 550 mm table-top on a lathe, cut comb teeth from a deer's antler, with a saw,  and make a wooden canteen with a water-tight glued on side. As I have said before, people have always had skills, and craftsmen have been producing fine objects in every century of human existence.

End view of the lyre showing the separate top. The bridge is made of willow.
What is not very clear from this view, is the incised decoration of the top,
which included "Celtic" knot-work and two groups of 6 warriors facing
each other.The thickness of this entire instrument is thinner than a modern
violin. In the background, a man is holding a modern replica.
Wikipedia photo
Note; all pictures from the museum are used with permission of Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg, and were taken by Manuela Schreiner, unless otherwise specified.

Videre Scire

Sunday, June 21, 2015

To Ornament or not; Part II - The cost of things

From time to time, reading books on furniture, I come across comments such as this one from Percy Macquoid's Age of Oak; "For the purpose of comparison, we give in Fig. 34 a French walnut credence of about the same date;'[1520]'being foreign, and therefore more advanced in style..."

The general idea is usually the same; that this or that craftsman was inferior to some other craftsman, or the collective artisans of another region or country. Though this idea always tries to show one work, or group of works, as superior to another, because of quality of construction, ornament, or both, perhaps we should question the possibility of other factors which might account for the varying degrees of refinement found in furniture? To be sure, there have, and always will be, more and less skilled tradesmen, but that might not be the only factor leading to one historical piece being plain and simply adorned, (or not at all) whilst another piece, from the same time period, might be much more decorative or well constructed. Did anyone consider that perhaps the factor of money might have had just a little bit of something to do with it as well?

In this post, we will examine how economic circumstances might have played a large role in the ornamentation and quality of furniture and furnishing. "Economic circumstances" can be thought of in two different aspects. The first being the economy of the region in which the artist is practicing his trade; the second would be the amount of money which a patron or client might have felt he was willing to spend on the project.

9th or 10th century Cover of a Gospel Book from Mainz
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek clm 4451

Some regions, flush with trade, industry, or natural resources, would naturally have a wealthier economy than other areas which might have primarily relied on an agrarian livelihood. I have recently been reading about the histories of Mainz and Passsau, in Germany, and how their differing circumstances shaped the outcome of those two cities. (Not a single work, and I am the one drawing a comparative connection.) Perhaps the consideration of their developments can give us some anecdotal examples of the difference a region's economy might play on the objects produced in them.

The city of Passau, from an etching ca. 1572

Passau was apparently founded earlier both by the Celtic/Germanic tribes, and re-founded at an earlier date than that of Mainz, by the Romans. Both cities were important outposts in the Roman system of frontier fortifications and both had a strong local economy in the "Migration Period" (Völkerwanderungszeit) following the "collapse" of the Roman Empire. Both cities were governed by local kings in the 6th and 7th centuries and both served as local centres of trade and industry. Though the second never became a great city, nor did the first fade into oblivion, during the first half of the Medieval period, they did have markedly different fates.

Like so many other things these two cities held in common, both of them were invested with a "Bishop's seat" (in other words, a regional centre of ecclesiastical-political power) in the 8th century. The primary distinction which made Mainz one of the most politically powerful cities in the Holy Roman Empire, from the 9th to the 17th centuries was the fact that, unlike Passau, it was granted an archbishopric.

The city of Mainz, from an etching, ca. 1572
Now this was a beautiful city. (Global urbanization and overcrowding; look and weep for what you lost.)

Already in the 9th century, Mainz was an immensely important centre, and in the context of my primary interest of furniture and furnishings, was involved in a highly skilled and sophisticated industry of the production of ivory panels, boxes, and other items made from that material. Because the raw material required for that trade was so dear, it is obvious that a large amount of wealth attended that city. In addition, archbishops were not generally known for their spartan lifestyles. The artisans of Mainz must have enjoyed a pool of well funded, and generous patrons, and the artworks which can be positively identified as originating there, reflect this.

On the other hand, Passau, as a more ordinary city, had a more ordinary set of clients; not much of  any particular renown came from the place before the 13th century, when it began to be known for its superior metal-works. This seems mostly to be a case of "money and power begets more of the same", and thus Mainz was a city which grew in power and prestige. By the 10th century the Archbishop of Mainz had gained the position as the most influential of the 7 Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. (The guy in charge of the Holy Roman Empire.)

