Monday, March 19, 2018

What is the Future of the Past?

My copy of the Center Table in the White House

I remember very clearly watching on television (in black and white) as Jackie Kennedy gave a tour of the White House.  She walked slowly and elegantly from room to room, saying "This is the Blue Room" and "This is the Red Room".  However, on my television it was up to my imagination which was which.

As she stood in the center of the Blue Room and discussed the mahogany center table with white marble top I fell in love with antiques.  Love at first sight.  They spoke to me.  Not as something "dated" or "out of fashion" but instead I had the insight that they were "new" and "modern" when Dolly Madison stood in the same room.

The period of American history between Madison (and the burning of the White House by the British) and Monroe is rich with great design, and artists and craftsmen produced objects as fine as anything in Europe.  America was guided by the strong impression that it was the New World and appropriated design elements from Egypt, Greece and Rome, as they were transmitted to our shores from Italy, France and England by way of Napoleon.  In fact, I contend that the Napoleonic era produced the first purely politically engineered international design: Empire.  In the centuries before Napoleon the designs are always associated with the King (Louis XIV, XV, Queen Anne, etc.) or the designer (Chippendale, Hepplewhite, etc.)

It was Napoleon who dreamed of World Conquest and his love of the ancient world powers and their influence drove him to export the first truly International Style.  It was under his direction that expeditions were sent to Egypt to return with new designs,  as well as incorporating the symbols of Rome (stars, eagles, lions, etc) and Greece (acanthus, classic proportions, etc.)

All of this influence was found in the New World, culminating with President Monroe issuing the famous Monroe Doctrine during his term.  He was saying that America was powerful and would protect the entire hemisphere from any "foreign" influence.  Imagine a young country, in its first generation of existence, declaring that it would stand up to nations which had existed for many centuries.

All of this bravado and new money was reflected in the furnishings of that time.  Ship loads of ancient Cuban mahogany were delivered in all the Eastern seaports, from Charleston to Portsmouth and worked by skilled furniture makers into elegant designs where no expense was spared.  Carving was everywhere, rich veneers were carefully selected and highly polished, imported French gilt bronze mounts were added, all in the fashionable Empire taste, but with an American flavor.

I have been collecting and researching objects from this period for 50 years.  I have watched the market rise and fall, depending on the whims of fancy.  I collect because I want to understand the culture and society which created these forms and lived with them every day.  I have whale oil Argand lamps, candelabra with gilt bronze frames, girandole convex mirrors, coin silver service, klismos chairs, Recamier sofas, console tables with marble statuary,  and polished mahogany everywhere.  That's just in the living room.  In the bedroom my wife and I sleep in a mahogany bedstead with Doric columns and a silk canopy that nearly touches the ceiling at 10 feet tall.  The mattress is so far off the floor we use bed steps to climb in at night.

During the 1960's, when I started collecting antiques, they were often found in thrift stores.  The market for antiques was not well developed, and the true antique stores were run by educated dealers who focused on Old Masters, and furniture made before the Empire period.  Wallace Nutting, who wrote Furniture Treasury in the 1920's was a great influence on these dealers, and often said he believed that the furniture made after 1800 was "degraded" and "inferior" to what had been made earlier.

Mr. Dupont, who furnished over 100 rooms in his house at Winterthur, had the same belief.  He wanted nothing to do with Empire furniture, and it is only after his death that objects from this period were acquired by the museum.  I can take pride in the fact that I had a Quervelle sideboard in my dining room years before Winterthur acquired theirs.  (And mine is better!)

As nearly everyone in the business knows, the market for antiques has suffered since 2008.  It is now at rock bottom.  I have had several collectors in recent years just give me antiques, rather than toss them out.  Just this past week I was given an 18th century marquetry French commode with original marble top.  The marble top alone is worth thousands of dollars (in a good market).

What has caused this and where do we go from here?

The New York Times (March 8) had a full page article, "How Low Will the Market Go?" discussing recent trends in collecting.  It mentions that "prices for average pieces are now '80 percent off'" from 15 years ago.  This is in fact true.  It is certainly a buyer's market, just like it was in the 1960's when I started collecting.

In general, the antiques market is funded by real estate equity.  As home values rise and people move up in the market, they spend money on interior furnishings, like carpets, kitchens, and furniture.  For the same reasons that buying real estate was a good idea, buying high quality antiques was understood as a good investment.

