Restoring an 1870’s Walnut Centre Table Part 2: The Base

Legs Pre-Treatment 1

I can’t think of any pieces of furniture designed to withstand a blow from a 12 X 12 inch oak beam swinging downward from 30 feet above…maybe some Stickley items. The damage to the top of our table and its under-girding frame was relatively minimal, because the shock was transferred to the pine platen and then absorbed by the four leg assembly.

Period Examples
The table illustrated on the left is from the 1873 catalog of Cooper & Hall of Philadelphia and the plate on the right-hand side is from the circa 1880 catalog of Chas. Hollander & Sons of Baltimore, Maryland. There are still a number of these tables around, but many display evidence of repair which is not surprising; each leg of our table (and these pictured) has three transition areas of “short grain”. When the long fibers of the wood are cut through during the irregular shaping of each leg, areas that you could call the hip, knee and ankle become weakened short grain sections. These types of tables almost exclusively come with marble tops; at least that is the way that I’ve seen them. The Hollander & Son catalog entry was the first time I have seen them described as anything other than “marble top table”. Imagine placing a nice heavy slab of marble on this base and then having it shoved or yanked…snap! Ah well, job security.

Finding a way to define the various elements of a piece is essential for the treatment report that is kept for your records. The central vertical element of this table could be a post, shaft, column, baluster…I would even argue for pylon since is supportive of the load under compression. But, I will call it a central baluster-turned post with a drop pendant terminal, and generally refer to it as “post”.

The base of this table consists of a central turned post, shaped in a series of beads and coves terminating in a pendant drop with two post blocks (or square areas) one at the very top, and another about two-thirds of the way downward. Each leg has two separate areas along its inside edge that are in plane, and it is at these two flat areas that a leg is attached to the two central post blocks, using 3/8ths inch diameter wooden dowels; one dowel at the top post block, and two at the lower post block. At the top of each leg plank a single vertical wooden dowel is inserted. At each of the plank feet, a swiveling wheel assembly was attached with three screws. The four leg planks are laminated in width and were then fret-sawn to an irregular decorative shape; with complex molded inner and outer edges, in the shape of a central astragal flanked on either side by cavettos. The flat faces of each leg have narrow, shallow, linear gouge work.

Leg 1

Leg 1 had a broken “ankle” and was loose at its dowel joints with the post. As a result of the violence of the break, there was a small channel of material loss adjacent to the point of separation on one side of the foot. The severed foot also had a caster that had been snapped at its stem, the wheel of which was just barely attached.

As expected, this ankle separation occurred at one of the three short grain weak points, and may serve as a classic example of design disregarding function and the properties of the material. That said, much old furniture that we see was somewhat ephemeral, its makers were meeting a market demand for a particular taste then in style, and there was plenty of lumber.  There were a range of makers to cover the market from the wealthy custom to less so who may wish to emulate them. With the basic form being established, the joinery, quality of materials, and ornament could be adjusted upward or down for the target strata of consumers. I doubt that many manufacturers were building for longevity beyond a lifetime (if that), I imagine that they were busy preparing for production of the next shipment of the most fashionable designs.

Leg 1 foot reattach
I am using the post as part of the clamping strategy; it has a couple of nice flat areas that clamps can push against. On the left I’ve clamped a pair of battens to the leg which will keep the foot aligned during re-gluing. On the right, the foot back in place, glued and clamped.
Leg 1 foot losses from break
The foot was glued back onto the leg and it revealed a loss that needed patching. A loss in this vulnerable area calls for a solid wood, tight fitting patch to be glued in. This is not the place to use any sort of fill or epoxy. A jig was made to carry this irregular break over the blade of the table saw, creating a clean, even slot to accept a close fitting patch.
WP Caster Bent 1
Here’s a look at a caster if you’re not familiar with them. Usually they are not bent at a right angle with a split shaft.

Leg 2

IMG_0935A

Leg No.2 lost a large area of material as you can see. Replacing this while removing as little original material as possible would be a challenge. During restoration I try to replace original material in losses with material of the same species and similar age. I have a small collection of 19th century walnut pieces remaining from larger projects that I keep just for this. Why do this? The theory is that the original walnut and the patch will have undergone similar growth and atmospheric change as contemporaries; when the inevitable expansion and contraction occurs once more, the patch will (hopefully) move in concert with that of the surrounding original material. If that explanation does not suit you, I can only offer a couple of quotes from an ancient Tekton “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old” or “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed…no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good’.” Admittedly, its not as if this carpenter were wood expert Bruce Hoadley, but he seems pretty sharp grasp of materials and their properties, and has a lot of similar pithy advice. Even though it is said that he spent more time fishing than building anything…His idea just makes sense to me.