We do not know what great craftsmen of wood and other forms of furnishings might have plied their trades in the city, as their memories have all faded to dust, but it seems to be a safe bet that they would have had a similar level of skill to the book illuminators and ivory artisans, already mentioned, whose works are still known to us. In the circles of art history, you will find reference to "the School of Mainz". I have no idea if there was an actual "art school" as we would think of the term now, this phrase more broadly speaks of the artistic taste, style, and level of skill emanating from the artistic workshops of Mainz and her nearby monasteries etc. This same idea is again repeated in the loosely defined term of "School of Florence" in the context of the birth of the Renaissance art of the 13th and early 14th centuries, under the leadership of such prominent artists as Cimabue and Giotto.

I have mentioned these two cities, not because they were of any particular significance, as compared to other medieval cities of Germany, but simply because I had been reading about them, and their evolution over the course of the Middle Ages. Most histories of places do not include much at all with regard to the craftsmen and trades practiced within a city, unless it was of significant importance, or of far reaching impact. Neither of these towns fit that bill, until the 13th century when Passau began to be renowned for fine blades and weapons. Doubtless, this would have included tools for other trades as well, but since society seems always to have had an insatiable appetite for all things martial, weaponry gets most of the attention, whilst more useful tools are completely ignored. (Though many illuminated manuscripts were produced in Mainz, other cities, such as Hidesheim, Echternach, St. Gallen, and Reichenau, were actually much more renowned for their books.)

Speaking on the topic of what was more finely produced in one place, than in another; at the beginning of this article I mentioned a quotation from Percy Macquoid, an English author and antiques enthusiast. who wrote at the beginning of the 20th century. His primary focus was on English furniture, and he, like so many others of his time, had been steeped in the notion which was prevalent in his day; namely that almost everything produced before the Renaissance was backwards and primitive - especially in England. (Actually this notion persists to this day, bolstered to a large degree by the writings of Mr Macquoid and other of his contemporaries.)

One of those contemporaries was Herbert Cescinsky, who also wrote an History of English Furniture. A quotation from his book will show the prejudiced notions which he held. His treatise on furniture begins with the "middle of the 13th century", and speaking about a chest of questionable date, he states; "This type of chest persisted well beyond the fourteenth, to the early fifteenth century' [there is such a huge difference in time here] '...but here the top and uprights are scratch moulded, a sure indication of the fifteenth century. The wood here is not left rough from the saw, but is dubbed smooth, and with a plane, not the adze."

In this statement, and others in his book as well, Mr Cescinsky is assuming that any sort of moulding or working with planes could not possibly have come from before the end of the 14th century. He is basing his opinion on the general notions of his time, and by the examination of an handful of extant chests from some parish churches around England. Whilst it is true that those other 13th century chests he cites in his book are quite plain, on cannot judge the appearance of all furniture produced in an entire country over the course of 100 years (referring here to the 14th century) by examining six, or even 60 individual pieces.

Something I find quite intriguing in these two men's notions, is the obvious contrast from their prevailing views, with that of the 13th century Coronation Chair of Westminster Abbey. One would think that these two men surely knew of its existence, yet it is quite clear from its decoration, that the level of skill executed in its construction was far superior to their notions of the English cabinetmaker's trade of that time. Furthermore, there are other existing 13th century English creations, such as the choir stalls of Lincoln and Chester cathedrals which bear the same degree of skill in their craftsmanship, and demonstrate the use of planes, both for smoothing and for moulding.

1296 Coronation Chair of King Edward I
Though much damaged by seven hundred years of abuse,
this chair (with a 17th century replacement base, possibly
patterned after the original) still shows a high degree
of skill and craftsmanship. 

In Mr Macquoid's book, which begins with the end of the 15th century, as already quoted, he makes several comparisons of English and French work, with the intent of showing the English craftsmen's work to be of inferior quality to that of their French contemporaries. I would suggest that this chair gives rise to the validity of seriously questioning that notion. It would be a long and complicated undertaking, but I am quite certain that one could make a comparison of the general economy of France and England in the 14th and 15th centuries and find that that of France was in much better condition than England's. Perhaps it would be safe to assume that those persons purchasing furnishings, on average, also had less money to spend on their goods.

Many people seem to have some generally held belief that craftsmen used to work at their trade always according to their ability, making each piece as best they knew how; if a surviving piece of theirs is of poor quality, the commonly held assumption is that the maker did crude or primitive work and was incapable of producing finer quality goods. This is about as accurate, in the context of history, as it would be today. There is a much more powerful medium which, to a great degree, effects the sophistication of objects which an artisan produces; it is called money.