Several factors convened after the crash to change this attitude.  Many home owners were upside down in equity and forced to abandon their homes or sell at a significant loss.  Selling antiques is not always easy in a good market, but in a bad market it is nearly impossible, as high quality furnishings are usually purchased with discretionary money.

Nearly all antique dealers keep surplus inventory in a storage unit, waiting to be put on the floor as merchandise moves.  Rather than put a "50% off Sale" banner in the window, these dealers kept the retail prices as long as possible and dumped large quantities of good inventory into auction houses directly from their storage units.  This flooded the market at a time when there were no buyers, plunging the values across the board.

Investors who held large collections began to sell off their antiques into this market, and began to get new appraisals of their market value to determine a price.  Since appraisers are required to include the most recent "comps" the values indicated by the current auction sales were dramatically low, compared to what the same pieces were appraised at 20 years earlier.

Due to the falling value of antiques there was little incentive for any collector to keep collecting.

There are also other factors, less obvious, which contributed to the lack of interest in antiques.  Most importantly the dealers themselves ruined the market.  There are no real qualifications to be an antique dealer, and many dealers were either ignorant of what they were selling or (even worse) happy to fraudulently represent their inventory as something else to close the sale.  Fakes were easy to make and made up a large portion of the market.

The gradual transformation of the business from a dealer owned store (with his valued reputation on the line) to that of the "Antique Mall" store also made it easier to sell fakes and junk, since there was no individual "dealer" to account for selling merchandise that is damaged, modified or fake. In fact, the "Antique Mall" format, with one person managing the booths, became a real alternative to sellers keeping their inventory in storage lockers.  Rather than pay for a storage locker, it was cheaper to store their "vintage" inventory in a booth at the Mall.

Nothing is more depressing to a knowledgeable antique collector than walking through one of these Malls, looking for the jewel in the junk.

Another factor in the demise of the market is the failure of the workers in the furniture restoration business to do the right thing.  Again, there are no real requirements for a person to call himself a "restorer" and too many workers use sheet rock screws, nails, epoxy, modern glues and finishes and Bondo to get the job done.

I have two prices for work brought into my shop.  One is for the damage which has not been previously repaired.  The other is for the damage which was done by an amateur and requires me to undo his damage before I can address the original problem.

Don't get me started on Gorilla Glue!

Patrice Lejeune Conserving Boulle Table Top

A good example of how poor conservation can affect value is with Boulle.  Boulle work is made of metals and tortoise shell and other non wood surface decoration which is glued to a solid wood substrate.  The only glue which is properly used in Boulle work is fish glue.  Fish glue allows for the expected expansion and contraction of the substrate to occur over time, but keeps the marquetry in place.  When lifting happens, as it always does, most repair men reach for epoxy or even small nails to make the repair.  In fact, by fixing spots of the surface to the substrate with nails or epoxy, the situation is made worse, as new areas will therefore life during subsequent wood movement.

There are very few qualified conservators in America who can properly restore Boulle work and thus the market suffers.

To compound this problem, C.I.T.I.E.S. regulations have made buying and selling antiques which contain tortoise shell, rosewood, Cuban mahogany, ivory, and hundreds of other endangered materials complicated.  The rules are not complete and not clear as to what is legal and what is not. To protect themselves, many sellers who list online are presenting ivory as "bone" and tortoise shell as "horn".  It is very easy to list rosewood as "walnut."  This situation makes it difficult for buyers to actually know what they are getting.

Another question which is universal in this business is "What is the legal definition of an Antique?"
When the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was passed in 1930 it did two things: it was partially responsible for the Great Depression, and it defined Antiques (for duty free importation) as "made before 1830.  This was the original concept which I followed when I started collecting.  1830 represented a general date for the "end" of hand work and the "start" of the Industrial Revolution.

By 1966 the antiques industry was lobbying Congress to revise the act, and Lyndon Johnson signed legislation which changed the definition from "before 1830" to "100 years old."  Instantly all the Victorian furniture made between 1830 and 1866 became "antique."  This created a rush to collect mid 19th century stuff and the excitement of antiques lasted well past the BiCentennial.

Now the date is changing again.  According to the NYT article: "Even New York's prestigious Antiques Show has changed its rules.  Founded in 1955, the show once required that exhibited pieces be at least 100 years old.  In 2009, the organizers and dealer committee changed the cutoff date to 1969 to include mid century objects.  In 2016, they removed the date restriction entirely, paving the way for contemporary design."

