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Furniture Specific: Wood not cut to order

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Wednesday, 09 April 2014 14:13

Riven wood can be identified by the rough tear marks along the grain pattern.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – On the rare occasion when I’m lucky enough to cross paths with a piece old furniture that I think may truly be an antique, I immediately conjure up images of the patriarchal craftsman in a dusty, dark shop, skillfully fitting a hand-cut tenon into the neatly squared off mortise in the rear stile of a walnut lowboy. Or maybe artfully executing a clutch of acanthus leaves on the knee of a Chippendale cabriole leg using a chisel he fashioned himself from a hardwood stick and a treasured piece of steel.

However, the pre-Industrial Revolution reality of 17th, 18th and early 19th century cabinetmaking was starkly different from my romantic reveries. Unlike most modern cabinetmakers, these old-timers could not run down to the craft center and pick up a nice piece of kiln-dried walnut, cut to order, sanded two sides and planed to specs. Period woodworking consisted of a lot of drudgery and hard work, all done with handtools that would seem primitive to us. But these tools and techniques, the hands that employed them and the early versions of powered tools, often leave us specific clues about the age and authenticity of an old piece.

Cabinetmakers of the Colonies and early America usually got their wood in large, rough cut hunks, harvested from a nearby source of the timber and shipped to the city as planks. Thus one of the primary facts of period cabinetmaking was that a great deal of time and energy in a shop was spent on two main tasks, cutting the wood to size and smoothing the surface. Both of these tasks were necessitated by how timber was originally converted to planks on its way from the forest to the cabinet shop. Since removing all the traces of earlier field dimensioning was both physically demanding and extremely time consuming, wherever possible this process was omitted. This concept is called “workmanlike manner,” a key ingredient in identifying period furniture. It means that the work was only as good as it had to be, thus most invisible surfaces were not dressed or finished. This shortcutting sometimes allows us to see traces of the original cuts in locations the cabinetmaker considered “out of sight” such as back panels and drawer bottoms.

The earliest method of obtaining a plank of lumber from a felled tree is called “riving.” This is simply the splitting of the wood along the grain pattern using mallets and wedges. The resulting split piece is called a bolt. When bolts reach a manageable size through repeated splittings, they can then be worked by hand with a tool called a “froe.” The froe is a long narrow wedge fitted with a tall thin handle. The wedge is driven into the end of the bolt with a wooden club called a “beetle” and force is applied by wiggling the long handle. The froe is worked down the length of the bolt finally producing a plank.

This method of dimensioning lumber is less than perfectly accurate and is physically demanding. However, since it splits the wood on the grain line rather than cutting it, a bundle of undisturbed fibers (a split plank) is produced that has superior strength over a cut board. Many modern craftsmen who produce handmade Windsor chairs still prefer to rive their own wood.

Physical evidence of riving is seldom found since few tools are applied directly to the wood. The main clue that a piece has been riven is a tearing effect along the grain line sometimes found on the back panels of 17th and early 18th century furniture.

A more refined approach to field cutting is the pit saw, an arrangement where a log is extended over a deep pit or raised to a platform. Following a line drawn on the log with chalk or charcoal the log is cut into planks by two men, one standing on top of the log and the other beneath it in the pit or on the ground below the platform. The saw itself is a long, coarse bladed rip saw with handles on each end and rigid guides on each side. The guides are held tight against the side of the log as the saw is worked up and down by arm power. This clever approach produces amazingly straight cut lumber but two planks are seldom exactly the same thickness. This variation is sometimes apparent, again in back panels, where individual boards of seemingly random thicknesses are used.

The identifying characteristic of a pit sawn board is the pattern of marks left by the saw blade. The cut marks from a pit saw are at an acute angle to the grain since the saw was angled to get a “bite” into the log. The more or less evenly spaced marks are almost parallel to each other but not exactly simply because of the vagaries of handwork. Pit sawing was the norm when no other source of power such as water or steam was available and was used well into the 18th century.

