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Furniture Specific: Using your head, not your back

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Thursday, 04 September 2014 14:11

Besides your brain, here are few of the tools to help you have a successful move.

CRYSTAL RIVEER, Fla. – Unless you are one of those folks who lives in a sterile condo furnished with every anonymous artifact your decorator thinks you should have, the prospect of moving can be one of the most traumatic occurrences of your life. The sterile set just calls a mover and goes to South Beach for the season. The rest of us have to struggle with sorting out the flotsam and jetsam of our ordinary, disorganized lives.

The last time I moved it was from a house where my best friend Gail and I had lived for the better part of 30 years. We began our lives together there, we raised our children there and at long last it was time to go. But what about all that “stuff” we had accumulated? Not to mention all the stuff our children refused to take with them when they went to college and later into the real world.

Naturally we did it the hard way – mostly by ourselves over a period of nine months (come to think of it that sounds awfully familiar). After an interminable series of yard sales, each resulting in a trip to a local charity with the DNS load (Did Not Sell in auction terminology), we were left with the hard core of our prized, semi-prized and “just can’t leave” possessions. This remaining haul we sorted into two categories, the articles that we could leave to the mover and his euphemistically called “helper” and the really good things we wanted to move ourselves, including most of our antique furniture. Having been in the furniture restoration business for more than 20 years we were pretty good at loading and unloading trucks.

One thing you may or may not have noticed, if you have ever paid attention to real professional moving people, the folks who haul concert grands up the side of a building and can handle an egg with more finesse than a mother hen, is that these people do not employ large amounts of brute strength. Of course a certain amount of muscle is a basic requirement but that’s not what gets the piano up the wall. Brainpower does that.

So start by doing some mental exercise. Survey the pieces you need to move. Study how the pieces are assembled. Make sure you understand how the top is attached to the frame of the dining table. Take a look at the bottom rail of the chest. Is it sturdy enough to carry the weight of the chest? Note what appear to be any weaknesses in the design or construction of a piece. Are the legs at risk? Poorly blocked or loose already? Are the arms fragile or the bed rickety? Is the finish strong enough to withstand handling and packing or does it need special attention. When you understand the work to be done you are ready to proceed.

Next, acknowledge that most moving jobs are two-person tasks. Few articles can be safely moved by one person. And that requires a level of understanding and trust between two movers that few people rarely accomplish in other parts of their lives. You must know your partner’s strengths and weaknesses. You also must both agree on what “up a little” means and how far is “just a tad.” You need to know who is nimble enough to walk backwards and who can do stairs without looking. And if you say “go the right” is that your right or their right? Communication is the key. Lay out your intended plan to your accomplice. Walk the route out to the truck or out of the truck into the house. Visualize yourself carrying the piece down the hall, around the corner, up the stairs and through the door. Make sure your partner has the same vision. Count the number of steps up a stairway. That way when you actually carry something up you can count the steps out loud and everyone knows the current position.

Then check the route. Make sure it is free of obstacles and most of all make sure the piece will actually fit through the door at the top of the stairs. It’s easier than backing back down the stairs fully loaded. That’s what they make tape measures for. Make sure each person involved in the move has one.

There are a few major basic rules about moving furniture. The first is that the most obvious way to carry something usually is not the right way. That is true for virtually all armchairs, especially upholstered wing chairs and overstuffed club chairs. The temptation is to grab the arms and take off but that seldom produces satisfactory results because the arms of chairs are made to resist downward pressure, not upward pressure, even those on upholstered chairs. Carry large chairs from the bottom if at all possible or at least by the seat frame if you have height or visibility restrictions.

A corollary to the “no arm” rule is the “attached element” rule. Nothing should ever be grabbed or carried by anything added to a piece as a decorative element. That includes finials, gallery rails, crowns, splashboards, applied molding or carving, hardware or even handles, as tempting as that may be.

Another corollary is the “grocery cart” rule. Some furniture has wheels on it but don’t be fooled by that. Usually those wheels are just a stylistic element used to lift the piece off the floor so it doesn’t get mopped or vacuumed. And like most grocery carts, those wheels really aren’t made to roll the piece around on. That’s a good way to break the leg from a nice old table, chest or bed. In spite of the presence of wheels, just pick the piece up. But watch for wheels that may drop out of loose sockets as you pick it up. That’s a good way to lose a wheel, useless as it is.

