Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, UK

And now for something completely different. While in the UK, we did a good bit of sightseeing. From Inverness to Long Melford we put some serious miles on our vehicles and saw some incredible places along the way. I have most of the places we visited below, although I could easily be forgetting a few.

Northern Scotland and the highlands.
Southern Scotland into northern England.
After we moved to March, in Cambridgeshire. These are the ones closest to home.
And a bit further afield.
And from furthest north to furthest south.

While we were living in Cambridgeshire we went to Bury St. Edmunds and visited the abbey ruins there. Even though we had already seen a dozen or more ancient abbeys that were in better shape than this one, our visit to these ruins made an impression. We had already visited Jedburgh Abbey and St. Andrews Cathedral as well as a few castles that were around the same age as these ruins, but on this sunny and beautiful day it hit me that these ruins (nearly 1000 years old) had people just sitting and having a nice lunch and a chat on them.

People having lunch and a chat at the ruins.

The casualness of this interaction stunned me even though we had been visiting castles and ruins for a year. I had not become familiar enough with these ancient buildings and ruins to see them as anything but objects to be revered and honoured, so I thought it was amazing that they could just be seen as a beautiful space to relax and chill.

One thing that bugged me for a while was the name Bury St. Edmunds. Why was there a verb in the name and wasn’t it a bit morbid? Well, come to find out that the Bury comes from an earlier form of the English ‘borough’ or German ‘burg’ and means fortress or stronghold. The town was initially called Beodricsworth until the remains of the martyred king St. Edmund were moved there, then it became St. Edmundsbury and then Bury St. Edmunds. I later found that there are a few other places in the UK with Bury in front.

One bit of historical trivia that caught my eye was that the abbey is connected to the Magna Carta.

Another interesting tidbit is that we only stumbled on this as we were going to Lavenham to check out a couple of antique shops. And Lavenham is going to be the subject of another post.

Oak Coffer Observations Part One

I’ve put off writing about this because I was waiting for our shipment to arrive from the UK so I could reference some of this first hand.

One of the types of furniture that I found in the UK that piqued my interest was the oak coffer. Since the middle ages, the oak coffer or oak chest has been an essential piece of furniture for a household and not only served as storage but as a seat. The earlier coffers were primarily plank construction, something that changed during Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) when panelled coffers became more popular. (English Furniture, Its Essentials and Characteristics by John C. Rogers, Published by Offices of Country Life, 1923)

Beautiful example of a 6 plank oak chest. 16th century. Photo from Antiques Atlas
Showing the long wide single plank top. Photo from Antiques Atlas
A panelled oak coffer from the 16th century (Elizabeth I). Photo from Marhamchurch Antiques
Another Elizabeth I example. Photo from Marhamchurch Antiques

While in the UK, I rarely saw the earlier plank chests (I saw a few later 20th century versions), but I did see quite a few of the panelled chests. Once I started looking at them more closely I realized that they are similar to the oak chests that Peter Follansbee has been talking about for quite some time. When I re-watched an episode of “The Woodwright’s Shop” it really motivated me to look into this type of antique and how they were made. In this episode, Mr. Follansbee had observed that there were grooves in the top of the stiles that didn’t seem to make sense.

In this screenshot we can see that there are grooves on one face of each stile and that they seem to chase each other around the chest. Why is there a groove on only one face? And why on alternating faces?

The groove itself is for the panel to ride in and is only needed between the mortises for the rails. Functionally there would be no reason for the groove to go all the way to the end of the stile. Mr. Follansbee went on to show how the rear portion of the skate (or runner) of the plow plane would ride too high for the iron to cut the groove unless you cut a groove for the skate to ride in.

The plow plane cannot cut the groove for the panel because the back of the skate will ride high. The solution is to cut the groove all the way to the top of the stile so the skate can drop down and let the blade cut.

I had seen this episode many times before but I’d never had a chance to look at any old coffers up close. Since then, I’ve seen dozens and we also own one that was made in the late 17th century (about 1670). I’ve found that many of the panelled construction coffers do show these grooves to some extent, however, the age of these pieces and the fact that many have been repaired at a much later date can wipe out some of these clues.