The successor to the pit saw was the mill saw. As the population of the Colonies swelled the organization of the lumber industry increased. It became profitable to concentrate the timber-to-lumber operation in centralized locations, originally situated near sources of waterpower. Mill saws were large power-driven reciprocating saws that produced lumber efficiently. Some were ingenious in their use of local power. On the coastal plains of Colonial Georgia, the force of the incoming and outgoing tides was harnessed by sluice gates to power the saws. Other locales used falling water. The marks left by a mill saw are typical of any machine application. The cut marks are perpendicular to the grain and are exactly parallel and evenly spaced. It is obvious that this is not handwork. Their marks are very similar to those left by modern band saws.

Mill saws were the primary dimensioning tools through much of the 18th century and into the first quarter of the 19th.

The Industrial Revolution made its way to North America early in the 19th century, and the lumber industry, and therefore the cabinetmaking industry, was an early beneficiary. The design for the modern rotary or circular saw was published in Philadelphia as early as 1816. A number of competing designs went into use shortly after that and by the mid 1830s the circular saw was totally dominant in the lumber industry. The marks left by this modern, efficient saw are unmistakable. There is no other mark like it in the world. The series of circular marks on the bottom of a drawer says without a doubt that this piece of wood was cut on a machine after 1816 and probably after 1830. “Terminus ante quim” – it couldn’t have happened before that.

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE

Riven wood can be identified by the rough tear marks along the grain pattern. 

The ‘beetle’ is the round wooden mallet used to drive the froe, lodged in the wood. The split pieces of wood are called ‘bolts.’ 

 The evenly spaced, parallel saw marks attest to wood having cut on a mill saw.

The arcs seen in this drawer bottom were made by a powered circular saw. The piece in the middle was cut with a mill saw.  

Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 April 2014 14:50
 

Furniture Specific: Taking care of your functional art

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Written by Fred Taylor   
Thursday, 13 March 2014 12:34
This attractive chair by J. & J.W. Meeks, circa 1850, would be pleasure to own but it is not an “everyday” chair. Fred Taylor photo. Some fiction authors will say that the inhabitants of their work are only interesting in the long run if they are affected by, and in some way changed by, the events in the story. That could very well be true for fictional works. But it also has a parallel in the real world concerning the ownership of antiques. The very fact of owning an antique anything almost always has some kind of effect on the new owner. It isn’t always a good outcome and there are often periods of tense readjustments, but eventually the antique owner and the antique, like old married people, come to an understanding about the direction of the relationship.

This can be especially true in the ownership of antique furniture because, unlike some antique artifacts, furniture was actually meant to be used. In fact one popular definition of furniture is “functional art” – with the emphasis on functional. The two radical approaches to the ownership of antique furniture are “I am afraid to touch it because I might harm it in some way” and “I don’t care what that thing is, if it’s too fragile to use I don’t want it.” Both approaches will undoubtedly cause changes in the owner and possibly cause other changes in the antique.

But, as is usually the case, the middle ground is more tenable. From a practical point of view owning a piece of the past can be an expensive proposition, in some cases even bordering on the definition of luxury, and most of us cannot afford the significant cost of something that does not contribute to the daily quality of our lives. And most of us are looking for more than a “feel good glow” about the ownership. We want some positive physical benefits along with the “glow.” At the very least we don’t want to be intimidated by the ownership of a piece of old wood.

So unless we live in a museum, a mausoleum or an institution the ownership of antique furniture requires that both parties, the owner and the antique, must actually work at the relationship. The furniture was built to fulfill a utilitarian function and it must be in working order to do its job. Appreciation of the beauty and the art of the artifact come later. That’s where the owner comes in.

A word of caution: I am not suggesting that you should take the hot glue gun to the loose leg of the Federal lamp table. Nor should you, right off the bat, slap another coat of finish on that dull old chest. On the other hand, if the lamp table, after three or four generations in your family, is getting a little shaky, some properly applied remedy will add years to the life of the table and greatly decrease the anxiety associated with the heirloom crystal candelabra it supports. The repair of older furniture can be significantly different from the repair of true, valuable antiques. You must know the difference and act accordingly. Of course that brings up the old question of what is a true antique and you have to make up your own mind on that subject. Opinions on the topic are like elbows – almost everybody has at least one.

