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Restoring Antique Furniture
A Complete Guide
By Richard A. Lyons
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1990 Prentice-Hall, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Rules and Tools for Restoration of Antique Furniture
Restoring, as the name implies, is the act of bringing something to its original condition. Restoring does not permit improving or changing, which means that the restorer must overcome the temptation to change the original, even if the change might add convenience. It would be unthinkable, for example, to replace a worn turnbuckle with a magnetic latch, or to replace a warped or cracked board at the back of a cupboard with a piece of plywood. Such changes would greatly reduce the value of the piece.
If learning what restoring means is the first step in working with antique furniture, the second is surely learning when a piece of furniture is worth restoring. That decision depends on the purpose in saving the piece. If a person is restoring a piece of furniture because it is solid wood and can be used, then almost any solid wood piece is worth the effort. In most cases, it will be less expensive to restore an old piece than to buy a new one, and the old one will be of better quality. For the most part, the furniture produced in this country today is made of poorer woods than in earlier times, and it is stapled together, its drawers are assembled with butt joints and super-glue, and little craftsmanship goes into the design.
If an item is to be restored because it is an heirloom, nothing else about the piece has any bearing on the decision. Whether or not the piece has antique value does not matter because the prime purpose is to preserve a part of a family's history so that it can be enjoyed by future generations. Of all the reasons for restoring, this is probably the most noble—but here we may find our greatest challenges because some of these pieces may be in such poor condition that the owner is about to abandon them. The Shaker table shown in Plate 6-9, for example, was on a trash truck headed for a landfill when it was rescued.
If a piece is being considered for restoration because of its possible antique value, the decision becomes more complicated. One important factor here is its overall condition. That is, if as much as one-fourth of the principal parts are missing, the true value is lost. If a single major part (say, a carved skirt on a Queen Anne highboy) is missing, the antique value will be reduced considerably. However, if excellent craftsmanship can be employed and the part replaced with old wood, then the piece should be restored. Obviously, this course of action will enable future generations to enjoy the piece, and if the work is done well enough, it may not even be detectable by the inexperienced eye.
Rules of Restoration
Once the decision has been made to restore a piece, the next step is to go over the basic procedure, keeping in mind the following rules:
1. Repairs should be made from wood of the same age and type.
2. As little of the original stock should be removed as possible.
3. Any natural breaks in the design should be utilized as a starting point for a repair.
4. Damaged areas on a veneered surface should be repaired with irregularly shaped patches.
5. If the design of a piece depends on the feet for proper proportion and the feet are badly worn or missing, it is best to undertake major repair and restore it to the correct proportions.
6. No part should be discarded until the restoration is complete, as it may hold a clue to the original structure.
7. When a piece is found that has parts missing, the immediate surroundings should be searched before the piece is taken home. Otherwise, the part may be sold to someone else in another lot of merchandise.
Tools to Use in the Restoration Process
Occasionally, I obtain a very fine piece of furniture that provides such a unique challenge that I do the restoration using only the tools that were available at the time the piece was constructed. But for the most part I use modern tools in my restoration efforts. I feel comfortable with this because I am sure that the old masters would have used the table saw, band saw, surfacer, and other tools had they been available. If modern tools are used in restoration, care should be taken to remove any modern tool marks from the work. If I use a modern surfacer I never reduce the stock down to the finished thickness, but instead finish the task with a 14-inch smoothing plane (see Plate 1-1). If a rabbet joint is needed, I will cut it to near size on the table saw, and then use a rabbet plane to complete the work. By virtue of the unique structure of the rabbet plane, it can serve many purposes. The blade of the rabbet plane extends the full width of the bed of the plane. This allows the craftsperson to work in close corners. The rabbet plane is also shown in Plate 1-1. To smooth out rough end-grain surfaces, I use a low-angle block plane. The one shown in Plate 1-1 has a blade that is set at about 22 degrees. This low angle allows the blade to encounter the wood at such a low angle that it shaves the wood fibers. This reduces the chance of splintering any edge grain and provides a surface that can be sanded smooth rather easily. All the tools shown in Plate 1-1 were obtained at auction. I bought these at a time when the old wooden planes were the only tools commanding high prices. Consequently, I was able to obtain all the tools shown at a very modest price. The fourth tool from the left in Plate 1-1 is a spoke shave. It is actually a wheelwright's tool, but it serves wonderfully well as a cabinetmaker's tool. It can be used to smooth concave curves and plane out other odd contoured edges. The tool on the far right in Plate 1-1 is a beading tool. This is a rather rare tool. It has four small blades that are half-round concave in shape. Some of the blades have four such shapes, while others have two or even just one such concave shape. This tool allows me to reproduce the edge beading and fluting so common on early furniture. It is one of my most prized tools. I am sure that there must be many beading tools in existence, but this is the only one I have ever seen available for sale. Its rarity was recognized by several persons at the auction where I obtained it, and I had to pay a rather handsome price to become its owner.
