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.
I’ve made some progress on the workshop and I am finally able to start new restoration projects (Susan and Aron, I’m sorry it’s taken so long!).
I didn’t have to paint the walls, but it makes a massive difference when working. Much of the time I will have the doors closed and with no windows, this small space is really dark even with the equivalent of 500 Watts of lighting (it’s all blue ‘daylight’ LED lighting).
Even though I consider this very close to being done, I have a lot more work to do. I still need to sheath the ceiling, which will be fun times. And I’m putting in a very small ductless minisplit to cool the space in the summer and heat in the winter.
My next posts will be about my next projects, finally.
It’s been quite some time since my last post and I was going to blame it entirely on my ongoing upgrade of the workshop, but that would be a fib. I have half a dozen posts being drafted, but I just haven’t put the time into getting them done and published. That said, I wanted to show what is partly responsible for my lack of material.
My new workshop is a pole shed that was built in 1993 (I have the inspection paperwork from the previous owner). It has electricity and 2 circuits with an overhead door, some lights, and two outlets, so my first project was to wire it as a usable workshop. For this I had an electrician come and look at the setup. He let me know that the feeder from the house to the workshop was good for 100 Amp, so I made my improvements based on that and now have multiple outlets on each wall. I also added more lighting and will eventually have 2 separate circuits for lighting. I also added a circuit for temporary electrical heating. I say temporary because with our winters electrical heating is far too expensive.
I’m putting a lot of planning and effort into making this workshop usable year-round and for me, that means keeping it cool in the summer as well as warm in the winter. Since I work with shellacs, waxes, and other temperature-sensitive solutions I want to keep my workspace usable for as much of the year as possible.
I’ve had a workshop in our basement before (different home) and I loved it, but I couldn’t work on large pieces because of the stairs. The basement had an 8-foot ceiling and was insulated so it was an almost perfect 56 degrees year-round. All of my other workshops have been in the garage so I was only able to use it for a portion of the year. I’ve decided that this workshop will be usable year-round and I’m going to (for me) great lengths to make it so.
I mentioned the electrical first but that actually had to wait. The first thing I did was to put up foam board insulation (1.5 inch) and then used spray foam to seal the edges and foil tape to seal the seams between pieces of foam board. I then furred out the walls with 2 x 4 frames and studs 16 inches on center. This was so I could add 3 1/2 inches of rock wool batt insulation.
I then hired a local company to come in and spray the ceiling with closed-cell foam. They did an OK job, not great and not horrible, so I won’t say their name. That said, it is hit or miss with some of these businesses and the best you can do is a lot of research. They put up 3 1/2 inches (more or less) and it definitely made a difference in the workshop.
I’m doing one wall at a time at this point (sheathing and painting) so as soon as I have the 1st wall done I can start working in the space.
This spring I’ll be getting a trench dug between the house and workshop to run a natural gas line for my heating next winter. I’ll also be installing a ductless mini-split this spring for cooling this summer. Before the trench is filled in I’ll also run some network cable for Internet access in the workshop as I do not want to do wireless between buildings.
This project is flowing at a glacial pace, but every once in a while I stop and realize that I have made some pretty good progress. I just can’t wait to have space to start my furniture projects again. There are so many of them I think I’ll be busy for a year at least.
I’ll be posting further progress, but hopefully I’ll be posting some of my other drafts before then as well.