One of the major causes of consternation in the world of older furniture on a daily basis is the old (heirloom? antique? quaint? vintage?) chest of drawers that most of us face early in the day, well before we are fully ready to do battle with a recalcitrant drawer or a weak pull. That drawer has been hard to open and close for several years now but the chest is so old there’s probably nothing to be done about it. Right? Wrong! The age of the piece doesn’t matter if you can’t use it and the mechanics of drawer operation have remained largely unchanged for several hundred years now so get the thing fixed. Nonworking drawers are sometimes merely a symptom of other problems like damaged cases or unlevel floors, but often the drawer is a problem because the runners or the drawer sides are worn out. This gradual sinking of the drawer into the frame of the chest causes other problems in the chest. Primary among these is the chipping of veneer or finish on the rails. Grooves worn into the front of a rail are a sure sign of drawer malfunction. The drawer bottom also starts to rub the rail right about now, creating a layer of fine sawdust over the rail, falling onto the floor. The stress of opening the drawer also puts added pressure on drawer pulls, which are not designed for that load. At this point it becomes incumbent on the owner to provide the correct solution so the chest can return to its normal daily routine of transparently storing clothes without further damage to the piece or the owner. Either that or just abandon the chest to the guest room and let your aunt wrestle with it when she visits twice a year.

Another area of conflict often arises with older chairs. Chairs are just a frame upon which to drape your body in some fashion or another, designed to support you in the style to which you would like to become accustomed for a reasonable amount of time. They should do so without protest or extra motion but older chairs are notorious for expressing displeasure at your arrival and sometimes it seems they try to wriggle out from under you to be free again. The timing of the repair of an older chair, especially one which is used more or less on a daily basis, is critical because at some point many parts of the chair wear beyond the point of rehabilitation. This is particularly true in Windsor style chairs where all the structural components terminate in the seat. When a leg joint is loose for a long time, the tenon has a tendency to wear away as it scrapes inside the mortise. A neglected loose tenon can be trouble in the long run. So why the hesitation? Maybe you are unsure what method to use. Should you use hide glue or wood glue? Maybe those metal inserts will do the job or perhaps you should try some of that squirt-in joint tightener. The method depends on the age of the chair, the condition of the joint and your knowledge of the work to be done – or your knowledge of the phone number of a good restoration artist. But those are just details. The point is that the chair needs to be fixed or relegated to the guest room along with the chest before someone, including the chair, gets really damaged.

Then there is the sleeping platform where we spend more time than anywhere else except perhaps for the workspace. Older beds have carried a lot of freight over the years and they sometimes express themselves like their cousins the chairs. If your bed wants to have a talk in the middle of the night you probably need to pay attention because it may be the precursor to dumping you on the floor at dawn. A bed, like a chair, is basically just a frame and the joints probably need a little attention. In many older beds that is often as easy as tightening the bolts in each corner with an old-fashioned bed wrench. Problems with vocal newer beds that rely on metal hooks are a little more difficult to diagnose but it can and should be done before the internal hardware decides to self-destruct inside the post. Then you have a real problem. Or the guest room does again.

Of course there are pieces of antique furniture that are in the “retired” category and are no longer required to perform at any level. These are usually priceless or unique examples made by a famous cabinetmaker, turner or joiner long before modern memory and should be cherished as a rare artifact from our history. But you can visit them anytime the museum is open and not have to worry about the maintenance routine. But those are not the antiques with which we can establish a relationship and be changed by the ownership and interaction. Those are a part of history, not a part of your life.

In short, be proactive in your relationship with your antique furniture. Appreciate it for its beauty and art but use it as it was designed to be used and care for it as it needs to be tended. You both will enjoy the company.

 

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE
This attractive chair by J. & J.W. Meeks, circa 1850, would be pleasure to own but it is not an “everyday” chair. Fred Taylor photo. This marble-top mahogany parlor table from the mid 19th century will eventually need some repair to properly support the marble. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Wooden Nickel Antiques photo. When the veneer on the drawer fronts starts to wear and chip, its time to pay attention to the drawer runners. Fred Taylor photo.
Last Updated on Monday, 17 March 2014 08:45
 

Furniture Specific: Stickley and the American look

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Tuesday, 11 February 2014 15:13

Gustav Stickley no. 369 Morris chair. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com and Treadway Gallery.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – At the turn of the 20th century the growing giant that would become industrial America was saddled with two primary furniture styles, Golden Oak and Colonial Revival. Of course there were other looks like the last bits of Renaissance Revival and the beginning struggles of Art Nouveau, but they were secondary to the two majors and as with most styles and periods both were fashions influenced by events outside the realm of furniture.