Plate 1-2 shows four wooden molding planes. Although I have many such planes, these four seem to be the ones that always end up on the workbench when I am in the process of duplicating a molding. A very fine craftsman, William Edward Arnold of Louisville, Kentucky, presented this complete set of planes to me many years ago. Mr. Arnold was a person very much concerned with keeping the art of furniture making alive.
Plate 1-3 illustrates the type of wood chisel that I use. The ones shown are called socket chisels because of the way the handles are affixed to the chisel. You can see that they are not a matched set. These chisels were bought one at a time at auctions whenever the opportunity presented itself. With these chisels and a wooden mallet, many things can be done. I use the smaller chisels to dig out mortises for mortise-and-tenon joints, while the wider chisels are used to cut mortises to set hinges or trim out stock. I prefer the long chisel, as it gives better leverage.
Some simple rules to follow when using wood chisels are:
1. Always keep the chisels sharp.
2. Always secure all stock with a clamp when using a chisel.
3. Always keep both hands behind the cutting end of the tool.
Plate 1-4 illustrates some measuring devices that are necessary for any cabinetmaker. The sliding T-bevel makes it possible to transfer angles. The 6-inch square is one of the first tools that I bought when I started building my tool chest, and is excellent for small work. I use a large framing square for larger work. The marking gauge is indispensible for laying out for hinge placement and mortise-and-tenon joints. The 24-inch bench rule serves well for furniture work.
These are my most used tools. They are like old friends. No matter what I am working on, by the end of the day the tools I have discussed always seem to end up on the workbench.
My power tools include a lathe, a band saw, a joiner, a table saw, a scroll saw, a radial arm saw, and a surfacer. I use these tools extensively. However, as mentioned earlier, I make sure that all modern tool marks are removed from all surfaces when the piece of furniture is being completely restored. This includes surfaces that are hidden. I hasten to say that I do not remove modern tool marks with the intent to deceive. I remove all modern tool marks to return the work to its original condition. In fact, I sign all my restoration efforts. I believe that in time my signed restored work will have more value than trying to deceive someone in the present.
Caring for Tools
I have found it is best to have power saw blades, joiner knives, and planer knives sharpened by professionals. These persons have the equipment to provide uniform edges for the knives, and the correct set and pitch for the saw blades. But I prefer to sharpen hand tools myself. It would be a real problem always to be taking the hand-plane blades and chisels elsewhere for sharpening, due to the turnaround time and cost. With a little practice most people can master the art of sharpening hand tools.
The craftsperson will need a grinding wheel, a good oilstone, and a square. The grinding wheel may be either fast wheel or slow turning. A fast wheel (about 3600 rpm) works well, but you must be careful not to hold a tool to the wheel too long. This can get the tool edge hot and cause it to lose its temper. If this happens, the tool will not be able to hold a cutting edge. There is a slow-speed grinder on the market that has one wheel for grinding and a second wheel for honing. If a craftsperson has some concern about using a fast wheel, he or she should investigate the purchase of the slower wheel.
A cutting edge needs grinding only if it shows nicks or is not square. If an edge seems smooth, and you are not certain if honing is needed, there is a simple solution: Hold the cutting edge to the light. If you can see a shiny beaded edge, the blade is dull. If this is the case, honing the cutting edge on an oilstone will return a good sharp edge.
The tool rest on the grinding wheel is set to give a grind angle of 20 to 30 degrees. I prefer an angle close to 20 degrees.
Sharpening the Blade of a Hand Plane
A note on terminology seems in order here. The part of the plane that does the cutting is called the plane iron or plane blade. The part that is secured to the plane iron by a large- headed screw is called the plane iron cap. The cap helps to stiffen the blade or iron, and also bends the wood shavings up so they will clear the plane.
