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.

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.

Veneer pins.

One of the most valuable things I’ve gained from being a student at the Chippendale International School of Furniture is access to antique, and even ancient, furniture that I’d only ever seen in books and online. We have visited homes and museums and have enjoyed access to furniture that I didn’t know existed. We have also had access outside of school to auctions and antique shops where I’ve fondled and caressed (not in a creepy way) beautiful antiques and vintage pieces of furniture for much longer than was appropriate.

Late 17th C. Oak Coffer

Late 18th C. George III Style ‘Chinese Chippendale’ Mahogany Urn Stand
Mid Century Modern Le Corbusier

I’ve been taught since I was young that when at any museum, or in the vicinity of delicate antiques, you ‘look but don’t touch‘ , so it’s been an amazing treat to be able to visit museums and homes and have that extra bit of access where you can touch the pieces, pick them up, turn them over and look at the underbelly because, in order to really understand how furniture was made, you have to look under, inside, and behind that piece. I first learned this from a blog, Pegs and Tails, that I’ve been following for a few years, and also from Peter Follansbee’s blog but since starting my furniture class I’ve had a chance to experience this first hand.

I’ve been able to see and help work on some wonderful pieces of furniture that have come in the School since I began my classes. From damaged chairs to cabinets, desks, dressers, and tables, they have all fascinated and intrigued me, but one particular moment that stands out to me is when a late 18th C. (around 1780) Italian table came in for repair/restoration. I’d not seen a piece like this before, but was immediately drawn to it because as soon as I started looking closely I could see so many wonderful and intriguing things about it.

Late 18th C. Italian table needing some TLC.
Closer view of the top.

But the one thing that caught my eye was when I saw some holes in the veneer and marquetry that didn’t look like normal wear and tear.

I knew that I remembered seeing this somewhere, so I went back to some blogs I follow and found it in the Pegs and Tails blog in a post called “A Thorny Subject” dated 15 Jan 2012. He talks about veneer pins, which were used in period veneer work. They were made of thin sheet steel and guillotined or sheared with a taper. The edges were sharp enough to cut fingers so they were made to cut through the veneer instead of wedging into it. I’ve not found any sheered veneer pins for sale today (only round), but it may just be that my Google-Fu skills are rusty.

Per the article, the veneer pins were often used on uncooperative veneer in corners, on either side of a split or joint, or anywhere the veneer refused to cooperate.

Some of the pin holes are circled.

This was one of those ‘Eureka’ moments for me and just drove home the fact that I’m intrigued by the methods and tools used by pre-industrial furniture makers and crafts people. I was fairly bouncing around the table, babbling like an idiot about these pin holes because it tied together things I’d read about to things I was able to experience. And quite often, making it real is the catalyst for education.