The Philosophy Of Restoration

I SHALL assume that collectors of early American furniture intend their collections, either large or small, for actual use in their own homes. Furniture acquired for museum purposes might be considered from quite another angle. Household furniture will be put to strenuous daily service, while the furniture of a museum is for inspection only. A rash individual attempting to "try" a chair in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum will quickly discover that such specimens are not for use. What we want in our homes, therefore, is furniture that may really be used and may perfectly serve its purpose. It would, of course, please all of us to have affairs so arranged that we could acquire, at moderate cost, a collection of American furniture which needed no repairs of any kind. The individual pieces might need refinishing, but no repairs, new parts, or restorations would be required. Alas, such a happy condition is impossible unless to the few of us who need never consider price. The furniture we long to possess will be almost seventy-five to three hundred years old, and will, according to its age, have suffered a tremendous amount of use and abuse. An old English print pictures a cottage, at the front of which a man is loading his furniture into a wagon. Beneath appears the veracious legend, "Three removes are as bad as a fire." Much of the furniture which we unearth will have undergone more than three "removes." Many of our ancestors were restless, and much of their furniture endured considerable travel—particularly during the last century. By cart, wagon, pung, scow, sailboat, steamer, and railroad, it went hither and yon, and it is not surprising that much that has managed to survive now needs repair and restoration. It is

more surprising that we find so many pieces in fairly good condition.

Occasionally we meet an enthusiastic collector who proudly announces, "I never restore anything. I just bring the pieces home and stand them about, quite as I find them." I can understand such a point of view but as a policy for home-furnishing it seldom works very well. If we examine his collection, we discover it more or less wrecked, wobbly, and not in condition to do its duty. We find Windsor chairs whose backs come out with a touch, tripod stands propped in corners to hold them upright, drop-leaf tables with broken hinges, chests of drawers with their drawers stuck fast and brasses missing or broken. We find chairs so cut down that the seat may be no more than ten inches from the floor, trembling lowboys and highboys; beds, sofas, chairs in such a condition of decrepitude that they are liable, at any moment, to collapse under the startled visitor. Indeed, a lengthy stay in the midst of such furniture might be characterized as a dangerous adventure.

a policy necessary So our problem becomes: What do we want to collect and in what condition are we willing to accept our acquisitions? Shall we confine our attention to the later things which may often be found whole and sound; or shall we bring home the more or less wrecked earlier pieces which may require considerable restoration? Each collector must determine these matters for himself. However, we will find that the very early pieces are not easily found in any sort of decent condition, while the later pieces are much more easily acquired. The amount of restoration required will probably closely follow the ratio of age.

be cautious about wrecks Buying wrecks should be indulged in with caution, however, as many pieces are so mangled that only extreme rarity would warrant their purchases and restoration. And yet, if, on a fateful day, one of us discovers an American court cupboard in an ancient henhouse, he will hardly say to the farmer-owner, "No, my good man, I am not interested in your old cupboard. It is a quaint old cupboard, but it lacks various parts; and I want only entirely original pieces." A court cupboard might—to exaggerate—lack dozens and dozens of parts, and yet be most acceptable. Again, a Flemish armchair, a fine heart-and-crown or a Carver chair, or a six-leg highboy would—any one of them—warrant considerable restoration. We may say, then, the greater the rarity} the greater the permissible restoration.

There is, however, a certain class of furniture which warrants little or no repair. In this class we might place common three-slat-back chairs, Hitchcock chairs, late Windsor chairs of poor types, the common pine or tulipwood six-board chests, nailed cradles, washstands, the very common type of four-legged candlestands, the wooden-seat chairs of many styles, and all of the Victorian furniture of solid walnut.

Also of questionable desirability are many of the badly damaged mahogany-veneered pieces of early and late Empire style, bureaux, desks, sleigh beds, sewing-stands, and sideboards. These are all veneered pieces, and sometimes have been exposed to the weather, which has loosened the glue of the veneer; or possibly the veneer has broken off or been badly chipped in many places. In such cases restoration means much work and the finished result is usually patchy and unpleasing.

Veneered furniture suffers more from exposure and hard use than do similar types made of solid wood. A solid tulip-wood chest of drawers might stand in a leaky shed for several years without serious harm, whereas a chest veneered with mahogany would be ruined by such exposure.