This chest shows the grooves on three of the stiles. The back left stile does not have a visible groove.

The following are of my coffer that just arrived, so I was able to take better pictures.

Front left stile.
Front right stile.
Rear left stile.
Rear right stile.

It’s been incredibly exciting to be able to find supporting evidence for this process and even more exciting to be able to handle so many of these pieces. I’ll be following up with more on the oak coffer since I’ve found many more interesting things in mine. I’ve also been sorting through my photographs of all the others and continually find new and interesting things.

Repurposed Commode.

My wife and I were antiquing recently when I stumbled upon a piece of furniture that was familiar even though I don’t think I’d ever seen one in person before.

A piece of plywood replaced what was likely a wooden bottom with a hole cut in it to hold a pot.

I did remember where I’d seen a picture of one before so I hopped on Pegs and Tails, which is my go-to for antiques identification and restoration. I found this article that seems to support what I thought.

Very similar to the piece I was looking at.

So, it’s possible that the nice little “end table” with a hinged lid and storage inside, began its life as a Georgian Commode.

Arts and Crafts style mirror with gilding.

One project that really took me by surprise while at the Chippendale school was a mirror that ended up requiring more brand new skills than I would have thought possible.

I already knew that I wanted to do letter carving and I knew which quote I would use. I first saw the quote “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” in a picture of a fireplace mantel in a craftsman style home of Gustav Stickley, who was one of the first, and most well known, US mission (arts and crafts) style furniture makers. I then did some research to find out that it is from a poem by Chaucer, called “Parliament of Fowls” which is about how love and life are crafts that take a lifetime to learn. It is also thought to be the origin of St. Valentine’s Day. That said, I only knew it as a quote about traditional crafts and still think of it that way.

It started out as a simple drawing. At this point, I was so focused on my other project that I didn’t put a lot of thought into the scale or proportion, but I knew I wanted an arts and crafts style mirror.

This plan lasted long enough to start dimensioning the lumber and then went through several modifications (in my head). Then, when we ordered the glass I realized I had designed the frame too large, so it went through another major modification.

I thunk and thunk and then thunk some more over the resizing and what shape the mirror should take but had already started laying out the letters since the letter size and font would tell me generally what shape the mirror would take. I knew from the beginning exactly which font I wanted to use on this as I’d seen it used quite often for arts and crafts lettering, but I just didn’t know what it was called. I searched several font websites and found it on https://www.dafont.com/dyer-arts-and-crafts.font and also on https://www.1001fonts.com/dyer-arts-and-crafts-font.html

This is a public domain font and is free for all kinds of usage.

Dyer Arts and Crafts font.

I didn’t want the letters too small as that would make the carving more difficult so when I settled on a size I printed them out, cut and spliced them into their lengths and lay them out on the lumber. Here I needed to make sure my kerning was consistent because I was splicing groups of letters together.

I was worried that as I started to outline the letters onto the wood with the gouges that the letters would move and I’d lose my place, so I also used graphite paper (carbon paper) to trace the outside lines of the letters. This turned out to be overkill and actually created more work for me because I then had to remove the tracing afterwards, which turned out to be more difficult and fiddly than I had planned.

You can see the result of the tracing paper in a few of the letters.

The letter carving itself was very enjoyable and cathartic. I would be so engrossed in my carving that hours would fly by and I’d have to force myself to take a break, stretch, grab a cuppa, chat with the other students, and then dive right back in.

Once I’d reached a point that my rough out of the letters was finished, I shellacked the letters. This was to exaggerate the roughness and show me where I needed to concentrate my efforts to smooth the sides and the outlines.

I’d shellacked the top row, but not the bottom yet.

The roughing out of the letters was the quick part. I spent more than twice as much time smoothing the sides and edges.

After the rough out of the letters. Next I’m on to the smoothing.
Getting there.

Once I’d finished the smoothing of the letters, I was ready to stain and then gild. I later found out that this was the wrong order and next time I’ll gild and then stain. The reason being that when I finished gilding I had to sand the surface in order to create the crisp edges, but doing that removed most of the stain. I then had to restain after I had finished sanding. Not a huge issue as the restain cost me a part of a day and I had to let it dry overnight before shellacking.

