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Furniture Specific: $#%& Locks

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Written by Fred Taylor   
Thursday, 03 July 2014 13:55

A full mortise lock is completely enclosed in the wood with only the selvage visible.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. - Most of us in the real world (at least as we perceive it and ourselves) are considered to be hardworking, easy to get along with and above all, honest individuals. For the most part we are not politicians or lawyers so that description is fairly universal and fairly accurate. But there must be people out there who do not share the same set of values as you and I. Otherwise why would there be the need for those inevitably cranky, non-functional, generally aggravating locks on what are otherwise very nice pieces of older and antique furniture?

When I first became interested in older furniture my attitude was that if a lock worked and the key was there, fine. If it didn’t or it wasn’t, that was fine too. It just wasn’t that important. Until we had children. Then the ability to restrict access to certain areas and private articles became of interest to me so I took the time to study the blasted things and it turns out that they are not really all that complicated. In fact, with a few exceptions, most locking devices found on older furniture are childishly (there’s that word again) and scarily simple.

Furniture locks are classified by how they are fitted to the piece. The basic categories are full mortise, half mortise and surface mount. This describes the way the lock is mounted into the door, drawer or frame. A full mortise lock is totally concealed within a space below the surface. Only the top edge, called the selvage is visible. No part of the lock body is accessible without removing the entire lock from the wood, a trick but not impossible. A half mortise lock, the most common on 19th century American furniture, is concealed from the outside of the door or drawer but the back plate of the lock is visible from inside. The body of the lock is fitted into a mortise in the wood and mounted so that the backplate is flush with the interior surface. The backplate is screwed or nailed to the interior surface. A surface mounted lock is usually a cheap 20th century innovation that requires no cutting of the surface to mount. It screws directly onto the interior surface and protrudes into the interior of the cabinet or drawer. These are often used as “quickie” fixes by some restorers who are not familiar with the inner workings of locks.

Since most people are frustrated by a door or drawer that is apparently locked and since most of us are conditioned to accept locked spaces as “off limits”, furniture locks actually don’t have to be that secure and almost any determined interloper can gain access.

The most frequently encountered problem with old locks is neglect and abuse. Quickly inspect the lock to determine if all the pieces appear to be present – the bolt, the interior center pin, the selvage. If everything looks OK and you seem to have a key that should fit, your new best friend is WD-40. A couple of shots will have the same effect as whiskey on a barfly – it will loosen right up. Use a stout steel key to work the lock back into order. If the piece has previously been stripped but the worker doing it was too lazy or too ignorant to remove the locks first, you may have to pull the locks and clean out the old finish and stripper residue before there is any hope of making the lock work. If that doesn’t work or if you don’t have a key at all, then its time to get serious.

The operating heart of most furniture locks, excluding “grab” type locks used on chest lids, is a metal bolt that slides across the lock and fits into a mortise cut in the frame that surrounds a door or drawer. This prevents the door or drawer from moving. The bolt is activated by a bladed key. The blade fits into a semi-circular slot in the body of the bolt and as the key is rotated the bolt slides either horizontally or vertically, into and out of the locking mortise. Very clever. To make sure the bolt doesn’t just flop out of place again once it is locked (or unlocked) an internal leaf spring keeps tension on the bolt, holding it into a notch in normally two pre-determined positions, locked and unlocked. Only the action of the key, slightly lifting and sliding the bolt can overcome the spring tension.

So all you have to have is a key – that fits. First, the blade must actually fit into the opening in the lock itself. Then it must the right length to a) engage the bolt, b) compress the spring exactly enough and c) move the bolt through the entire range of motion. Then the shaft has to be the right size. Unlike most old interior house door locks which use “skeleton” keys with a solid shaft, furniture locks use barrel keys which are partly hollow on the business end. That is so the key can fit over a pin, which is installed in the center of the lock. The key uses this pin as a fulcrum to apply the required force to activate the bolt. So far so good. We’ve got a key with the right size blade and the right size hole in the barrel. But its not always that simple. Sometimes there are some primitive anti-intruder devices that must be defeated.