The most prominent category of antique furniture is case goods. Before you start to move a chest of drawers or a desk, take a minute and step back. What exactly are you moving? In most cases you are moving a box, the case. It may have drawers or doors or a combination of both but it basically is a box. So move a box, not a desk or a chest. Start by removing the drawers but be sure to number them in order, even if they are different sizes. I know, I know, but humor me – Murphy has not repealed his law. Don’t forget the interior drawers of a desk or bachelor’s chest. Then remove and label any loose objects like shelves, shelf supports and drawer dividers that may want to go AWOL or break free and damage the interior. Finally secure doors and drop fronts by locking them if possible. If they can’t be locked don’t tape them shut. Tape has a tendency to pull finish and leave nasty residue. Wrap a good packing blanket around the piece and secure it in place with a rope or elastic strap to keep doors from swinging open.

If the cabinet has glass panels or glass doors of course you need to be extra careful, not just for the piece but for yourself. Old glass can be very brittle and temperamental – and very sharp when it shatters. If possible stuff the inside of the cabinet with blankets and pads to support the old glass so it doesn’t vibrate too much on its trip, especially if the piece is being transported on its back.

Finally bear in mind that you actually have two objectives in moving a piece of furniture – one is to safely move the piece from here to there and the other is for you to arrive in an undamaged condition also. In fact the latter has a higher priority in my opinion. Use all of the standard precautions about lifting with your legs and not your back, etc. but the most important thing you can do is use your head.

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

 Besides your brain, here are few of the tools to help you have a successful move.

Last Updated on Thursday, 04 September 2014 14:36
 

Furniture Specific: Is that really mahogany?

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Thursday, 31 July 2014 14:08

This Empire drop-leaf table, circa 8130, has as solid mahogany top and base with crotch cut mahogany veneer on the drawer front and skirt.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – All that glitters is not that expensive stuff and all that is red in antique furniture is not mahogany. In fact not even the mahogany is red most of the time and half of what you think is mahogany is not.

The wood most often called mahogany in modern times, since the mid 18th century or so, is commonly known as Honduran mahogany, Swietnia macrophylla, the large leaf version, named after the Dutch physician who described the genus in 1760. Although harvested primarily for convenience along coastal Honduras, this variety also grows in Jamaica, Florida and South America. But this is not the “true” mahogany that started the ball rolling for New World woods. The real stuff is Swietnia mahogani, the so-called Cuban mahogany, which has a higher specific gravity and darker color than its large leafed cousin.

This is the wood originally identified in the 16th century as a type of cedar tree, used by Cortez to build ships and by Raleigh to repair them. It was widely used in royal residences in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries but was far too exotic and expensive for ordinary cabinetmaking. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century that the Honduran variety, known in England as Jamaican mahogany to avoid the heavy import duty, became readily available in commercial quantities.

The common name for the tree was bestowed upon it by workers from Nigeria, enslaved on the early plantations of Jamaica. They identified a tree that appeared to be identical to one from their homeland, Khaya sengalenisi, and gave it the same tribal name they used in Africa: M’Oganwo. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how that became “mahogany,” although at different times and in different places it was known as mohogony, mohogani, mehogeny, etc., etc. You get the drift. Except in France of course, where it was called “Acajou.”

No matter what it was called, it became a standard for English furniture after 1715. It was particularly favored for tabletops because of the immense size of the available planks. It was not unknown for a single plank to be 6 feet wide and 20 feet long – or more in some cases – something that no European source could match.

And mahogany had several other things going for it. Even though it had been around for 200 years, the new availability opened opportunities for cabinetmakers who had not been given the chance to work with it. Not only was it something new and novel, it was easy to work with, a trait not found in the indigenous walnut and oak of the English Isle. Its close grain, smooth texture and softer surface were much more amenable to intricate carving and not nearly so hard on the tools of the period as the native resources. It also polished up nicely to a warm glow and the almost infinite variety of grain patterns was a delight to designers. But the crowning impetus for the beginning of the “Age of Mahogany” was the loss of the nearest competitor. The standing stock of European walnut was virtually eradicated by the Walnut Blight of the winter of 1709. Since it takes 10 to 20 years to slow dry a walnut log, after the existing stocks of cured wood were exhausted there was no more furniture grade walnut available in commercial quantities until late in the century. (The same thing, to a lesser degree, occurred in the United States during World War II. The hardwood stands of America were denuded since nearly every G.I., whether stateside or overseas, carried an M1 Garand or M1 carbine with a walnut stock. The forests did not recover commercially until the early 1960s.

