Antiques: Repairs: Drawers track & Beds usable


One of the most common causes of frayed tempers and caustic remarks about "broken-down antiques" from noncollecting members of a family has to do with drawers in old case pieces that stick and won't track. This is a common failing. Through years of use, drawer sides and runners become worn. When this occurs, the drawer bottom is prone to rub. Not only does this part fail to work smoothly, but a fine wood dust is generated that gives rise to a snap diagnosis of "termites" on the part of the layman.

Practically never is this diagnosis correct. The rubbing of the drawer bottom is what produces the powder-like dust, not wood-boring insects. Repairing drawers so they will work smoothly is one form of restoration that even the most orthodox collector will agree is necessary, especially if a piece is to be used. Fortunately it is a relatively simple repair that can be done by the collector.

The runners on which the drawers move back and forth are in most pieces simply strips of wood glued and nailed to the sides of the case. Sometimes they are fitted into grooves as well. In either case, it is usually possible to remove the runners and reset them with the worn side down. If this is carefully done, even the old nails can be saved and used again.

But since the average home workshop is not-usually provided with the proper clamps for use in regluing runners, it will be easier to use screws instead of nails. Two or three in each runner are enough in most cases. The old nail holes should be bored slightly smaller than the size of the screw. After putting glue on the runner and on the case, simply fasten the runner tight to the case with the screws. Number eight or number ten screws are heavy enough and should not be more than half an inch longer, including the head, than the runner is wide.

Furniture made with paneled ends had the drawer runners nailed to the outer uprights, front and back. Guide strips were glued on top of these. When runners are reversed, the guides too, which also suffered wear, should be removed and reversed.

Many tables and stands are found with the drawer runners tenoned into both the front and back of the frame. Runners of this type are difficult to remove, so the most practical method is to glue a strip on top of the old runners after they have been planed smooth. Strips of wood cut to fit the worn grooves are not satisfactory for a permanent repair.

Some chests of drawers have a width of board, the entire depth from front to rear of the case, inserted beneath each drawer space. Such boards are generally known as dust partitions. Because the grain of the wood in this partition ran at right angles to that of the wood in the drawer sides, the wear was mostly at the front edge where the drawers rocked. If the strip which is added to build up the drawer sides is made wider than the groove worn in the dust partition, nothing will have to be done about filling in this groove.

Building up the lower edges of a drawer is simple enough if the wear has not extended into the slot which holds the drawer bottom in place. Draw a line across the drawer side at the lowest part of the wear. Plane the side smooth to this line and glue on a strip of the correct size. Nails should not be used unless they can be countersunk at least a full quarter of an inch. The added strip may be of any kind of wood, but it makes a better appearance if it is the same as the wood in the drawer side. Hardwood strips make a long-wearing and easy-sliding drawer. For planing drawer sides, there is an inexpensive little bull-nose plane which is very convenient for this purpose.

It is sometimes possible to make a quick and fairly satisfactory repair by gluing a strip to the bottom of a drawer next to the worn side. After a drawer has been built up, the added strips should not be planed down so far that the drawer touches the case at any other point than on the runners. Careful attention to this detail will prevent chipping of veneered fronts, or damage to delicately inlaid edges or other forms of drawer-front trim.

A drawer should also be fitted with a small block on the back of the slide to prevent it from going into the case too far. Drawers with a lip, or overlapping edge, should have this stop placed in such a position as to allow a small fraction of space between the lip edge and the front of the case. Many chests have this stop placed on the front strip that separates the drawer openings, but from a purely practical angle this is not always a good feature. Drawer bottoms sag and, as the drawer sides wear down, drag on these stops.

Oftentimes drawer bottoms shrink, and as they are held at the back with nails they pull out of the slot in the front of the drawer. Many times it is possible to remove the nails and slide the bottom forward without having to add an extra strip to fill in the shrinkage. This should be done before building up the drawer sides. Where a slight shrinkage has caused the dovetailed edges of a drawer to loosen, they should not be repaired by driving in nails. Glue the sides of the drawer just as they are, and then fill up the shrinkage with wooden wedges also well glued.

If drawer sides and runner are kept soaped or waxed, their operation will be greatly improved and a large amount of wear prevented.

Despite the many unhappy results seen, an old four-post bed is one of the easiest of household furniture to restore. One must first be sure, however, that the bed in question is worth it. Even if the collector does the work himself, time and energy count for something and, if it is to be handed over to an experienced cabinetmaker, common sense demands that one weigh the cost against the piece's intrinsic worth.

So let the problem of restoration start with buying. Be sure all parts of the bed started out together. The old frames were originally designed to be taken apart-upright posts, headboard, side and cross rails. It frequently happens that through the years one part or another has been mislaid or lost. A missing part can, of course, be replaced; but the bed then ceases to be all original. The wisest course is to buy such a bed only after you have seen it assembled. If it is of the tall type, be sure the parts of the canopy frame are all present. Inspect details of head and foot posts to make sure they were originally made for the same bed.