The Golden Oak period came about as the result of the diminished availability of walnut stock to make furniture. Walnut had been the primary wood of the Victorian revival styles, Rococo and Renaissance, supplemented occasionally by rosewood and other exotics. As the supply dwindled the next most commercially viable product was oak, especially when the concept of quarter cutting came into fashion, revealing the incredible figuring within the wood.

The Colonial Revival was born as the result of rising patriotic fervor kindled by the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The stalwarts of Victorian society believed that if furniture of the Colonial period could serve and inspire such gallant and true men as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who guided the American Revolution, it would surely bring a sense of value, security and inspiration to late 19th century family members.

But there was another revolution in the wind and this time it would travel in the opposite direction, originating in England and migrating to America where it would become a part of the “American Look” of the 20th century and beyond.

That revolution of course was the Arts and Crafts movement, the brainchild of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896), both men of vision who were frustrated with mid-century Victorian over-indulgence, were fierce critics of the factory mass-production system and sought a return to simpler times and more honest representations of the work by real craftsmen. They were joined in spirit by Charles Locke Eastlake in the 1870s and 1880s.

By then the ideas of the movement had filtered to America and their writings were readily available. Morris began to sell his wallpaper and textile designs in Boston as early as 1873 and artisans and workshop groups were turning out their own innovations in the spirit of the movement around the country by the end of the 1870s. In the 1880s Oscar Wilde toured North America espousing the new movement, especially influencing architectural design and the beginnings of the furniture revolution.

About the same time a group of brothers got together to form a new furniture business in Binghamton, N.Y. Three of the five Stickley brothers went into the business under the name Stickley Brothers Co. in 1884. The original founding brothers were Gustav (1858-1942), Albert (1862-1928) and Charles (1865-1928). The two youngest brothers not in the original company were John George (1871-1921) and Leopold (1869-1957). It was the first of many variations of Stickley companies and the first of many combinations of the Stickley brothers over the next 70 years and they were to have some important input into the American Look of the 20th century.

As the oldest, Gustav was the most influential and he became quickly interested in the new Arts and Crafts from England as the original Stickley Brothers Co. began to dissolve. Gustav had been trained as a stonemason by his father but he longed to work in wood and went to work in his uncle’s chair factory in 1870. He left in 1884 to join his brothers in the new company. Charles left first, around 1891, to join his wife’s family business, which became Stickley-Brandt in Binghamton, N.Y. Then Albert left the family business in 1891 and teamed with brother John George to form Stickley Brothers Furniture Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich. The name had become available when Gustav renamed the original company Gustav Stickley Co. Their company made primarily Colonial Revival furniture in the beginning. That left Gustav alone in the original business.

He decided he needed to go to the source to understand the new movement and in 1897 he went to England to meet Ruskin and other important thinkers of the moment, even though Morris had already died by this time. He returned to America in 1898 devoted to the new concept, founding a new company, United Crafts, in Eastman, N.Y. His early work in the Arts and Crafts style had an Art Nouveau influence coupled with the desire to follow Morris who had proclaimed, “So I say our furniture should be good citizens' furniture, solid and well made workmanship … Also, except for very moveable things like chairs, it should be made of timber rather than walking sticks.”

But while Gustav worked diligently, he received little acclaim for his work. A major retailer had beaten him to the punch in introducing the new “Mission” style. Frank Tobey (1833-1913) formed the Tobey Furniture Co. in Chicago in 1856 and became one of the leading retailers in the Midwest. In 1890 he introduced a Mission line of furniture designed inhouse by his employee George Clingman, based on the new ideas of Arts and Crafts. It was marketed as “careful workmanship … having no veneers, no machine carving or stamped ornaments” and was said by Tobey to be “an unconventional style for unconventional people.” In October of that year Tobey agreed to aggressively market a line of furniture built by the then relatively unknown craftsman named Gustav Stickley. The furniture, consisting of 75 oak pieces including tables, chairs, settees, tabourettes and desks in three stains, Tyrolean green, gun metal gray and grayish brown, was touted as “New Furniture.” It was sold unmarked except for the Tobey logo. It was a smashing success and by the end of the year Gustav terminated the contract and made his own line of Mission furniture under the United Crafts name but with his personal logo.