At auctions all sorts of common and badly wrecked pieces sometimes sell at astounding prices to an enthusiastic and excited assemblage—such is the effect of mob psychology. Wi^h a little hunting among the shops, similar pieces may be found in good condition at very modest prices, and their rarity is not sufficient to warrant extensive restoration. These statements do not, of course, apply to the earlier and finer types of mahogany-veneered furniture, Hepplewhite and Sheraton sideboards or finely inlaid bureaux or card tables. Such pieces are not readily found and even if in poor condition are well worth considerable restoration. Neither of course does it apply to the rarest of collectibles, the walnut-veneered pieces of the late seventeenth and very early eighteenth century.

Time will probably continue to change our standards of rarity, as it has always done. Could we look forward to the year i960, we might see a delighted collector showing to an envious brother his latest find—a real three-slat-back chair on which the only restorations are two new finials, three new slats, seven new rungs, and six inches added to the bottom of each leg. To hazard a guess as to the market price of pine washstands in that year is quite beyond my powers of prophecy.

We should very carefully examine in a good light every piece of furniture before purchasing, as hastily acquired pieces have an unfortunate way of showing, under careful scrutiny at home, about twice the amount of restoration that we had anticipated.

what we may find If we have decided that thorough and honest restoration is permissible, let us consider some of the furniture that we may purchase subject to such restoration:

Tavern tables of many sorts: Tops, drawers, and feet may be missing; often some, or all, of the stretchers may have been sawed out.

Cabriole-leg Dutch-foot, and gateleg tables, in various stages of dilapidation.

The frames of butterfly tables, with or without the drawer.

Windsor chairs with a broken bow, or rail, with one or more spindles gone, or from two to four inches missing from the bottom of each leg.

Slat-back, fiddle-back and banister-back arm and side chairs, of many kinds, with finials, banisters, rungs, and often the entire set of lower rungs gonfc, and with rockers nailed on. (The craze for rockers certainly cost us many fine chairs, which might otherwise have come down to us intact.)

Desks, of many woods and designs, often with the feet missing, and, possibly, with lid and brasses gone.

High and low four-post beds, with two to eight inches cut from the bottom of each foot.

Highboys and lowboys, with drawers, feet, tops, or brasses missing.

Chests and chests of drawers, of innumerable kinds, with feet, tops, moldings, drawers, and brasses missing.

Looking-glasses, of all sorts. Those with wood frames will nearly all be veneered—the older styles with walnut, the later types with mahogany. Mirrors entirely gilded over a surface of plaster are common. These last are very difficult to repair when in bad condition, and will need professional attention. If a looking-glass has its original glass, and we intend it mostly for an ornament and not for use, the old glass, however cloudy and dull, should be preserved. This does not apply if we intend the looking-glass for actual service, as over a dressing-table.

All sorts of clocks—varying from the tall "grandfathers" to the late "steeple" clocks of the 1850's. Some of these will be of solid woods—maple, cherry, or walnut. The later types will probably be veneered with mahogany or rose-

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In American mahogany, we shall find that the earlier pieces, like American Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton chairs, ball-and-claw tables, lowboys, and highboys, will be of solid, very heavy mahogany (commonly called "San Domingo"). Later we shall note mahogany veneer in use on bureaux, sideboards, tables, and articles displaying expansive flat surfaces. We shall, further, find many combinations in which the legs and frame are of solid mahogany, while the top, sides, and fronts are of mahogany veneer on pine.

Arriving at Empire times, we shall discover many pieces entirely veneered on all the visible surfaces, and we shall find combinations of solid maple frames, with sides, panels, or drawer fronts veneered with handsome curly, bird's-eye or burl maple, or these woods displayed in interesting and striking combinations with mahogany.

Nearly all American veneering will be found on a foundation of pine, although a few more costly pieces were occasionally made by applying the veneers to some fine wood— as a beautiful mahogany veneer on a foundation of mahogany, walnut or cherry. English cabinetmakers, in their work, were accustomed to use oak as a foundation for mahogany and walnut veneers, but the practice was by no means universal. Pine was frequently used. While, therefore, an oak carcase usually implies the English or Continental origin of a piece of furniture; the presence of pine is not accepted as proof of American making.