 This evolution of the concept of "antique" has completely changed the market.  According to the article, "Custom made pieces by living designer-artisans have 'become 70 to 80 percent of our business'...Indeed, a recent survey 1stdibs commissioned found that professional interior designers used about 65 percent contemporary products in their projects last year, and only 35 percent vintage."

I have been aware of this trend during my career.  In addition to antique furniture conservation, I make and sell museum quality copies of historic pieces.  I have had no difficulty finding a market, at very good prices, for my creations.  I am a living artisan and my work will stand the test of time.

Louis Philippe Tilt Tables Made by Living Artisan

Not so much for those who experiment with modern materials to make their furniture.  Just like Jackson Pollack's paintings are decomposing after 50 years, much of the contemporary furniture is failing to stand up over the years.  In the same section the NYT has another article, "When Furniture Fails the Test of Time."  The opening paragraph states: "One famous designer chair is oozing goop.  Another has exploded into puffs of foam.  A bookcase's shelves bubbled as gases formed within.  The culprits?  Plastic.  And time."

Modern furniture is often toxic, and unstable.  And not easily repairable.  Long after the foam rots and the plastic melts and the catalyzed finish cracks, the Cuban mahogany table with its protein glue and shellac finish will still stand proud and handsome.

Finally, I would like to explain, from my perspective, the current fashion for mid century furniture.  In fact, I am "mid century" being born in 1948 and grew up with this stuff.  Most of my education in the field of antiques was gained from books and travel.  Today, much of the information is gathered from videos, movies and the internet.  What is the material you see most often?  Stuff from the last 50 years.  Young people associate with recent events and have a nostalgia for the culture of the last half century.

Therefore, I have changed my "pitch" about antiques when approached by a new collector.  Antiques are "green" and have no carbon footprint.  The raw material was harvested from ancient forests by human and animal power, transported across oceans by wind power,  sawn into rough lumber by water power and worked into the final form by human hands.  All the materials used were organic and non toxic.  To conserve them and restore them is the ultimate form of recycling.

On the other hand, much of modern furnishings use toxic materials and industrial power and have a huge carbon footprint as a result of transportation by truck or cargo ship.  In addition, modern furniture has, by its very nature, a very limited shelf life and will need to be replaced frequently.

I "retired" from my early career in Nuclear Physics when I realized that nuclear waste will endanger our existence on this planet.  I choose to restore antiques as a personal mission to save something important from the past.

I want to thank Jackie Kennedy for pointing me in the right direction.

Jackie Kennedy White House Tour

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Funny Folk Art Fake Discovered

This article from M.A.D. came across my screen yesterday.  I found it very interesting.

Civil War Secretary

If you search this blog you will find other posts on fakes.  In particular, you should review the post "When is a Fake Antique?"

Unless the museum actually destroys this piece it will become an antique one day.

It is certainly curious and should have been more carefully examined by the "experts."  Unfortunately, the "experts" who are working in the field these days gained most of their experience through books, papers and professional presentations by others.

After standing at the bench and restoring antiques for 50 years you gain considerable insight.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Risk of Living as a Process of Life

On the Bench I Saw a Holdfast 
Next year I will be entering my 8th decade of walking on this earth.  I am happy and healthy and I have no immediate needs.  I cannot complain, but I do it anyway, just for sport.

A few years ago I was on a cruise ship and I made it a daily ritual to approach the front desk and complain about something trivial, like a pen that didn't work or something.  The patient young lady at the desk was named "Lovely" and she was, always smiling at this funky old man who stood in line to complain about nothing.  At the end of a magnificent cruise, just before I left the boat, I approached her one last time.

"Good morning, Mr. Edwards," she smiled pleasantly.  "How was  your cruise?"

I said, "I want to register a complaint!"

I paused just long enough for her to think to herself, "What is it now?"

Then I said, "There's nothing to complain about!"

In my mind that was funny, but I can understand how she must have been relieved that this was the last time she would have to talk to me.  She smiled nicely and said, "I look forward to seeing you again."  She was one of the most optimistic and happy people I have ever met.

Life is a process, getting through every day with as little pain as possible and as much pleasure as you can create.  If you are happy then the people you meet will be infected with happiness.  Life is also a great risk.  The only certainty of living is that we will eventually die at some point.  Knowing that I will be 70 puts a rather uncomfortable limit on the time left to do the things I need to do.

On the other hand, celebrating the past 50 years of living as a woodworker has been very satisfying and I hope that the rest of my time in this business will continue as much as possible with the same satisfaction.