Gustav’s furniture closely adhered to the principles of the early movement in conjunction with his sense of form, proportion and color. It was simple, functional and sturdy and it honestly revealed its construction details in exposed tenon and key joints and visible dowels. The furniture, made of American oak, had the appearance of handmade work and the conception was fostered by Gustav. But therein lay a conflict for him.

The tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement stipulated that most of the work be done by hand, not by machinery. While this produced very nice work it also meant that not enough product could be economically produced to support the craftspeople in the business, as the English workers soon discovered, followed by the Roycrofters.

While the English movement took on an elitist cast with goods too expensive for the common people, Gustav decided to break new philosophical ground by combining the quality of handmade goods with the economy of labor-saving machinery to make his work available to everyone. It worked fantastically but to his long-term detriment.

Gustav’s Mission style became wildly popular and he formed his Craftsman Workshop in 1904, the same year he dropped the “e” from his name. The problem was that after he demonstrated that machinery could be applied to production in a manner that could result in furniture with a “handcrafted” ambience, everyone decided to get on the bandwagon. That included Stickley Brothers in Grand Rapids that came out with its line of Mission in 1902 calling it the “Quaint Arts and Crafts” line. Quaint was the term used by the English for Arts and Crafts work.

John George, one of the founders of Stickley Brothers, left Grand Rapids in 1902 and teamed with another brother, Leopold, to acquire an existing business in Fayetteville, N.Y., and renamed it the Onondoga Shops. Four years later it reincorporated as L. & J.G. Stickley. They too copied Gustav’s designs and entered the Mission market full force in 1905 with a line of furniture described by them as “simple furniture built along mission lines.” They joined a host of other manufacturers already in that boat including Grand Rapids Bookcase and Chair Co. with its “Lifetime” line of Mission furniture, Limbert with its line of Dutch influenced Mission, and Michigan Chair Co. with a line of English flavored Mission. As early as 1908 the style worked its way into the Larkin Soap catalog, awarding a solid oak Mission-style rocker for five Larkin certificates or free with a $10 purchase of soap. It had appeared in the Sears catalog before that.

In the long run Gustav could not compete successfully with manufacturers who did not espouse his tenets of high quality and craftsmanship. It seemed that the low price leaders had won again. Gustav declared bankruptcy in 1915 and his brothers Leopold and John George bought him out, continuing the business as the Stickley Manufacturing Co.

But once again Gustav had demonstrated, albeit unwillingly, that he was ahead of the curve. By the end of World War I the appetite for Mission had all but disappeared and all the other manufacturers moved on to the next big thing. In this case it happened to be the previous and soon to be again “big thing” of Colonial Revival. Stickley Brothers in Grand Rapids established its enduring line of Quaint furniture following Quaint Arts and Crafts with Quaint American, Quaint Tudor, Adam Colonial and Peasant lines. In 1922 Leopold Stickley announced the introduction of the Cherry Valley Collection, a line of reproduction furniture based on traditional New England and Pennsylvania furniture that firmly planted L. & J.G. Stickley in the Colonial Revival camp for the rest of the century. The vast majority of the American furniture industry followed suit with the occasional diversion to Art Moderne or Mid-Century Modern.

Gustav Stickley had the creativity and foresight to try something new and in that endeavor he succeeded in grand fashion popularizing a style and look that dominated the country for two decades. But beyond that he demonstrated that the use of machinery could co-exist with quality products. While a great many manufacturers did not adhere to the idea as well as they could have, enough did so that affordable quality furniture was available to most Americans throughout the 20th century. In that regard it could be said that Gustav Stickley was responsible for the “American Look.”

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE

Gustav Stickley no. 369 Morris chair. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com and Treadway Gallery.

Gustav’s distinctive joiner’s compass with his ‘Als Ik Kan’ motto. Fred Taylor photo.

Loveseat was made Stickley-Brandt around 1900. Fred Taylor photo.

Gustav Stickley bookcase no. 719 with 12 glass panels, hand-hammered hardware and thrrough-tenon construction. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com and Treadway Gallery.

