Friday, February 28, 2014

Eleven Reasons to Use Animal Hide Glue in Fine and Antique Furniture

I almost titled this post ‘Pardon My French’ in dedication of a recent hair-pulling project I completed. This French bergere was a bugger to get right. The client has a local upholsterer they were going to have recover this chair. Knowing it was very loose, they called me to reglue the frame first. Deupholster and reglue. Easy enough, right? Wowie. I wish.

Sometimes the seemingly simplest projects end up with the most unforeseen issues and complicated looking ones turn out really straightforward. I can’t even tell you what was so frustrating but it did revolve around three issues: 1. The seat rails are not perpendicular to one another, making clamping AND spreading a difficulty. 2. I believe the last person to work on this chair used something other than hide glue. 3. The “joinery” was delicate little dowels. Needless to say, some dowels needed to be replaced and the chair was assembled in stages. This brings me to my point...

 These tenons were not part of the bergere. I wish they had been.

Hide glue. It has dawned on me that my level of satisfaction and feeling that all is well in the studio is directly proportional to the amount of hide glue I encounter. When a piece has been glued with hide glue and I am regluing with hide glue, things generally go very smooth. The working properties, clean-up, self-clamping, and lack of toxins in the glue all make me a happy camper.

So without further ado, let me persuade you to use hide glue in your furniture. Here’s a quick, off-the-cuff list of reasons for you to consider. For sake of the next guy to work on it, please dump the synthetic glues and convert to collagen.

1. It’s reversible. 
This is critical to safe repair in the future. Adhesives that are insoluble after drying present great danger to joinery when a piece needs to be disassembled for treatment later on down the road. All adhesives fail after a while. So if you want this piece to last longer than twenty years, use hide glue.

2. It adheres well to old glue. 
Because the glue softens when introduced to warm water, a fresh application of hide glue will soften the old for proper adhesion. This is important when regluing something because glue penetrate the surface of the wood and if an incompatible glue has “sealed” the surface, you will have a hard time getting full adhesion.

3. It’s easy to modify/manipulate working properties. 
Hot Hide Glue (totally unmodified), when heated to 140* and ready for use can have a very short open time. We’re talking a minute or two. Because the glue gels before drying, everything needs to be set in short order. There are so many factors that change hide glue’s working properties. Ambient temperature helps (the hotter your room, the longer you got), preheating the adherends with a hairdryer or heat gun helps, adding canning salt or urea to your mix can slow it down to give you 30 – 60 minutes of working time, glycerin reduces fracturability of the glue, alum makes it water proof, etc. The list goes on.

4. It’s inexpensive. 
I bought 50 lbs of granules from Eugene Thordahl for $5.00 a pound. I am able to mix it fresh whenever I need it and this should last me at least twenty years working professionally.

5. It is self-clamping. 
As the glue dries, it actually draws the adherends together making clamping unnecessary in some cases. This is very handy with small bits that need to be repaired (ie. veneer chips, carvings, etc.) This is how boards were edge glued in days past. They would plane the edges straight and square, apply the hide glue to both sides and rub them together for a few moments until the gel action set in. They would then just set these pieces aside to let it self-clamp. I do this occasionally. It’s amazing.

6. It is easy to clean up after it dries. 
Glue covered fingers, glue splattered pants, and drops and drips on your shoes are easily taken care of even after it dried. Know how? You guessed it: warm water. (Or saliva!) I think the value of this property is way underestimated.

7. It’s incredibly strong.
Depending on your mixture and gram strength, hide glue is one of the strongest glues, very close to epoxy.

8. It’s not too strong. 
You don’t want glue in joinery too strong because if something crashes down and is going to break, you want it to be the glue line and not the tenon snapping off. Please ignore all marketing claims of glue being “stronger than wood”. That’s not what you want in antique furniture joinery. Hide glue is just the right amount of strength for fine and antique furniture.

9. It’s a renewable resource. 
Cows always make more cows. That ain’t changing anytime soon.

10. It’s safe for your health. 
Cow protein is safe for human consumption. I’ve tasted it. A little weird but when the set time is depressed with salt it really brings out the complexity of the flavors. (wink.) Bovine collagen + h2o = safe for people.

11. It’s historically accurate. 
This stuff has been used in the furniture of Egyptian tombs (30 centuries ago) and it was standard “glue” until the advent of synthetic glues (mid 20th century). Used all over the world for most of recorded history, I’d say it’s got historic street cred.

Projects like this bergere necessitate a 'clear your head' walk no matter what the weather.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Don Williams on "Gap-Filling and Flexible Adhesives for Wood Conservation"

My friend, Don Williams, gave this lecture at the Getty Conservation Institute a while back and I thought the talk was excellent. Understanding the hygroscopic nature of wood is essential to treating furniture with splits from expansion. The wood will swell again and the gap will close so if you have inserted an inflexible fill material, further damage is inevitable.

The second bit I found fascinating is Don's discussion about the gram strength of hide glue and how higher strength glue in real life makes a joint that could be potentially weaker than lower gram strength glue. This would be (theoretically) due to the great loss of water during drying causing extreme shrinkage. (Higher gram strengths require more water than lower gram strengths.)

