Restoring an 1870’s Walnut Centre Table Part 1: The Top

This small pedestal table took a bit of a beating, that’s for sure; along with three companion pieces and a few other front row pews at a mid-19th century church. Mean old Mr. Gravity decided to yank on a ceiling beam that had escaped his notice for over 150 years. The photo above is how the former table looked on site when all of the pieces that could be found were gathered together. It was taken to the Preservation by Design Studio in nearby Tecumseh for an initial evaluation.

After the process I will detail here and in Part 2, we had a happy end to this catastrophe, and the oval walnut table is back at its church, serving its purpose.

Back at Work.

How We Got There

There are basically two parts to a pedestal table; the top assembly and the base assembly. This post covers the components of the top, and Part 2 will cover the base components.

WP OT Pre 1b
The initial assessment; lining everything up to examine what was left and in what condition. All four of the legs had some damage; two suffered significant losses as well. The top had separated  along old glue joints. The oval frame had significant loss at one of its four joints, and the rectangular pine platen attached to it was shattered into three pieces along its length.

As discussed elsewhere on this blog, parts have gone missing on this project, so this meets the definition of restoration work. But one element of the piece, the top board that has delaminated along its original glue joints, is typical of repair work, since nothing is missing or broken, it just needs cleaning and re-gluing. Its not uncommon for restoration jobs to have elements of repair.

The Apron Assembly

On this pedestal-style of table, the apron forms a supportive and decorative element in the overall composition. The apron frame perimeter is deeply molded, and four conforming pendant-drop appliques with light gouge work hang from the bottom edge. The thickness of the frame aids in keeping the top flat, and it provides (at two opposing rabbets milled into its bottom edge) a secure framework that the pine platen is attached to. It is the pine platen that unites the two major elements of the piece; each leg is doweled into it and the platen itself is secured to the bottom of the apron frame with 8 tenacious nails. Given its structural significance, restoring it to one solid piece and reattaching it to a repaired frame was Job One.

As the uniting element of the table, it was crucial that the platen be well repaired. The breaks were relatively clean, though quite fuzzy with fibers that had to be dealt with so the break could be closed back together. A bonus was the inscription: King & Yorston Toronto Ont (!) My guess is that the 6 – 7 indicates that this is the 6th piece of a 7 piece “Chamber Suite” of furniture, The 3 down in the left corner? Still workin’ on that….any ideas?
Chamber Suite
Here is a typical Chamber Suite; this set numbers 7 pieces. It gives you an idea of the domestic context in which our example could have been found. Here, the centre table has a rocking chair perched upon it.**
Apron frame losses
A view from inside the oval frame; wood is lost from either side of this butt joint, as is the dowel that helped secure it. What is a “butt” Joint? It describes a joint where the wood pieces are simply butted together and require additional means to secure the joint, such as nails, screws or in this case, dowels; it is a quickly and cheaply made production method that is  common in frames and can be serviceable enough.
Apron frame loss
A view from the outside surface; each end-grain butt joint has two dowels spanning it, holding it together. The placement of one of these frame dowels proved careless, as the complex molding cutter that shaped the decorative exterior profile of the frame edge sliced through these outermost dowels, leaving approximately 25% of their circumference exposed. The darker walnut of the frame contrasts sharply with the blonde wood of the four exposed dowels; little effort was made to conceal this discrepancy when the table was last refinished.
Apron Frame Joint Routed for Patch
The damaged portion of the frame joint has been routed flat and the edges straightened and will receive a tight-fitting walnut patch that will follow the existing grain pattern as closely as possible. Once the glue has dried, the patch will be carved to conform to the apron frame profile.
a WP Apron Frame Joint stitch
All of the frame joints were loose to varying degrees. I certainly could not see all the fractures around the dowel joints that may have been caused by the full shock of the blow, and could only learn so much from flexing the joints. As a precaution, long-grain walnut splines were added to the top and bottom of the frame, spanning each butt joint for a total of eight splines; I call this technique “stitching” and it has been useful to me for over 20 years on a number of projects

The Top

Oval Walnut Top Joint de-lamination
If you take up repair, you will be seeing a lot of this sort of thing, delaminating table tops. Often, they tend to share certain features, the most bothersome of which is: You will not be the first person to have repaired it. The slanted dowels that you see here were added during an old repair.
This is the long-grain edge of a board from the table top. This variegated appearance often presents itself, especially on horizontal surfaces. The joint opened at some point, and someone worked some glue into it (likely without cleaning it first) and may not have clamped it, relying upon the magical properties of glue to bridge the gap. Every time the table was polished or cleaned, whatever was on it gets scraped into the joint, further wedging it open. This accumulated gunk (accretions) will be carefully scraped off, and then the edge can be assessed for its fit with the adjacent board; often some planing of the edge must be done to have them mate properly once more, since the boards have likely changed shape over time (say, 150 years).  You may only plane the very barest minimum of material off the joints of an oval table top.
a WP Tbl Top Sections Reglue
The first re-glue, at my bench. I could try to explain why every clamp is where it is, but I don’t think you’d want to read all of that. Suffice it to say it worked. I did not re-use the dowels here. If the joint fits properly and you have good fresh glue with appropriate clamping pressure, you don’t need dowels. This is not to say that dowels are not to be used; they are helpful for alignment of board edges should you need it, and in other joinery situations.
Tbl top dowel joint from prior repair A
The edge of this top board has only the evidence of Hide glue on the surface. The nice thing about Hide glue? Although it is quite strong, it is also somewhat brittle. Unlike the previous joint, this one was probably still sound and was only opened upon impact. It is possible that had this been a modern adhesive which are tougher, the delamination would not have happened neatly along the glue joint, which instead would have remained intact, but the force of the blow would likely have unevenly split the wood somewhere else in the top.
a WP Tbl Top Reglue
The second and final glue up for the walnut table top. The small spring clamps are there to keep the extended band of my band-clamp from slipping off, before I get it tightened. There is a piece of flat MDF stock underneath the top, so that when tightened, the F-clamps with their cauls can press the top flat down to it. The long Bar clamps put the pressure on the joint. Why are they only in the middle? Over time, each board usually shrinks most out at its end grain, where it is most susceptible to atmospheric changes; this leaves the mid-length of the board edges looking slightly convex. We use a technique called “springing” where we relieve the wider convex mid-board areas very slightly and very carefully, so that when you place them together there will be a slight gap in the middle of the joint with each of the joint ends touching. When pressure is applied at the mid-point of this joint to close this gap, that force will close the joint tightly out at the board ends.
Tbl Top Inscriptn
Underneath the top was this inscription: Year 1871.
1880 catalog
From New York in 1880, this advertisement gives us an idea of what these tables were going for. A caned, oval back, walnut rocker in the same catalog was available for $3.00, and an eleven piece “Walnut Chamber Suit” (like that illustrated above) was available for $30.00
Here is our table next to a another veteran of the ceiling beam encounter, the shorter of the two ceremonial chairs which, thankfully was much less damaged than its taller companion chair.

*Illustrated Catalogue of Jordan and Moriarty (New York) courtesy Columbia University Avery Library Trade Catalogs, Call No. AT2875 J76 1880

**Illustrated Catalogue of Chas. Hollander & Sons (Baltimore, Maryland), courtesy Winterthur Museum Library, Call No. NK2265 H73a

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























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