Wood Is His Mistress

The Art and Mystery of Finishing

In centuries past when the master of a shop gave a finish recipe to an apprentice the master knew the secret was safe. Varnish formulas were closely kept secrets of the craft. The apprentice was sworn to secrecy about his craft. The training was all by oral tradition. Those that knew the art of finishing were the varnishers’, stainers’, and painters’. These artisans were organized into guilds in both England and this country.

The first manual on finishing was written in England in 1688 by Stalker and Parker. This “ Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing” was not intended for the artist but for the gentleman that was doing it for a hobby. The first finishing manual in this country was by Jacob Moore in 1827 entitled “The Cabinet-Maker’s Guide” and was advertised to housewives as well as cabinetmakers. It’s interesting to note in reading this some critical steps were left out. The apprentice system had not completely broken down at this time but in another 20 years it was gone. The industrial revolution was the demise of the apprentice system.

The reason to apply a finish to the surface of wood is different today than it was 150 or 200 years ago. At that time what was most sought after was the polished surface that not only enhanced the beauty of the wood but also reflected light. You must remember at that time the only source of lighting was candles or later oil lamps. This is why looking glasses ,or as we say mirrors, were so valued. The more light one could reflect the brighter one’s house would be at night.

Today we apply finish for three reasons. The frist is to keep dirt and grime out of the pores of the wood,to put it another way, sanitation. Wood is also finished for stabilization. This is to slow down the moisture that wood will pick up by the change in humidity. Last is to achieve the sheen, color, and texture we find pleasing: i.e., decoration.

There were four basic finishes available to the 18th and early 19th century cabinetmakers: paint, oil and wax, oil varnish, or spirit varnish.A cabinetmaker could make his own spirit varnish. This was the most common finish used on furniture at the time. Each finish had its strong and weak points to consider.

Painted furniture was very popular at this period. Paint was made with linseed oil, whiting, a dryer, and earth pigments.To this was often added fossil resins such as amber or copal. This made the paint very much like an oil varnish. The colors were very bright and intense with a gloss sheen. Milk paint or “buttermilk paint did not come back into favor until the very early 19th century. One color paint schemes could be done in the cabinet shop but faux finishes such as wood grain or marble were the work of painters. The finish was very durable, moisture resistance, and easy to clean. Unfortunately many of these painted finishes were stripped off in the late 19th and early 20th century

Oil or wax finishes only partly met the requirements needed for a good finish. The oil used was linseed from the flax seed sometime a dryer such as lead was added to speed up the drying. On it’s own linseed drys very slowly and doesn’t fill the pores very well. It does produce a rich color and fair sheen. Bees wax was used as a finish as well. When mixed with turpentine it became soft enough to apply on the furniture and produced a good sheen. The drawback is that it remains too soft on the wood. Both of these finishes attract dust as they slowly dry.

Oil varnish is made with linseed oil, a dryer, and fossil resins. The resins were fossilized tree sap such as amber, copal, and sandarac. It was dangerous to make because of the high temperature that is required to melt the resin. Many a varnish-maker was burned to death when the hot oil burst into flames. It has many good points as a finish. It fills the pores, protects the surface, and adds a richness due to it’s amber color. The  drawback is attracting dust while it drys. Violin varnish could take several months to a year to dry. Work to be varnished was placed under tenting to keep the dust away from the surface while drying. Still occasionally you do find it used as a finish on furniture at this time but rarely.

Spirit varnish is made with shellac and alcohol, thus the name.Shellac comes from an insect secretion of the lac bug in India. It is easy to make, drys very fast, and produces a good moisture barrier. After the finish is built up it gives a very high sheen. It doesn’t hold up well to alcohol or water  spills. It can be made almost impervious to water by the addition of resins. Shellac gained a poor name from furniture of the 1920s’ and 30s’. Often old shellac or metal contaminated shellac was used that caused the finish to quickly degrade. It was the most widely used furniture finish of the 18th and 19th century. In about 1820 when the French started applying spirit varnish with a rag it became known as French Polish. This method of application left no brush marks and produced a higher sheen. Shellac is correct for most period furniture.


Unfortunately the vast majority of furniture has lost its original finish due to sunlight, weather ( being set out in sheds), or long ago being refinished. In 27 years of working with furniture I’ve only seen a few pieces that retained their original finish. The majority of these being in museums. Some books that say a certain piece has it’s original finish.  I’ve seen picturers of those same pieces from the 1930s’ in cabinet shops stripped with no finish on them. It is very hard to determine if an antique has an original finish. If you do think about having a piece refinished avoid letting some one use polyurethane or lacquer. The only place I find lacquer applicable is for dining table tops because of food, water, and alcohol spills.

What Style Is It?

For several years furniture styles have been associated with the reign of different monarchs or designers. We are use to names like Queen Ann or Chippendale to refer to certain furniture styles. In recent years this means of identification has changed. Art historians and curators have begun to recognize that furniture is better defined by periods of art.     There were three major art styles that influenced 18th and 19th century furniture prior to the industrial revolution the baroque, rococo, and neoclassical. This is a more specific way of identifying different styles because sometimes different designers names coexist in the same art period. Hepplewhite, Adam, and Sheraton is an example of this. They were all designers of the same period producing very similar designs yet we have said this is Sheraton or this is Hepplewhite

Art, architecture, music, mathematics, and engineering all had a rebirth with the beginning of the renaissance. It was a new way of looking and understanding of life. This was due in part to the combination of science and theology. The perfection of geometry was considered to be a reflection of  the perfection of God. All of the arts and sciences had geometry as their heart and soul. The results was a unified system of design for all the arts that was to last for almost 400 years. In architecture if geometry was it’s soul the orders of architecture was it’s heart.