leg 2 foot break glue up
On the left you see the broken foot, and on the right, the clamping set-up to bring it back together. There was enough material left at the break to glue the foot back together, but only about 30% of the original material remained at that point; while it was fine looking on one side, on the opposite there was a large V-shaped loss that would have to be filled.
Leg 2 Prepping break for patch
Once the foot break was glued back together, a large V-shaped loss presented itself on the opposite side. To insure a tight fitting patch, the sides of the area of loss were pared flat with a broad bench chisel. Why didn’t I just make a long slot on the table saw as I did with Leg No. 1? I would rather not remove original material, but when I do I make an effort to take as little as possible; Just shearing the sides with a large chisel (guided by a jig) was relatively easy and made the patch easier to fit properly.
Leg 1 foot fitting patch
I have a small supply of 19th century walnut to use in restoration, and I save every little bit for jobs like this. After the glue cured the excess was sawed off, the patch was sheared flat, then carved to conform, and finally the missing surface gouge work was re-cut.
leg 2 patch 1 correction C
Once the foot was restored, it was time to get the remaining upper half of the leg ready for a patch. On the left, the original break was pared carefully flat so a matching patch could be tightly fit. As you can see on the right, sometime elaborate clamping arrangements must be contrived just to glue on one small piece. The arrows indicate the patch. You can see from the photo on the left that the leg was glued up out of boards of varying tones; this would have all been evened out by the dark original finish as the manufacturers no doubt planned. Much antique furniture has been carelessly stripped and then refinished in this manner.
Leg 2 patch 2 glue 2 result
Another patch was glued to the “ankle” area above the foot. This had to be shaped to bring the leg back to its original width and height, Leg No. 4 was mostly intact and so, handy to use as a reference for those dimensions. A sheet of MDF was used as the base of the jig (to keep the leg flat against) with two cleats attached along its edge, square to one another, as an ell. This allowed the flat dowel joint areas of the leg to be aligned against the longer cleat and the flat bottom of the foot against the shorter cleat. Other stops could be screwed to the MDF to trap the leg and keep it from shifting out of shape, so sufficient clamping pressure could be applied to close the joint.

Leg 3

Leg 3

A handy nomenclature or reference for this blog  post as we have four basically identical legs to restore. With Leg No. 3, we have four pieces; the upper leg with hip, the ankle section, a slim middle section at two areas of short-grain and finally the inner-most lower dowel joint section or “hock”. The first step will be gluing the slim center section back onto the lower ankle and upper hip sections since this will be relatively easy to clamp.Once this has dried the more difficult process of reattaching the dowel joint section will be undertaken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leg 3 reglue 1 and 2
I understand how difficult it is to pick out details on these glue-ups with the clamp clusters in the way…its hard for me occasionally and I took the photo. On the left is the first step, gluing the slim middle section back to the ankle and hip sections. On the right, The inside joint section being glued to the re-set half.
Leg 3 foot reglue 3
Leg No. 3 had lost its entire foot in the traumatic mishap. It was a ragged break, so the clamping jig from Leg No. 1 was used again to secure the leg, while cutting away and squaring up the damaged area on the table saw (right) to accept a patch.
Leg 3 foot reglue 4
The new foot was glued on in stages. A small piece that fit into the rabbet that had been formed with the table saw was glued into place first, and then squared to fit well with the remaining stock. The left photo shows that glue-up with a single F-clamp and a few spring clamps.On the right once the patch dried and was shaved down, we could use leg No. 4 again, this time as a template to lay out the replacement foot. Here, the patch was added at an end where it may expand unrestricted with atmospheric changes, so using the old salvage wood may not be required.
leg 3 foot replace carve
The width of patching on one side of the foot in the left photo is more than that in the right photo; remember the ragged broken area that was rabbeted on the table saw? That creates a somewhat off-set or stepped area or “lap joint” where the patch would be shorter on one side.

Leg 4

Leg 4 joint break
Leg No. 4 had only one break, near the dowel joint at the lower postblock. The break was pretty clean with no losses, and of all the breaks dealt with here, probably the least difficult to re-glue.

Color

WP Original surface evidence A
It often happens that remnants of original finish can be found in the “tight spots” or difficult to reach areas on a piece of furniture. During the 20th century there was a mania for stripping off old finishes and letting the natural grain of the wood be exposed, for what particular reason I cannot say. Much late 19th and early 20th century furniture was made from disparate species of wood, with the understanding that the factory finishing department would color and finish those odd colored pieces to appear all the same color; then when it is stripped, surprise! As for me, this was the original intent of the manufacturer however humble it may be. So, I will return the stolen color to this piece.

Re-assembling the Base

Base Leg Reattach in pairs
After the leg restorations were complete, the original color was restored to the base and several coats of finish applied. The legs were glued back onto the central post in pairs. The smudgy areas you can see are my dusty fingerprints, easily wiped off.
A
Together again…and back to serve its purpose.

Toronto Public Library, Baldwin Collection, Call No. / Accession No.1882.King and Yorston.sb

Cooper & Hall’s Catalogue and Price List (Philadelphia), courtesy Winterthur Museum Library, Call No. NK2265 C77 TC

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

One thought on “Restoring an 1870’s Walnut Centre Table Part 2: The Base

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: