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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

American Empire Mahogany Side Chair (ca 1840)

I recently completed repairs on a side chair made during the American Empire period and dating to around 1840. The primary wood is mahogany while the secondary is pine, perhaps pointing to northern origin. The chair has had many previous repairs and is one of a set of three so the customer asked that I make the repairs to the chair and leave the finish as is.

This chair is a classic example of form over function. The legs are beautifully arched and sculpted and help to accent the curvilinear design of the chair. the lack of stretchers beneath the seat frame really adds to the visual lightness of these chars and helps to achieve the overall elegant look that is associated  with these chairs. While being elegant, the chairs are also designed with production in mind and most of the initial cuts would have been made with a very rudimentary band saw. The result is a piece that is easy to mass produce and is visually appealing. So far, so good.

The problem is that when you take away the support stucture in a chair made up of the stretchers that connect the legs, the chair becomes very delicate and prone to becoming loose and eventually breaking at the joinery that is the weakest point. The repair I made was also made by a previous craftsmen to the other front leg some time ago, demonstrating that this is not a isolated problem, but a design flaw.

All of this being said, I absolutely love the look of these chairs! The chairs were made from good, tight grained mahogany and accented on the back rest with a beautiful piece of crotch mahogany veneer. This furniture design really has a clean look and I especially like it because it lets the wood do the talking rather than weighing the piece down with elaborate carving or heavy ornamentation. I guess you can't have it all, but two broken legs in 170 years is not too bad!

This first photo shows the chair as it came to me.
 The front left leg was missing a large section revealing the tenon from the side stretcher.

 First, I disassembled the chair where it was loose.
 This photo shows the damaged area clearly. The boards in the top of the photo are clamped to create a fence to guide a router, so that I can clean up the damaged area and make it ready to accept a patch.
 This photo shows the damaged area after it was routed.
Using new mahogany, I cut a square patch to fit the damaged area.
 Before gluing, I rough cut the patch to the profile of the leg, to make the work with hand tools a little easier.
 Here is the patch being glued in place.
 One other repair was to recreate a broken tenon on the seat frame. The tenon was partially there so rather than cutting a completely new tenon, I cut half of a tenon and inserted it.
 This photo shows the joinery before it was glued together.
 here is a photo of the chair being glued back together.
 After the glue had set, the patch was further refined and then touched- up to match the color and finish of the chair. here is a photo of the patch completed....
....and a photo of the chair completed.

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