Renaissance architects looked to Roman buildings and found the wonderful rhythm of geometry and that columns supported everything. They found that every part of the column and entablature was proportionally related to the whole. This was like poetry in stone. With windows, niches, doors and columns they could create metered patterns just like music or poetry.

In the preface of Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Makers Director, 1754, he says that to excel in this work one must understand the orders. The first five plates are of the five orders of architecture, Tuscan, Dorick, Ionick, Corinthian, and Composite. These are the same orders the renaissance architects like Serlio, Palladio, and others had set fourth 200 years before. Each of these men interpreted them a little differently because they had seen different originals. They also added pedestals to the columns.

As the renaissance gave way to the baroque the system of proportional design remained the same. In the baroque as the renaissance symmetry was dominate but wall began to be curved and filled with ornament almost like sculpture. In fact painting, sculpture, and architecture were often combined for very dramatic effect.

Is That Veneered?

The earliest veneer to be used in furniture was 3,000 years ago in Egypt. These early cabinetmakers used bronze handsaws to cut thin slices of rare wood for veneering and inlaying their furniture. It was a process that wasn’t to change until the 19th century, when the circular saw replaced the laborious task of hand-cutting veneer. Otherwise the art of veneering didn’t really change until the 20th century with the introduction of synthetic resin glues.

Some people still think that veneer is cheap work covering up inferior wood or craftsmanship.But in the 1830s ,when veneer was replacing carving as a way to ornament furniture, the cost to veneer was equal to the cost of carving. The ground wood to be veneered had to be straight and knot free. The craftsmanship had to be done right for the veneer to last. Not until the early 20th century did veneering gain a bad reputation. The main culprit was factories that used contaminated hide glue,  which broke down sooner  than normal.

Veneer is produced by three different methods sawn, sliced, or rotary peeled. As mentioned before, hand sawing was the earliest method of cutting veneer. This could be done by two men and a frame saw. Small logs were stood on end and secured in a vice.  A man on either side cut down through the log with a large frame saw to produce the veneer. This was cut as thin as 1/64 of an inch or thinner by hand. In the early 19th century large circular saws up to 18′ diameter replaced hand cutting. This was the first use of circular saws.

In 1806 a machine was introduced that sliced the log into veneer. This was much like a paper cutter, except the log moved past the knife. It produced very thin slices with no waste. With saw cutting, as much wood had been wasted as was sawn off, due to the saw kerf. This process allowed an abundance of crotch mahogany to be used on furniture

Rotary peeling began being used by the latter part of the 19th century. It allowed a whole log to be peeled without a break in the veneer. The process is similar to slicing, but produces a much larger sheet of veneer. This made the manufacture of plywood possible. Cabinetmakers had been making small pieces of plywood in the 18th century for use in delicate mirror frames.

With either sliced or rotary veneering the logs are soaked in vats of water to make the wood more pliable as they are cut. After drying the sheets of veneer are ready for use.

When the slices come off the log, the sheets are stacked in the same order they were taken off. This package is known as a flitch. When a cabinetmaker opens a flitch there are several patterns that can be produced with the veneer. Since only the rarest and finest logs are selected for veneering, the figures are bold and decorative. The sun burst, book match, slip match, butterfly wings, diamond, and many more patterns can be found in the flitches. In the 18th century, fewer of these patterns were used because of the difficulty of joining the thicker sheets of hand sawn veneers.

To adhere the veneer to the ground work glue is used. Before about 1820 fish glue was used in cabinet shops. Hide or Scotch glue came into use early in the 19th century. Both of these glues need to be heated when used and the wood warmed by a fire before glueing. In the past, wood shavings were set  ablaze in a brick enclosure and the work was warmed.( This may have been the cause of the fire that destroyed Thomas Chippendale’s shop.) Cauls slightly larger than the veneer were warmed, as well. These were clamped on top of the work to keep the glue warm and put pressure on the veneer as the glue set. Modern resin glues, have eliminated the need and the danger for warming the work. They are not destroyed by bacteria or affected by water, and have a longer working time.

Pressure must be applied as the glue sets. This can be done with clamps, in a veneer press, or by hammer. Small pieces can just be clamped; larger work needs one of the other methods. Hammering is done by a T- shaped hammer, worked across the surface of the veneer in zigzag motions as the hide glue cools. Pressure of the hammer is started in the center of the work and moved to the outer edges to squeeze excess glue out. This is done very quickly, as the glue grabs while cooling

Veneer presses are made of frames called stations. These are heavy timbers of wood with spacer blocks in between so the work can be placed inside. The top timber has several heavy screws that when tightened,apply pressure to the work. Throughout history it was difficult to get even pressure over the entire work surface. But today, a new press uses air pressure to even out the pressure over the surface. This is done with a heavy plastic bag and a vacuum pump. Much like the old press, cauls are still needed, but once a vacuum is drawn, up to 1,200 pounds per square foot is applied to the veneer. Thisequates to  parking a Volkswagen on every square foot of the work. When the glue has set, one is sure the veneer is flat and will stay in place for years to come.