Remove the blade from the plane iron cap by loosening the screw that holds the two pieces together. Turn the two pieces 90 degrees to one another. Slide the plane iron cap down the slot in the blade and let the large screwhead come through the large hole at the end of the slot (see Plates 1-5 and 1-6).
Check the cutting edge of the blade to determine if it is square, as shown in Plate 1-7.
Note: If the reader has never sharpened a plane blade before, it might be wise to secure an old blade and do a little practicing.
In the following discussion, it can be seen that the wheel guard has been removed in order to obtain a better view. The operator should always keep the wheel guard in its proper position, and wear eye protection.
Turn the grinding wheel on and with the plane blade held firmly on the tool rest, start grinding with one side of the blade positioned about center of the wheel.
Holding the pressure constant on the wheel, move the blade across the wheel until the complete cutting edge has been ground. The progression of cut is shown in Plates 1-8 to 1-10, moving from left to right.
Check the ground edge with a square and see if all the nicks have been removed. If not, make another pass. Do this until the cutting edge is free of nicks and is square.
After the cutting edge has been properly ground, it must be honed on the oilstone.
Honing a Cutting Edge on an Oilstone
Place a small quantity of mineral oil on the flat stone.
Place the blade at a very low angle to the surface with the beveled side down.
Raise the blade slowly until the mineral oil is pushed out from under the beveled portion of the blade. This will indicate that you have the blade at the proper angle on the oilstone. This is shown in Plate 1-11a.
Holding the blade at that angle, move it over the surface of the stone in a figure-eight motion. This motion will cause the oilstone to wear evenly.
Turn the blade over and place it flat against the oilstone (Plate 1-11b). Move it backward and forward to remove any metal residue that might be on the edge. It may be necessary to repeat steps 4 and 5 several times to remove this metal residue, commonly called a "wire edge." If you have been successful in your attempt to sharpen the blade, it should slice through a sheet of suspended paper.
Reassemble the plane blade with the plane iron by holding the two pieces at a 90-degree angle and place the large screwhead in the hole at the end of the slot.
Slide the plane iron up far enough in the slot so that it will not hit the cutting edge when it is rotated around to align with the plane blade.
Position the plane blade so that the cutting edge protrudes past the end of the cap iron about the thickness of a dime (see Plate 1-12).
Tighten the cap-iron screw securely and place the blade assembly back into the plane frame.
Sharpening a Wood Chisel
The wood chisel can be sharpened in exactly the same manner that the plane blade is sharpened. For heavy work, I prefer to set the bevel on the cutting edge at about 30 degrees. When I am doing very light shaving or carving, I prefer the bevel to be about 20 degrees. How you sharpen your chisel will depend on your own preference.
Maintaining Other Tools
Since I have my table saw blades, joiner knives, and planer knives sharpened commercially, the only other maintenance that I am concerned with is directed toward keeping tools clean and handles tight, and, of course, general maintenance.
Earliest examples of furniture indicate that some type of finish was used, with decoration being the primary purpose. As the use of furniture developed, the need for protection became apparent. Beeswax, paint, and oil were probably the earliest forms of finish. Paint was a popular form of finish in that it was relatively low in cost, and in the case of the early colonials, it provided some color in their otherwise rather drab surroundings. Honey was a common staple, and with honey came beeswax. It was noted that bees sealed their hives by laying down a coat of wax. From this came the idea of rubbing furniture with beeswax to provide protection. The kitchen worktable in William Shakespeare's home is an excellent example of the kind of finish that can be obtained by applying beeswax. An early method was to rub the wood with cork saturated in wax—a method that required many hours of hard work. Later, beeswax dissolved in turpentine applied with a cloth proved easier and equally effective. In the eighteenth century, shellac became a common finishing product. When shellac is used it should be brushed on in very thin layers, with 48 hours of drying time between each layer. The work must be hand rubbed between layers. Oil provides an excellent protection if a slight darkening of the surface is not objectionable. Oil penetrates deep into wood and is rather easily repaired when the finish is damaged. It can be applied with a cloth, and a clean environment is not essential. When oil is used, two or three days may pass between applying coats. As a tabletop shows wear or dryness, oil may be applied again. This can go on for years. By doing this a wonderful deep finish will build on the wood. Varnish has been used in France for many years but was not used extensively in the United States until about 1900. Varnish is applied with a brush, and due to the rather long drying time, the environment must be very clean.
Excerpted from Restoring Antique Furniture by Richard A. Lyons. Copyright © 1990 Prentice-Hall, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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