People I meet often say that I don't look my age.  My hair is not grey, my face is not wrinkled, and I am still very physically active.  I usually tell them my secret rules for a good life:

Go to bed at 9 and get up at 5.  Eat healthy organic food.  No alcohol, drugs or tobacco.  As little social life as possible.  Most importantly, work every day at a job you love.  Live with passion.

This year I have been invited to return to Williamsburg as a speaker.  They are celebrating their 20th annual Working Wood in the 18th century conference, and the topic is "Workmanship of Risk: Exploring Period Tools and Shops."  I am honored to be included.  My good friends, Roy Underhill, Peter Follansbee and Don Williams will also be presenting, along with staff members of the Williamsburg cabinet shop and curatorial departments.

This is What Greets the Worker Every Day as He Opens His Tool Box

For the project we will be discussing an amazing marquetry tool box lid,  currently on loan to a museum in England and the property of Jane Rees, a tool historian who lives there.

Her website is: Jane Rees, Photographer and Tool Historian

Jane will be bringing the tool box lid to the conference and she will be discussing its history as well.  I look forward to meeting her and listening to her perspective on woodworking tools, many of which I use on a daily basis in my profession.  She has been kind enough to send me detailed photographs of the marquetry, and those which I post here are under her copyright protection.

When I "retired" from my career working in High Energy Particle Physics, back in 1973, I made a conscious decision to abandon technology and live, as much as possible, a pre industrial life.  Of course I own a car, but I walk to work every day.  Of course I own a clock but I never use the alarm.  Of course I have a computer but I killed my TV.  Of course I have a woodworking shop but I never use power tools.  My lumber is naturally air dried over many years.

Early on I was influenced by David Pye, who introduced me to the "Workmanship of Risk" and the "Workmanship of Certainty."  Recently I read his book again to prepare for this conference.  It still resonates with wisdom and insight.

I have struggled to reduce his philosophical perspective to simple concepts that are more easily transmitted to students who are curious about how I approach my work.  There are three elements to working wood: Worker, Material and Tool.  The difference between "risk" and "certainty" is in the relationship between these three elements.

In the "Workmanship of Risk" approach the Worker manipulates the Tool against the Work.  Using basic hand tools, like a chisel, plane or saw, the Worker learns to control the Tool and takes risks producing the final Work.  Learning from his failures the Worker gains a deep sense of pride when the Work is successful.

In the "Workmanship of Certainty" approach the Worker manipulates the Work (material) against the Tool.  If the Tool is properly adjusted then the result is certain.  Setting a fence on a table saw to 2" produces a 2" board every time.  The Worker basically is feeding the Machine.  If the Worker wants a better result he purchases a better Machine.  Thus consumerism was created by the Industrial Revolution.  Bigger, Better and Faster.  Also Cheaper!

The pride of ownership replaced the pride of workmanship.

The marquetry tool box lid, which is the centerpiece of this conference, is very interesting.  My initial analysis from photos is that it represents several different historic marquetry processes, and was probably made in England around 1800 or so.  It shows a worker at the bench, surrounded by his tools and work, drinking a beer.  This image is in the center of a sunburst ray of veneer with flowers on the corners and decorative banding around nicely figured crotch mahogany ovals.

I can identify "tarsia geometrica" and "tarsia a toppo" and "tarsia a incastro" and I am researching the images provided by Jane for evidence of "Classic Method" but so far the results are inconclusive.  There is also a great deal of tinting and additional decorative lines in both black and brown ink.

I will be producing copies of each of the decorative marquetry elements in this lid for the conference, and the Williamsburg cabinet shop is actually making a full tool box copy to complete the lid.

I can easily relate to the image of the woodworker as executed in the center of the design.

Working At the Bench

He is surrounded with the necessary hand tools of his trade: the glue pot and brush, mallet, hammer, planes, brace and bit, compass, try square, chisels, hand saws and the toothing plane (under the beer.)  On the end of the bench he quietly admires the result of his hard work and experience: a decorated tea caddy.  Tea caddies of this style were purchased by wealthy clients who could afford the elaborate marquetry decoration shown on this example.

Put Down the Hammer and Pick Up the Beer

This worker is dressed in fine clothes, representing a good income and his respected position in the professional trade. He would fit right in with the other workers at the shop in Williamsburg or in any shop in any large city at that time.

His face shows the faint glimmer of a smile.  His work is done for the day.  He is satisfied with the results.  His reward is a tall glass, with a nice head of foam.