The most common of these is a raised semi-circular ring, concentric to the pin mounted onto the plate of the lock. This ring keeps a key from entering the lock far enough to engage the bolt – unless it has a slot cut to the right depth, located in the right place on the face of the blade. Since it is usually too difficult to look inside the lock and determine the depth and placement of the ring (or rings – some locks have more than one) the easiest way is to let the lock mark them for you. Use a new brass blank key (from Van Dykes or one of the supply houses) that otherwise seems to fit the lock. You can easily alter the brass blank by filing the blade to fit and drilling the barrel to fit the pin. Press it into the lock as far as it will go and, while applying as much pressure as you can, move the key from side to side. When you pull out the key there are the marks on the brass key made by the steel security ring that shows you exactly where to cut the notch with a hack saw! It may take two three tries to get the depth right but you can do it.

The most devilish of the security devices is a set of internal, randomly spaced, spring held levers that be must aligned into a predetermined position to allow the bolt to pass. Apparently the English of the 19th century had a much greater need for security than did the Americans to be forced to come up with this idea. It is almost impossible to create a key for an English lever lock. Fortunately, most of them are conveniently labeled as “Lever” locks so you don’t have to waste a lot of time on them. Just ignore them.

The other common problems with locks are missing center pins and broken or missing springs. Both can easily be remedied but they generally require disassembly of the lock itself. Center pins were pressed into position into the back plates. When they work loose and fall out they can be replaced by a metal screw that fits the hole. It may have to be held in place with some epoxy glue to reinforce it. Missing or broken springs are recognized by the loose action of the bolt, falling freely into or out of the body of the lock. Spring replacement requires the removal of the bolt. At the rear of the bolt is a tiny slot where the leaf spring was installed. If it is broken off in the slot remove the stub with a tiny chisel or screwdriver. Then hammer the appropriate length of a modern bobby pin into the slot. The bobby pin is a natural spring and will allow the lock to work again.

That wasn’t so hard. Practice with locks is the key -- that and collecting as many types and sizes of keys as you can from the local flea market, lock shop and antiques show. Soon you will be breaking into old cabinets at will. Just don’t let the kids see how you do it.

#   #   #

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to me 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 now available for $18.95 plus $3.00 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, "IDENTIFICATION OF OLDER & ANTIQUE FURNITURE," ($17.00 + $3.00 S&H), is also available at the same address. For more information call (800) 387-6377 (9AM-4PM Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from the website, www.furnituredetective.com.

 



ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE

A full mortise lock is completely enclosed in the wood with only the selvage visible. 

A half mortise lock is implanted part way in the wood but leaves the back plate visible from the inside.

A surface mount lock is simply nailed or screwed to the interior surface.

This diagram show the parts of a half mortise lock.

These keys are all “notch” keys with cuts in the face of the blade.

This illustration shows how a notch key works over the internal security ring of a lock plate.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 July 2014 14:05
 

Furniture Specific: Fables don't die easily

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Monday, 02 June 2014 14:07

An advertising pinback button for White Lead Linseed Oil produced by John T. Lewis Bros. Co. The 1-inch-diameter button is marked on the back: 'Lucke Badge & Button Co.'

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. - Some days I begin to feel like a third grade teacher who has been teaching way too long. Sometimes it gets discouraging to have written as much about furniture as I have and still have not been able to penetrate the consciousness of what appears to be an incredible number of furniture collectors who regularly read publications in which my work appears. Of course, I am “on the front line” everyday taking on the furniture inquiries of almost anyone who has a computer and an interest as well as anyone who still remembers how to write an actual hard copy letter and mail it. Out here in the field it is amazing how many “furniture fables” still persist in this information age of the Internet and the Antiques Roadshow. Here are few examples I have recently encountered.

LINSEED OIL AS A FINISH DRESSING

Recently I was engaged in a long multipart discussion in an online forum with a couple of folks who seemed to be well informed and interested. The subject was paste wax. All of a sudden someone who had not been in the conversation previously jumped in and interjected the opinion that talk of paste wax was just a waste of time. “Everyone knows that the best possible furniture care solution is a homemade mixture of boiled linseed oil, turpentine and white vinegar,” she said. To my surprise I responded with an absolute lack of profanity, calmly explaining the hazards of the use of boiled linseed oil over the long haul and referring the reader to the site of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works for a quick look at their take on boiled linseed oil. However, I doubt that I made on impression on the folk fable of linseed oil. I provided a closer, more detailed look at furniture finish care which I will be happy to share by email request with any interested reader that further explores old and new concepts in furniture finish thinking.

DON’T TOUCH THAT FINISH

This mantra has spread through the American furniture psyche like an imported virus reaching down to the smallest shop in the mall dealing in 1960s modern furniture. It is so broadly misapplied that I receive a number of inquiries each month asking for an estimate of the potential lost value of a family heirloom since Uncle Joe refinished it 30 years ago. It doesn’t matter that the heirloom turns out to be a factory-made, mass-produced piece of mail-order junk with little or no value to start with. The fear of lost value is almost palpable.

