Saturday, May 31, 2014

Severed Tenon Repair: Part Two, Removing the Nail

There's the bugger.
Part One can be found here.

Now that a new tenon has been grafted, we turn our attention to the nailed mortise. Here is the culprit. The nail was driven into the tenon presumably during assembly (I assume because it was painted over). The nail faithfully held that tenon in place even when the stretcher was dissociated. Thanks, nail.

Nail removal is frustrating to me because there is no way I am aware of to remove a nail that has been hammered flush to the surface without further marring the surface. You’ve got to get under the head of the nail somehow. With this in mind we look for the least intrusive way to pull that nail out.

In my experience, I have found this nail puller from Lee Valley to leave a smaller footprint than others. In fact, I even ground the jaws narrower when I received it. You can see I made sure it was slightly smaller than my 1/8” chisel. 

I start by carving a small groove on opposite sides of the nail running with the grain. Don’t make it look nice and straight or abruptly end the groove. Visual regularity of fills only makes them stand out more in the end. You want it irregular because you eye will not detect it as easily. The priority here is to make sure you are deep enough and not longer than you need. 

Start by slipping the jaws underneath the head of the nail. You then may give a gentle strike on the top of the puller to get a grip on it. Hold the puller in place and hook the hammer onto the puller. There are two points on the puller which you could connect your hammer to. The lower one I am using here offers more control. When leverage is applied the jaws pinch shut. Note that the puller’s foot placed against the piece is covered in leather so as not to dent the surface. 

I know. It's not pretty.

Pull gently. Don’t let the hammer slip out once the nail comes free. On really long nails, I use pincers to incrementally pull it out of the hole once the head is above the surface. Pincers are less cumbersome and don’t have the aggressiveness needed in the first stage of nail removal. Just don’t pry directly on the surface. Get something protective between the piece and tool.

The mortise with the tenon fragments are cleared (which I now suppose I should have photographed as well) with an undersized drill bit, leaving a narrow ring of tenon fragment inside the hole. I then use a small carving gouge to separate the tenon pieces from the wall of the mortise. Try not to gouge the wall of the mortise. With a little pressure the tenon pieces usually pop right out of the mortise.

I finish sizing the tenon to fit with chisels, rasp, sandpaper, etc. The fit should be snug but not a bear to get in. If you tilt the piece down and the stretcher doesn’t fall out of the mortise by its own weight, you’re good to go.

Here’s the hole filled and inpainted. I often in these cases fill with a wax stick and inpaint with shellac. It is easily removable in the future and is very easy to execute. An alternative is Timber Mate Wood Filler. I use that stuff a lot too as it is also easily reversible.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Severed Tenon Repair: Part One, The Cone Splice

This is how the chair came to me. The entirety of the tenon remains in the mortise. Thanks, nail.

Here is an example of a typical problem I encounter in my studio: a loose chair comes in that has a round stretcher whose tenon sheared off at the shoulder. This happens sometimes with freak accidents but most often it is the result of wobbly chairs remaining in constant use. Every time the sitter twists, turns, or leans more force is applied to the few tight joints. Since the strength of a chair is found in the collaboration of all the parts, the remaining tenons receive all the strain that would normally be shared by the whole. There eventually comes a point when someone leans too hard and “SNAP!” there goes the tenon.

This repair will be posted in two installments. This first installment will show the grafting of a new tenon. The second will show my method for removing a nail that have been driven into the leg through the tenon but has been hammered flush to the surface making nail pulling a chore.

A Grafted Solution

There are a few different ways I’ve seen to remedy these situations. The first and unfortunately common way is to drill a hole and stick a dowel in it. This method leaves a weak spot where the bottom of the hole is. This is not an acceptable repair. 

A common splice joint

A common repair for restorers was a staple for me for years: the splice joint. Cut at a long angle and planed smooth, a new piece of wood is grafted on and shaped with chisels and then inpainted to blend into its surroundings. Strong enough but it requires too much inpainting. 

A clothespin scarf joint

The third is a variation on the theme: the clothespin scarf joint. This is a method that involves cutting a long V notch down the piece and grafting into that. The result is strong and requires less inpainting. The downside is that it still removes historic surface. 
Recently a friend and colleague, John Coffey from Locust Valley, New York, (check out his excellent portfolio at forwarded me an article he wrote describing his method of repair. He calls it a cone splice because it involves boring a conical hole into the piece, turning a mating cone graft to fit, and shaping the other end of the graft into a new tenon. This is an incredibly strong repair, takes just as much time to perform as the other splice joints, and does not mar any visible surface. I have completely converted to this method and, thanks to John’s generosity; this is the one I will share here:

Before Treatment

Carved flush and center marked

The repair begins by carving any interfering fractured grain flush for a clear view for boring. Then by eye I mark out a center point with an awl.

Shop made cone bit. It is obviously a reground spade bit. It works wonderfully.

After drilling a small pilot hole to guide me I begin boring with the cone bit. Going slow and easy is important as you don’t want to break out the walls.

Prepped stock for the lathe

On the pole lathe

Now for the lathe work. The only lathe I have is a pole lathe and this works fine. After turning the tenon, I use the bit as a guide to form the cone.

Tenon first

Getting diameter of cone

Getting close to conical

Comparing the tapers. Still a little off.