Veneering is an excellent way of decorating furniture with rare exotic hardwoods while at the same conserving their use. With new glues and presses, one can be assured of the durability and lasting beauty of veneered furniture. Even with these advances, a cabinetmaker from centuries past would still recognize the art of veneering in a shop today.

When Houses Were Furniture

Late one evening the phone rang. I answered it, the man on the other end identified himself and asked if I knew of a joiner. Thinking he was wanting a machine to put lumber straight and flat. I asked what size he was looking for, a 6″,8″,12″, or 24″ machine. No,he said – he needed a “joyner” to come and timber frame a house with him and his brother. I offered to help him out. I knew the only difference between a house of this construction and furniture was scale. This began my love affair with timber framing.

Before “the recent unpleasantness” building was done with local materials – stone, brick, or wood- because of the high cost of transportation. In the 18th century it cost as much to ship mahogany from the West Indies to Charleston as it did to transport it ten miles inland by wagon once it had arrived in Charleston. After the Civil War, expanded railroads allowed materials to be shipped throughout the country at a much lower cost.

Two factors were necessary for a house of substance to be built – skilled craftsmen and materials. The availability of these determined the construction. Building materials were abundant. There was stone to be quarried and cut, clay for brick making, and semingly no end to the stands of virgin timber.

In coastal cities there were shortages of craftsmen in the building trades. In 1700, three carpenters and three bricklayers were brought over from England to build the Capitol in Williamsburgh, Va.Even in coastal areas, like the Low Country of South Carolina, craftsmen were brought over from England. Sometime before 1788,  Ralph Izard of Charleston, S.C., brought Thomas Hope from England to build his house, Cheraw Hill, out side of Charleston. By 1795, Thomas  Hope had moved to Knoxville, Tenn.  In the 1770s Landon Carter brought house joyners from Winston-Salem, N.C., to what is now Elizabethton, build his house. This is the earliest frame house in Tennessee and is now open to the public. General James  Winchester brought carpenters from Baltimore to Summer County, Tenn.,to do the woodwork at his house, Cragfont, built between 1798-1802. Although of stone construction, the roof of Cragfont is timber framed. In the 1820 census, there are only two or three carpenters listed in Blount County, Tenn.

With stands of virgin timber that went from the East Coast to the Mississippi River, there was no shortage of raw material for houses. These trees were six to twelve feet in diameter. The trees were cut in the winter and would be sawn the next spring, usually either by two men and a pit saw or by a water powered sawmill. Because of their large size, the logs were split into quarters before sawing. Smaller logs could be hewed squared. The wood was worked when it was still green. If you use the rule for air drying of a year per inch of thickness, a ten by ten inch timber would have taken ten years to season out. The woods used in  East Tennessee were yellow poplar, longleaf pine, hemlock, and oak. Cedar was used in Middle Tennessee for the sill timbers next to the foundation and for window sashes.

What made these joyners different from  carpenters of today? The method by which a house was built depended not on nails to hold the structure together, but rather on interlocking wooden joints-the same joints that are found in fine furniture, just on a larger scale. The principal joints were the mortice and tenon, dovetail, and scarf joints. Nails held on the clapboard siding, trim, hardware for doors, and roof shingles.

The frame of a house was made of heavy timbers. The corner and chimney post, girts, summers, and sills would measure 8″x 8″ to 10″x 10″. The floor joist, braces, rafters, and roof purlins would be of smaller size, 4″x 6″. I’ve seen an old piece of timber that was used in an early house that measured 18″ by 24″.

Once the joints had been cut in the members, they had to be fitted together. This was done on the ground. When a joint was properly fitted a Roman numeral was scribed in both faces of the two timbers. This was so the joyners would know where that part went later on. The parts of the frame were then assembled on the ground and a peg inserted into the joint to hold it in place. A derrick would be built to raise the frame. With men or horses pulling, the frame would rise into place. Sometimes in the raising if a joint didn’t go right into place, a commander was used to drive the joint home. The commander is a 25-pound wooden mall.

Now, with the frame finished and under roof, sheathing was applied vertically and clapboarded over.The walls were sometimes in-filled with bricks ,known as nogging. (In Kingsport, Tenn., you can see nogging filled walls at the Netherland Inn.) The house was ready to be finished. The carpenters then set about building the doors, windows, stairs and handrail, wainscot, chair rail, mantels, and moldings. This was all done on the house site. They didn’t have a Home Depot to go to and buy stair parts or other things.

Covered bridges, churches, grist mills, and barns were timbered framed aswell as houses. Balloon framing came to be used in the 1830s. This was the forerunner of todays modern framing. Balloon framing wasn’t in widespread use until after the Civil War.

The next time you’re going down the road, you may see a little blue pickup truck going very slowly or trying to find a place to pull off, with the driver craning his neck to catch a glimpse of an old house. Please be patient- it may be me.

Refinishing Furniture

Looking in antique shops or flea markets is half the fun of collecting. Sometimes a good bargain can be found just because it needs a little repair or the finish is badly damaged. If you enjoy refinishing a piece of furniture for your self in the evenings or on the weekend, then this is a good way to add to your collection. It means some work, but you’ll get satisfaction bringing a piece back to life.

Look and make sure it is worth the effort. If the piece is cherry, walnut, oak or some other hardwood, it will refinish nicely in a natural finish. Be careful when you find a piece from the 1920’s or 30’s that has been painted. Sometimes these pieces are painted because they have lost their veneer. What you find when you have removed the painted surface is the veneer core . This core or ground work was often made up of narrow pieces of popular or gum glued up at random with out any concern for grain or color matching. These are good pieces to try faux finishes on such as sponging, marbling, or wood graining.