Tomorrow he will deliver the tea caddy to the client, and get his well deserved paycheck along with sincere appreciation for a professional job well done.

Tomorrow is another day to live and work, take risks, learn from failure and take satisfaction in success.  Make someone happy and remember...there's nothing to complain about.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

WPE and OBG and ASFM return to MASW!

A French Marquetry Atelier in Indianapolis

I am pleased to be invited back for another teaching period at Marc Adams School of Woodworking.

I enjoy the atmosphere and support by the staff at MASW.  It is an environment which is full of energy and ideas.  The students all work together and many of them seem to actually live there full time.  Some of them really do.  Others return again and again to share and learn more about different and diverse aspects of woodworking.

I also enjoy meeting other teachers who are working there at the same time.  These are professional woodworkers that I read about and follow online, but, without actually teaching at the school, I would never have the opportunity to spend quality time with them.

This year I am teaching three classes, and I welcome you to check out the schedule and see if there are any openings left.

The main class is, as usual, working a full week with the "chevalet de marqueterie."  Marc has made 8 of these tools, and it is exciting to see (and hear) a full class sawing away, cutting precise elements from marquetry packets.  I should mention that in North America there are only three schools where you can have this instruction.  Paul Miller, in Vancouver, is a past student of mine and has the Canadian School of French Marquetry, with 4 chevalets.  Of course, I was the first to open such a school, the American School of French Marquetry, in San Diego.  I have currently 8 such tools, and have ordered more from David Clark, in Missouri.

David Clark has set up a business making custom chevalets, following my blueprints, and builds tools that are cost effective and precise.  His website is

A few years ago I convinced Marc to also build 8 such tools and he sets them up each year in a classroom for me to use.

Waiting for Students to Arrive

All instruction is following as close as possible the lesson plan developed by Dr. Pierre Ramond, who taught for decades at ecole Boulle, in Paris.  I was fortunate to have studied under Pierre for most of the 1990's, and have dedicated my teaching career to continuing his efforts.  French marquetry is the only method in the world which uses a horizontal blade, cutting the packet at 90 degrees on a special tool, the chevalet.

There is more information about this process in previous posts.

This year, from October 9 to 13, I will teach a 40 hour class on French marquetry, focusing on the Boulle process (tarsia a incastro) as well as the Painting in Wood variation of this process, depending on the student's experience and goals.  If there are any returning students I will be happy to include the Classic Method ("piece by piece").

Simple Method for Veneering Columns

On October 14 I will spend the entire day teaching about my method for gluing veneer onto turned wood elements, like columns.  Years ago I had such an article published in Fine Woodworking ("Master Class") and one of my pieces with veneered columns was on the back cover.  I have worked out a simple method which is easy and low tech.  You can turn the elements out of any wood you want and then veneer them with exotic veneer to match the rest of the project.

On October 15 I will follow up this with a full day discussing the properties of traditional protein glues.  For nearly 50 years I have used protein glues exclusively, and have researched them extensively.  I was involved in an international conservation group in Paris that did specialized research into these glues and I have developed my own liquid protein glue formula, Old Brown Glue. I will be sharing my knowledge and experience about how these different protein glue work and what you need to know to use them in your shop.

As they say, "It is worth the price of admission."

I look forward to meeting you there.  Contact www.MARCADAMS.COM for more.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Traditional Upholstery Conservation: Uncovering Evidence

American Victorian Louis XV Bergere circa 1850
I have spent the past few weeks doing upholstery projects.  I finished conserving a rather large marquetry armoire and wanted something different to work on.  Upholstery allows me to hammer and that relaxes me...

You may have read my post recently about how modern museum methods are causing traditional upholstery methods to be lost and the craft of upholsterer subjugated to that of the frame maker.  As I was working on restoring upholstery I thought it would be a good educational post to demonstrate how I approach conserving upholstery in my business.

I had to recover two English Georgian Lolling Chairs, an early crewel wing chair, some embossed leather Belgium side chairs and a nicely made circular Victorian bergere chair.  All of these are now completed and the last one, the Victorian chair, provided me with detailed step-by-step photos of the seat conservation.

In general, I follow as close as possible the methods used by the original upholsterer , conserving the springs and stuffing material, except the cotton batting.  I replace the damaged elements using materials which are as close as possible.  Jute webbing, spring cord and twine, burlap, muslin and cotton batting are added as required.  If necessary, new 100% sterilized horsehair is added where previous stuffing was lost.

