This piece was a surprise when I saw it. It looked just like a dresser, only …smaller. I guess it was actually made as children’s furniture, but was subsequently used as a bedside table. At any rate, it had suffered some insult over the years and it was up to me to fix it – partially.
The owner asked only that it be refinished, that I shouldn’t bother with repair. Ok, but not ok. The top had a large cup, two big cracks, one drawer guide was unattached and another guide was missing. Also, a sort of alignment/skid plate above the top drawer was missing. Oh, and several of the pull handles were loose.
Big cracks and cupped front edge:
I didn’t take a picture of the missing drawer guide because …
And another problem was that over all, it was rickety. You could move the top an inch right and left. Most of the glue joints had failed.
What to Fix?
Seriously addressing the general ricketiness was not really an option. To do that I would have to disassemble most of the cabinet, and I wasn’t hired for that.
The water stains would be removed as a part of refinishing.
I would glue and screw the drawer guide that had detached and I would make a new one for the missing guide.
The drawer handles were attached three ways: They were glued and had one nail in one edge, then they were screwed to the drawer face by a single screw from the inside.
The top cracks I would fill with more walnut, but I would not address the severe cup where the top lifted at both the front and back.
But before I get to the repairs, let’s take a careful look at this antique piece.
When and Where?
This is why I like to restore antiques. I get to be a detective. I get to do research.
The first obvious characteristic of this item is the wood itself. For the most part, the entire visible area is solid walnut. The top is two pieces edge glued together. The first board is 12″ wide. The second, about 3″. The wide board is pretty, but the two don’t match. At all. No attempt at a color match, much less a grain match.
But still, it’s wide, solid boards, including the solid 1/4″ side panels (the frame being partially sanded here).
The next thing to examine is the dovetailing of the drawers:
Nice colonial style handmade dovetails, but pretty rough, with obvious overcuts. Four pins and three tails, irregular spacing. That’s how dovetails were made by hand. Machine made dovetails entered American furniture making very late in the 1800’s, so hand cut dovetails were the standard until the 1890’s. Machine dovetails have at least twice pins/tails and are perfectly regular.
The drawer sides were poplar. Note the single nail (little round white spot) in the pull handle. That’s a cut nail, by the way, not a wire nail. I know because I pulled it out and looked at it.
Then we have the back:
1/4″ boards, overlapped and nailed to the case with cut nails. You can also see the saw marks on the back stile of the frame and panel side. This maker didn’t hold to the Chippendale standard for “back of the cabinet” quality!
And to press into that topic a bit, the structural wood inside the cabinet was also very crude with unplaned and irregular wood. This was a common practice as this furniture was targeting the middle class guy, not a railroad baron. There was a lot of labor savings to be had by skipping those finishing steps.
And then we have the bottom, looking at one foot:
This shows a spline connecting the bottom rail of the side panel to the back stile.
And more to see inside:
Two things to note in the picture, above. First, the roughness of the interior woodwork. Out of sight, so don’t waste valuable production resources. Second, note two glue blobs of different color. Under the top is a glue that dried white. PVA doesn’t do that, neither does hide glue. The other glue blob is a kind of gray, showing under the the third small block from the left. Almost like construction adhesive.
Hey, I’m Old, But I’m Not That Old!
No doubt this is at least 100 years old, but 150?, 200? There are some telltale clues. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
This piece (part of a set) was claimed to be pre-Civil War and bought in southern Ohio. The primary wood is walnut and the secondary wood is poplar. These are consistent with that area and about a dozen nearby states.
The second thing of note is the type of glue used. I couldn’t access all of the glued areas, but I could test the glue on the drawer runner that had separated. It is hide glue, consistent with pre-1900 furniture.
Next to look at is the way the back is attached. Cut nails. Nails have a very well documented history as they changed quite a bit over the American furniture making eras.
There are about a half dozen features to this nail that we can use to date its manufacture. Those include the type of metal (iron or steel), burrs that indicate how it was cut, pinch deformation indicating how the head was formed, grain direction of the metal, cross section shape, shaft taper, point type and a few others.
Lucky for us that there is a convenient chart to help date nails (at least the dates they appear in Louisiana construction) included in a historical study of nails done by Tom Wells in his treatise titled, Nail Chronology: The Use of Technologically Derived Features.. In Well’s dating scheme, our nail is a #8, which had a broad range of use from 1820 to 1891. Helpful, sort of.
These nails, showing features of head to tip grain, face-pinch, same side burrs, a rectangular cross section, and iron as the material, puts it in the 1834-1847 range. Looking closely at the head of these nails you can see the deformation caused by the machine flattening of the nail head. The head has cracks around the edges, like peanut butter cookie dough when you smash it on the cookie sheet.