If you have gotten a piece that has it’s original finish, either painted or natural, do not refinish it. This will devalue the furniture and erase part of history. These pieces should be cleaned and a good coat of hard paste wax applied. Use mineral spirits on a soft cloth to clean the dirt and wax build up off before waxing.

When you get a piece in your work area take a few minutes to look it over. Make sure to have good lighting so you can see all the details. If there are just light surface scratches, these can be rubbed out with 4/0 steel wool. Another method is to make a small cloth pad and use mineral oil and pumice powder followed by rotten stone to rub the scratches out.  If large areas of the finish are gone or damage, then it is best to refinish.

Take the hardware off and set it aside. This can be cleaned separately. After applying the new finish the hardware can be set back on. If you just need to clean the hardware take it off so the finish isn’t damaged.

Make any repairs before refinishing. If a piece is rickety, reglue or repair it first. Hide glue will dissolve with vinegar and hot water. White or yellow glue will dissolve with alcohol and or hot water. When the parts are clean of glue set them aside to dry over night. When regluing, cover all the joint surface with new glue. Clamp in place until the glue is dry. When clamping pad the surface of the wood so that the wood surface isn’t dented. Pads cut from 1/4 inch plywood are good for this.

All of the old finish must be removed. Commercial paint and varnish stripper are best. Avoid using lye and hot water. This will damage the wood, change the color, and destroy the patina. Also avoid strippers that need to be washed off with water. The water can damage veneered surfaces. Choose a paste stripper if there are large vertical surfaces.

Keep safety in mind when refinishing. Have the work area well ventilated and no open flames. It’s best to wear a respirator, rubber gloves, and eye protection. The fumes of these solvents cause long term accumulative brain damage. The solvents will burn the skin or eyes if splashes occur. If it does get on the skin, wash throughly with water

The tools you’ll need are simple. Rags, plenty of rags, can be bought at a local paint store. Also 3/0 and 4/0 steel wool, an old tooth brush, 1/4 inch hardwood dowel sharpened to a point on one end, and a disposable bristle brush will be needed.

Have the work area warm, about 70 degrees, when applying the stripper, glueing, or finishing. Apply the stripper with the brush and give the stripper time to dissolve the old finish. Most of the problems with strippers occur when the temperature is too cold or it wasn’t left on long enough. Paints need a longer time to dissolve than a varnish. Work a small area at a time, rather than trying to apply stripper to the whole piece. When the finish has dissolved, wipe the old finish off with a rag. If one spot is stubborn, dip the steel wool in the stripper and work on that area. Then wipe clean. For turnings or carvings, you can use the tooth brush or the pointed end of the dowel. After removing the old finish, dip 4/0 steel wool in alcohol and go over the whole piece wiping it clean again. Let the piece dry over night.

Shellac is a good finish to use and doesn’t require any costly equipment to apply. If you buy it at a hardware store, look for a date on the can. Premixed shellac will go bad after about 6 months. I prefer to mix my own using flake shellac and alcohol. Premixed shellac is made to what is known as a 3 pound cut. This means 3 pounds of shellac to 1 gallon of alcohol. A thinner mixture will leave fewer brush marks. I mix 3/4 of a pound of flake shellac to one gallon of alcohol in a glass jar. If you mix it in a metal container the shellac will go bad, as the shellac reacts with metal. If you aren’t sure about the shellac test, it on a piece of scrap first. It should dry hard in about 1 hour.

Use an all natural bristle brush to apply the shellac. I like a 3 inch Badger brush because it holds the finish and flows out well. Brush with the grain of the wood, working quickly. I start at the furthest edge away from me and work back towards the edge closest to me. This way any spills don’t show up in the final finish. Use 6 to 8 coats on a tight grained wood and 8 to 10 coats for an open grain wood.  Let each coat dry about one and a half hour. Use 4/0 steel wool to rub out the surface in between each coat. Blow or wipe the powder from the surface before applying the next coat.  On the next to the last coat allow it to dry over night. Then wool and apply the final coat. When this coat is dry,  rub it out and apply a coat of paste wax.

Now you can see the piece smile at you and feel pride and satisfaction in a job well done.

How Furniture was Designed

What does a Boston tea pot by Paul Revere, a Kentucky flintlock rifle by Jacob Dickert, and a Charleston chest on chest by Thomas Elfe have in common? This may sound like a riddle from the oracle at Delphi but it’s not. What all have in common is they are the product of a unified system of design that was once universal in the 18th and early 19th century. This system of design encompassed all of the decorative arts.

With the beginning of the Renaissance there was a rebirth of learning. A new way of seeing. This included music, science, mathematics, and architecture. Architecture was the heart and soul of the design. The basics for this was Roman models of temples and public buildings. Classical architecture was to dominate for the next 350 years. Geometry and proportional relationships of the different elements formed the core of classical architecture. These architects sought to create harmonious designs that reflected the perfection of God’s creation. Palladio went so far as to assign harmonic values to rooms of houses he designed.

The first chapter of Serlio’s “The Five Books of Architecture” printed in 1584, is about geometry. He defines lines, triangles, squares, and rectangles. He set out different rectangles and describes how they are proportional formed from a square. The different proportional ratios shown are 1:3, 1:4, 2:3, 3:5, and 1:1 all different ways to form rectangles. The 3:5 ratio that we now think of as the golden mean didn’t have the mystic of being the perfect rectangle in the 18th century. One of the most commonly used rectangles in 18th and 19th century furniture is 1:1, or a square on a square.