Gustav Stickley armchair, model 2639. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com and Treadway Gallery.

This Stickley Brothers Quaint Morris chair shows a remarkable resemblance to Gustav’s no. 369 Morris. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com and Royka’s.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 March 2014 12:41
 

Furniture Specific: Desperate measures

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Monday, 06 January 2014 16:33

For touch-ups you don’t need the professional marker (left) sold by Mohawk. Regular markers from the office supply store will work just as well. The little pots of metallic wax do wonders for gold frames and brass hardware.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – One of the interesting things about dealing with furniture, especially older and antique stuff, is that whenever you seem to need something, it simply isn’t available. You have to admit that replacement handmade screws are not on the hardware store shelf and Home Depot doesn’t carry that hard-to-find spring for a broken 19th century lock. But there is an amazing source of supplies and materials that have direct applications to and benefits for furniture in a most convenient location – your home.

Now is the time for all the restoration professionals and home workshop experts to take a hike. You already have all the right stuff and you will turn up your nose at my ideas. I’m talking to just ordinary folks who need just a little bit of something or a quick way out of a minor jam. You can figure out a lot of ways to “make do with what you’ve got” when your next paycheck – or family peace – depends on your ability to complete a restoration or repair job with materials on hand or readily available on Saturday afternoon. Crisis creates creativity.

One of the most useful furniture touch-up tools is already probably in your kitchen or desk drawer. Every professional furniture touch-up artist has in his bag of tricks a selection of colored markers. They usually have exotic names like “Auburn mahogany,” “Country pine” and “ Weathered oak,” and the professional will guard those with his life, not letting you see them and more importantly not letting you smell them. Why? Because they are just expensively blended and specially manufactured felt tip markers. You probably already have one in black that you bought at the office supply store or the grocery checkout aisle. The other colors that are applicable to furniture touch up are there too. You just have to look for them because they don’t carry the names of commercial wood products. Need to camouflage a small ding in a walnut chest? Try a plain old brown marker. Too brown and not quite red enough? Add a little from the orange marker or the red one. With a little practice you can learn to blend and overlay the colors. The solvent in these markers is compatible with most furniture finishes and the color will adhere nicely to both background finish and raw wood.

Speaking of solvents, you have one of the most useful solvents for organic materials in your pantry – white vinegar. Commercial vinegar is dilute acetic acid, 4 percent to 8 percent in solution, which is an excellent solvent for organic compounds like white school glue and yellow wood glue. Vinegar placed in a mustard squeeze container or a syringe barrel without the needle can be the key to many furniture projects. When squeezed under a layer of buckling veneer and worked around with a long blade the vinegar will slowly dissolve the glue holding the veneer, whether it's white glue or even hide glue. Eventually you will be able to remove the old veneer and prepare the surface for a new application – after cleaning it with more vinegar. It will also dissolve the glue that holds in the old spline when you need to recane the kitchen chairs. After cutting out the old cane just pry up one piece of the spline and squeeze in some vinegar. As it dissolves the glue you can easily lift a small section of the spline out of the groove and start on the next section with more vinegar. It takes some time but it works. Vinegar also helps when you need to reglue the recalcitrant chair that is too loose to sit in but not loose enough to completely take apart and reglue. Drill a small hole (3/32-inch) into a sticky joint and use the syringe to inject vinegar into the interior of the joint. Eventually the glue will give up and the joint will open.

Another common household chemical is the key to mold and mildew removal. Mold and mildew are actually fungi that grow on the surface. For them to prosper they need a source of spores, moderate temperature, some moisture and a nutrient base. Human habitation provides all the necessary ingredients. The nutrient base is on most surfaces we encounter on a daily basis and we also thrive in moderate temperatures and humidity so just wiping away the mold and mildew won’t work. It will be right back because you didn’t kill it and the air is full of more spores. Remember it is a living organism and physical removal like dusting will not stop it. Neither will wiping it with furniture polish or oil or any of the other common remedies. You have to kill it (disinfect it) with bleach. A capful of household bleach in a quart of warm water is the magic bullet. Wipe the entire affected area with the bleach solution, allow it to stand for just a few minutes and then dry off the surface. The mold and mildew will be gone, never to return and the finish of the furniture is unharmed. Neat trick.

