Sunday, March 30, 2014

I Am Not a Woodworker


One of the most frequent misunderstandings about my professional work is that people think I am a “woodworker”. This is not the case. A professional wood worker is someone who is commissioned to create objects of wood for sale to clients. I don’t do this. 


A furniture restorer/conservator is a practitioner concerned with the preservation and restoration of historic furniture. Our goal is to stabilize the piece without leaving conspicuous “fingerprints” of treatment behind. We attempt to remain invisible in the treatment outcome. If refinishing is called for then the finish would ideally look sympathetic to the period and look as if it were “supposed” to be there, warts and all. 

 Before Treatment

After Treatment

 So what are we then? Restorer/conservators get to be involved in the treatment of finishes (making us “finishers”), wood (making us “woodworkers”), upholstery (making us “upholsterers”), cane, rush, and wicker (making us “weavers”). We also need to be fluent in furniture history (making us “historians”) and familiar with basic materials science and organic chemistry (making us “scientists”). Now no one on the planet is expert at all these things. The conservation profession, especially when practiced in a rural private practice context, demands a degree of proficiency in all these areas but not one exclusively. We are not “woodworkers” in the sense that we are not “scientists” or “historians”. We are not specialists in any of these disciplines. Rather, restoration/conservation is an interdisciplinary amalgam of all these. It is, in fact, a new discipline all together. 



This is why I ultimately chose this profession. I have always been one who has had intense interest in a myriad of things so I needed a career with serious variety that guaranteed I’d never plumb the depths. I could never settle down and do one task for the rest of my working life. 
If I was hired to build kitchen cabinets, it would take me forever. If you called me to refinish interior woodwork with lightning speed turn around, I’d struggle. If you asked me to critique the determination of paint stratigraphy analysis of a materials scientist, I’d gracefully bow out.




 So where does that leave me? What does this amalgam of skills equip me to do? I am equipped to diagnose and treat historic wooden furniture with an aim to preserve material integrity and sympathetically restore all losses so that clients and our culture may enjoy these valued artifacts of history for the longest time possible.


P.S. I imagine that someday down the road if I ever get my new studio finished and have more space to work in, I will branch out my business to include furniture making. Until that happens, I just don’t have the space. (My current space is 14’ x 17’... just enough room for a few benches, myself, and a few projects.) When Julia’s birthday is coming up and I am working on a project for her in the studio, all other projects get shut down. One day hopefully, that will change.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Rooting Out False Assumptions


“Every break, loss, mark, abrasion, or discoloration on an object had a moment of creation, and the task of the examiner is to unravel the story woven into this texture. This is a holistic task, sometimes requiring technical expertise, sometimes historical understanding or design sensitivity, but always requiring a dogged insistence that each detail under consideration be justifiable, that is, understood for what it is and how it was induced. And finally, any examination that does not question previous observations and assumptions will rarely root out false assumptions independently.”

-Michael S Podmaniczky from New England Furniture at Winterthur: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring's Sprung

Well, at long last spring has arrived. It actually got into the 40s for a little while today. You would’ve never guessed it a couple days ago when we touched single digits. It has been unusually cold the past few weeks. Hardly any maple sap has been running in our taps. We put them in a few weeks ago but then it turned wicked cold again. Maybe now that spring is here we’ll see some action.

Our holz hausen has carried us this far through the heating season. This is all we have left. I did get a head start on next year’s wood last month so if we need to dip a little into that we’ll be fine. This was my first winter splitting my own wood for heating our house. We’ve used just under three cords. At $115/cord that would make our total year’s heat expense at around $350. Seeing as many in our area pay twice that per month to heat with oil, I’d say we made out pretty good.

Next week is my last Wednesday morning this year I’ll be researching and examining objects at the Fisher House. I made a commitment to spend the winter digging into Fisher’s furniture production but knew I’d have to stop in April. Our year begins to pick up once things thaw. Homestead projects, animals, etc. Lots to do this time of year and we’ve promised ourselves/each other we’d not overload ourselves again like last year. I’ll miss my weekly Fisher time, though. I feel like I’ve gotten to know the man in a way not many have. Spending so much time with the objects he’s created has been fascinating (and humbling, frankly). I still have so many unanswered questions after this first concentrated period of examination but I also feel like I have much more confidence identifying his workmanship, which was one of my primary goals.

This winter's reading

I’ve also been making preparations for a lecture I will be giving at the Wilson Museum in Castine, ME this August. It will be titled A Comfortable House: Furnishing the Maine Frontier. Here’s the official write up: 

Furnishing the homes of pre-industrial Maine was not the role of furniture-making specialists alone. While some of Maine's furniture was supplied by merchants from major style centers, a robust furniture-making tradition thrived within the State. Local farmer-artisans of various backgrounds and social influences utilized their resources to create furniture individually suited to themselves and their patrons. On Wednesday, August 13th, Joshua Klein will discuss this early furniture-making tradition, providing insights into the preferences, attitudes and abilities of these Maine craftsmen. The talk will also reference furniture currently displayed in the Museum's John Perkins House. Following the lecture, the Perkins House will be open for $5/person guided tours.

