Saturday, November 29, 2014

Resurrecting a Sun Bleached Finish

The key to successful preservation is retreatability. Many of the finishes that were customary before the second quarter of the 20th century are still easily soluble in alcohol generations later. Although there is an obvious real life potential for a careless spill of alcohol, the long term benefits of resoluble (i.e. thermoplastic) coatings are inestimable.  If you are looking for your work to last 200 years use shellac for varnish and hide glue for adhesive. Period.

When these old “spirit varnishes” are crazed and deteriorated after 150 years it is possible through the introduction of alcohol to redissolve and rework the coating. This treatment has the benefit of readhesion to the substrate, amalgamation of the coating (restoring cohesion), and restoring the “optical saturation” of the finish (For when a finish is described as “dry and lifeless”).

There can be other problems with finishes, however. In some cases, varnishes exposed to the sun’s UV rays for an extended period can lose their color. Occasionally, solvent action alone can remedy this but in extreme cases more is needed.

Before Treatment

This chest of drawers I worked on recently was severely sun bleached and application of solvent alone wasn't retrieving the original color. Because this finish was soluble in alcohol I was able to restore the color without stripping away the coating.

Before Treatment

Before Treatment - Notice original color preserved under the brasses

The Materials

This was my method: TransTint metallized dyes well diluted in alcohol padded into the damaged coating. I prefer this method over spraying a toner because I find hand application much more discriminating with regard to where it lands. (Overspray into secondary areas is common.) As long as the dye is well diluted, I can safely work my pad with a wet edge on one surface at a time. It’s important to avoid stopping mid-pass as this can leave a tell-tale mark. To be honest, this technique does require experience and practice. It takes a controlled touch to keep everything even but I like how fine-tuned the application can be.

 Quick passes are required

During Treatment

During Treatment

After all the dye was applied over each surface (20-30 quick applications), it was left to dry. In order to lock the color in, I later padded 10% Paraloid B-72 in toluene lightly over the piece. After that was dry I was able to pad a couple coats of shellac. 

During Treatment

Color complete

Paraloid B-72 in Toluene


A final rubbing and paste wax completed the treatment. Though the dye is not entirely retractable, the original finish was retained and the color was restored. 

After Treatment

After Treatment

After Treatment

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Smokin’ It Out with George Walker

I spent some time tonight playing around with a photograph of Jonathan Fisher’s desk and bookcase. Armed with a pair of dividers and George Walker’s handy instant proportion gauges, I began “smoking out” (as George puts it) the design conception behind this desk. It was a fun excavation sort of process as I plucked the proportions off the image. For those of you not familiar with the use of classical proportions in furniture design, simply put: historically, proportion was not arbitrary. The way each component related to each other was based on simple whole number ratios. 5s and 6s were very common. Looking for these ratios in a piece of extant furniture allows you to stand in the shoes of the maker and envision what he envisioned. Why are the knobs exactly 1/5 of the way in on the drawer fronts? On the bookcase doors, why is the bottom of the middle rail defined by two fifths of the height of the upper case? What are the measurements of those components? Who cares. The designer’s eye is on how the parts relate.

Intrigued? I recommend you pick up a copy of Walker and Tolpin’s "By Hand & Eye". I also found George’s DVD "Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design" very helpful in this regard. Don’t forget his blog "Design Matters". That’s where I got sucked into this stuff.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Extraordinary Thomas Chippendale - Carved With Love

I watched an excellent BBC and V&A documentary about Thomas Chippendale. It covers the little we know about his early life, his training, his moving to London, the growth of his cabinetmaking firm, and his eventual financial undoing. Fascinating piece of history. The whole thing is split into four parts here below:

Friday, November 21, 2014

Any Time Now

This is what we've been all about lately: waiting on baby. I think we're close.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Economical Wood Identification

Swietenia macrophylla - Honduran Mahogany

My good friend Freddy Roman recently shared a link to a blog post about the author’s time at a Wood Identification class taught by furniture conservators Tad Fallon and Randy Wilkinson. Included in the post are seven video clips from the class. The clips are a great watch.