If you run out of interesting and useful items in your pantry go to the local art supply store. Walk down the oil paint aisle and look at all the wonderful tubes of paint that come in just about any color you can imagine. A tube of “burnt umber” for example will probably match your dark mahogany table perfectly and a little bit of artist’s oil paint on your finger tip can touch up the worn edge of just about anything. The thin line of paint you apply will dry as hard as a rock in day or two. Raw umber has a slightly greenish cast to it and is useful for old dark oak while raw sienna has a yellow tone that works well on light maple and lighter oak. The names may sound a little strange to you but that’s how they name things in the art world so it may behoove you to obtain and study a color chart with those names. For your purposes here, buy the cheapest tube of oil color that you can find. You are not painting a Mona Lisa. You just need the right color.

Also in the art supply store you will run across little pots of colored metallic wax under names like “Decorator’s Gilt,” “Rub’n’ Buff” and “Pot o’ Gold.” These little pots of color can be used to touch up that gold mirror frame that has a couple of missing flakes. They can also be used to highlight and brighten up dingy brass hardware without spending hours with a polishing cloth. Just gently wipe a very small amount of gold or brass colored wax across the face of a Hepplewhite oval pull and look at the contrast. Allow it to dry for a few minutes and buff with a soft cloth to seal the wax. This is not a substitute for good care of your brass hardware but it will certainly liven things up in a hurry for an impending event like a dinner party. There are other brand names that do the same job. Just look around while you are in the store.

One last item in the art supply shop you might want to take a look at is the selection of china markers, the soft, wide-tip dry markers that you unwrap the paper from the barrel to expose the core. These, like felt tip markers, come in a wide range of colors and they are easily blended together to create a color. They are especially useful when trying to hide a quick repair project that included having to patch a hole with wood filler of some sort. Of course the filler is never the right color and it doesn’t take a stain like the surrounding wood so you have a real problem. In a pinch you can use these china markers to blend in a background color so the patch doesn’t look like a yellow sign. Then use a darker, sharpened china marker to draw in the grain pattern on the patch to match the rest of the piece. Don’t work too hard on this piece of artwork because the grain pattern will not look natural. Just let yourself go and be “artistic” and the right grain will appear at your fingertips. Of course this type of color application will wipe right off with any type of contact so you have to seal it in, preferably with a spray sealer of some sort since it is a fragile application of color. You may find what you need right there in the art store or you may have to go to craft store. You are looking for some spray acrylic that will dry instantly, bond to almost anything and doesn’t smell as strongly as spray lacquer smells.

All of these tips are more or less desperation measures but when in a pinch …

 

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE

For touch-ups you don’t need the professional marker (left) sold by Mohawk. Regular markers from the office supply store will work just as well. The little pots of metallic wax do wonders for gold frames and brass hardware.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 February 2014 15:31
 

Furniture Specific: Expert management

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Friday, 06 December 2013 16:51

A reader sent photos of her dining room set. An appraiser had written a lengthy description of an American Renaissance Revival set from the 1870s. Another had identified the set as French Renaissance Revival 1890. I identified it as American Depression, circa 1935. Each 'expert' had his own frame of reference.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – Back during my corporate financial career I did a lot of “important” reading on the subject of so-called experts, consuming such volumes as The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter. His contention was that in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. Scary thought. Another interesting volume published by Robert Ringer in 1974 was Winning Through Intimidation. Now there was a thought that I could get behind.

But it did not turn out to be what I thought it was. Turns out Ringer’s idea of an intimidating person was a person who actually has the facts in a given situation. I like that idea even better since most people always have an opinion about a situation but very few people actually have the facts. A corollary to “having the facts” was that the “expert from afar” was always more knowledgeable than the local guru. If the speaker on a given subject for an event had been hired from out of town he was presupposed to be better informed than the local lobby. And the further from out of town he was, the more he knew. You can imagine how important I felt when I was contracted to go to California from Florida for a presentation.

The problem was that by the time I got to California I was not one iota smarter than I was when I left Florida. My regional accent may have sounded strange to the Californians but I think it was more their ears than my voice. While the “expert from afar” cache’ may have helped get my audience’s attention at first, it was the command of the facts that ultimately made the meeting a success.