So is it a justifiable fear? It certainly can be if you are dealing with an 18th century American piece of work. It also can be true if the piece of furniture is later but has a provenance that requires special attention. It could even be true for certain 20th century items made and finished by an accomplished craftsman like George Nakashima or Wallace Nutting. Of course it is always advisable to proceed with caution on this subject but if it turns out that the piece in question is a factory-made Depression-era piece or set that displays the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune all over its surface, then what is the harm of replacing one modern sprayed finish with a better one?

Having been in the restoration business for many years I understand the importance of trying to salvage an original finish if possible and still meet the expectations of the owner but if that isn’t possible other steps must be taken.

You can pretty well bet that Duncan Phyfe, Charles Honoré Lannuier, J. & J.W. Meeks and plenty of other renowned furniture designers and makers did not out their new wares with crusty, dark, bubbly finishes. So what’s the big deal about the original finish? It serves as a sort of certificate of authenticity for the modern day dealer or buyer. It isn’t especially pretty. You sometimes hear top end dealers or collectors say “Look at that lovely old finish” but they don’t mean the bubbled up dark shellac is a pretty finish all by itself. It means the finish helps to bolster the claim of age and therefore the price of a piece in their inventory or collection. Granted there are some very nice mellow old original finishes that are quite attractive but that’s not what I am talking about. You would never want to disturb a finish like that but an opaque crackled and bubbly surface from 1840 certainly deserves another look. There might actually be something beautiful under there that could be made to look just as Mr. Meeks intended it to look.

HANDMADE IS OLD AND VALUABLE

Since all furniture before the middle of the 19th century is basically handmade that covers a lot of territory. It also covers all the old farm furniture that was truthfully marginal in its day. Most farmers were better farmers than they were craftsmen and, yes, while the old farm piece may in fact be old that doesn’t necessarily make it valuable. There is a lot of old handmade junk still out there. It is sometimes discouraging to admit that even some professional furniture makers of the 18th and 19th centuries were known to make less than extraordinary examples of their work but they had to pay the rent just like everybody else.

There is still a lot of furniture being handmade today, some of it in small studio type settings, some in isolated garages and some in high school shop classes. Some of this handmade furniture is quite good but it certainly isn’t old and value is often in the eye of the maker or the recipient of the piece. That also includes the table Grandpa made when he was a teenager on the family farm. To the family it is a priceless heirloom but in the real world it is just a quaint piece of folk art that may or may not have any value at all.

THE FAMILY FABLE

Perhaps the most common of all the furniture fables I run across involves the incredibly intricate story of a given piece, at least according to family history. As I have previously expressed in this space and in many others, family history is the least reliable of all sources for the history of furniture. The most recent example to cross my desk concerned a hand painted bedroom set from 1922 (the date was on the back of the mirror glass). The writer relayed to me that the set had belonged to his grandmother. According to family history only 48 sets of this furniture were made, one for each state in the Union in 1922. Grandma’s father had bought the set designated for Oklahoma for her in Oklahoma City.

A close examination of photos of the set revealed a startling fact – it was not a set at all. The set consisted of a chest of drawers, a dresser with a mirror, a tall bed, a writing desk and a chair. Each piece was elaborately painted – in a different theme. There was no consistency in the painting from piece to piece. While the two pieces of case goods had the same basic design the headboard had a shape totally unrelated to any other piece in the set and the writing desk and chair were even more different from all the to the pieces.

I relayed all of this to the owner but he remained unconvinced because that is not what Grandma told him years ago. I just let it go. Didn’t want to confuse the poor fellow with the facts.

 

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 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), 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

An advertising pinback button for White Lead Linseed Oil produced by John T. Lewis Bros. Co. The 1-inch-diameter button is marked on the back: 'Lucke Badge & Button Co.' 

Last Updated on Monday, 02 June 2014 15:14
 

Furniture Specific: Have you seen these oddities?

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Friday, 02 May 2014 13:44
I don’t know what “the thing” was used for.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – I suppose that no matter what line of work you are involved in, you eventually reach a point where basically you fell like you have just about seen it all. It seems there are no surprises, mysteries or “hmmms?” left out there any more. And then out of the blue comes a new wrinkle on an old rock. Sort of makes it fun again. Fortunately for me, I have not yet reached that flat spot where things level out and it begins to feel like driving on a deserted Interstate.