Just like today, people who made things in the Middle Ages, usually did not do it for altruistic purposes. In fact, today we have the concept of an hobby, in which people spend long hours making things which they never could possibly sell for anything close to the value of the time spent on them, but this idea was largely unknown in medieval times. If an artist was involved in the production of something, it was his means of earning a livelihood. Though artists were admonished to do the work to the best of their ability, as God would be the ultimate judge of their efforts, (see the introduction to Il Libro dell' Arte for an example of this) this was in the context of what they were being paid to produce. A simple box made of six pieces of timber can be well made if the pieces are properly cut to length and planed to a uniform thickness; likewise, an elaborately carved one whose work is done carelessly and with many mistakes, would be poorly executed and an example of bad craftsmanship.

I just mentioned Il Libro dell' Arte, this is a work by Cennino Cennini, and regardless of what year it was actually published, reflects the methods and materials of the time of Giotto, the master whom Cennini admired, and traced his education back to. From one of his "chapters" (usually one to five short paragraphs) on ornamenting chests, come the following entries; "In executing caskets or chests, if you want to do them royally, gesso them, and follow all the methods which you follow in working on panel, for gilding and for painting and for stamping, embellishing and for varnishing,"

"If you want to execute other caskets of less worth, size them first, and lay cloth over the cracks, and you do that with the previous ones as well. But you may just gesso these at first with the slice and brush with well-sifted ashes and the usual size. When they are gessoed and dry, smooth them down; and, if you care to, gesso them afterward with gesso sottile, if you wish. If you want to embellish them with any figures or other devices made of tin, follow this method..." Chapter CLXX

From reading his instructions on doing panels, we realise from this statement, that he is saying, for chests "of less worth" spend about half as much time with the gesso, and do not worry too much if it is not quite as smooth or finished. Then, spend less time and money on whatever decoration you decide to use on it. In other words, 'produce what you are being paid for'.

A small (413mm long) 14th century casket from the Cleveland Museum of Art.
This casket portrays exactly the techniques explained by Cennini for
the finer quality work of his time period; larger chests would have panels
painted with scenes, or figures, or both.

Consider these two 14th century Italian objects, both of them exhibit the sort of work described by Cennini in his explanation of ornamenting chests and panels. In his book, he explains two methods of making three dimensional ornaments to apply to surfaces. The first method is to make a mould and fill it with a very stiff gesso, then carefully remove it and once it is dry, using a little more gesso, adhere it to the surface. This would be the method used on the little casket pictured above. A second method was to have a mould in which one pressed or hammered tin foil into, and then attached it to the work, also with gesso. The detail below shows a tin lock plate with some ornament pressed in from the back side. Though this was probably done with a punch on a wax and brick dust cake, in a technique already in use in the 12th century, as described by Eligius, (You may read an excellent essay on working with this material here.) the end result is very similar to the method described by Cennini. The difference in the two methods is that in the second, the metal is much thinner. In the case of the pressed metal decorations, the metal would have been left exposed, or painted with a transparent colour, whereas the gesso ornaments needed additional coats of gesso and scraping followed by gilding. This would obviously require more time, and cost, and thus the object would be more expensive. Notice that Cennini is assuming that the same craftsman would be doing both sorts of work.

Detail of a chest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This close up shows the reverse punched design to the lock-plate.
Additionally the metal strapping has a series of circular ornamental punch marks on
the face. When this chest was new, the metal would have been bright tin, and
the chest a brilliant blue with white and orange decorations.

It may come as a surprise to some, but even the "great masters" of art worked on things such as chests, crucifixes, and portable altars. In Il Libro dell' Arte, Cennini is giving instructions for would be artists. His primary focus is on panel painting and frescoes, but he also talks about painting banners, and painting on stone, glass, and leather. In other words, a craftsman makes his living where and how he is able. If a patron is willing to spend the money, he will produce a masterpiece, if the client has less money to spend, he will produce something more ordinary or plain. Can one not assume, then, that the same would be true for wood carvers. Just because a craftsman may have had the ability to produce an exquisitely detailed carved buffet, he may not always have been able to find someone willing to pay for one. Quite possibly, he may have spent most of his time creating pieces which some modern inconsiderate historian casually dubbed, "crude" or "inferior".

Bartolo di Fredi, scene of St Paul the Hermit
On display in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie as a "painted panel" this was once
a front panel of a chest.
There are many of these sort of panels scattered throughout the world's
museums, many of them produced by great masters, and all once belonging
to chests, cabinets, and altar pieces.