Quercus Rubra - Northern Red Oak

This got me thinking again about wood identification. At the Institute where I studied, we got an introduction to basic microscopy for conservation examination but I never got time to delve into wood I.D. from endgrain samples. It wasn't until after I graduated that I began to experiment with this technique.

endgrain prepped

In order to do this kind of examination, you really only need a 10x jeweler’s loupe looking at cleanly sliced endgrain. They can be had for $10 or less. Though I have and use one occasionally, I find the desire to photograph what I am seeing. Without a microscope in my studio, I utilize macro photography. I purchased these inexpensive macro lens filters for my 17-85 lens and Canon 60d. With adequate lighting, a tripod, and cropping in photo editing software, I can get usable images for comparison to samples in wood ID reference material.

Swietenia macrophylla - Honduran Mahogany

I am not a conservation scientist so my conclusions are not definitive but as best as I can tell, the attributions in these captions are right. The bible on the topic is Bruce Hoadley’s Identifying Wood but I also find The Hobbit House site helpful when identifying pieces. (Scroll down to bottom of their page to look up specific woods.)

Juglans Nigra - Black Walnut

Often identifying primary woods (show surface hardwoods) on antique furniture is easily done without this intrusive of an investigation. Sometimes, however, a little confirmation of what I already suspect is helpful.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Propriety of Assisting Others

“In some instances it may be necessary for a man to keep knowledge to himself, as his own property, and upon which his bread may depend; but I do not see any impropriety in persons of the same branch informing each other. In trades where their arts depend on secrets, it is right for men to keep them from strangers; but the art of cabinet-making depends so much on practice, and requires so many tools, that a stranger cannot steal it. But in every branch there are found men who love to keep their inferiors of the same profession in ignorance, that themselves may have an opportunity of triumphing over them. From such I expect no praise, but the reverse. Their pride will not suffer them to encourage any work which tends to make others as wise as themselves; and therefore it is their fixed resolution to despise and pour contempt upon every attempt of this kind, in proportion as it is likely to succeed. But those I will leave to themselves as unworthy of notice, who only live to love themselves, but not to assist others.”

 -Thomas Sheraton, 1793, “The Cabinetmaker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book”

Saturday, November 15, 2014

On Board with the Fisher House

The Jonathan Fisher House

This past Monday night the Jonathan Fisher Memorial put on its annual meeting. Among other things on the meeting’s agenda, I was elected to serve on the board. I am honored as I look forward to becoming more involved in the preservation efforts for this unique historic site. I am not sure exactly where I will be spending most of my board service time, but I do know they would like some help with the internet and marketing load.  I also have been asked about environmental monitoring for the care and protection of the artifacts. As it is a volunteer organization there are more needs than there are volunteers to fulfill.

Detail of "Blue Hill, Maine" (circa 1853-1857) by Fitz Henry Lane

Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr.

The meeting’s featured guest lecture titled "A Genius in His Profession: The Life and Work of Blue Hill Architect George A. Clough" was given by the Maine State Historian and Director of Maine State Historic Preservation Commission Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr. Both he and our own Brad Emerson have been researching George Clough’s (1843-1910) architectural practice in both Blue Hill, ME and Boston, MA. A Blue Hill native, Clough worked as Boston’s first city architect. He designed a vast number of buildings in both Massachusetts and back home in Maine. 

Carriages in front of Clough House in Blue Hill, ME

George A. Clough, Architect 

"Ideal Lodge" of Blue Hill designed by Clough for Effie Ober Kline

Shettleworth highlighted Clough's work in Maine specifically and talked much about his time in Blue Hill designing new and renovating a number of the old homes he grew up with. Shettleworth’s talk was enlightening and I appreciate his willingness to come this far Downeast to speak at our meeting. Thank you, Earle.