Here is a photo sequence of the procedure as it normally happens:

Bottom "Cambric" 
Usually a black muslin (called "cambric" is used underneath the seat.  This acts to keep dust from falling out during use.  These days it is a cheap fiberglass material which I detest.  I use more expensive black cloth when I can find it.  However, this chair was recovered at some point and the worker used burlap.

Replaced Jute Webbing
Removing the burlap exposes the springs, which are sewn to the jute, but only in a few places.

Evidence of Original Webbing
Under the replaced jute webbing is a fragment of the original webbing.  This narrow webbing was common during the 19th century.

Webbing Removed
Now you can see the failure of the burlap on top of the springs.  This is usually what happens when the cord breaks or the burlap tears.  The stuffing falls into the spring package and is damaged.  I always tell clients to stop using the seat when this happens and bring it to me for conservation before it is damaged beyond repair.

Back Foundation Still Good Condition
On this chair the original upholsterer did a fantastic job of building the back foundation.  It is not easy to work on circular backs and his work has stood the test of time.  I plan on leaving it in place as it is still serviceable.

Maker's Mark 
This chair was probably made in a large workshop where the number system was used on different styles of furniture.

Torn Burlap/Hair Dislodged
This is a close up of the torn burlap and the horsehair falling out of place.

Previous Conservation Stitching
This photo is sideways.  It clearly shows the original burlap and stitching used by the worker to create the front edge of the seat.  At some point another upholsterer was asked to recover the chair and he added stitches to the edge to hold it in place.  His stitches are the newer twine.  I was the first person to remove the seat foundation, which lasted 150 years.

Back Layers/Original Burlap and Stitching
This shows clearly the layers of the back upholstery.  The fabric is lifted up and the cotton batting is pulled aside.  You can see that someone added white horsehair to the original black horsehair.  Also the original burlap is stitched and tacked around the edge of the frame.  Undisturbed.

White Hair added by Previous Conservation
Now that the springs are clean on the bottom, it is time to remove the top foundation.

Original Burlap/Spring Cord/Twine
The horsehair foundation is removed and the original burlap is exposed.  It is rotten and must be replaced.  Note it is stitched to the tops of the springs.

Seat Foundation Removed/White Hair Added Previously
This is the complete original horsehair seat foundation, with white hair added later.

Underneath Seat Foundation
This is the underside of the seat foundation.  Care must be taken to remove all tacks from the edges.
It can be cleaned with a vacuum or actually washed and dried using TileX as a detergent.  If necessary it can be fumigated by a professional.

Original Spring Cord Undisturbed
Chair with seat completely removed.  The original spring cord is left in place.

Back Foundation Stitching Original
Again, the back is fine.  Just leave it in place for future upholsterers to admire.

Same Mark on Seat Frame

Cleaning With Alcohol/ Fresh Shellac Added
A quick cleaning with alcohol and a fresh coat of shellac restores the wood nicely.

Springs Sewn to Jute Webbing (4 knot)
It is important to stitch the springs to the webbing.  They must be placed carefully in a vertical position.  I use a curved needle and tufting twine.

Springs Sewn to Webbing
This shows the bottom with all the springs stitched in 4 places.

Original Spring Cord Pattern (8 knot)
The original spring cord in place.  I noticed that the outside springs are missing the diagonal cord.  This contributed to a weakness in the front center of the package, where the burlap broke down.

Note Method of Holding Springs
The proper technique for tying the springs is to hold them at different levels on the seat edges.  This makes the spring sit flat on the top and move directly up and down under load.  If the top only was tied then the middle of the spring would bulge out sideways under load.

New Cord Added over Old (8 knot)
I use Italian Spring Cord and tie each spring with 8 knots.  All cords are also knotted where they cross.  I added cord directly over the original cord.  I also added the missing diagonals which will provide more support to the front center.

This Will Last a Century More
Some might call this "overkill" but I want it to last under use for a long time.

New Burlap Cut to Fit Around Arms
To cut fabric around a wood element use the "Y" cut.

New Burlap Sewn To Springs
The first layer of burlap is added, tacked to the top of the frame and sewn to the springs.  If I were building a new layer of fresh horsehair I would also use twine to hold the hair to the burlap.

Lead Weight Holds Seat in Place for Tacking
One of the tricks I use in upholstery is to add a heavy weight to the seat while I am fitting the fabric or stuffing in place.  This tends to simulate the person sitting on the seat and allows me to pull the material from all sides without it moving around.  Note I added new burlap to the top of the seat foundation and this burlap layer is carefully tacked to the outside top edge of the frame.