I also had to regild the letters as I initially didn’t follow the tutor’s instructions correctly. Richard Walker at http://watergild.com/ was the visiting tutor for our gilding instruction and was great to work with. He never cracked a joke and we always knew when he was being serious. 😉 After realizing my mistake and regilding the letters, I sanded then restained using my super secret mix of water dyes.

Some of the testing I did for the mirror frame. Not all, but some.

After letting the stain dry overnight, I shellacked the front side. This was so I could finish staining the edges without it bleeding into the front.

As I was doing all of this I also worked on the side pieces and created the mount in the back to hold the glass. I don’t have pictures of that, but may add some at a later date.

I also didn’t take pictures of the glass/water gilding on the glass, and I’m really kicking myself now. That process was incredibly interesting and I can’t wait to do another project like this. Again, Richard was excellent to learn from as he was able to walk me through the process several times (I kept getting sidetracked on other stuff and would come back and say, “uh, I can’t remember what you said to do here”). Very patient and a great teacher.

First, I laid out the background, which was white gold (I think it has an Italian name, but can’t remember). Then, I scratched out the outline of the roses. For each rose I started with red gold, then added white gold to the center. I then scratched out the leaves and used green gold. I finished by scratching out the stems and then painted over the back with black acrylic paints. I’ve really condensed the process here because I don’t have a photographic record of the steps, but even though there are a lot of steps here and I had to wait overnight for the water to dry before I could move on to the next portion, it went surprisingly quickly. I will post pictures of the process when I do my next glass gilding project.

And the finished product, with 7 coats of shellac. I’ll add more pictures later.

A closer look at the 18th-century Italian chest.

In the previous post, I was working on the top of the chest but didn’t show any of the rest of the piece, so here goes.

The first thing I noticed when the piece came into the shop was the back.

It initially looked, and felt, like thin cement covering the joints but Graham identified it as gesso. This makes more sense because workshops would have had gesso available for painting (and gilding?)

This next picture made me think that most of the carcass may have had a gesso coating. The drawer side looks like it could have been covered, and then through the years the majority just wore away.

But then the inside of the drawer again looks like the gesso was used to cover gaps in joints, smooth dents, and fill holes. So I don’t think the gesso was used to cover the entire carcass, but I do believe it was added at a later date to cover gaps that developed as the lumber dried and shrank.

Next, I looked at the drawers. This along with the back of the chest brings up an interesting point. The craftsperson (craftspeople) who worked on this were very efficient with their time and energy. Non-show surfaces were not smoothed or scraped.

And, unfortunately, this piece had been a meal or two for some woodworms. Unfinished surfaces were given woodworm treatment as soon as the piece came into the shop.

This next picture highlights a couple of points. First, I think it re-enforces the idea that the gesso was a later addition to cover up the gaps made by dried and shrunken wood. Second, the non-show surfaces again show the efficient use of their time. The only smooth surface in this drawer space is the bottom where the drawer sanded it smooth from hundreds of years of use.

I eventually started looking at the show surfaces.

This marquetry is very similar to the table that came in a while back.

A portion of the Italian table that came in for restoration a while back. I’ll post more on this one later.

One thing about the marquetry is that the lines for the detail are not carved like first thought. They are drawn.

I didn’t think much of this at first, but when Graham needed to do some work on the table he discussed how important this detail is. If you have to use meths (methylated spirits – denatured alcohol) to clean or take off the finish for any portion, it can also erase the detail work so you have to be careful where and how you use any chemicals to clean a piece.

One major difference between the table and the chest is that the table is all marquetry and veneer with a clear finish, whereas the chest is marquetry and a painted veneer.

Painted veneer.
Veneer with clear finish.

Graham thinks this means the two pieces were made in the same shop, but the chest was a project for an apprentice. That makes sense to me and I’m running with that theory.

18th Century Italian chest restoration.

