Oak Coffer Observations Part 2.5

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.

17th century coffer with a paneled top and nice long legs and relatively little moisture damage.
17th century coffer with some long legs that do show moisture damage. Conservation will keep these from deteriorating any further.
A beautiful 16th century 6 plank coffer. You can see the back right leg has a repair, but still has its length.

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.

Slant top secretaire restoration. Part 1

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.

Slant top secretaire.
The gallery is in good shape and looks like it just needs a good cleaning.
I have it apart now and am going over all the pieces, cleaning and assessing their state.

Oak Coffer Observations, Part Two

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.

The first oak coffer I had a chance to look at up close and personal was at a Lyon and Turnbull auction in Edinburgh.
This piece ended up selling for £375

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.

The oak coffer I’ve been studying.

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.

Water and insect damage are visible in this picture.

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.

Back foot repairs at an angle.

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.

Not a great picture, but you can see that the end grain of the scabbed piece is not deteriorated.

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.

Small Oak Serpentine Dresser

So, my glacial progress on these first restoration and repair projects has been a bit disheartening, to say the least, but I’m within spitting distance of finishing the small oak dresser, so here we go.

This is the 2nd project in a group of about a dozen that I’ll be working on in between my day job and getting my workshop insulated (which I will write about in another post). It is an oak dresser that originally came with a mirror. The mirror may be in the group of mirrors that I received with these projects, but I have not tried pairing them yet. The dresser is likely early 1900s or, less likely, late 1800s. The drawer fronts and top are solid oak and the interior is in good shape. The casters are original wood wheel and brass and the drawer hardware appears to be original as well.

Serpentine front small oak dresser. It’s in pretty good shape except for some burns, water stains, and other discolouring.

The dresser was not in bad shape but required some work done to the damaged top, so I got out the card scrapers to remove the burns, then filled the shallow divots with shellac which I coloured to match the rest of the top. Some alcohol and a scrubber got out most of the rest. I then put a few coats of shellac and then some dark wax (Kingdom Restorations). Clare, a tutor at the Chippendale International School of Furniture used to say, “Dark wax can hide a plethora of sins.” In this case, it helps even the tone across the top.

I also needed to replace a damaged runner. This was the only “woodworking” needed for the project.

Damaged runner on the bottom.

I then cleaned out the corners of the panels of the frame and panel sides. This may seem like a nit-picky thing, but in this case, I wasn’t going for a heavily patinated look. Getting rid of the black gunk in the corners just sharpened the edges and “youngened” it up a bit.

I replaced the old casters with reproduction casters from Van Dykes Restorations. The new casters are beautifully made and all I needed to do was plug the old holes, then drill new holes for the new casters.

New caster wheels were just a wee bit larger than the old ones, but the larger wheels roll more smoothly over carpet or rugs. The new casters also have ball bearings – very nice.
This picture shows a hole that has been plugged and is ready to be drilled for the new caster.
This shows that on one of the back legs there was some separation between the different sections of the leg, so I used the glue squeeze out from the peg to put those back together.

While I was working on the casters I noticed that when they were making this dresser, they used a table saw or similar to cut the mortises for the side rails.

On this side you can see the kerf of the saw, so it looks like it took 2 passes to get the right width for this tenon.
For the two top short drawers, the saw just went the entire length.

After this I noticed that the stiles for the side panels were starting to separate so I cleaned the old hide glue out and cooked up a few ounces to re glue.

The hardware was not in horrible shape but a few of the bail pulls were either missing rosettes or the rosettes were damaged so I searched E-Bay and found some nice ones and also found some that I liked at Van Dyke’s Restorers. Even though I found some knobs there as well, I decided to keep the original.

Old knobs and new pulls.

One thing I didn’t replace (yet) is the missing escutcheons for the two top drawers. Why, I can’t even begin to say, except that brain farts are real.

I just have a few fiddly bits to finish up like the escutcheons and runner blocks for the drawers to keep them from jamming, but other than that this has turned out to be a very pretty and usable piece of furniture.

Don’t look at the missing escutcheons!
Before re gluing the sides.
Top turned out beautifully. The cigarette burns and other stains came out very well. There is one divot that I didn’t fill because it was wide but shallow and I figured it was not very noticeable. If I had this to do over again, I might put the time into filling and colouring it, but probably not.

I’ll probably take a look at some brighter, shinier hardware for this one, but I doubt that I’ll go with it. I like the darker hardware on this. I will probably post some pictures with the brighter stuff though, just for comparison.

Campaign Style Furniture design, part 2: Patent (metamorphic) furniture.

This is continued from a post about Campaign Style Furniture I wrote a while back.

All photos in this post are from the Christopher Clarke Antiques website https://campaignfurniture.com

The first thing about Campaign Furniture that got me interested in the style was that many of the pieces broke down for travel or had hidden uses. Some of these designs seemed playful in that what looked like a chest of drawers turns into a desk, or when a small table breaks down into a briefcase-sized box with carrying handles.

A Campaign Secretaire Table. Circa 1790, in mahogany.

I find a piece like this just fantastic as it packs so much utility into such a small space.

Legs and stretchers are stored inside.
This is one of my favourite designs. The gallery and writing space are large enough to be useful and small enough to be mobile. The stretchers are very important as without them the legs would not last a day, especially on uneven ground or with the racking and twisting of use near a battlefield.

The chests that convert to secretaires or desks are beautiful pieces. There are several different methods of hiding the writing surface and gallery, like below where the top folds out and rests on lopers and the gallery pops up on springs.

Georgian Military Campaign Chest

The following is the most prevalent style though and is what I styled my campaign chest after (I’m still working on it and plan to have it finished sometime this millennium). My drawings (from my other post) show that I am using the quadrant stays like the following example, instead of lopers like the above example, to support the writing surface.

Chest Secretaire early 19th Century

One thing that I found while planning my campaign chest is that much consideration must be given to the height of the drawers so that the writing surface is comfortable to use. Once you get the writing surface at the correct height, you then have to look at the size of the drawers and if you want symmetry from top to bottom. In my case, I decided to go with a larger drawer at the bottom and top and then smaller drawers in the middle. This was also factoring in the height of the feet.

Patent furniture and campaign furniture are not the same. Patent furniture became an important part of a military officer’s inventory because of its great utility, but some campaign furniture is not patent furniture, but simply breaks down for travel or is made to be more durable (with brass strapwork and corner protection).

My next post on campaign furniture will be when I start working on my own piece again. Hopefully soon.

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.

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.