Seat Conserved Ready for Fabric Selection
I use tufting twine to hold the seat foundation in place.  Since it is stitched to the new burlap it will work properly and not shift around.  I left all the older stitching in place and I suspect that the next worker who uncovers this seat will understand the various methods which were used to create it as well as the process used to conserve it.  It will survive as an historic artifact with all the evidence conserved in place.  In addition it will be providing comfort for the owner for many years to come.

POSTSCRIPT:  After some time the client finally came in to select the final fabric.  I have kept surplus upholstery fabric from jobs over the past 40 years.  It is getting difficult these days to find traditional material and anything made with natural threads, like cotton, silk, linen and wool.  This client selected a wonderful imprinted silk fabric, in a light green color.  I had enough to do the chair.

I should point out that tub chairs with deeply curved backs are fairly difficult to cover without wrinkles.  You need to pull the tension evenly top to bottom as you work your way around the curve.

Here is the final result:

Ready to go home.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Curious Collector Cabinet

Beautiful and Functional But Why?

I need your help.

A few weeks ago one of my old clients came in with this curious box.  He hangs out at estate sales and finds things on Craig's list and is always looking for something unusual.  He often discovers amazing things.

After all, isn't that one of the reasons we collect stuff?  Not that we need it.  If we need something essential we go out and get it.  If I need gas I go to the gas station.  Not much excitement there...

On the other hand, when I travel I always take time to explore old used book stores, antique stores, used tool shops and even, in some cases, thrift stores.  It's the lure of the unknown which keeps me searching.

So this client walks in with this box.  It is amazing.  Made of Brazilian rosewood with boxwood trim. Made by a professional, probably British.    It is about 11 x 12 x 22" in size.  I think it' either British or even American since the writing on the drawers is in English.

The locks, keys, hinges and screws all indicate a period before 1850.

Mid 19th Century Script?

The secondary wood is Spanish Cedar.

Lift Top With Two Trays Inside

The front has double glass doors and the top lid lifts up.  There is a lock on the glass doors and a second lock on the lid.  Whoever had it wanted to keep the contents secure.

When you lift up the top there are two trays in a till.  A very shallow tray on top of a deeper tray.  The deeper tray is missing a divide which would go from side to side.

What Are These Trays For?

Inside the double glass doors are 4 fake drawers over 6 functional drawers, each with turned ivory pulls.

The amazing and curious feature is how the drawers are divided into strange and complex compartments.  I have no idea how these compartments could be used.  My only guess is that there was a fad of collecting exotic sea shells in the past.  Perhaps these compartments could be designed for shells.

When I Saw These Drawers I Was Speechless 

However, as the drawers are fairly deep and the compartments rather small, it would be difficult to reach some of the contents.

What Would You Keep In These???

Please help me find out what this is.  If you have any idea just post in the comments.

Understanding the lost mysteries of past cultures is why we explore.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"Modern" Upholstery Conservation Methods Destroy Evidence

Grecian Sofa with Modern Upholstery
For the past several years (actually, since "alternative upholstery conservation" methods were first introduced early in the 1980's) I have had a serious problem with museum conservators destroying original upholstery and the evidence of its traditional construction.  I am a scientist by training.  I believe in analysis, documentation, evidence gathering and research.  I am shocked constantly by what I see in the most important museums in America as the practice of upholstery "conservation."

Two recent events are now pushing me to blog once again about my concerns.  First, as you know, I just got back from an extensive tour of the East Coast.  From Williamsburg to the Met to the Boston MFA  and the Getty, I saw the same thing over and over:  Important and iconic examples of early upholstered furniture with obviously fake upholstery, evident from across the room.  It doesn't even pass the smell test.

The second event occurred this week as I picked up a copy of the 1997 book "American Furniture" edited by Luke Beckerdite.  I love this series of books, published each year by the Chipstone Foundation.  They are wonderful and full of research.  But, when such a distinquished journal publishes articles which can damage the field of decorative arts they need to be identified as such and the article needs a full discussion among professionals.

Surviving Example of Easy Chair Upholstery

This is what concerns me.  The process of removing original upholstery and replacing it with modern materials has been established by "tradition" for so long that it is no longer questioned as valid.  I feel like I'm fighting an uphill battle to get authentic upholstery methods understood and properly conserved before they all are lost forever.