Clough designed the Suffolk County Courthouse on Pemberton Square, Boston

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Place to Set Some Clutter

 I recently felt the urge to put up a little shelf above my desk at home so that I could clear my desktop a bit. Not looking for anything super elaborate (and not wanting to spend much time on it), I decided to screw an old board onto two brackets and attach it to the wall.

Conveniently, a client of mine gave me a few orphaned walnut table leaves to reclaim them to some good use. So use them I did. I did very little to them other than partially strip the crusty finish, scratch a molding profile on the front, and cut out a cyma reversa-ovolo-cyma recta profile on the brackets.  Then I stuck it on the wall. Now my clutter has class.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

17th Century Advice for Sanding Out Dust Nibs

“…where ever mole-hills and knobs, asperities and roughness in colours or varnish offer to appear, with your Rush sweep them off, and tell them their room is more acceptable to you than their company. If this ill usage will not terrifie them, or make them avoid your work, give them no better entertainment than you did before, but maintain your former severity, and with your Rush whip them off, as often as they molest you.”

 - Stalker and Parker, “A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing”

Monday, November 10, 2014

And There Was Light


Last Sunday, we woke up to snow. The first snow of the year, actually. It kept coming and coming. The forecast didn't look optimistic so we buckled down and waited out the storm. We ended up with 8-10” of snow/slush and lost our power by that afternoon. 

Harvesting in the middle of the snow storm!

Our wintry loot


Tree limbs were snapping and cracking all around us. One falling limb had narrowly missed our windows. It was pretty intense. Then Monday came. Then Tuesday. Wednesday… You get the idea. It was a splendid thing Friday night when the lights came back on. We felt civilized again.

Our mud oven survived


So thanks to all friends who shared their shower, dishwasher, generator, and food with us. My nine-month-pregnant wife really likes hot running water so we are grateful.




Sunday, November 2, 2014

Hush Little Baby...

Working the bottom board from the rough

Feel free to add this to the Pinterest DIY co-sleeper pages. Just kidding.



So let’s see… where did I leave off? This is the cradle I started at Leonard’s Mills and have been working on periodically over the past few weeks. Last I mentioned, I got the dovetails fit and the scroll work cut out. Since then, I got a bottom board fitted out, dyed the wood, and glued it up.




Then I got to the base. Because this was to be attached to the bed, it only has two legs. I chopped the mortises with my Ashley Isles Mortise chisel and formed the tenons on the apron by splitting and paring. (I go back and forth with trying different tenon shaping methods. Sawing them is tedious but reliable. Splitting them is risky but fun. Depends on my mood I guess.)



Those are the teeth from my planing stop

After each mortise had a mating tenon, I began tapering and chamfering the legs. The taper begins one inch below the apron and tapers to half the thickness of the leg blank. The chamfers were then laid out with a marking gauge. Then bulk of the waste was removed with a wide chisel bevel down and then was cleaned up with my smoothing plane. It excels at such delicate work.


After dyeing the wood, I glued and drawbored the base assembly. In order to get things aligned right while the glue was drying, I clamped it to the top. I didn’t need to clamp the tenons. I just relied on the drawbore pins. (That sure does make assembly easy.)


Real Milk Paint - Cobalt Blue

The next day, I went at it with paint. This is the same milk paint I used on our bed a couple of years ago. After two coats of that, the thing got glazed and shellacked.


I attached the base with slotted screws and then it was time to figure how to attach it to the bed. I installed a “front” rail and angle iron to the cradle that laps over the bed rail. The snugness of the fit over the rail and the weight of the bed don’t necessitate me fastening it to the rail but in order to prevent lateral movement, I put one little screw on the inside.

This is the inside of the bed rail with the cradle fitting over it

It's like a mini version on our bed

So there it is. This is what happens when your wife finds a project on Pinterest and you turn to period examples of a similar form. And when you consider coordinating it with your existing bed, you might just end up with something like this. Now we await the baby.