Architecture and Furniture

When I’m at an antique store looking for a certain piece of furniture to add to my collection, I often think about the house this or that piece may have been originally designed for. This is especially true of furniture made before 1845

Today we think of architecture and interior design as separate. But in the 18th and early 19th centuries there was a unified system of design based on classical architecture. The classical system was all-inclusive. It included writing, poetry, music, art and science. This system had grown out of the rebirth of European culture during  the Renaissance. We still use the classical system every time we write a letter because it opens with a beginning, then a middle, and an ending. This is a basic form of classicalism. Every schoolchild is taught this when learning how to write a report.

In the preface to Thomas Chippendale’s, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, (1754), he states that to excel in cabinetmaking one must understand the five orders of architecture and perspective drawing “since they are the soul and basis of his art.” For years, I pondered this first paragraph in his design book. I understood perspective, but what was hidden in the orders?

One day, Richard Frazier, a friend who is a riflemaker at Colonial Williamsburg, gave me a small treatise on the design of flintlock rifles. It talked about classical proportions in the layout of rifles. A light bulb went on in my head. The five orders of architecture– Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite- are laid out proportionally to themselves. My next clue was a short article about the five orders having been used in furniture, and how they could be superimposed to create the design of chairs, tables, or chests. With proportional dividers ( a cabinetmaker’s tool) in hand, I started going over the designs of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton. The bases, columns, and capitals were there jumping off the pages.

I found another part of the puzzle after attending a lecture on classical architecture. The speaker talked about 18th century architects of this period and their design books. The principle source for English architects of this period was Andrea Palladio’s, The Four Books Of Architecture (1570). It was first translated into English in 1738. Inigo Jones, Christopher Wern, Batty Langley,  James Gibbs, and William Pain were just a few of the architects to be influenced by the work of Palladio. In each of these men’s books, the first thing they presented was the five orders. In Batty Langley’s The Builder’s Jewel (1746), he shows how to proportion a room with its base molding, chair rail, and cornice in the different orders. Mantels and overmantels for the fire place were designed by this method. The windows and doors of a house could be in one of the orders. Not only did the exterior of a house use the orders, but also the interior rooms and the furnishings. This created a unified design in which a sense of harmony was found. Palladio had even gone so far as to assign harmonic values to rooms in houses. Remember, music is proportional as well.

For many years we referred to the different styles of furniture according to either the reign of a monarch (Queen Anne ) or by that of a designer (Chippendale ). Today, it is more common to define these styles by their artistic elements. William and Mary, also Queen Anne are in the Middle Baroque period. Georgian is  Late Baroque period. Chippendale is in the Rococo. Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Adam and Hope belong to the Neoclassical period.

The Baroque ( 1660-1750 ) was typified by use of the cyma curve ( S- shaped curve ), the broken pediment over doors, mantles, and highboy bonnets, use of negative space in chair backs, and the cabriole leg. The Rococo style(1750 -1760) , imported form France, made use of the C and S scroll,  asymmetrical use of ornamentation, and shells and C- scroll ornaments with a rough or rocky appearing edge. The Neoclassical ( 1760 – 1845 ) used of rectilinear and geometric forms, ovals, and a feeling of lightness and delicacy. The Neoclassical style was based on Greek architecture, as the Baroque and Rococo styles are based on Roman architecture.

Much of the architecture and furniture found in Tennessee is of the Middle and Late Neoclassical periods (1800 – 1845 ). Grecian style is everywhere: churches, banks, houses, and public buildings. Our state Capitol was designed by William Strickland in 1845 and based on Greek architecture. It was much admired through the country at the time of its completion.

“American Empire” is a misnomer. Empire style refers only to French design during the reign of Napoleon. In England, it is called Regency, and here it is referred to as Federal. American furniture from 1820 – 1845 was referred to at the time as being in the “Modern Grecian Style.” The term “Empire” style in America came about during our centennial and sadly, has stuck.

The next time you are in a antique shop looking at some early furniture try to imagine the style of the house the piece might have been made for. A few museum houses do still have their original furnishings, and you can view them the way they were meant to be seen.




You have just gotten a table at the antique shop. Now you are wondering how best to get it home and take care of it. Most accidents happen in moving furniture. Whether it’s from one room to another or across the state, any time you move furniture an accident can happen. Here are a few tips on furniture care that can help avoid costly repair bills.

When you put it in your vehicle you’ll need some furniture pads. Take a few blankets to wrap around the table and a couple of old pairs of knee socks. Last but not least, if your table is a drop leaf, some worn out panty hose. Use the knee socks to put on the legs. Just slide them on the legs and put a rubber band at the top. Panty hose are soft nylon and won’t scratch the finish. The panty hose can be tied across the top and around the leafs to keep them from flopping. Most of the time it’s better if you have help moving even a simple table. If your husband is going to help you ask him to please move his belt buckle to the side. A lot of scratches are caused by a belt buckle rubbing against the piece you are moving. Now pick the table up but not by the top. Place your hands under the aprons. Those are the pieces of wood just under the top that connects to the legs. This way there is no strain on the screws that hold the top on. Often these screws have been taken in and out so many times they are just barely holding the top on.

Always plan the route you’ll take through the house from room to room. If a doorway is too narrow, you’ll have to retrace your steps. There is more of a chance of bumping into something and damaging the furniture when you retrace your steps unnecessarily.