Chisel numbering on these, as well as on side and cross rails, will tell the story. These chisel-made Roman numerals should all be of one size and have the characteristics of one person's handwriting. Make sure that the posts have not been shortened at either top or bottom. Converting highposters into low ones by cutting off the posts just above the level of the headboard, and making low-posters still lower by cutting off six or eight inches from the feet, were common practices from about 1850, when the modern bedstead came into fashion.

On the other hand, one need not be concerned if the various parts are not of the same wood. Except for very fine and sophisticated examples, several kinds of wood may have been used. Pine or white wood were favorites for headboards. Nor were the rails always of the same wood as the posts. Numberless combinations are found, such as maple posts and oak rails; cherry posts and rails of maple; even pine posts and hardwood rails were sometimes used. The old cabinetmakers took what they had on hand, since the simpler beds were either finished with paint or stain, except when the posts were of the finer hardwoods, such as mahogany, walnut, cherry or fancy-grained maple.

Assuming, then, that you have acquired a bed in fair condition, the work of restoration follows. For obvious reasons, a thorough cleaning is in order. Working out of doors because of the fire hazard, go over the parts liberally with gasoline. Use a wide brush for the flat surfaces and a small round one for mortises and rope holes. Gasoline is not only a practical insecticide, but much dirt and grime can be removed by wiping the parts with clean rags while still damp.

The next stage is making necessary repairs, such as gluing a split headboard, filling shrinkage cracks in posts and making minor repairs to the turnings, and so on. Then comes the problem of making the frame firm and rigid. Fine old beds were provided with eight screws that passed through the upright posts into the ends of the rails, where they engaged nuts, inserted and concealed by wooden plugs. The simpler beds depended for rigidity on the rope network that not only held side and cross rails firm but served as a primitive spring for the tick of straw, corn husks or feathers. Very ingenious and charming, but we have become too soft for such rigors. Even the most ardent antiquarian would reach for a modern spring and mattress after a night spent on such an instrument of the Inquisition.

If the bed is without bolts, an excellent solution is to make the head and foot permanent units and then insert bed bolts to make these two sections fast to the side rails when turned tight. To make headposts, headboard and upper cross rail one, the headboard should be wedged and glued into its mortises at the same time that the cross rail is being made fast. Then tightly fitting dowels must be driven into holes already bored through the posts, so that they will pass through the tenons of the rail that fit into the mortises cut in the posts. The same process holds for the two footposts and the connecting cross rail. Unless you have the long gluing clamps, it is advisable to have this work done by a cabinetmaker. He has the proper tools, without which it is practically impossible to do a satisfactory job.

Inserting the bed bolts and countersinking the nuts is also no work for the inexperienced. The entire bed must be assembled. Then with an auger slightly larger than the diameter of the bolts, holes are bored through the four posts and four or five inches into the ends of the side rails. Their location should be along a line that is the vertical center of the posts and at the same time approximately equidistant from the top and bottom of the side rails. Then a mortise is cut on the inner side of each end of the two side rails, so that the bolts may be in a position to engage the nuts when inserted in the holes bored for them. When the bolts have been turned tight, the mortises are concealed by filling them with plugs covered with glue and driven home with a hammer.

Now the bed is ready for finishing. If it is a fine hardwood, a shellac finish that will enhance the beauty of its grain and color is, of course, the most desirable. With the more ordinary woods, one has a choice. If the original finish of either New England red filler or Amish blue paint is more or less intact, it should be preserved. If all traces of original finish have been lost, the owner can follow his own inclinations. The bed can be scraped and sandpapered and then finished in the natural with several coats of shellac. If either the red or blue-green of the original finish is desired, it can be accomplished by carefully mixing paints until just the right shade is achieved. Then two thin coats, with light sandpapering after each coat is thoroughly dry, will give an even, smooth finish.

The bed is now ready for the spring. Don't try to manage with one of stock size-they practically never fit. The most satisfactory way is to order one made according to the dimensions of the bed. It should be from an inch to an inch and a half shorter than the length of the bed, measured from the inside edges of the rails, and the same amount narrower than the width, again measuring from the inside.

There are two methods of supporting the spring. Angle irons made for the purpose can be bought and screwed onto the side rails, or two cross slats can be attached to the underside of the rails. Whichever method is followed, the spring when in place should not stand over half an inch higher than the upper surface of the rails. Then when the mattress is put in position, it will rest evenly on rails and spring.

These are the steps in getting an old bed ready for modern living. Here are a few don'ts. The early beds are admittedly shorter than the modern bedsteads. If you insist on standard length, don't try splicing the side rails. Put them away in store closet or attic and have new ones made. Then, if at some future time you wish to sell the piece, you have a bed with original parts and value nowise lessened because for a time extra long side rails associated with it. The same holds if you have a field bed and find your ceiling too low to accomodate the fine sweeping curve of its canopy. Have a flat canopy made if you will, but put the original away in a safe place.

The biggest don't of all concerns the baneful practice of cutting over old beds for twin size. Not only is their value as antiques practically destroyed, but even the late, lowpriced varieties look out of scale. The old craftsmen had an eye for line and proportion. When either is tampered with, the result is unhappy, to say the least. Moreover, the cost of mutilating these old beds is frequently more than that of good reproductions.

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