In the identification and evaluation of antique furniture almost everyone needs some help now and then, even the “experts.” No one can know it all. The field is too vast and too interpretive for someone to be the ultimate authority. So how do you rule in or out who you might think can help you?

There seem to be three main areas of interest to anyone seeking the advice of a furniture expert. They are experience, frame of reference and accessibility.

Experience

Experience is a wonderful thing. I have had some great ones but you are looking for specific experiences that relate to your current project. Consider a few qualifiers for experience such as depth, type and quality.

In determining the depth of the experience of a prospective expert, one criterion might be an active participation in the local, regional or national marketplace with exposure to a wide variety of styles, periods and odd variations. Depth also has to take into consideration the length of the experience although a lot of the same stuff is not necessarily a good substitute for a wide variety.

Which brings us to the type of experience. While it would not be typical of someone in that position it would be possible that such an expert might be interested only in what he can buy and sell things for and not especially interested in sharing his knowledge. Or it could be that this widely exposed expert doesn’t really have a broad range of expertise, only the requisite merchant skills to keep the product and identity out there. The experience could also be quite limited in breadth to a specific sub-field such as restoration, which may be just the ticket if that is what you are looking for but be aware of the distinction.

Experience may also be limited to academic experience. Teaching art history for 30 years for example is a laudable career but it is a little short on the dirty- hands aspect of furniture identification and valuation. Things in the field do not always look like the photos in the books and photos from the field may not look like the actual items in the field, never mind the items in the book. A certain amount of hands-on familiarity is sometimes required to interpolate and interpret the photos to assemble a true mind’s-eye picture of the real artifact.

Quality of experience is a key consideration. Ideally you are looking for an expert who is familiar with the area you are interested in. He or she knows the period or knows the style or knows the type of construction or knows the actual maker of the piece. You find that quality of experience in people who have acquired it from long years of being around the business, having an active interest in it but not always having had to make a living at it. Some of the most informed people I have ever met on the subject of antique furniture did not make their daily bread based on their knowledge. They just loved the subject.

Frame of Reference

How can “frame of reference” be of interest to this conversation? A chair either is or is not, right? No, not always. Furniture styles are seldom pure breeds. They are more like pound puppies or mutts, Heinz 57s if you will. What looks like one thing to one expert may look like something else entirely to another with a different perspective. I know one self-appointed “expert” who spent many years in Paris studying art and art history. Everything looks to him like a late French or early Belgian piece because that is his frame of reference, no matter that the chest is actually an American Depression Colonial Revival reproduction. After all, the styles did have their origins in Europe – somewhere – some time. But that doesn’t help the inquirer who wants to know if the piece is an antique or a reproduction.

There is another expert I know who has 30 years of home-style garage refinishing and answers restoration and preservation inquiries from that perspective. Unfortunately, so many things have been learned about old finishes and old wives’ tales about furniture in recent years and so many new products and procedures have hit the market that some of the old-time wisdom is no longer applicable and can even be detrimental. But it still is being put out there by experts who haven’t updated the library in 20 years.

And finally there are the experts to whom there are no true antiques out there anywhere. There are only clever reproductions and cobbles of old pieces. Bah. Humbug. Leave them alone.

Accessibility

Finally there is the question of accessibility. If you find an expert that you think has the right qualifications to help you answer your question, can you really ask it? Is there a way to get to your expert? Will he or she respond? That guy on the RoadShow sure looks like he will have the answer but how do you get to him? What about the dealer at the big show? He surely knows but will he stop talking to his customers long enough to chat with you? And the verbal appraiser at the local charity fundraiser – will you get the straight skinny from him or a flip answer that will get a good crowd reaction? If you can’t ask the question the expert’s knowledge is of no use to you.

All of these areas have to be taken into consideration while searching for and engaging an “expert” to help you with your furniture questions. More importantly they have to be addressed to decide how much weight to attach to their answers if you are lucky enough to get one.

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE

A reader sent photos of her dining room set. An appraiser had written a lengthy description of an American Renaissance Revival set from the 1870s. Another had identified the set as French Renaissance Revival 1890. I identified it as American Depression, circa 1935. Each 'expert' had his own frame of reference.

Last Updated on Monday, 06 January 2014 16:33
 
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