It is interesting to observe how, as time passes, veneer always tends to grow thinner. The walnut veneer of 1700

was sometimes one-tenth of an inch thick, while the mahogany veneer used in 1850 had been reduced, in extreme instances, to a thickness of one-fiftieth of an inch.

victorian furniture

The term Victorian Furniture covers a wide variety of household pieces of mahogany, rosewood, and black walnut. We may find large bureaux with or without attached looking-glasses, parlor sets, matching sofa, arm and side chairs, tables with marble tops, their leaves and aprons elaborately carved, whatnots, desks, sleigh beds, ottomans, footstools, and huge sideboards. It was a period of mixed styles and influences. Traces of the ancient cabinetmakers—Empire, Gothic, Roman—"improved" with much carving, ornament, jig and fret-saw work, formed a mélange of style which seems to have delighted our grandparents. Almost all Victorian furniture was the work of furniture factories using machine methods and it was put together with glue and screws—wood pins were not employed.

The mahogany furniture is the most desirable of this period, but all Victorian objects have, for some time, interested certain collectors. If we wish to acquire this furniture, it may easily be found in very good condition and at modest prices.


THE work of restoration may be done by oneself or by a cabinetmaker according to preferences and circumstances.

I myself have done all restoration on my own collection. The majority of my pieces are quite in original condition, and have required no repairs, while others were badly wrecked when acquired, and demanded much attention. I have thus had excellent and abundant opportunity to dissect old furniture, restore, and refinish it.

For extensive operations an elaborate equipment of tools is necessary, and some knowledge of their handling, or a natural aptitude for carpentry. If we are what is called "handy" with tools, we shall probably be successful with restoration; but if we cannot drive a nail straight, or saw on a straight line, we shall do better to leave our restoration to someone else. Even then a knowledge of the subject is of great value.

As with gardening, the playing of games, and other activities, restoration and refinishing calls for real effort. It requires much bending and working in strained positions. As a reducer of the waistline and as a general conditioner it is much superior to any "daily dozen" directed over the radio before breakfast. In gluing together an old armchair we need all of our hands, feet, and, maybe, as some wag has suggested, a trained octopus to hold the various arms, rungs, and parts in place during the process.

But the performance of these various operations develops a really practical knowledge of the details of old furniture such as can be gained in no other way. As in any other field, the knowledge gained by actual experience is always of

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Only occasionally, and then in rather late furniture, do we find evidence of slackness or poor workmanship. Mortise and tenon joints, hardwood pins, dovetails, and long hand-wrought nails combine in an ensemble well calculated for enduring usefulness through generations.

sparing the marks of time

In the matter of restoration, we often have to consider pieces which have never been shortened with a saw, but have lost from one-half to two inches from wear. If an old piece is in fine condition except for this slight loss of height, it is, in my opinion, a mistake to restore the missing inch. By restoring in such cases, we remove the pieces from the class of all original to the class of restored; and the slight gain in appearance does not compensate for the change in classification. However, in deciding this matter we must, of course, be influenced by the character of the feet under consideration. A fine Spanish-foot chair which has lost one inch from its carved foot will have suffered a considerable diminution in grace and beauty, while a Windsor chair might bear the same depletion without any very noticeable harm.

Moreover, in all our restoration, let us not be too particular and finical about small details. In dealing with the older and cruder pieces especially let us do everything possible to save the smaller evidences of age and long usage— the old hand-wrought nails often driven into table tops when the pins came loose, burns, the marks of three-legged pots, old saw marks, crisscross knife marks, carved initials, and various and curious stains. All these things are history —a history whose writing may have required two hundred years or more to complete.

I have a secretary on whose slanting top some child once carved a rough ship and the name Mary. This secretary is more interesting to me with Mary's name on the lid than if the youthful indiscretion had been planed out.

A banister-back armchair has the initials I.H. and A.B. deeply carved in the left arm. It is a pleasing touch, and we may wonder who I.H. and A.B. were, where they lived, and when.

mahogany requires special treatment

Mahogany furniture is, of course, of a finer and more formal character than many of the earlier and simpler pieces made of native woods. Mahogany furniture was never intended for use in the kitchen or for any rough wear. On the other hand, much of the earlier furniture of solid wood, which we now collect and prize so highly, was strongly built for daily use, often in workrooms. We cannot picture a housewife of 1765 seated in her kitchen preparing her evening meal before a mahogany table. Instead, she would doubtless have been employing a table of maple or pine, well worn, and scarred. If the home possessed any mahogany furniture it was not in the kitchen. Nor was the later mahogany of Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Phyfe intended for anything but formal purposes.