Don has also graciously shared his paper on the topic here. Thanks, Don!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Discussion: Mahogany The Costs of Luxury in Early America

Click above to watch the lecture at C-Span's website.

Jennifer L. Anderson's Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America has been on my book list for a while. I still have yet to read this one but I stumbled across this video of Anderson discussing her book at the New York Public Library. I thought it was worth sharing here. It definitely wet my appetite for the book and trust it will have the same effect for you, you furniture history loving geek you.

Here's the publisher's blurb about the book:

In the mid-eighteenth century, colonial Americans became enamored with the rich colors and silky surface of mahogany. This exotic wood, imported from the West Indies and Central America, quickly displaced local furniture woods as the height of fashion. Over the next century, consumer demand for mahogany set in motion elaborate schemes to secure the trees and transform their rough-hewn logs into exquisite objects. But beneath the polished gleam of this furniture lies a darker, hidden story of human and environmental exploitation.

Mahogany traces the path of this wood through many hands, from source to sale: from the enslaved African woodcutters, including skilled “huntsmen” who located the elusive trees amidst dense rainforest, to the ship captains, merchants, and timber dealers who scrambled after the best logs, to the skilled cabinetmakers who crafted the wood, and with it the tastes and aspirations of their diverse clientele. As the trees became scarce, however, the search for new sources led to expanded slave labor, vicious competition, and intense international conflicts over this diminishing natural resource. When nineteenth-century American furniture makers turned to other materials, surviving mahogany objects were revalued as antiques evocative of the nation's past.

Jennifer Anderson offers a dynamic portrait of the many players, locales, and motivations that drove the voracious quest for mahogany to adorn American parlors and dining rooms. This complex story reveals the cultural, economic, and environmental costs of America’s growing self-confidence and prosperity, and how desire shaped not just people’s lives but the natural world.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Foreign Affair


A few months ago I took four of these Italian chairs into the studio. The client was happy with the upholstery but the chair was very wobbly. It was clear that the webbing inside was very stretched out and all the glue had failed in the rail joinery. The only thing that appeared to keep the legs from falling off was the brittle little pegs into the tenons.

You can see the two pegs protruding out through the back of the leg.

A brief excursus: These pegs are a double edged sword in my opinion. When they are assembled with green furniture and it’s used as a mechanical lock, fine. The benefits outweigh the future treatment complications. In cases where this wood is fully dried, however, the presence of these pegs cause obvious conservation complications. In most cases, the pins are damaged in removal and often they must be completely drilled out and replaced once the joinery is glued. 

But the more serious issue is the false sense of security an owner may have that, “Well, sure it’s wobbly, but hey, it’s not falling apart yet.” I fear these brittle little pins cause a delay of treatment putting the chair at greater risk of damage. (Think tenons completely broken off!) I think it may just be better for someone to see really how loose things are so that they are dealt with speedily.

By the way… I’ve worked on chairs before where the previous restorer only plugged the holes rather than inserting new complete pins. This made my disassembly much easier and safer for the object. I do this sometimes.

Original webbing

As I began careful de-upholstery I realized that though someone had been there before me they left all the original material in place. I determined that this seemed important enough to retain with the piece. This choice dictated minimal removal of material, making the project all the more fun.

Stamped twice: MADE IN ITALY


Sagging webbing

Hand wrought nails through leather strips

The webbing was installed with hand wrought nails nailed through leather strips presumably to prevent the webbing from tearing. I had not seen this technique before.

Hand wrought nails


Once I got the nails removed that I needed to, I was able to spread the loose joints apart (thanks to the extremely stretched out webbing). The joints were scraped of clumps of old glue and the joinery fit was tested during a dry clamp session.

An injection of warmed water helps loosen the hide glue

Ready for gluing

New webbing installed, original retained.

After everything was glued up, I returned the upholstery to its place and installed new webbing between the original webbing. All the stuffing went back in place and the (non-original) cover was returned using original nail holes where possible.

Decorative nails returned to their holes.

It was interesting to work on Italian handmade furniture. There were subtle differences I noted. The method of attaching the webbing, the gessoed attachments, and the overall aesthetic quickly declared to me that I was not dealing with something domestic. I am so used to American New England pieces that taking something like this apart felt so… well… foreign.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why You Need Soap

A great simplified video explaining why water won't clean soiling off a surface without a surfactant. Chemistry 101.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Portable Nicholson Bench from Scrap Wood

Nicholson's 1832 workbench

I mentioned a while back in my last Leonard’s Mills post that I was going to share a little more about the construction and features of my quickly whipped up travel bench based on a plate from Peter Nicholson’s 1832 ‘Mechanic’s Companion’. I needed another bench that I could easily breakdown to fit in my van for events I demonstrate at and this period appropriate design was a great candidate.

My take on this "English" bench. It's about six feet long.

In true Yankee spirit, I built the entire thing from stuff I had laying around. The top, aprons, braces, and bottom shelf are all attached with screws I can quickly take out with my cordless drill. I can disassemble the works in less than five minutes at a very casual pace. With the diagonal bracing, it is surprisingly rigid. What more could you want?