You now have it set in the spot you had in mind. It’s a great accent for the room. But have you thought about how much the sun will shine on the table in that room? What does sun light have to do with the care of furniture? Sunlight can strip the finish off the wood, bleach the color out of the wood, and in the worse case etch the surface of the wood. If your furniture sets in strong sunlight several hours a day it will have an adverse effect on it. A simple solution is to put UV filter film on the windows. Cut it to the size of the glass, peal the backing off, and place it on the glass. It will stop the UV but will not noticeably reduce the light in the room. UV filter film is made by 3M Company. Look in the yellow pages for a dealer near you.

Just one more thing for that lovely little table. To make it smile, use paste wax. Not only will the paste wax bring a good shine to the surface, the wax on top of the finish of the wood will keep dust from clinging to the surface. That will make it much easier to keep clean. Dust weekly and about once a year rewax. After a few years if the wax looks cloudy on the surface, remove the old wax with mineral spirits( it’s odorless) on a cloth and then rewax. When you apply the wax, do it with the grain of the wood. Let it dry for 5 to 10 minutes and buff with an old T-shirt. Avoid spray-on furniture polish.It contains silicon oil to make the surface slick. Once the surface has been contaminated with this, it may be impossible in the future to reapply a traditional finish.

There is no need to feed the wood with furniture oils. A lowboy will never grow up to be a highboy. What has dried out of the wood beside the free water are esters and ketones not oils in the wood. These products have only a very small percentage of the advertised oil. Mineral spirits is the main ingredient. The oil that is left on the surface is slow to dry and will attract dust as it dries. When you are going out of town for several weeks or on vacation for a month cover the furniture with old bed sheets. This will keep the dust off while you’re gone.

The Making of Old Furniture

Why, in this information age where everything from our household appliances to the family car has a computer chip in it, is there such a strong appeal for antiques? Is it more than the style of the furniture, the color, or patina of the wood? Although the furniture we now collect was made in a different age, it’s more than just the historical fact of the furniture we find appealing.

When we look at an antique we are drawn to it because it is an honest reflection of work and of the person who made it. In the 18th and early 19th century there was a collective sense of quality in craftsmanship. 200 years ago, there was no Madison Avenue saying this is “ Job One ”. Every object in a person’s life was hand made . The pieces were made to last several generations by the craftsmen who lived and worked then.

This began with the craftsman and the training he received. A cabinetmaker started his apprenticeship at age 12 to 14 with a master. For the next 7 years the apprentice was trained, clothed, fed, and housed by the master. All the training was oral. There weren’t any books on how to dovetail or do the other complex joinery and finishing. As a result, each apprentice was sworn to secrecy about what was known as the “ art and mystery ” of the craft. This was done to guard the trade secrets of each shop.

If the apprentice left the shop and ran away, the master would put an advertisement in a newspaper giving the boys name, age, and clothing he was wearing. This is because the master had an investment in training the apprentice. There was also the legal side of it because the apprentice was legally indentured to the master.  On the other hand, when the apprenticeship was completed the young man often received a set of tools and  a new suit of clothes. He could then seek employment in other shops as a journeyman and receive a days pay for a days work.

In time, if a journeyman could save enough capital to build or rent a shop, attract clients, possibly hire a carver or turner, and take on apprentices he was then referred to as a master.

It was only in the more rural areas that one shop did everything such as carving, turning, and inlay. Labor was very specialized at this time. In London during the mid 18th century it took 21 different branches of gunsmiths to produce one pistol ( The Gentlemans Magazine, London, February 1747 ). Cabinetmaking was no different  In the urban area the different branches of the craft set up shops near each other. In Philadelphia an order for a pie crust tea table may have been placed with a cabinet shop. The cabinetmaker had the turning done at turners shop. Then the cabinetmaker dovetailed the legs and post together and it was sent out to the carvers shop to carve the feet, legs, post, and top. When this was done it was back to the cabinet shop to assemble and finish. There are exceptions to this. Duncan Phyfe employed cabinetmakers, carvers, turners, gilders, upholsterers, and inlay makers all in one shop.

The different crafts were organized into companies. This was the same as the guilds found in England and Europe. The carpenters, turners, carvers, cabinetmakers, and others formed these companies to regulate business and set prices. Some of these price books still survive such as “ The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of  Prices, and Design of Cabinet Work “ 1788 and “ The Carpenters’ Company of Philadelphia 1786 Rule Book “. These price books were the secrets of the trade. When a member died his next of kin had to return the members copy back to the Company. In 1817 Thomas Jefferson tried to obtain a copy of the Carpenters Rule Book (1786) and was refused.

Knoxville wasn’t much different than the larger urban areas. In 1801, Thomas Hope and four other house carpenters set prices among themselves. These prices were penciled in the margin of what has been called Hope’s journal. The book was in fact a copy of “ The Builders Golden Rule “ by William  Pain, London, 1782. Although Hope has been referred to as an architect, cabinetmaker, and carpenter, all of the prices he wrote into this book margins are for house work, such as the cost of clapboard, doors, windows, stairs, and framing.

Just as Thomas Hope had a copy of William Pain’s book, Anthony Hay, cabinetmaker in Williamsburg Va., owned a first edition of Thomas Chippendale’s “ Director ” 1754. Pattern books were the design sources for the latest fashion used by the crafts. This could be the rococo, Chinese, neo-classical, or Grecian styles that had come into vogue. A cabinetmaker or carpenter could have the most recent one from England in six weeks, which was the time it took to cross the Atlantic by ship.

