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.


  1. Good looking job.

    Do you add some material to the holes for the decorative nails, to prevent them from getting loose, e.g. a toothpick or some hide glue?
    I have learnt that reusing a hole from a nail is not a good idea because it will not be very strong, but I can see the dilemma in restoring furniture, since it should end up looking like before.

  2. Jonas,

    It depends on how well they hold when I put them in. If they grab tight, I leave it. Sometimes I'll just make a new hole 1/32" or so away from the original. Mostly the original nail holes are important on the decorative nails. These are spaced already and the cover is unfaded underneath where the nails were originally place. There aren't many options but if I felt it necessary I probably would fill the holes with hide glue or some such, let it dry and nail into that. That might provide just enough padding to hold those guys in place.
    Thanks for your interest!

  3. Josh do you have an idea of the date of these chairs. The design looks quite old perhaps 1700's. Jerry

  4. The buildup of glue looks to be the sign of somebody attempt to squirt a bit of PVA and after crossing fingers enact a repair to the loose joints. I agree with you as to how pegging can enable laggards when a piece of furniture needs repairing. I have even come across situations when it was the webbing that held the failed joinery together.
    I am still mulling your decision to keep the defunct webbing in place. Since you had to tack some of the new webbing atop it, did this not reduce the grip of the nails into the solid wood of the rails? I am just guessing that you tacked and then retacked on a fold in the usual way.

  5. Jerry,

    I don't know. My guess is early 19th century (neoclassicism) but I don't know much about Italian decorative arts history.

  6. Potomacker,
    Thanks for your comments! I think I wasn’t clear enough about how the new webbing is laid next to the old, rather than on top of it. See a picture here:
    Yes, I did the usual fold technique but I didn’t use tacks. I use staples on fragile frames such as this. If you have reupholstered a chair that has had three or more reupholstery campaigns before you got to it you know just how intrusive and destructive tacks can be. Staples are very strong, easy to remove and leave very little impact on the frame.