Mahogany really came into its own in the mid 18th century with the designs of Thomas Chippendale and the Georgian explosion that lasted for decades. The first real slowdown in the mahogany rage came as the result of Napoleon’s blockade in 1806 to close the Continent to British trade. Since English ships carried the most mahogany from the Caribbean, it did hurt the overall industry but English cabinetmakers still had plenty of good stock, while French artisans had to make do with coloring domestic woods “in the fashion of mahogany.”

This initial imitation of mahogany eventually launched a major commercial change in direction for the furniture industry. The search for a cheaper, more readily available substitute for the expensive rain forest import took on new importance in the Victorian era. In America newly built furniture factories were in full operation by mid century and it took an enormous quantity of wood to keep them operating seven days a week. All manner of techniques were employed to disguise various woods, mostly maple and birch, as mahogany. Cherry was used liberally in Empire and Restauration furniture because of the base color. Other domestic woods were stained, painted, glazed or grained in an effort to create a faux Swietnia.

But the ultimate answer came quite accidentally and was not immediately recognized for what it was. In 1856 an English chemist by the name of William H. Perkin, had an accident while trying to produce quinine from coal tar. What he ended up with was the first aniline dye, mauve. Aniline itself is a colorless, highly toxic liquid produced from chlorobenzene and is used in the manufacture of explosives. The new dye, based on this potentially lethal base, became the foundation for the process that produced the vividly colored fabrics of the late 19th century.

By the time the furniture industry caught on to this new coloring agent it was almost 1900. The effect was dramatic. Structural members made of mahogany became almost unheard of in the retail furniture trade. Mahogany was relegated to strictly a decorative role in the form of veneer for the most part. And the manufacturers and dealers of the early 20th century made no secret of the substitutes. Sears, Roebuck & Co., in its 1902 wish book, took great pains to explain and promote its use of other than mahogany. In the description of a five piece parlor set, its "$17.90 SWELL SUITE", the text points out "The frames are substantially made of the best selected birch with a fine mahogany finish. ... It gives the same general effect as genuine mahogany and is very much less expensive ... and you have the same strength as you would have in genuine mahogany furniture.” Elsewhere the catalog describes the finish as "simulated mahogany" or "imitation mahogany.” Thus the cat was out of the bag in a big way.

And it was not just Sears. It was the entire industry for the most part. The great Colonial Revival movement of the 20th century owes it very existence to the use of dyes used to simulate mahogany and walnut in furniture that would not have been produced during the Depression years had the real thing been employed. That revelation and the development of a curing process that allowed the commercial use of red gum as a secondary wood in the 1920s were the cornerstones of 20th century American furniture until the introduction of particleboard in the late 1950s, which ended the history of furniture as far as I am concerned.

Is it still possible to find furniture made of mahogany? Of course. Go to any real antique store, auction or show and most of what you see will be mahogany of some type or another. But be prepared to be just skeptical enough to not believe that every dark red piece of wood is mahogany.

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

 

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 IMAGES OF NOTE

This Empire drop-leaf table, circa 8130, has as solid mahogany top and base with crotch cut mahogany veneer on the drawer front and skirt. 

This late 18th century table is made of very wide single boards of solid mahogany with satinwood edge banding. 

This settee from a parlor set, circa 1900, is made entirely of birch with a mahogany finish as described in the Sears catalog. A similar five-piece upholstered set was shown in the 1902 catalog for $12.45.

This lamp table from the late 1940s has a crotch cut mahogany veneer top and a red gum edge. Crotch cut veneer is cut from the intersection of a large branch with the trunk or the intersection of two large branches. That creates the

The turned and carved pedestal, legs and feet of the lamp table, like the edge of the top, are  made of gum, colored to look like mahogany.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 July 2014 14:50
 

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, 31 July 2014 14:06
 

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 Thursday, 31 July 2014 14:08
 

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
 
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