Today when an antique comes into the shop, I may remove the drawers or take the top off. I’ll run my hand over the surface and feel the shallow scallops left by the jack plane. My eye may see the nicks left by the dovetail saw. It’s almost like the craftsman that made it and I are having a conversation about this piece of furniture. Hundreds of years after making the piece, that cabinetmaker is still sharing part of his life and work with us.


Identifying Antique Furniture

Part 1

Some times the phone rings and a client asks, “ Will you go to such and such antique shop with me. There is a piece a of furniture there but I don’t know if it is really old.” When we get there just by first glance I know that it is a reproduction made in the 20’s or 30’s. Then there are the ones that I have to pull the drawers out and look closer. So how can one tell if what they have found is a fake, reproduction, or antique?

When looking at a piece of furniture one needs a good knowledge of how period pieces were constructed, what wood was used in which period, and a small tool kit.

In the 18th and early 19th century all the work was done by hand. The marking gauge, saws, and hand planes all left distinctive marks on the wood surface. The marking gauge was used to lay out the joints and left fine lines parallel to the edge of a board in the wood. Most of the time these marks were not completely erased by later use of a hand plane or scraper on the wood. Hand saws left parallel nicks, at about 30 degrees, on the edge of the board. Also on the inside of the drawer little nicks the width of the saw blade can be seen. This was the result of just a little over cutting of the dovetails. The jack plane left shallow scallops on drawer bottoms, underneath tops, and on the inside and backs of cases. Only on the out side of furniture were all the tool marks removed. Surfaces were for the most part not sanded but left polished from the hand plane or scraper. The polished surface of hand planing cannot be equaled by sanding.

Modern tools leave different marks. There is no need for a marking gauge with all the joints machine cut. The marks of a circular saw still leaves nicks on the edge of a board but they are in an arcing pattern. Todays thickness planer flattens the board but leaves a series of fine ripples across the entire with of the board. These ripples may even show after being sanded and finished. All the surfaces, inside and out, are machine sanded.

In the vocabulary of the joiner there are about 350 different kinds of joints used. The categories are dovetails, mortise-and-tenon, edge joints, and scarf joints the latter being used by housewrights. Furniture in the earlier periods depended on these joints to hold the work together. The dowel joint didn’t start to be used until the latter 1830’s. It was first used in chairs, to replace the labor intensive mortise-and-tenon joint. By 1850 machinery had replaced nearly all of the finer hand work. It wasn’t the machinery that caused a drop in quality but a lack of skill demanded to operate the machinery. Today, some ads for new machinery state in the ad, “can be used by unskilled labor.” To be highly skilled in both hand tools and machinery can result in very fine and exceptional pieces of furniture.

What should one look for when trying to determine the age of a piece? As mentioned before, certain tool marks. Also dovetails with thin narrow pins on the side of a drawer. Some machined dovetails try to imitate the hand cut dovetails but the pins are never as thin. Look at the back. The back should be attached with hand forged nails or early machine wire cut nails, not modern finishing nails or the round flat heads. Wire cut nails started to be made about 1820. Old nails also cause discoloration of the wood (blackened) around the nail. When looking at the back take note. Early backs were either frame-and-panel or boards ship lapped and  nailed on. If it is thin plywood, it’s later. Screws will also tell the age. Before 1848 screws were hand made. The threads were hand filed and blunted on the end. The most obvious way to tell a hand made screw in a shop is by the head. The slot will always be a little off center when filed by hand.

If a dealer will let you put a piece on its back look at the glue blocks. These may have been replaced but usually not all of them. Original glue bocks are fairly crude. You will be able to see heavy chisel or hatchet marks on old ones. At times when you can’t turn a piece up, feel under the bottom for these. Learn to let your fingers be your eyes.

Pay attention to the turnings and carvings. Earlier turnings and carvings were not sanded but left clean and very smooth right from the chisels. Sometimes, later the bed posts may have been put back in a lathe and sanded to refinish them. I have seen carving from Duncan Phyfe’s shop under a magnifying lens; there are very few if any chisels marks and no sign of sanding. Students are amazed when I give a lathe or carving lesson because the work doesn’t need sanding when it’s finished.

Knowing what woods were used in which period is a good clue to the age. Walnut was predominately used in the Queen Ann style. Mahogany was the main wood used in Chippendale and also into Federal style. The Grecian style used several different woods. Crotch mahogany veneer is found on the fronts of these pieces but the sides and tops were a mixture of walnut, cherry, and even poplar. If you find a Queen Ann style chair made in oak it was probably made in the later half of the 19th century. In contrast a Federal desk made in a rural area may well be made out of cherry. In the rural areas of Tennessee cherry is most commonly found followed by walnut.

Secondary wood will give a clue as to where it was made. In Tennessee tulip poplar, yellow pine, and sometimes white pine were used for drawer sides and backs. In the low country of South Carolina cypress was the common secondary wood. New England used white pine for this purpose while the South used yellow pine. Keep in mind that the growth range for some trees has changed since the 18th century.

In the conclusion of this article we will see what is needed in a tool kit when you go antique hunting; we’ll also examine the differences between antiques, reproductions, and fakes.

Identifying Antiques: Part 2

In part one I described some of the identifying features to look for on original antiques, such as marks left by hand tools, construction of the period, and use of woods for different periods. In this article I’ll describe what to look for if the piece is a fake or reproduction, and how to tell the difference.

