A Dressing Mirror, or The Marriage of Convenience

Marriage can be challenging, but going it alone can be pretty tough too. The couple in this story needed one another to be of use in this world by serving an owner, providing a useful source of critical self-evaluation or reinforcing unmerited narcissism.

Marriages in the world of antique furniture are are often greeted with mild contempt to outright horror, usually proportional to the market value of the piece. These are usually seen on large and potentially expensive case pieces, such as an 18th century  chest-on-chest or highboy. They make for great drama on antique valuation TV shows. Some are created simply for use (a marriage of convenience) and some to deceive (A confidence game of a marriage, deliberate and sly). Fortunately, our subject is a humble late 19th century dressing mirror, and the offense, if any, seems to have been a purely practical matter, endangering no one’s fortune.

I didn’t consider this mirror as a marriage when it first arrived at the shop, I was just focused on the immediate task. Like its larger sibling the Cheval Mirror, the frame pivots on knobs with threaded stems that pass through an upright on either side of the mirror frame. Tightening these threaded knobs can lock the mirror into place at an angle convenient for a particular use. On this object, one of those critical knobs had its stem broken off and poorly replaced by a length of dowel extending at an odd angle from the knob. Not being threaded, the mirror frame could no longer be locked into place; it still worked as a mirror of course, but it might as well have just hung on the wall. So the job was to replace the damaged threaded knob.

Slide1
On the left, the original knob with a roughly turned replacement on the lathe. On the right, the initial turning of the cove elements required that I make a cutter to duplicate the needed profile; this is not unusual in smaller pieces, at least for me. I do not doubt that there are proficient lathe workers who could make this cut with the proper tool.

I’m a lathe user by necessity rather than enthusiasm. I learned the skill because I had to in order to complete jobs, and I didn’t want to pay someone else to make the parts. Once I became tolerably good, I began supplying others with replacement parts for those that were missing or broken beyond repair on their projects. I like turning, it’s pleasurable, but I am seldom on the lathe if its not for a paying job.

Slide4
Here is the replacement fully formed and sanded, then with the first stage of the coloring process.

Once the knob was formed it was time to thread the stem:

Slide2
I was able to find the thread pitch on the remaining knob, but just to be sure I turned a piece of soft wood to the stem diameter and twisted it carefully into the corresponding threaded hole of the frame.; twisting it out carefully, the harder walnut left an impression of the thread pitch in the dowel surface.
WP Dressing Mirror 4
I became suspicious when I noticed that though the remaining knob fit tightly into the mirror frame, it was remarkably loose where it passed through the upright. What’s more, is the gap between the upright and frame was unusually wide; typically this juxtaposition is made as close as practical. I do not doubt that this gap was the cause of the broken knob stem. I was only contracted to replace the knob and not to address this issue; however a short length of brass tube had an OD that fit the upright very well and an ID in which the knob stems fit snugly, alleviating at least some of the strain on them. This is also where I began to notice differences in the surface qualities of the frame and upright.
Slide3
I did as much work as I could with the knob suspended between my bench chops. I finished of the knob by pushing it through hole in a thick piece of wood held upright in a vice.
WP Dressing Mirror 7
These are the tools that I used to shape the threads; a chisel, small V-parting tool, craft knife and a triangular file.
A comparison between a mirror frame and its supporting upright
On the left, the molded shape of the upright and mirror are not the same. The surface of the upright is a flat plane with a deep cove surrounding it and an ovolo below. The frame face is a large astragal, also abutted by a cove, but half the size of that on the upright and the ovolo much larger. So?  I would expect that the frame would be milled similarly to the upright, this would be more efficient in the factory setting where the upright was made. Look at the surface quality; the frame with its deep reddish color and smooth surface; this was deliberate well-made work and likely pre-dates the upright. The upright has a similar color (on the front) but without the depth we see on the frame, and the surface quality is not the careful grain-filled polish that the frame received. In the right photo, the rear of the upright can be seen in the lower right corner. This is the much cooler tone of walnut, which although it may sometimes have reddish tones, in this piece the usual green/blue tones come through. Notice the series of closely spaced parallel lines on the surface? These tiny scallops are “mill marks” the signature a machine cutter leaves as the wood is pushed through it during processing. Above you can see the reddish hue of the mirror rim with with no comparable mill marking. This wood also had many very small white inclusions that I often see in mahoganies.

Above are comparisons of the grain texture, molding details, color and surface finish characteristics that led me to the conclusion that the frame was made of mahogany and the uprights from walnut. These can be subtle to someone not accustomed to looking at these details; indeed it is sometimes a struggle to tell which wood is which on older more patinated pieces.

Mahogany Crescent City Auction Gallery 3 25 2018
This example has the most modest case that I could find for comparison. It also has cylindrical corners leading to complimentary compressed-ball feet. The drawer front has a slight serpentine shape and has been carefully fitted with a lock. The surface has been richly veneered. The case has no hard edges, and in this comports well with the pulvinated oval frame of the mirror, which is also nicely veneered. The uprights have a gentle organic bend that are reflected in the drawer front and conforming case top;. in short this Dressing Mirror is a deliberate and complete composition. One could quibble with the acanthus crest, rather arbitrarily fastened to the mirror frame, though it might be reasonably argued that it is a compliment to the organic, voluted uprights and does add a vertical emphasis to the appearance.
Case Detail
It is typical of this form that the case match the style of the mirror frame and flanking uprights, while still remaining subordinate to them. Typical also is that these cases have drawers. Comparing the robust molding on the mirror and the vigorous shaping of the uprights with the rather modest case having a lidded well and no drawer, leads me to believe that this is the third element of this piece that originated elsewhere or was simply made to accommodate the other two. There is little of this piece that, were the parts separate, might lead you to believe that the upper and lower halves belong together as a composition.

I must admit that it is certainly possible that they began their lives together when parts from two models were assembled at the manufacturer although I do not believe that. They do compliment one another enough to be tolerable. The pieces are well made and sturdy, and far better in practical use than in a heap somewhere without function…I am happy that they found each other.

Hey, why didn’t you just replace the stem?

Wood expands and contracts over time. what was once a nice round knob turned on a lathe around 1875 has now become something more of an oval, and I have experienced this many times with breaks of this nature. So, I need to drill straight into it, dead center. I have tried a number of ways to grasp and center aged components on the lathe to prevent them from oscillating wildly, with little success. You can see that there is a fairly narrow neck on the lower hollow of the knob, not much wider than the stem that would need to go through it. Between that, the oscillation, and the force needed to execute the work I felt pessimistic. I know with confidence that I can make a solid replacement. I do give repair a go every time just in case there is a minor miracle, as I had with this job too, and yet no divine reprieve.

Mirror example: Crescent City Auction Gallery New Orleans, LA March 25, 2018

© 2019 All Content: Joseph Hoover. Sticks and Glue. All Rights Reserved.

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