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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mid-Atlantic Ladderback Arm Chair (ca.1780) Part 1

 Recently I have started to repair and restore a Ladderback or Post and Rung Arm chair which I have dated to being manufactured around 1780.In fact , this chair could have been made anywhere between 1750 and 1800. Dating a chair correctly is tricky business because this style of chair was made from the early 18th century through the beginning of the 20th century and continues to be made today. At first glance I had a feeling that it was probably made in the 18th century, mainly by looking at the finial design, but it is extremely difficult to be sure of such a thing. My suspicions were latter strengthened through close examination of the joinery, which I will discuss later. The really amazing thing for me about the restoration of this chair is how much I was able to discover about it with close examination.

A similar chair appears in the book Southern Furniture 1680-1830:The Colonial Williamsburg Collection  by Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown. There are several stylistic differences between the two chairs, but over all the construction methods used are very similar. One striking similarity is how low the stretchers are on the bottom of the chair. This was a feature I immediately saw in the chair I am working on. two notable differences are the arm design and also the fact that the Williamsburg chair has a square seat while the chair I am working on has a trapezoidal seat. These, I believe are all stylistic differences, perhaps particular to a region and or a particular maker. below is a like to this book:

The chair is made up of two woods, Maple and Hickory. Maple was used for the posts of the chair, while every other component was made from Hickory. The chair came with a worn rush seat which was not original. Here is a photo of the chair as it came to me.

Above is a photo of the side profile of the chair. If you notice, the chair back is set at a slightly skewed angle from the rest of the chair. This allowed the back to be a bit reclined for more comfortable seating. Other ways of achieving this were to steam bend the rear posts so that they were bent a little in the middle or to use a method of multi-axis turning to achieve a bent rear post. Early American chairmakers seemed to prefer a straight leg set at an angle (which involves some interesting joinery angles) to the other two methods. In the 19th century, chairmakers commonly used the steam bending technique to achieve the raked back. This alone is not a good way to date a chair, because there examples of all of these methods throughout the 18th and 19th century.
The photo above is taken from the top of one of the rear posts. It is hard to see, but the leg is slightly oval in shape. Originally the posts would have been turned round on a lathe. as with all woods, the posts have shrunk along the grain so that the circle has turned into an oval. As I will later show, this natural function of the wood is used to the chairmaker's advantage.

When a chairmaker was plotting the layout for where the stretchers would meet the posts, he needed to have a way of marking where to drill the mortises for the tenons on the stretchers. Pencils were not as readily available as they are today, so alternative  methods were used. Traditionally, when a post was on the lathe, the final step in the turning process would be to incise lines at the points where the post and stretcher would meet. this would either be done with the pointed end of a skew chisel on end, or by use of a stick with several sharpened metal points fixed to it being placed next to the spinning blank. the points would incise the lines exactly where the chairmaker wanted them. The benefit of this later technique was that the measurements were predetermined on the stick with the points and the scribe lines could be repeated exactly from post to post.  Neither of these methods were used by this chairmaker. The scribe marks on this chair were made on the lathe while  the blank was spinning using wire to burn the wood by friction. This permanently darkens the wood and serves the exact same function as the incised lines. I have heard of this technique in turning before in turning, but this is the first time I have ever come across it being used for this particular application. Above is a close up shot of two of the scribe marks on the chair. They mark the top and bottom points of the mortise for one of the slats in the back of the chair.
This photo is a closeup of the finial. With more research, it might be possible to find out the region and possibly the maker of this chair by close examination of the finial. The lines on the finial were once again made by use of the wire burning technique.
As stated above the rush seat on the chair was not original and was in need of replacement. When I started to remove the old seat I noticed that old newspaper had been used for stuffing between the layers of rush. The paper was balled up and very brittle from age, but I was able to open enough to find out that the seat had been put on in 1934 in Xenia, Ohio, a town near Dayton. The paper was various copies of the Xenia gazette. One copy had a date of Friday October 20th, 1934. above are two photos of the paper I found.  

This photo shows the chair after the seat was removed.
What followed next was very interesting and told me great deal about the manufacture of this chair and the amount of attention to detail that the maker put into his work. The techniques used below also confimed in my mind that this chair was made during the 18th century, since that is the time period in which they were most used.

The chair was loose in spots and so I set about knocking the chair apart so I could clean the joinery and re-glue the chair. When I started to dismantle the chair, I found that the tenons for the chair had a specialized design. after a little research this is what I have learned.

Chair makers of the 18th century used two techniques to make a locking tenon that would keep the chair tight, even when the glue dried. One utilized a split tenon that was wedged from the interior. The other process is as follows. The chair maker would make the tenon of the stretcher slightly bulbous, sometimes carving a shoulder onto the inside of the bulb. The stretchers were made of Hickory in this case. The sides of the tenon would sometimes be carved down flat so that the tenon was slightly wider in one direction that the other. The tenons were then heated by putting them next to a wood stove on just outside of a fire in an effort to remove the moisture from the tenon causing it to shrink. Meanwhile, the posts for the chair would be made from green wood and the mortice for the stretcher would be made using a Spoon bit. Below is a photo of a spoon bit:
Spoon Bit
The spoon bit used with a brace would drill out a hole for the mortise. With a little movement, the chairmaker would cause the bit to cut a hole slightly wider in the center. After the mortise was drilled and the tenon was dried, the tenon would be hammered into the mortice with a little hot hide glue. The moisture from the hide glue would cause the tenon to expand into the mortise causing it to lock in place. As the posts cured, the wood would contract around the tenon making the fit tighter. The flattened sides of the tenon prevented the post from cracking at it shrank do to pressure. The end result was a tight fitting joint for the ages that relied largely on the forces of mother nature.

Any person who has ever glued a chair will tell you that the sections that loosens up the most are the stretchers that connect the front of the chair to the back. This is due to the motion of people sitting in the chairs  and leaning back, etc. To accommodate for this, the chairmaker oriented the posts so that the maximum amount of shrinkage would happen around these stretchers, minimizing the amount that the chair loosened. The result was that although the stretchers from side to side were loose, the stretchers from front to back were very tight and needed no re-gluing, just a little wedging in spots.

It is very impressive that this amount of consideration went into the manufacture of this chair. It clearly shows that it was the intent of the chairmaker of old to build a chair that would last for generations to come.

Below are some photos of the tenons.
This photo shows the tenon with its carved shoulder. The end of the tenon was rounded like the end of the spoon bit.
The flat side of the tenon can be seen in this photo.
It is worth mentioning that while I had the chair apart, I noticed that the tenons for the slats had a barb on the top edge of the tenon, similar to the tenons on the stretchers. These serve no function that I can see, because they are visible when the chair is together and do not lock the slats in place. One other thing I discovered while the seat was off and the chair disassembled was that there appeared to be remnants of blue paint. Many of these chairs were originally painted and refinished some time later on. It is my opinion that the chair was not painted originally due to the fact that the finial has a decorative scribe mark around its diameter. I do think that it was later painted and then striped and refinished at some point. It is possible that the paint is original and that would certainly be in keeping with the trends of the time.

The tenon of a slat with its barbed side and remnants of the blue paint. This photo shows the condition of the existing finish in detail. The crazing in the finish is largely due to use of linseed oil on the finish.
these last two photos show the chair disassembled and also being re-glued. The next post will focus on the restoration of  the finish and  the application of a new seat.

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