Videre Scire

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Table progress - Part VII

In the last table post, I had nearly finished carving the feet for the table; except that I had not. I had forgotten all about the fact that the outside face of the main body of the foot wanted a sunken panel carved into it. That has been accomplished this week, and a few more things as well; as you shall see in this post.

I had wanted to wait until the table was in a state of assembly before posting on it again, but realised that there was still too much to cover in one post, so I have prepared some pictures of most of what else has transpired since the last blog on this topic.

Working my way around the perimeter, cutting the
waste from between the tenons

I drew the perimeter line with a sharp point put into my trammel-beam compass which I have been using to lay out this whole project. The point is sharpened so as to cut a fine line as it describes the arc. I took a picture of this compass, but seem to have forgotten to replace the card; sort of like back in the days when I used to forget to put film in the camera. "The more things change, the more they stay the same..."

Using my handy fuchsschwanz to cut the edge; nice
and true

Using a paring chisel to clean up the edge after the sawing

First test of the frame; the small cramps keep the
part flat on the tenons

Sawing the back edge of the tenons (Both saws
were used, but not at the same time.)

This and the following picture are in reverse order. This one shows the
mortises cut...

And this one shows them being cut. The blue tape
serves as a depth stop.

I made the cherry handled mortise chisel and it works like a dream. It requires no hammering to cut a true end on a 30mm deep mortise; just place it on the mark and push it home. using this chisel it takes me four minutes to cut one mortise; most of the time is actually spent with the brace. The rough stock for the chisel was made by a blacksmith whom I frequently use in the Philippines. It requires a lot grinding, truing up, and polishing to be useful but the steel is very good.

Third test fit, but this time frame is actually on the tenons

Because this is part of a circle, the tenons will not simply slide into the mortises as they would on a straight piece. To lay out the mortises, the part was placed on the tenons and cramped in position. Next, a line was traced around them, and then, using a square, the lines were marked out on the inside face. If one were to put the frame back against the top with the centre tenon lined up with the centre mortise, the end mortises are out of line with their respective tenons by about 30mm. This is a result of the fact that rays from a central point get wider the farther they are from the centre. To overcome this problem, and actually get the part to go on, one begins at one end, and presses the first tenon in; then, working around, and assisted by the fact that the tenons have their corners "eased", the tenons are pressed in one by one. (This would also not work if the outside frame was completely inflexible.)

I opted to do the draw bore pegging for the frame, as was done on the individual pieces for the top. I knew that getting it all together and pegged up before the glue chilled would be a big challenge, however. The solution was to put a cramp in the space between each tenon; Once the entire frame was pulled tight, then I was able to go back and drive the pins. In the picture, you can see that some of the pins are not plumb; this is a result of the tension created from the offset holes in the draw-boring technique.

After one more test and some minor shaving, it was
time to glue the thing up.

Once that was out of the way, it was time to get back to finishing up the feet. I bought this big auger years ago because it looked like it was in pretty good shape and perhaps it would come in handy at some point. Well, it has finally had its chance to be useful. When I bought it, the wood was all dry and worn; I gave it a good scrub with linseed oil, followed by a coat of wax. This is what I do with all antique tools I buy. Tools should be useful, but in my opinion they should look good and be cared for as well.

Boring the mortise for the leg

The carving before cleaning up with a scraper

Cleaning up; two scrapers for the purpose are also seen
These scrapers are made from old iron-saw blades, The ends are
honed, and then an edge is turned up with a burnisher, just as
for an ordinary cabinet scraper.

Setting out the field with a task specific made blade, in a commercially
available scratch stock

Today the clients came by to see the progress first hand; this always makes me happy because I love it when people show an interest in the process, not just the end product. Visiting your project in the making gives an understanding and appreciation for something which would be impossible to have, were you to wait to see it until it was finished. This is the second time they have been at my shop since this work began, and they promised to come again before it is finished. I look forward to actually showing them a table on their next visit.

Continuing the carving
When the first picture was taken it was last night; thus I was
working indoors. I moved the operation outside this morning to finish.

Moving to a chisel with a flatter "sweep"

A third go 'round with an even flatter chisel
My aim here is to have a field that looks flat but at the same time still
has some texture of a carved surface.

A bit of finish scraping and it is done

Now they are ready to receive the legs

Two legs and two they just need some shoes
Yes, I am aware that the back leg is darker than the front; the colouring process
will lighten once it dries. It was applied 5 minutes before the
picture was taken.
The two legs are positioned on the template in the approximate
position they will hold on the completed table.

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