Late 19th C Empire Style Rocker Restoration Part 2

In Part 1, I had finished stripping and disassembling the rocker and had decided to replace the rockers and the side pieces of the seat. After that, I also decided to replace the back of the seat. This because the sides had been connected to the back with dowels, but the way the dowels and the joints fit, they did not make a good joint. If you look at the picture below, you’ll see that at each end, a half a hole for a dowel. So one of the dowels on each side was not even embedded in the back piece.

I then looked at the way the sides connected to the front piece and decided that instead of a couple of dowels, I’d use a loose tenon. This would create more shear strength, across the grain, at this crucial point.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the loose tenon or any of the fitting process, but I do have pictures with layout lines and also where I filled in the original dowel holes.

My pencil mark shows where the loose tenon is.
This shows where I filled the dowel holes in order to remove the mortise for the loose tenons.

The following pictures show me cutting and shaping the back piece.

Making the replacement back piece.

I took the number of holes from the original and spaced them a little more evenly before drilling them out.

I countersunk the holes.

Using a bit from a roll that a wonderful friend and classmate from the Chippendale Furniture School gave me.

Thank you Gordon! @twintreedesign
Initial fitting of the back piece.

After quite a bit of dry fitting and tweaking the joints, I was ready to glue up the seat.

For most of my projects, I tend to use hide glue for the joints and PVA for the splits, cracks, and fills (like for filling the dowel holes). My thinking is that for most, if not all, repairs I can use PVA adhesives because the idea is that they should never need to be undone at all…ever. This is for repairs and restoration jobs, but not necessarily for conservation work. For the joints, I use hide glue because I want to be sympathetic to the piece and I want to make sure that the piece can be repaired / restored in the future and still be sympathetic to the piece if that future restorer wishes. If in the future, someone repairs the piece with whatever adhesive they have available, that’s fine because I won’t be around to see them muck it all up 😉

My ultra high tech hide glue melting pot. Plus if I ever need a bikini wax, I’m set.
Seat is fitted and the chair (except for the rockers) is ready for glue up.

For Part 3 I’ll remake the rockers and discuss the changes I made to the dimensions. I’ll also discuss the back frame and the broken pieces I had to replace for the caning.

Chair caning project.

A few months ago, my wife and I picked up a couple of chairs that we wanted to work on. Both had caned seats and one (the Empire style rocker here ) also has a caned back.

Two projects we picked up several months ago.
Caning before removal.

I’d been reading about seat caning for a while and have been following Ed Hammond and The Wicker Woman on YouTube. The book I got was “The Craft of Chair Seat Weaving, with Cane, Rush, Splint, and Rope” by George Sterns. The book is a very good starter and I referred to it quite often for the basics. The YouTube videos are much better for the details and to better be able to adjust for the curves and other fiddly stuff. I also used Ed Hammond and The Wicker Woman as guides for the “no knot” method for the underside.

To start out, I stripped the chair and then prepped it for a new paint job. I went with milk paint and initially tried what I thought was Barn Red, but turned out to be closer to Hot Pink. Rather than remove this and start over I just painted Pitch Black over it. I did not want to distress this, but I figure that it will distress naturally very nicely with the red/pink underneath.

I stripped the chair and then had a good look at the joints to make sure everything was solid. The chair was in great shape so I didn’t need to redo any joints.
Not the colour I was looking for.
Much better! A few coats of Pitch Black and then a few coats of wax later and it’s ready for caning.

I had several false starts on the caning portion. As I got past the verticals and into the horizontals I had to unweave several sections and start over. It took quite a bit of thinking, doing, undoing, thinking, doing, undoing before I got the verticals and horizontals that I thought would work.

This was attempt 3 or 4. Can’t be sure.

Once I got into the diagonals I realized that there were still issues with spacing in the horizontals and verticals. I had to figure out how to either work around some of these obstacles or redo them. I ended up doing both.

I will probably redo this seat in the future, but once I get the border finished it will reside in our kitchen for a while.

Still need to add the border around the sides and front. This has been a huge learning experience, but I do feel better about getting started on the Empire Style Rocker, once my repairs are finished on that one.

Update 26 July 2020: I finally finished the last of the border and cleaned up the underside.

I ended up doing more of a hybrid ‘no knot’ with a couple of knots due to being unable to plan ahead or stage my cane ends well enough. I surprised myself with how strong these cane seats are: I’ve already sat in this chair a few times and I’m a rather large person.

I have a couple more caning projects coming up am ready to improve on this one.

Late 19th C Empire Style Rocker Restoration Part 1

One of the first projects I’ve started working on since moving back to the US is a rocker I picked up at an antique shop. Normally, you don’t find a piece in this shape in an antique store, but it looked like someone wanted to have a go at it and then gave up. The caning had been removed and some of the paint (original dark red) had been removed, but other than that it was just in a sorry state.

Someone got started on this project but didn’t have the time or desire to finish it.
A previous repair.

As I went over this piece, I noticed some things that I would change when I rebuilt it. An example is the rockers, which split along the grain in several places. I’ve decided not to try to reuse these rockers, as I did some experimenting with glue-ups and looked at all the holes created by other repairs and figured it wasn’t worth it.

Another thing I decided to change is how the seat was put together. There were two dowels holding the sides to the front and back pieces of the seat. The side pieces were curved and they split in the short grain.

These side pieces of the seat split along the short grain at the edge.
A bit blurry, but you can see where it split through both dowel holes and then up through the top.

Other than that I didn’t see much that I wanted to change so I took the chair apart.

Once I had the chair apart (except for the top rail and the side piece that I think had been glued together with epoxy or similar) I stripped and cleaned the pieces so I could better evaluate each piece and the joinery.

This is when I found that the frame for the back caning had split into dozens of small pieces, so this will need to be replaced.

Next up in part 2 I make parts for a new seat frame.

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 and also on

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 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.