Final fit is achieved

Once it was off the lathe I could smooth out the inconsistencies freehand on my Work Sharp sanding station. (I just gently turn the cone on the sanding surface emphasizing pressure where needed.)

Nice and snug

Glued in


After the fit is nice and snug, I use hot hide glue and clamp it for at least an hour. I don’t final shape the stretcher’s tenon until the mortise is cleared. But that’s for the next installment… Part Two is here.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Defense for Mitigation of Aesthetic Irregularity as Preferred Conceptual Framework to Imperceptible Loss Compensation


“Just Make it Look Better.”

When inpainting areas of color loss on historic and culturally significant furniture complete imperceptibility is neither desirable nor necessary. The “six foot, six inch rule” is an oft repeated conservation proverb regarding aesthetically reintegrative treatments. The stated objective is that from six feet away (normal museum viewing distance) visual unification is achieved leaving repairs undetectable but upon close inspection (six inches) the repairs will be apparent. This rule honors the ethical standards to which we subscribe by allowing for detectability of inpainting. Conservators are not in the business of fine art forgery. They are trying to fool no one. Repairs are documented before and after treatment and are left to be conspicuous upon closer examination.

Additionally, by focusing on mitigation of damage rather than trying to render the repair completely invisible patina is preserved. This well-aged aesthetic value is almost universally revered in the sphere of decorative arts collectors and connoisseurs. 

A tertiary benefit is related to practicality. This ‘rule’ no doubt has a liberating effect on practitioners faced with unusually challenging repairs (such as cross grain scratches in a table top) or budgetary constraints of clientele.

Looking close at different angles reveals the inpainted portions

Close up shot of a skeleton mirror's new foot grafted on and inpainted

How does this relate to objects without cultural value?

 “…it is becoming more common for  people to bring their personal possessions- the stuff of everyday life- to conservators, something that the profession actively encourages…There is no shame in providing competent conservation treatment for these things.” – Barbara Applebaum, Conservation Treatment Methdology

With this we are faced with a dilemma. Seeing as ethical standards were born in a museum context (which implies these objects have cultural value) how should conservators develop treatments for everyday objects in regular use and/or where there are encumbering budgetary constraints?

 Applebaum says, “The answer lies in identifying the object’s values and focusing a treatment on the values the object has rather than on those that it lacks… when society at large does not have- and will likely never have- interest in an object, criteria appropriate for obviously preservation-worthy objects may not apply.”
If an object has no historic or research value to our culture but it is “just kind of pretty” and reminds the client of their grandmother, leaving an undesirably degraded finish completely untouched would be a failure to properly identify just what it is about the piece that is valuable. In these cases if the coating cannot be satisfactorily manipulated with solvents or overcoated, the piece is often stripped and refinished.

Pigments to be mixed into shellac for inpainting

If color loss compensation is desired by a custodian, the thoroughness and imperceptibility of restorative treatment can be adjusted to accommodate the budget of the client. Inquiring to triage the treatments is more likely to ensure a satisfied client, a visually satisfactory treatment outcome, and the conservator’s conscience to be at ease.

A painted seat that has scratches colored so that they aren't so visually distracting


This tension resolves then not in changing the quality of the treatments per se but rather by adjusting the thoroughness and imperceptibility of loss compensation. The appropriateness of treatments is determined by the values we impute to the object.

 “Just make it look better,” they say. Happily, the conscience of conservators of wooden objects can rest easy knowing that neither the absence of cultural value nor the budgetary constraints of their clientele mandate either violation of ethical standards or practicing at a discounted rate.

Sometimes, you just gotta make it look better.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

This is What May is All About

new surfaces


muddy boots


new life

animal chores

cutting firewood

stacking firewood




remembering a dear friend

new additions



a setting sun

Anything I'm missing?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Lectures and Demonstrations 2014

Here's the list of events for this year. I'm looking forward to all of them. The antique show is always great fun, preparing and delivering lectures forces me to refine my thoughts and understanding, and Leonard's Mills is a nice annual end of tourist season wrap up. If you haven't been to Maine before, it's worth coming even aside from the stuff I'm doing. Hope to see you guys there. If you have any questions, shoot me an email or give me a call:

July 26th (time TBA) - I have been asked to give a lecture and guided tour through the Jonathan Fisher House at the 200th Anniversary Event. The talk will be titled “The Fashioning Hand of Jonathan Fisher: An Inside Look at the Parson’s Furniture” More information can be found at

August 13th at 1:00 pm - I will be giving a lecture at the Wilson Museum in Castine, Maine. Titled, “A Comfortable House: Furnishing the Maine Frontier”, this talk will consider the furniture making tradition in preindustrial Maine. More information can be found at

August 16th 9am-2pm - I will be demonstrating at the Jonathan Fisher Antique Show at the Blue Hill Fair Grounds in Blue Hill, ME. I will have a booth with information and will be demonstrating aspects of furniture making using period woodworking tools. More information can be found at

Early October – As is our custom, Julia, Eden, and I will be at the Leonard’s Mills Living History Days at the Maine Forest and Logging Museum in Bradley, ME. The Living History Days is a weekend of historic interpretation of 1790’s life on the Maine Frontier. All weekend I will be doing demonstrations of preindustrial woodworking while Julia shows fireside cooking and Eden runs amok. It’s always a blast. More information can be found at