This post continues from my previous. One of the things about this piece that caught my eye was the newspaper lining. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was because I was mostly interested in the exterior carving, patina, damage, and hardware. But after we got it home (our place in March, Cambridgeshire) I was able to take a closer look at the interior and realized that my hunch was right, and the newspaper lining was probably old as well.
The first thing I did was try to find a date, which ended up being September 21, 1872. I found a couple of other pages with the same date, so it is probably all the same issue of the same newspaper.
I then started looking at the layout of the newspaper within the coffer and realized that it was used not only to protect the contents of the coffer from snagging on the wood but also as a bit of decoration. This coffer was already 200 years old when the owners decided to line it so it’s likely that splinters and ragged edges would have ruined any fabrics that were stored inside.
I also found where the newspaper was from. Norwich, in Norfolk.
We purchased the coffer near Bury St. Edmunds, which is about 40 miles as the crow flies from Norwich, so in its 300 plus history, it probably didn’t stray far from where it was made.
The coffer was likely made in the mid to late 1600s, although there is no provenance and the construction methods did not change significantly between the 1400s and the 1700s except to include other woods like walnut or pine.
In the next post I’ll talk more about how the coffer was built.
This is continued from part 3. I’ve made good progress on the secretaire, and I was going to say that it doesn’t look like it, but after going through my previous posts, I take that back.
I’ve made progress on several fronts (and backs). The back frame and panel is finished. I used some 3/4 inch pine for the frame and 1/4 inch plywood for the panel. I cut the pine into 2 1/2 inch rails and stiles and then got out one of my plough planes with a 1/4 iron.
A couple of fun facts about the planes to the right in the picture above. The one with the wormholes I got while on a project (my day job) in Georgia. A co-worker and I were driving to the project site when we saw an antique store and had to stop. I found this toothing plane and even though it’s pretty holy, the blade is in great shape. I’ve used it once (I do not collect tools, I use them. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) but I don’t work with thick veneers – yet – so I haven’t had a chance to really put it to use. Next to it are a pair of match planes from Sweden, made in the 1880s. I had been drooling over them at Allen Snyder’s booth at Midtown Antiques in Stillwater for a while, but then forgot about them when they weren’t there any more. Holly had got them for my birthday present.
Back on topic. The frame and panel for the back was pretty straightforward, so I was able to knock it out in a day. The coloring took another couple of days.
I made the back-facing side darker, to match the back that was on here. The front-facing side, I matched to the color and tone of the case.
I also finished the hinges for the slant front and the damaged portion of the lid.
The next thing I’ve started on is the front doors. You can see the beautiful bevelled glass that I got from my local glazier, Tom Huisman https://www.huismanglass.com/
I’ll have more pictures of the glass in the doors in a later post. Right now I’m making repairs and replacing the hinges. There had been several repairs of the doors which ended up with a large mortise cut into both doors.
Because of the deep mortises that had been cut into both doors there was nearly an inch gap between the doors when they closed, so the lock could not reach the other door.
I cleaned out the mortises and spliced in some oak.
I then shaved it down with a block plane, spokeshave, and sandpaper.
Next steps will be to fit the new hinges and color the repairs.
I’m really getting close to finishing this piece, and I’m very excited. Once the front doors are done, I’ll finish my touch-ups of the slant top, as it has become something of a distraction. I’ll have better pictures of the hardware in my next post and talk about where I got it.
I mentioned in my previous post that the hinges for the slant top portion of the desk would be the most involved part of the restoration. The hinges had been replaced a few times and the hinge shape had changed as well. This not only left random holes but large shapes carved into the shelf and the lid.
It looks like these replacement hinges were a bit of a rush job. The mortise that the hinges are set in is too large for the hinge and the person doing the restoration may have used one chisel to remove the material. It also looks like the hinge may have been installed incorrectly, which then caused a portion of the lid to break off when the lid was opened. This is all speculation, but I like to put myself in their shoes and see if I can find explanations for the things I find.
As you can see there are a couple of different sizes carved into this piece and that along with the damage done to the edge of the lid told me that I need to repair these and not just put new hinges in there.
This is where the project gets challenging because I have to remove material and then splice in new material to make the piece stronger. In this case, I need to remove a section where the lid broke and also remove the material around the old hinge mortise. I then splice in the new material. When I cut these pieces I have to pay attention to grain direction, grain orientation, grain consistency (is it clear straight grain or curvy). In the case of the broken lid portion, I saw that the edge showed the flat sawn side and the flat top showed the quarter sawn. For the hinge pieces, I looked at how the quarter sawn grain ran and oriented the new pieces to mimic that.
In the picture above, you can see that I cut the mortise along the grain and oriented the patch so that the grain followed the surrounding grain. Once the piece was glued I then used a block plane and then sandpaper to bring the material down to level.
In my next post I’ll show the rest of the process of cutting in the new hinges and coloring and blending the repairs.
I’ve reached the point where I have taken the piece apart and cleaned each part individually, looking for weak or loose joints, damage to solid wood or veneer and other issues. I’m now ready to start fixing the individual items.
On a side note: I’ve been looking for some maker’s mark or indication of where this piece came from, and have not found anything to narrow it down. I’m pretty sure it’s late 1800s, but it could be very early 1900s (up to 1910).
Back to the topic at hand. One of the things I noticed when disassembling the piece is that the back did not appear to be original. The rebate in the back is 3/4 inch, but the sheets that were used for it were only 1/4 inch. The pieces that made up the back were not plywood, but what appears to be poplar (or something similar).
The back had split in a couple of places and I didn’t want to muck about with it, so I took it out and will be replacing it with a frame and panel (actually two). This will stiffen the carcass much better and keep the piece from racking. I have a feeling that racking caused the splits in the back since the thin sheets didn’t stiffen the frame nearly enough.
I have gone over the drawers and doors, cleaned them up, removed marks, and then colored and shellacked them.
The doors just needed some cleaning. In the picture above you can see the bottom left corner has separated. I reglued this corner, and they are now ready for the new glass I had made for them by a local glazier. I don’t have any pictures of them with glass yet, but I will post some soon.
The next post will focus on the physical repairs I’ve made to the hinges of the desk. This is the most involved part of the restoration and so it’s the part I’m really taking my time on.
I was talking about the legs of our coffer and how they had been worn down and cut down over the centuries, and I wanted to show just how much that is.
This first is our coffer with its stubby – or shapely – legs. You can see that the front legs are uneven.
And below you can see that the back legs are quite a bit shorter than the front.
Now I have a couple of beautiful examples of coffers (just as old as ours) with nice long and even legs. The following pictures are all from Peter Bunting Antiques.
I think this says quite a lot about the homes that our coffer lived in for a good portion of its life. Dirt floors covered with loose rush (or woven rush) were common in England up until the 18th century (and maybe later). In fact, one of the reasons for the low stretcher on the front of early chairs (back stools) was so the person could put their feet on them and not have to leave them in the wet and dirty rush covering the floors. When we see these chairs with the stretcher almost touching the floor, this is only after the legs have been rotted and chopped off.
Back on topic. I’ve added these clues to my list and will talk about the clues I found in the newspaper lining next.
This is a quick post to introduce one of my current projects. This one is a Victorian slant top secretaire that I have recently started. It has some beautiful oak veneer as well as solid pieces that need some love. There will be quite a bit of small repairs to the finish, so some color matching. But the part that I’m excited about is the glass for the doors, as I have not had to replace this kind of glass before. So I’ve been busy researching this and finding out what my options are (find original glass or have it made). Anyway, it’s going to be a fun project, and I’ll be posting about my progress soon.
You can find the first part of my observations here. I’ve been interested in oak coffers for quite some time. I think it was Peter Follansbee who initially made me aware of them quite a few years ago. While researching green woodworking I came across Mr Follansbee’s website where he talks about early American furniture makers, furniture-making tools, and processes. His website is always informative, inspirational, and extremely valuable when it comes to green woodworking, 17th-century furniture making, tools, and bird watching.
The oak coffer was made almost exclusively with mortise and tenon joinery, although there are a few exceptions to this where dovetails or butted and nailed edges were used. Some later versions were made of walnut and other local wood, but by and large, the earliest coffers were oak and made with mortise and tenon joinery. This put them under the strict control of the Joiners Guild (members of the “Mystery of the Joyners”). This meant that within the City of London (and to varying degrees, elsewhere in England) from the 15th to 17th centuries, the guild had the authority to search workshops. These inspectors would ensure that only members of the guild were making joined products and that the craftsmen who were members followed the guild procedures and processes. The Carpenters and Turners also had guilds, and over the centuries they competed and merged with the others. The history of the guilds in Europe and the UK is fascinating, and I’m sure I’ll go down that rabbit hole and write about it sometime in the near future.
You have been warned.
I had been looking at coffers for quite a while and had my eye on several. One of the first coffers that I had a good close look at was at a Lyon and Turnbull auction in Edinburgh in Nov 2018. This was my first good up-close look at a 17th-century oak coffer, and I was over the moon. My oh so patient wife watched me make a spectacle of myself as I bounced from piece to piece at that viewing, but the 17th-century pieces stole the show for me. Over the next year though, I’d see quite a few other coffers, newer and older and in better and worse shape, and so I ended up being able to make somewhat intelligent comparisons.
After almost a year in Scotland and then in England, looking at hundreds (if not thousands) of beautiful old pieces of furniture, and more specifically, oak coffers, we finally found one that fit our needs/desires. While living in March, Cambridgeshire in the UK, we purchased an oak coffer from the Risby Barn Antique Centre near Bury St. Edmunds. Since then, I’ve been slowly going over it to see how it was made, how it had been repaired, where it had lived, and trying to verify its age.
We had allotted up to a certain amount for our purchase, but this coffer that we decided on was well below that. It was sold as an “Early 17th-century plank top oak coffer” and even though I’d seen many of the same age in better condition, this one caught my eye because of the repairs and the newspaper that was used to line the interior. I decided on this one not just because of its beauty but also because of the story it would tell, which to me, is just as important.
As I mentioned, the newspaper lining was one of the first things I noticed that set this one apart from most of the others I’d seen. In fact, after going over all of my pictures I don’t believe I had seen any other ones with newspaper lining so, BIG WIN. There isn’t anything about the paper lining that adds to the monetary value of the piece and more likely, it decreased the value by hiding the interior. But for me, it provides clues to the history of the piece, which is valuable. I’m going to write specifically about the paper lining in a future post, but for this post I’m going to concentrate on the legs and feet and those repairs.
The legs are also the stiles of the panels and house the mortises for the side and front rails. The end grain of the feet have been soaking up any and all moisture on the floors for more than 300 years, and it is quite likely that the first several homes that this piece lived in had dirt floors.
The back legs have been damaged the most and after reading a bit about this it does make sense.
The back legs would have been up against an outside wall of either stone or wattle and daub (and no insulation or moisture barrier) so moisture and even standing water would not have been uncommon.
In the case of our coffer, the legs had probably deteriorated to the point that the person who repaired it simply had to cut them back to a point where they were not as rotted. That person then added two sections of new wood. The one behind the leg has the grain running vertically. This piece is likely to stabilize and strengthen the leg. The second section was on the bottom of the foot and had the grain running horizontally, so it would not wick as much moisture. This repair may have happened a century or so after it was built, but the next picture shows that the spliced piece behind the leg, as well as the block attached to the bottom, have been worn at an angle. This could mean one of two things. First, it might be that the person who added the repairs made the back legs too long and then cut the back legs at an angle to meet the front legs. I don’t think this is the case, but I could be wrong…Nah, I’m not wrong.
I think what really happened here is that after the back feet were repaired, the front feet also experienced deterioration that resulted in them losing a bit off the ends over the centuries. As the front feet wore down, the back feet wore at an angle to compensate. One other thing I’ve noticed is that the vertical piece that was scabbed onto the back of the leg may not be nearly as old as the horizontal piece added to the end of the foot. This because that piece doesn’t show any of the deterioration that you would expect if it had been soaking up moisture for several centuries.
This possibly means that the scabbed piece was added after the coffer moved to a home with non-dirt floors, thereby not wicking up as much moisture over the next hundred or so years.
For the next part of my observations, I’ll talk about the newspaper lining and how that fits into the piece’s history.