Antiques: Repairs: Tables & Chairs

 

Of all problems in antique furniture restoration, tables present about the severest tax on the skill, ingenuity and patience of the repairer. For everyday use, the top and leaves of a table must be smooth, reasonably level and free from cracks and splits. Yet one or two centuries of use frequently take their toll in concave, convex or twisted warping, as the case may be. This is the natural result of gradual drying of the wood; and the wider the boards used in leaves and top, the more pronounced the warp.

In addition, there may be splits-which follow the grain of wood, but as long as the board in question has not broken in two, it can be repaired with shims so that leaf or top remains a single piece of lumber. Also, with those originally fabricated of two or more boards, the glued joints often come apart and need regluing.

Variations of these ailments occur with the double-top card table, where the upper part has warped so that it no longer lies flat on the lower one when closed, and also with tables of the tripod base type where the top has cracked or warped. Barring abnormal conditions, the following course of treatment should prove beneficial to ailing tables, large and small.

The prime requisite in such restoration is patience. Nothing extraordinary in the matter of tools is necessary. The usual complement of cabinetmaker's clamps, big and little, fine chisels, saws and a glue pot are sufficient. But a table top or its accompanying leaves that have been gradually warping over the years cannot be made true and straight in a day, or even a week; it may take a month or two. If you attempt to put them at once under enough pressure to reduce curl or twist rapidly, nine times out of ten they will crack and split. The proper method is a gradual increase of pressure each day, until the upward or downward curl or twist has been overcome. Then acting according to judgment, go the other way ever so slightly, so that when released from pressure the wood may react to a slight degree and the final outcome be the desired trueness.

But you must realize that sometimes the idiosyncrasies of the grain of the wood are such that, though you try everything possible, the warp or twist cannot be corrected. Experienced cabinetmakers know this, and when confronted by such unruly wood they recognize it as "wild grain" and admit their inability to cope with such conditions.

Assuming a normal condition, the procedure is relatively simple for taking out warping that has resulted in a convex or concave curl, or a combination of both, best described as twist. Begin by dampening the leaves or table top, so that the wood will give under pressure and not split. This is done by removing the boards from the table frame and placing them on a bed of thoroughly moistened excelsior with the unfinished raw wood surface down, in order that the pores can absorb as much moisture as possible. Place heavy weights on them so that the straightening process will start as soon as the wood begins to react from the dampness. Leave them there until they begin to show that the dampness has penetrated into the fiber of the wood. If necessary, sprinkle the excelsior with a little additional water.

Next, put leaves or top under positive pressure. The best apparatus for this is a press in which a screw like that of a builder's jack provides the pressure. Lacking such a press, you can simulate one with four large cabinetmaker's clamps and sections of old bed rails a little longer than the width of the warped part. Place these rails under and above to form a cribbing and apply pressure by tightening the screws of the hand clamps.

Neither press nor clamps should be turned too tight at first. just be sure positive pressure is being exerted and then leave things alone for twenty-four to forty-eight hours, after which the screws should be tightened a turn or two. This should be repeated regularly until the warped part is absolutely true. Knowing just how much force to apply at a time is a fine point learned only by experience. One sign of overzeal is the slight noise of rending wood fiber. If this is heard, immediately release the pressure by a quarter or half turn.

After the parts have been pressed sufficiently, leave them in position about a week, or until all moisture absorbed from the bed of damp excelsior has disappeared. They are apt to revert to their previous warped state if taken out of the press before thoroughly dry. The hotter and drier the room where the press stands, the better, for it then becomes to all intents and purposes a drying kiln, such as is used in lumber mills to season new material.

As soon as a table top has been removed from pressure, it should be replaced on its framework with all speed. Plug old screw holes with soft wood, and using sharp new screws, of the same length as the original ones, turn them as tight as possible. The top may not fit tightly to the bed and some of the screws may have to be given additional turns for several days before this can be accomplished; but when this has been done, if the old screws have been saved, remove the new ones, one at a time, and replace them with the old ones.

In rehanging the table leaves, the old hinges, if usable, ought to be straightened. Also, the old screw holes for the hinges should be plugged with pine or other clear, soft wood. Finally, the leaves should be put in place and the table left standing for a week or more in a warm, dry place.

Do not view with alarm a slight upward curl in the leaves even after all this treatment. It is characteristic of a genuine antique table and is to be expected. The wider the leaves, the more noticeable the curl. Unless very pronounced, it is not a fault but a distinct proof of genuineness.

In replacing tops of large tables, with or without leaves, or those of the small light-stand type, whether with four legs or tripod base, never glue the top to the table frame or cross piece or pieces that attach it to the tripod shaft. Such gluing eliminates give and take between top and. base. Through changes of temperature and drying, it may result in the top splitting-something that will not occur if only screws are used.

So much for correcting warping. The other major repair is that of regluing where top or leaves were originally of two or more pieces of wood. Begin by washing thoroughly with hot soap and water the surfaces to be reglued, until all traces of old glue are eradicated. Do not plane the edges. Such tight joining is not characteristic of an antique. Instead, use the best quality of cabinetmaker's glue. Apply it as hot as possible and put the parts together as they were originally. Clamp them tightly, at the same time using lengths of bed rails to forestall convex or concave curling or twisting. Allow plenty of time for the glued joining to become thoroughly dry.

If the condition of the edges is such that added strength is needed, cut corresponding mortises into the edges in three or four places, according to length, and make tenons to fit into them tightly. Glue and clamp as before, being sure that each mortise is as thoroughly moistened with glue as are the edges themselves. In this way the glue joint will have added strength, with little likelihood of coming apart for many years.