This being the case, it would seem that we should, in the restoration of mahogany, lean toward a more exquisite and more thorough restoration and refinishing than in the treatment of the furniture of solid native wood types. Nevertheless this does not mean that every sign of age should be removed even from our old mahogany. If I were the owner of the finest mahogany Chippendale armchair in existence, on the arm of which some old vandal had carved his initials, these initials would remain quite undisturbed.

Old table tops should be preserved, even if in rather bad condition. An original mahogany top, badly burned, stained, and marked, may not be entirely pleasing, but it is prefer-


inches of right arm, one arm spindle,>nd Original in e>er^ except for about three inches added large hole in seat restored to ejuh tooc

Braced-bacL Windsor Chairs are rare ar d «ell worth restoration able to a new one. A maple tavern table with similar marks seems highly desirable.

Did table tops should almost never be planed, and we should not attempt to restore every tiny break, replace every lost splinter, or fill every tack hole. If, at times, we are forced to use a plane to remove deep burns or stains, let us prefer to use this tool lightly on our mahogany, cherry, walnut, and maple furniture.

A scraper may, at times, be a necessary instrument for cleaning old furniture. But what may be called "skinned furniture" is a common sight, these days—fine old pieces, whose entire outer surface has been quite removed by the scraper, supplemented perhaps, by the plane. Every nick, mar, or scratch has been removed until the piece has every appearance of a good reproduction. Such butchery is irreparable, and a piece so treated has lost a large share of its interest to a real lover of antique furniture.

We usually find that as a thoughtful and intelligent collector progresses along his chosen road, he feels an ever increasing aversion to the removal of the marks of age and use from his furniture. The newer collectors are very often inclined to demand that all antique furniture of every sort be scraped, skinned, and highly varnished. The moral of this paragraph is that if we wish even to simulate connoisseur-ship and experience we will not consider having six coats of shiny varnish applied to our court cupboards; nor submit our Flemish cane chair of maple to a bath of mahogany varnish stain. These things are simply not done in the best collecting circles.


In finishing pieces which carry the original brasses, never remove the brasses; all work should be done around them, leaving a bit of the old finish close to the edges, and retaining the marks of the brasses on the drawer fronts.

If the original brasses are removed and the drawer fronts thoroughly scraped, no one can afterward be at all certain that the brasses are really the original equipment: they might be old but not original. Cotter pin and drop handles were held in pface by iron wires bent at a right angle and driven into the interior surfaces of the drawers. If the plates are removed for refinishing, these wires must all be pried out of the wood, and very often these marks of removal will cast a doubt over the originality of the mounts. A piece bearing a complete set of cotter pin or drop brasses is about as rare as the proverbial teeth of the hen. Even the later furniture with every one of its original brasses intact and in place is difficult to find. Original brasses, therefore, greatly enhance the value of any piece, and we should be very careful to do nothing to destroy the evidences of their originality.

A four-drawer piece which originally carried eight plates and handles and four keyhole escutcheons will perhaps lack two plates and as many handles. Under such circumstances we must send one of the old brasses to someone who will make, by hand, two exact replicas of the originals. Handmade brasses are inevitably expensive, but their cost is well warranted if it enables us to complete and use an original set. If, however, we find a piece which has none of its original hardware, let us not go hastily to our local hardware shop and buy a set of cheap, thin, shiny, and awful so-called "reproduction" brasses. Such additions will quite ruin the appearance of a really fine piece. Good reproduction brasses are easily obtainable at modest prices from dealers advertising in the magazines Antiques and The Antiquarian. Such brasses are correct in design, and are really reproductions of old patterns. They are also furnished in "old" or "antique" color, so harmonizing with our old furniture. We should make sure however, that any brasses purchased are of the proper style for the period of our furniture. A six-leg highboy of 1700 should not wear oval Sheraton brasses. A Shera-

Antique Collecting

Antique Collecting

ABOUT fifty years ago, when the subject of English furniture first began to be studied and to be written about, it was divided conveniently into four distinct types. One writer called his books on the subject The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany and The Age of Satinwood. It is not really quite as simple as that, for each of the so-called Ages overlaps the others and it is quite impossible to lagt down strict dates as to when any one timber was introduced or when it finally, if ever, went out of favour.

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