The article which caught my eye is by Leroy Graves and F. Carey Howlett, titled "Leather Bottoms, Satin Haircloth, and Spanish Beard: Conserving Virginia Upholstered Seating Furniture" (Pages 267-297).  It represents the state of the art of this process of saving the wood frames at the expense of the upholstery, and, if you go to the Wallace Collection at Williamsburg you will find nearly every piece in the collection has been treated this way.

Let me quote from this article and then respond using simple logic and scientific questioning.

"Because so few objects survive...the preservation of the chair in its current state takes precedence over restoration to its original appearance."

This statement indicates the concern that more and more examples which retain original upholstery layers are being lost.  I would therefore conclude that the surviving examples must be protected in their untouched state for future analysis by more competent conservators.

Untouched Upholstery 

"The conservator is faced with two difficult tasks: preserving extremely fragile upholstery materials when they survive and reconstructing the appearance of the original upholstery..."

Of course the visitor to the collection should be presented with an object which reflects, as nearly as possible, its original condition.  My question is: does the replacement of original upholstery with copper, plexiglass, Ethafoam and Velcro effectively present a visually authentic result?  Also, what methods are to be used to conserve the fragile materials which are surviving?  Are they to be placed in a drawer in a research laboratory completely removed from the object to which they belong?

How Does This Preserve Upholstery Methods?

"The conservator's work is typically complicated by the overlapping evidence of numerous upholstery schemes.  Distinguising individual schemes can be time consuming and in some instances virtually impossible.  To produce a credible reconstruction of historic upholstery, one needs to develop a thorough understanding of the techniques, materials, and tastes of the period and place of production."

This single statement reveals the most important flaw in the logic of this process.  Frankly current museum conservators are not seriously researching the upholstery methods, including subsequent upholstery commercial restoration treatments, as much as they are researching the wood frames.  When a conservator uses "time consuming" as an argument, he is neglecting the most essential part of his job description.  He is tasked, by definition, with taking all the time he needs to fully understand every aspect of the historic object under his control.  Upholstery is actually more important than the frame, but the frame gets all his attention.

There are still many old professional upholsterers in most large cities who understand traditional methods of upholstery, and how those methods changed over the centuries.  I am a good example.  You can just search this blog for "upholstery conservation" and see what I have learned over the past 50 years or so.  In particular look at the post from last November (11/29/16) and see what simple conservation methods can produce.

I have learned traditional methods of upholstery by careful deconstruction of original layers, which allows me to understand what was original and what was restored, and when the restoration must have occurred.  I then simply replace any damaged or rotten materials with similar materials as closely as I can to the original.  Jute, burlap, muslin, cord, twine, cotton are used to replace the same. The springs and organic stuffing are cleaned and retained in all cases.  That means treating horsehair, wool, Spanish moss, straw, excelsior, and any other organic material used as stuffing with respect and care.  The final result is as close to the original appearance as possible, and can still provide comfort for many years.

As to the damage the upholstery nails cause to the wood frame, which is the main reason for this new "non invasive" upholstery method, that can be resolved with proper techniques.  Using the smallest upholstery nail which works is one way.  Using a protein glue and a covering of muslin or burlap on the wood is another.  In serious cases it is also possible to remove a portion of the damaged wood (which is under the upholstery) and replace it with similar wood.

In the worst case, where the wood frame no longer supports the upholstery a "chassis" or new wood frame can be built to fit inside the old frame.  This new frame can then be properly upholstered with traditional techniques and that serves to provide understanding of traditional methods for future analysis.

This Is Not Period Upholstery

"The goal of treatment may be to re-create the appearance of one of the early schemes, but this task must be accomplished using unconventional, nonintrusive techniques."

This final statement, which is at the beginning of the article, represents the actual failure in the logic of this approach.

I consider the task of deconstructing upholstery layers similar to that of archeology.  In each profession it is the job of the scientist to carefully analyze and document each layer in succession as it is exposed.  During the 1870's there was a German archeologist and con man, Heinrich Schliemann, who claimed to have discovered Troy.  In fact, he dug without any consideration to the process, throwing all the debris in a trash pile, passing through the historic layer of Troy itself, continuing until he found gold.

Subsequent archeologists now have the difficult task of digging through the trash pile in an effort to understand which object came from which strata.

I see a similar fate for future conservators who struggle to understand historic upholstery methods by looking at a naked frame, covered in nail holes, without any context or relationship to the missing materials.

The next time you wander through a museum looking at the upholstery, take a moment to determine if what you are looking at is authentic or fake.