To bring a double-top card table back to normal, put a strip of wood about half an inch thick between the two leaves, not further back from the front edge than the center. Then with a pair of wooden hand clamps, bring the upper leaf under pressure. Increase this slightly every other day until the top leaf is true. Then allow the table to stand for several days before releasing.

Chairs have probably suffered more damage from wear, abuse and mutilation than any other group of household gear. This is particularly true of slat-backs and other turned chairs. Legs cut off, finials damaged or lost, slats broken, arms snapped and stretchers missing or broken are a few of the casualties such chairs have suffered. Some of the damages are difficult to repair, in the sense that much time and care are needed to do a proper job. For this reason, it is best to make sure before buying a chair in need of repair that it is a sufficiently good type to warrant the trouble.

Minor injuries resulting from normal wear are best left untouched. These add to the interest of a piece and are proof of age. Cut legs, however, may be restored without harming the originality of the piece. Broken frames of chairs not worth fixing make the best repair parts. These can be bought quite reasonably from dealers who specialize in furniture in the rough. One frame will supply enough parts to repair several chairs.

There are two ways of building up cut legs. One is by the use of a doweled extension; the other, by fastening the extension with a lap joint. When there are no more than two or three inches to be restored, the dowel does not have to be turned on the extension. Simply make a clean cut on the end of the chair post and glue the extension on with hot violinmaker's glue. After allowing the glue to set for a day, drill a three-eighths-inch hole through the extension, and continue about an inch into the chair post. Drive into this hole a maple dowel, first rounding the end a little and putting glue into the hole. Amateur restorers will find that a small back saw will make a clean, easily jointed edge.

The hole through the extension can be drilled before jointing. Use a machine bit rather than a wood twist bit. This same method can be used for attaching turnip feet and other types of turned feet. These, of course, will have to be made by a local wood turner or bought from firms supplying parts for reproductions.

The lap joint is used where the legs have been cut to attach rockers, or where they have been cut off close to the bottom stretchers. Use of a lap joint saves drilling new holes for the bottom stretchers, and also has the advantage of preserving more of the original post.

All extensions should be made slightly larger in diameter than the old post and then worked down with a draw knife, plane or fine wood rasp and sandpaper. Most of the old chair posts were not perfectly round; one side is sometimes flat, so that it is not possible to turn an extension in a lathe that will be an exact fit.

There are several ways of tightening loose stretchers. Each method depends on the condition of the chair and the looseness of the joints. Wedges may be driven into the space between the stretcher and socket. Stretchers that will pull all the way out can be wrapped with a rag soaked in glue and driven in again. A piece of splint oak from an old chair seat makes a good wedge to use where the stretcher is loose enough to pull out. The oak is soaked in glue, bent over the end of the stretcher and then driven into the socket. Where there is a large amount of space between the stretcher and the socket, the hole is sometimes filled with a plastic composition and the stretcher carefully forced back into the socket. These compounds have a tendency to shrink, which makes this method a less permanent job than one done by using wood wedges. Never nail a stretcher.

Ends of arms that are broken or stretchers of a fine design can be saved by doweling a piece on, in the same way as suggested for leg extensions.

Finials that need replacement will have to be turned by a local wood turner. They should be made exact in size, with a quarter-inch dowel attached that need not be over one inch long. Wherever possible, the joint should come where one of the old scorings appears on the chair upright.

A slat that has to be replaced should be made of an old one, whenever possible. It is rather difficult for the average home restorer to bend a straight piece of old wood into a suitable curve. The broad band of an old spinning wheel, if of hickory, makes good slats. An old bed rail of maple is usually thick enough to cut a curved slat from on a band saw. When slats are so cut, saw marks can be removed by scraping.

Examination of an old chair will show that most of the slats are pinned as well as wedged into the socket. The wedges will be found usually on the under side. Pins are made of hickory and are whittled out and not turned, as is a dowel. The irregularities of such pins help make a tight joint when they are driven in, and this makes it difficult to disturb such a joining. Don't do it unless unavoidable.

Of all the antique slat-backs that I have acquired at one time or another, only one of them has ever come to me with seat intact. Replaced seats in no way detract from the original condition of antique chairs. No chair that has been in use around a home from three to five generations could be expected to retain the seat provided by its maker, unless it were a Windsor or other wooden-seated type.

Whether of rush, splint, cane or upholstery, a chair seat that is used at all has a life of about twenty-five years. So the collector can expect to reseat almost every old chair he adds to his collection. On most of them, if he has time and patience, he can do the work himself. The time to do it is, in most instances, just after the framework has been repaired and refinished.

The four types of seats mentioned above and their names indicate the material used. With none is the work complicated. Patience and ability to follow directions are the two requisites. The best and clearest instructions for doing such reseating are to be found in a set of four ten-cent pamphlets issued by the Home Extension Service of the Department of Home Economics, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Each pamphlet is complete with clear diagrams that explain every step in the work, and for those who want to do their own reseating, I recommend that they start by getting these pamphlets and then follow the directions therein.

Here I wish to add just one injunction. Do not use the modern twisted paper substitute for the old rush. Coming, as it does, in coils like heavy package cord, it is somewhat easier to handle than genuine rush, but a seat made of it is an anachronism on an antique chair. It is all right for the modern factory-made product, in which this twisted paper is consistently used to hasten production and cut costs, but it ruins the appearance of one made by the old cabinetmakers.

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