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.

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.

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.

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.