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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Walnut Victorian Spool Bed (ca.1850) Part 1

A recent project I have started is to refinish and adapt a Victorian spool bed made of Walnut to fit a standard queen mattress. before getting into the process of converting it, a little history.

Spool beds were originally seen in the 17th century and were made on a treadle lathe powered by a foot pedal. As the 17th century changed the 18th, tastes changed and the spool bed went out of fashion.

With the invention of a lathe powered by steam (or Water) the process of turning became a lot easier in the 19th century as lathes could produce and mass produce turnings quickly. Not only could this be done, but multiple cutter heads could be installed to make a spool turning effortlessly. The result was a resurgence in the popularity of the spool bed as early as 1840 but concretely by the 1850's. These beds are commonly referred to as " Jenny Lind" beds after the famous 19th century Swedish opera singer, who made her debut in America in 1850. Typically, a Jenny Lind bed has rounded corners and is constructed a little differently than the bed I am working on. While I put a date of 1850 on this bed, I believe it was manufactured later, even as late as 1900. I also believe it was turned by hand rather than by a machine with multiple cutter heads (the turnings are all a little different showing the hand of an individual creating each turning one at a time.)

The bed that I received had a Walnut head and foot board that measured 4 feet in width making it what is called a three quarter bed. The original rails had been replaced by longer ones made of pine. The owner of the bed wished to use it as a queen size bed, meaning that head and foot boards needed to be widened by 12 inches (at least).

Rather than cutting the bed or re-turning spindles, we decided to take another approach which was to create a new head and foot board set which would work in conjunction with the original. In addition, we would make new side rails for the bed which could be used with the original head and foot board set or with the head and foot board extenders. Rather than further confuse you, I have provided some drawings of the bed below made with Google SketchUp. But first, some photos of the original head and foot board set.

The head board:
The foot board:
Using SketchUp, I originally sketched the bed with the new rails to show how the finished product would look as a three quarter bed (When drawing the sketches, I decided to leave out the detail of the turnings to save time. The overall feel of the bed is still visible).
Second, I designed the head and foot board extender. This piece is identical on either end of the bed. The original head board fits into the notches in the extender and locks in place using the bed hardware.
These next two sketches are of the bed fully assembled with the extenders in place. The first image is looking at the foot board and the second shows the bed from above.

Before beginning the construction of the extenders and the side rails, I decided to get started with the head and foot board. The first thing I did was to remove the finish. the next two photos show the head and foot board without a finish.

Unfortunately, the original hardware for the bed could not be used with the extenders, so in order to prepare the head and foot board for the installation of the new hardware, I needed to patch the mortises for the old hardware. The next two photos show this process.

If you look at the photo above of the headboard with the finish removed, you will notice that several of the vertical spindles are missing. All of the spindles are accounted for and most came out when the finish was being removed. One spindle was broken and needed to be repaired. Below are some photos of the broken spindle and it's repair.

The broken spindle (the end to the right is broken).
Here is the replacement patch I turned out of walnut. It will replace the spool furthest to the right and will be doweled into the next spool.
The repaired spindle.
This will be a significant project so I have decided to cover it with several posts. Stay tuned!


  1. Pretty awesome article.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I have a spool bed and am trying to decide if I should restore it or paint it. I have never been able to find any similar on the internet and don't know much about it, I bought it at a flea market. Any thoughts?