Should be fun. You can visit the Wilson Museum’s page for more info:

Jonathan Fisher's lathe

Speaking of the Fisher House… this week the vice president of the board, Rick Sawyer, and I collected the parts of Fisher’s lathe and assembled it. Remember my flashlight discovery in January? What I found back then were all the pieces to Fisher’s lathe scattered around his house and museum storage. Apparently no one knew what these miscellaneous wooden bits were and so they ended up dispersed in random places. Some in the attic, some in the shed, some in the basement. But I got it all. The discovery started for me in the archives when I found an old photograph of the lathe. As soon as I saw it I queried the board members and volunteers. Does anyone know where this is? No one knew anything about it. With picture in hand, I began sleuthing through storage. Bit by bit all was accounted for. I have been looking forward to assembling it for the past couple months and finally got my chance this week. I will talk more about it later but for now here’s a shot of it. 

The lathe rediscovered

Now that things are beginning to thaw, I hope to finish milling out my studio frame soon. (Don’t ask why it’s taken so long.) This winter has been long, cold, and hard. I am so happy spring is here… a time for new beginnings. This is going to be a good year.

Inpainting and patinating replacement pieces on a 19th century chest

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Podiatric Treatments for a Chest of Drawers

Here’s one I finished up a little while ago. This piece was discovered in the cellar of a new house acquisition. It seems that the object was damaged and placed out of the way until it could be dealt with at a better time which apparently never came. The new owners of the house saw the charm of this piece and decided to have it conserved.

Before Treatment

Object Description: Mahogany Bow-Front Chest of drawers
Date/Period: 18th/19th century
Dimensions: H: 41 ¾” W: 34” D: 23 ¼”
Materials: Mahogany and pine wood, brass hardware
Finish: transparent resin varnish

The proper left bracket feet were broken into several pieces and were separated from the case. The lowest drawer cockbeading was broken and missing a part. The finish was soiled and dusty, minor scratches on top.

Dust and Soiling

A view of the problem from the underside

Treatment: The proper left (PL) bracket feet were reglued with animal hide glue and two supportive blocks were added inside and inpainted black with shellac and pigment.

Supportive block added

Epoxy fill carved flush

Losses on PL feet were filled with epoxy putty carved flush and inpainted with shellac and pigments. The proper right feet were also stabilized with hide glue. Lowest drawer cockbeading was repaired by grafting into missing area. The repair was inpainted with shellac and pigments. The drawer runners were waxed.

The top after dust was removed

In progress polishing with OMS and rottenstone for scratch removal

The varnish was cleaned with odorless mineral spirits. The top was sanded lightly with 400 grit sandpaper and rubbed to sheen with rottenstone. The entire coating was paste waxed and buffed.

After Treatment

PL front foot

PL rear foot

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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Shaker Night Table in Cherry

Gluing up the 16" top

For Julia’s birthday this year I made her a night table from cherry I was given by a local generous soul.  Years ago he had some of his trees milled into boards when he lived in Connecticut. The last remaining few were stacked in his garage and he just wanted to get them out of there. I happily took them and began plans for building.

Dimensioning the legs

It’s rewarding to work from rough splintery boards to the last rubbing out of the finished product. The pine drawer parts are from my property with the exception of the drawer bottom which was recycled from an old floorboard. The finish is three coats of Waterlox original rubbed to satin sheen with Liberon #0000 steel wool.

Chopping all eight mortises

Dimensioning the aprons

Legs turned and apron tenons fitted

Pine drawer sides

Drawer face half blind dovetails

Drawer dry fitted

Ready for glue-up

Final fitting the drawer

Thicknessing and surfacing the top

Making a mess!

Attaching the top with screws from the underside

Completed "in the white"

Complete and in its new home

Questions? Feel free to leave a comment below!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Today's Video Shoot

I spent today with Mathias and Samuel Reed of Mathias Reed Visuals shooting a video for my website. They got some nice footage of me working, close-ups of furniture details, and captured some bumbling but hopefully usable interview material. Trying to explain who you are and what you do in front of a camera is awkward. I am confident that Mathias’ editing will magically pull it together into something coherent. He is a man of excellent aesthetic and artistic judgment. We should see the final product in a month or so. I'm looking forward to it.

Thanks, Mathias and Samuel. You guys made the day go really smooth.

Photo credits: Samuel Reed