Sunday, May 31, 2009

Exploring an Old Marble-Top Chest of Drawers

Several months ago, while down in Oregon, I had the chance (and time) to explore an old marble-top chest of drawers. Now, I live in Alaska and there is not much in the way of antiques up here, so whenever I get the chance I check out what I can find. This particular chest held a couple of surprises (at least for me).

First, as soon as I opened a drawer, I saw hand cut dovetails. I was expecting the perfectly uniform (and boring) rows of dovetails made by machine because I had already formed an idea that this piece was made in a Victorian Era factory.

This is probably a good place to mention that I don't have much experience dating antique furniture. I would love to get better at this, but mostly I have a hodge-podge of book knowledge and a very curious mind. So I muddle through and have a lot of fun playing "Antiques Roadshow", but really for the most part, I'm just guessing.

After getting over this initial surprise, I noticed what I though to be a split in the end of the drawer front. Then I thought "Wait, it's to perfect, it almost looks like a saw kerf."

Further investigation confirmed it - whoever made this chest used a technique I have never heard of before. They used a saw to rip a kerf in the end of the drawer front to form the ends of the half-blind dovetail sockets. Huh.

Here's a shot from under the drawer:

My first reaction was that this seemed sloppy. But it would also be fast. Not sure how I feel about this idea. It doesn't bother me when the saw kerfs from cutting the tail sockets are visible on the inside of the drawer front. Of course, those can only be seen by looking inside the drawer. This kerf is visible as soon as the drawer is opened. However, it is not visible when the drawer is closed, so I guess it comes down to whether you want your drawers looking clean when they are shut, open, or open with the inside visible. The maker of this chest clearly only cared about how the drawers looked closed, and probably valued the time saved more than the aesthetic lost. Interesting.

While I was looking at the underside of the drawer, I noticed something else that surprised me. The drawer bottoms were single wide boards that had been resawn with a circular saw blade. A big one. The radius was in the neighborhood of 10" - so that would make it a 20" tablesaw. Whoa.

After the hand cut dovetails, and the interesting and somewhat questionable technique used to cut them, I had been changing my idea about this being factory made. I was leaning back towards the idea of the chest being made by a cabinet maker in a small shop. Now this 20" table saw made me think factory again. Hmm. Of course, I suppose a saw mill might have been able to provide these boards.

I also found a history of repairs on the chest.

First I noticed a very poorly done repair to one of the drawer sides. The bottom edge must have worn down and needed replacing. It looks like someone attacked it with a chisel and then slapped a new piece of wood on top of the uneven surface. Sloppy, but it is working.

One of the dovetails has been patched. I think this was done at the time of construction. It looks like part of a tail was split off, and a replacement wedge was glued on.

Looking at this repair, I felt a sense of kinship with the builder. It gives me a strange sense of hope. While whoever build this chest had more experience and skill than me, he did make a mistake that I would make, and fix it exactly how I would fix it. Somehow I find this encouraging.

The chest is veneered with what I think is walnut. I don't know much about veneering at all. I assumed that the side of the chest would be veneered in one piece, or that if the veneer was not wide enough, it would be joined independently of the substrate. On this chest, the two pieces of pine that were joined to make the side were apparently veneered before they were joined. I have no idea if this is normal - it is definitely not how I though it would be done.

Here's a shot from inside the chest - note the knot in the pine and the vertical joint between the two pieces:

Here's a shot of the outside in the same spot. You can see the seam and the knot:

The last thing of note was a "W" carved in the underside of the marble top:

I wonder about the marble top. This seems like a factory item. Could a small cabinet maker order the top and make a chest to match? Maybe.

Here's where my thinking is on this chest: early Victorian, made by a single cabinet maker, or a large shop/small factory that used some mass production techniques but still did some handwork.

This was a fun experience - I learned a little, and came up with many new questions and ideas. If you have any thoughts to add or corrections to make, please leave a comment.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

New Hinges on Shaker Cupboard

Whew! Schools out for summer! Now maybe I can get back into the shop!

I did manage a little work in the last couple of weeks. Here's some shots of the cupboard with its new "antiqued" hinges.

First some before and after closeups:

And one of the cupboard in the sun, which happens every morning in the summer, and is exactly the situation in which the old, shiny hinges really bugged me. I am now much happier...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Quick and Easy Hardware Antiquing

A while ago I finally finished the Shaker cupboard project - mostly. In the final push, I just went ahead and used the nickle plated hinges "as is", even though I knew the bright, shiny finish would bug me. It did.

Well, I finally got around to antiquing the hinges. Here's what I came up with: fire. I made a small fire in a metal bucket, threw the hinges in the coals and left it alone until it was cool. They came out looking funky, but a quick wipe with an oily rag took off the surface layer (oxidation? ash?), exposing the steel underneath.

I really like the color - it has a nice, varied, aged look to my eye. Next step is actually putting them on the cupboard. I hope that doesn't take another year...