One of the most valuable (to me) skills that my furniture making course has taught me is the core fundamentals of furniture restoration and repair. Graham and Clare, who are both as great at teaching as they are at repair and restoration, have allowed me to look over their shoulders (and incessantly ask questions) as they have worked on pieces. I have also been able to work on some of them myself, which has not only been a great and challenging experience but has been extremely fun as well.

Graham and Clare have both been with the Chippendale International School of Furniture for more than 2 decades and are easy to talk to and wonderful to work with on these great pieces of furniture.

Recently, an Italian chest, much like this one I wrote about previously came into the school for some work.

The goal was to fill/replace the missing pieces and to make the repairs sympathetic to the age and blend them into the overall condition of the piece. If we decided to make the repairs perfectly flat and shiny with no gaps, then each repair would have stood out and looked out of place.

First thing was to lightly clean the areas that needed repair.

Each of these spaces was cleaned with scalpels, awls, and pretty much anything I could get my hands on that was small enough to get into the crevices and cracks. The bottoms of these spaces needed to be relatively smooth so when I fit the replacement pieces of wood in there they would sit flat and have a good stable glue surface.

More of the missing pieces.

The next step was to put tape over each of the empty spaces and lightly shade with a pencil to get the outline of the missing area.

After I had a good tracing of a missing piece, I put the tape on a piece of (in this case) walnut that I’d be using to patch with. I made sure to orient the grain with the existing veneer.

Anselm and Graham believe the table is from around 1760 and the veneer is several times thicker than any you can buy today, so the repair pieces were resawn on a bandsaw to be just a bit thicker than the old veneer. This way we could pare down the patches to the correct level.

Next, I cut out the pieces oversized and then fit them using small files, sandpaper, and scalpels.

This shows a couple of different stages. A couple of the spaces have been cleaned, one is ready to be traced, and one has a patch already fit (it still has tape on it).
Another area ready for patching.
And with some of the patches fit.

The next stages were to glue the pieces into their respective spots

Using a combination of tools to shave the patch down a bit.

Once the patches were in and the glue dried, I used a combination of water dies to get the patches to blend with the background. I then used coloured wax sticks and melted a mix of colours to fill and blend the repairs. (I don’t have pictures of these steps because once I got into it I was so engrossed that I forgot). Next was a light going over with some black wax, to blend all of the repairs with the rest of the table top.

As always, the repair and restoration is just a wonderful experience.

Campaign Style Furniture design, part 1: brass hardware, straps and corner mounts.

Campaign furniture spanned more than 200 years of English furniture periods from the Georgian through to the mid 20th century. Even though it was around for so long the campaign-style did not change much in those 200 years, which could be attributed to a couple of factors. First, since the furniture had to be mobile and sturdy for use on or near battlefields there are arguably a limited number of ways to build that furniture. Second, the clientele were military officers to begin with, who tended to be staid, conventional, and reserved in their tastes and styles.

I believe the first campaign furniture was made for British naval officers in the early Georgian period (the early 1700s). I’ve perused the Christopher Clarke Antiques Blog and Christopher Schwarz’s book and haven’t found anything definitive on this and will probably follow up with more posts on the history itself.

One feature of campaign furniture that tends to stand out (and is used heavily in contemporary interpretations) are brass coloured straps and hardware.

Brass coloured straps are a decorative element in modern furniture. You will likely find that on modern pieces the straps, corner mounts and related parts are not recessed and installed flush, but are proud of the surface. Another difference is that the straps and hardware will likely be fixed with tacks, pins, or small nails. You may also find the pieces glued to the carcass.

The utilitarian and mobile nature of Campaign furniture means that the brass hardware is functional as well as decorative. Brass straps and corner mounts protect edges and corners. Straps may also help to keep sides from bowing or flexing and creating gaps.

A corner mount.

Corner mounts will usually be flush with the wood, which requires time and effort and would be difficult to automate. The screws will be countersunk slotted screws and again flush so as not to catch on anything while moving it.

Brass straps.

The brass straps are also mounted flush and protect the edges and possibly keep the sides from bowing or flexing since they are of solid wood (mahogany, teak, or in this case, oak).

For part 2 I’ll talk about the drawer hardware.