A Detail shot from 'The Carpenter's Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield, ca. 1813 by John Hill

The two working hold devices are a front vise and a bench hook mortised into the top. The front vise was an old vise from my grandfather I reconfigured with this new pine jaw. The maple “hook” has a piece of handsaw recessed into the top and screwed in place. This is the first time I’ve had teeth on a planing stop. Woah. What a difference that makes!

The "hook" is a stop to hold your work for face planing.

The aesthetic is very rough and utilitarian like all of the period benches I’ve seen. To my eye, the perfectly crisp edged, 220 sanded gapless-joinery benches around today look way out of place in period woodworking demonstrations. I am sure there were exceptions, but this rough workmanship is much more representative of an average rural New England preindustrial workbench.

The legs units are glued together with lap joints. The aprons sit on rabbets. The holdfast holes are strategically placed into the top braces to get a hole depth of about 2 ¾”. The top is leveled only on the front half. The top was left rough and was scraped with the teeth of an old handsaw to leave a “grippy” surface. Finish? nada. No finish needed here.

The top is only screwed into place
Aprons sit in rabbets.

All flat and stacked.

All in all I am very happy with the usability and look of this bench. Works very well. Dirt cheap to build. (People often build these out of big box 2x lumber.) When it is not at events it lives setup in my barn. It’s nice to finally have a work surface in there too.

It slides onto the floor of my van leaving lots of room for other packing!

In action this past October

Any questions? Leave a comment. I’ll do my best to answer.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Roughness of the Season

We caught the bug. Lots of sick. Lots of yucky. Thankful to be resting and recovering now. I bury myself in my books (Phyfe and Agreeable Situations) while the others are napping.

Right before this little diversion, I was getting some stuff done in the studio.

These bracket feet were smashed to smithereens. (I don’t even know what smithereens are but that sure looks like what I imagine smithereens to look like.) I figured out where the puzzle pieces go together, heated up my glue, found a couple of clamps and “Viola”!

Anyone got another clamp I can borrow?

Yay Shellac!

Also wanted to share this detail shot of the tiger maple desk I delivered. This is the beauty of an amber low molecular weight spirit varnish applied thin and rubbed to satin sheen. Mmmm. Yummy.

So as we heal on this winter evening and I sip a coffee with my nose in my books, I think back on some advice a new found friend of mine has written…

“I proceed now to consider dancing. This is an amusement, which some esteem an indispensable embellishment. Some things may be said in its favor and some things against it. In its favor may it be urged, that it is good amusement for now and then a winter evening, when the roughness of the season renders rural amusements impracticable, that it gives a graceful appearance to the body, and ease to the manners; that it introduces us to a civil intercourse with the softer sex, and thus assists in refining our natural roughness; that it is an exercise, that causes copious perspiration, and thus used with prudence has a tendency to promote our health… Sometimes when we become dull and sleepy over our books; in such case it will do very well for chums, or neighboring classmates to jump up, and take a little scuffle together, and if they don’t scuffle too hard; it will at least awaken them up a little, and though it would appear boyish on the common, it will do very well “sub rosa” (out of sight).”
-J. Fisher ‘On Amusements’

For those you trying to imagine what we look like dancing.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Twilight of Handicraft Production

"The crafts had a long and venerable past that began with human history and reached maturity in the guilds of Europe. When transplanted to America, they evolved free from the fetters of the guild system- and in a way that set them apart from the new industries. Classes, in fact, were as alien to the crafts as artisanal skills were to textile operatives. Tradesmen thought of themselves and were considered to be part of a fluid hierarchy that consisted of master craftsmen, journeymen, and apprentices. Masters were proprietors who did everything from waiting on customers to ordering supplies and raw materials and keeping the books, such as they were. They also laid out the work, supervised hirelings, and worked along with their employees. Most were former journeymen, skilled workers paid by the day or the piece depending on the trade. Journeymen were onetime apprentices who usually began their indentures as teenagers and spent three to seven years learning the “art and mystery” of their callings under the stewardship of a master. They could expect room, board, and other necessities, as well as the indulgence of their natural fathers. They were punished by their masters when insubordinate but protected from external authority at all times. Between the ages eighteen and twenty-one apprentices were promoted to journeyman and given a suit of clothes as a symbol of manhood and a set of tools in recognition of their formal entry into the fraternity of the trade. Apprentices-turned-journeymen were for the first time entitled to a wage, even though some were paid modest sums and did not expect to be permanent wage earners. In the best of circumstances journeymen were masters in the making busily accumulating resources in order to set up shop of their own

All around journeymen who turned rough-cut timber into elegant furniture could still be found in the 1850s, as could accomplished building tradesmen, but their numbers were shrinking. More and more furniture makers worked in garretlike shops on single lines of goods for wholesale in a process best described as a nonmechanized assembly line. Some cut out the parts, usually by hand but increasingly on steam-powered saws, that were assembled by another team, and finished by still another. The twilight of handicraft production was near at hand throughout the North."

- from "Artisans into Workers" by Bruce Laurie