I am presented almost on a daily basis with a furniture form, style or innovation that I have not yet seen or don’t know exactly what it may be or what it means. Sometimes readers surprise me with a mystery object that turns out to be a mystery only to me. Other people in the business know exactly what that thing is and are gracious enough to share their knowledge. In this column I plan to share with you a few objects that were at first a mystery, a couple of items that appear to be obvious but aren’t, a couple that just raise interesting questions and a few things you just might not have seen – or seen in a long while.

Sometime back a reader sent me a photo of an unknown (to him and to me) object asking what it could be. My first guess was that it was either the gallery or the base to a piece of case goods. Not being too proud to ask, I asked my readers if they knew what it could be. Many thought along the same lines as I did, obviously, like me, lacking the background for the correct identification. On the other hand a great number of readers knew exactly what it was. The mystery piece turned out to be a fireplace fender, designed to keep flaming logs that rolled out of the fireplace from venturing onto the carpet or floor. An interesting application for a frame made of wood but apparently it does work.

Another reader sent me a photo of what was described as a step stool used to climb into a high bed. He said it originally had carpet around the barrel of the body. My instinct said “no” – I wouldn’t use a round piece of wood as a stool, carpeted or not. Turns out I was right. That is not a step stool. It is a foot stool based on a design from the 19th century. I was even fortunate enough to learn of a collection in Texas, the Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park in Houston, which has the identical item that is tagged as being a footstool, circa 1890 and is called a “parlor pig.” Interesting name that obviously is drawn from the shape of the object.

One final mystery object, as yet unnamed by me, is what the reader simply called “the thing.” It appears to be a box of some sort that is mounted on a wall and opens from both the top and front to reveal its contents. It probably has a specific purpose well known to the user but other than general storage I do not know the true use of this object. If you know the correct name or the specific use, please let me know.

Moving from the “Hmmm?” category to the “You’ve got to be kidding me” level is a swan-arm rocker. The swan has been a stylistic element in one form or another in furniture for centuries. A swan’s neck and head was seen used as the arms and hand rests of rockers in the early 19th century. However, the most common examples today are reproductions from the Depression era like this mahogany platform rocker example. On the other hand a reader took the description to the next stage of meaning, relying a little too literally on the description. She sent me this photo of her “swan arm” rocker and asked if it too was an antique. It does match the descriptive name. You can be assured that I was polite in my response.

Most people are familiar with the famous Morris chair, the mechanical recliner marketed by William Morris in 1866. The chair bears his name but he actually adapted the design from another designer’s idea and called it his own. The basic design of the chair uses a series of notches to hold a pin or rod of some sort to support the chair back in various reclining positions. In what seems to be fair play most chair makers in the late 19th and early 20th century made similar recliners based on Morris’s design but they were not terribly popular until very late in the 1800s and even more so when the Stickley name was attached. Here is a recliner that operates on the same principal. However, this one is from the Renaissance Revival period of the 1870s and 1880s and is much earlier than the golden oak or Arts & Crafts models. The operation of this chair is slightly different from the general design of the Morris chair in the location of the notches and supports. All of that activity is confined to the rear of the chair Morris took credit for. This chair has the notches in the arms. Would it still qualify as a “Morris” chair? Another variation is the “invalid” chair of the same period. This version of the recliner, designed for a chair-bound patient, has a metal hinge assembly at the rear of the arms, which operates the recliner and is controlled by friction rather than notches. Does it still qualify as a Morris chair?

One final oddity for your consideration. What kind of outrageous wood creates the pattern on the front of this dresser? That was a trick question because you can’t actually see the wood on the dresser front. What you are seeing is a type of printed finish applied over a cheap secondary wood. This type of cheap showy furniture was called “borax” furniture during the Depression when it was given away as a premium for buying borax-based soap products.

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
I don’t know what “the thing” was used for. Believe it or now, this is a fireplace fender to keep coals and wood from the floor. This appropriately named footstool is called a ‘parlor pig.’ This is a Depression era “swan arm” platform rocker. This is the ‘swan’ rocker submitted by a reader. I don’t think it is an antique. This is a recliner similar to the Morris chair that was made during the Renaissance Revival period of the 1870s-1880s. This invalid chair of the 1870s-1880s operates on much the same principal as the Morris chair. This is a printed finish on a piece of borax furniture.
Last Updated on Monday, 02 June 2014 14:07
 

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
 
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