Another feature observed in these nails is a splitting along the length, a manufacturing problem solved by the end of the 1840’s, adding another date-appropriate physical feature. Our nails clearly show the lengthwise split.
So we still can’t rule out a pre-Civil War manufacture, 1840’s for the nails.
The next items to examine are the screws. There are several types, but all unremarkable. Three screws that fasten the fancy headboard, six screws fastening the handles, and six more fastening the locks. All of these were “modern”, with a tapered body, circular machining of the head, a centered slot and gimlet (sharp) point. So, post 1840.
I wish I had examined the lock a little better. I also wish I had photographed it.
Lastly, there is the decoration. There are turned posts that have been cut in half lengthwise and nailed/glued to the 45 degree front/side transition faces.
There is also an oval “race track” of millwork on the front of each drawer encircling the fancy carved pulls. These all reek of machine manufacture but the pulls may have had subsequent hand carving. That said, the pattern lathe for the posts was invented around 1830 and we already have a later 1840 date. The millwork is machine made but I don’t know how to date that.
The style appears to be American Empire. This style had a short romance with American cabinetmaking from around 1810 – 1840, so tail end of that and evolving a bit into Victorian? I don’t know my styles that well but the period seems consistent.
I was hired to refinish this piece, not to repair it. But …
It was so rickety and missing parts and had unattached parts, so I heated up my glue pot and got to work. If it’s hide glue, stick (ha, ha) to hide glue. Hide glue is repairable and reconstitutes with heat and water. Heated and thinned glue will mix with the old glue and form a new bond. It requires very little clamping which is great in awkward spots.
I pulled things apart enough to get some runny glue in most of the joints and clamped it up. I reglued existing loose runners and the newly made runner as well as the newly made skid.
I learned from my novice luthier repairs that fixing cracks really involves filling cracks. With wood. Preferably identical wood. Cracks are cracks because that is the natural state of the board after relieving its stresses. So just go with it. Don’t try to clamp it closed, it will separate again later.
With a sharp chisel I scraped some flakes of walnut from the bottom of the top piece where it wouldn’t be seen. That top right rectangular patch of wood is what I mean by a “skid”. The one on the top left missing.
Then I hot glued them into the cracks, being sure to align the grain of the splinters with the grain of the board.
After sanding, the cracks were virtually invisible.
The Drawer Decoration
This was a pain in the neck. I had to carefully remove all the handles, sand all that fiddly racetrack trim and handle carving, then glue and nail the handles back on.
I should have taken some progress pictures, but I didn’t.
Terminus Post Quem
Or, “the earliest possible date”. This is the basic principle for dating antiques. A maker can have a stash of old nails, screws, or sawn boards, perhaps he bought from a defunct business, or recently found up in the attic. More sinister, an unscrupulous counterfeiter could replace modern hardware with older hardware to fool a buyer.
But ruling out deliberate trickery, the first principle is terminus post quem, that is, what feature could not exist in an earlier period? To answer this question we will now be looking at machine marks.
The first machining marks we noticed on this piece were the circular saw marks. Circular saw marks leave the obvious parallel arcs you see in the pictures below. Hand sawing leaves straight parallel marks that are either 90 degrees to the length, or slanted slightly.
Circular saws were in general use in the 1830’s, some say 1850, but they certainly came of age in the American Empire period. So far, consistent with our 1840’s date.
After all that careful examination of nails, screws, joinery, etc., I took another look at the underside of that big walnut top where I snagged the walnut shards for crack filling. Notice anything else?
I do – rotary planer marks. Note the fine parallel lines running up from the bottom of the photograph. These are marks made by a planer machine, and are actually scallop shaped grooves made by the cylindrical cutter head. Here’s a better picture:
The history of the planing machine is a little weird. It was invented and patented in 1824 as a tongue and groove flooring mill, but a machine for simply surfacing a board face didn’t appear until 1860 (it was based on the 1854 patent awarded to Solomon S. Gray). Strange, because innovation usually drives from the basic to the complex. That first planer not only surfaced both sides at once, it also cut both the tongue and the groove!
So, we have our terminus post quem set at 1860, possibly pre-Civil War.
The repair is complete. The cracks are filled, drawers work well, the cabinet is stiff and solid, and the drawer pulls are secure. The last step is the finish, what I was actually hired to do.
The owner wanted it a light in color as possible, and told me it had been refinished before. Since there was no originality to conserve, I just sanded the whole thing down and sprayed it with a pre-catalyzed clear lacquer. “Pre-cat” lacquer goes on very thin and chemically crosslinks to be very durable. It gives a nice transparent luster that feels invisible, like you are touching the wood and not a finish. It came out nice and my customer was very happy!