Outright fakes are seldom made unless the price of the original is fairly substantial. This is because the work of faking is very labor intensive. The faker will go to great lengths to try to remove all signs of power tools. Then wear, such as dings and dents, has to be added. The patina and dust have to be convincing.

The most noted fake that ever passed inspection by  museum curators was a 17th century chair made by Armand LaMontagne. He started with green wood, so that after it was turned, it would shrink out of round. Original early turns are really oval in cross section because the wood was not seasoned long enough. After building the chair, LaMontagne simulated wear on rungs, arms, and back. Then he scorched it with a torch, covered it in a wash of thin glue and dust, painted and stripped it, set it out in the weather, broke and repaired some parts, and finally gave it to a dealer. The chair was sold and resold a few times. Eventually the chair was bought by the Henry Ford Museum and put on display as an original. When LaMontagne heard of this he told them he had made the chair. Their reply was, No, you couldn’t have, this is a 17th century chair. He said, If you x-ray the chair, you will see that the holes on the post were drilled with a modern drill. They did– and found the holes to indeed have been made by a modern drill and not by a pod auger of the period.

Some furniture is “made up” by using old parts, such as four original legs and old wood. How the legs were lost from the rest of the table is anyones guess. Fakers may find some old parts and use them in a new piece. It saves them some labor and almost looks right, especially if they have other old wood to go with the legs. This is where one has to examine the table more closely. There may be a nail hole with no corresponding part nailed to it or a mortise that has no tenon in it. These are signs of old parts having been used.

A tall case clock came into my shop one day. From all appearances, it looked to be early 18th century. I worked on it for several months, but it was not until the base below the waist had to be taken apart that I realized the case was made out of at least two other cases. When I removed the front panel of the base, there was a saw cut that should have gone thought to the underlying structure.  It didn’t go thought. Then I started looking at nail holes. Some of them didn’t line up. I knew then that it was made up, and from the appearance of the case many years ago. At some point in time, someone probably just wanted a good clock and made it out of old parts they had, and weren’t trying to fake an original.

“Marriages” are in the same category. A fall-front desk with the addition of a small bookcase and crown molding can transform a plain desk into a secretary. The bookcase may not quite fit the desk but the two halves are close enough that someone has put them together later. A good way to tell is by lifting the bookcase off and looking at the top of the desk. The top of the desk should be unfinished and the wood will be a little lighter in color if they were made together. William and Mary highboys are often made by using an early chest of drawers and the addition of a turned base. Sugar chest, are made out of old grain bins.

One clue to a married piece is to look  at the overall proportions. Does it look right? Most fakers don’t have any idea of the proportional system used by early cabinetmakers. Train your eye by going to museums and studying originals.

Reproductions can be harder to spot. Reproductions were honestly made but can now be misrepresented.  Some of them may be over 100 years old by now. Companies started doing reproductions during the nation’s Centennial in 1876. These now have wear, repairs, dust, and good patina. Look for the use of plywood, machine screws, and wire nails. Also study the carving. Later 19th century carving doesn’t flow as well as 18th century did. It’s not as crisp and is more bulbous. In making reproductions, there is not the same effort to remove the tool marks. Look for the little ripples left by the planer or shapers.  Check any turned parts– are they round or oval in cross section? In the latter part of the 19th century, wood started being kiln dried. This ensured that the wood was completely seasoned and wouldn’t distort after being worked into furniture.

Again, look to see if the proportions right. In Walace Nutting’s reproduction shop, a foreman, Frank Gottshall deliberately squatted chest- on- chest so they would fit into a room with an eight foot ceiling. I’ve read correspondence between Robert Emmitt, the gentleman I studied with, and Wallace Nutting. In these, Mr. Emmitt is chastising Nutting for ruining wonderful proportions. Nutting writes back defending the changes. This was in the early 1930s.

Take a tool kit when you go looking for antiques. In the tool kit, you will need to have a notebook and #2 pencils, tape measure, flashlight, straight screwdriver, pliers, needle and thread, pocket knife, magnifying glass, outside calipers,  small plastic envelope, and mirror.

When you see a piece take your time looking at it. Talk to the dealer. Ask if you can remove the drawers, turn it around, or lie it on its back. You may want to make notes about the piece: the heigth, width, and length, so you are sure it will fit in the space you want to use it in. Also, you may want to do rubbings or tracings of molding, hardware, and inlays. A flashlight will help you see inside when looking for tool marks. Direct bright sunlight is the best but is not always possible. When you see tool marks ,the magnifying glass may aid in identifying them; this is especially true if they are faint. Use the needle if there are nail holes without a nail. Does the hole go through to the wood behind it or does the hole stop? This will tell you if that piece of wood is original. The thread is so you can find the needle if you drop it.

If you have questions about the hardware ask if you can remove a pull. This is where the screwdriver and pliers will be useful. Often, you can see the outline of the original hardware underneath the new. Using the outside calipers on a turning can tell you the age. Remember, old turnings are out of round. The pocket knife and plastic envelope are useful to take a very small wood sample for analysis.* A mirror is use full if you can’t rotate a piece or put it on it’s back.

Knowing a few things about antiques can make your collecting more fun. Think of your self as Sherlock Holmes. There are a lot of good mysteries out there.

* Samples can be analyzed at: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Products Laboratory, One Gifford Pinchot, Madison, WI, 53705