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Friday, August 30, 2013

Virginia Walnut Four Drawer Chest (ca.1800)

The Completed Chest of Drawers
A few months ago I went to a local auction where a Walnut four drawer chest of drawers was being auctioned off among other items. At first I went with a mind to purchase it if the price was right, but ended up buying some locally made chairs instead. The chest was purchased by a friend of mine who asked about restoration on the spot and I ended up loading the chest into my van and taking it back to the shop.

The chest was a real diamond in the rough. There were many condition issues including missing hardware and inlaid escutcheons. The new owner of the piece and I met in my shop to discuss the restoration and decided that a conservative approach should be taken, mainly to replace the missing parts and to try to bring the chest to a point where it was functional and complete, but still had the presence of a 200 year old chest.

The chest was a classic four drawer chest which was a very popular form along the eastern seaboard  from the mid 18th century well into the 19th. Judging by the design of the chest and use of the French foot, I determined that this is what is referred to as a Hepplewhite chest and probably made shortly after the turn of the 19th century. The chest was purchased in Loudoun County and was probably made there or in one of the surrounding counties. 

Despite all of the condition issues, this chest had sound construction and looks to have very little work done to it over the years (with the exception of the addition of some store bought wooden knobs). The case was built with dovetail joinery and as is typical of these chests, the top was attached with the use of a sliding dovetail joint. Where nails were used they were cut nails and in some places Rose head nails were used, indicating an earlier date of manufacture. Below is a photo of the chest before it was purchased.
These next few photos show the chest in my shop before any restoration work too place. In the detail photos you can see the veneer loss to the apron and the front legs. In fact, most of the front leg on the right side was missing and the left side was only a little better!

I started by getting to work on the interior drawer runners. The originals were still intact on the left side of the chest and the replacement interior runners on the right side had been made from some scrap molding that was turned upside down to expose one of the flat sides. This was probably done sometime in the early 20th century. All of the runners were dished out where the drawer runners had worn the interior runners down. In certain cases you can flip the boards to expose the flat underside but these were really too far gone and so I decided to replace them using reclaimed Heart Pine boards. Below is a detail showing one interior runner made of Walnut. The board should be flat but 2oo years of use has carved most of the board away. the Walnut runner was the only example using Walnut, the other two original runners were made from Heart Pine.
The next three photos are taken of the interior of the case and show the dados that hold the interior runners and then the new runners glued in place.

In addition to the damage on the interior runners, the drawer sides were equally worn and needed to be repaired if the drawers were to work correctly. Again, reclaimed Poplar was used and efforts were made to match the grain and tone of the wood to the original. Below are some photos of the repair process.

Several drawers were loose at their joints and needed to be glued. The photo below shows one drawer disassembled. The two board bottom of the drawer was tongue and grooved and the two boards are seen in the photo below side by side connected to the front and back boards of a drawer. The following photos show the drawer cases being glued up.

On to the detail work! All of the inlaid escutcheons were missing and by looking at other examples and the detail wood used in this piece, I decided to replace them with 100+ year old Maple veneer. Maple was most likely used originally. Below is a photo of the drawers with missing escutcheons.
A tracing was made for each escutcheon and adhered to the Maple and then cut out.
This photo shows a dry fitted maple diamond escutcheon.
The following photo shows the four Maple escutcheons being glued in place.

After the glue had dried, I cleaned off the excess hide glue and the escutcheons were in place.

The last step was to cut the keyholes in each escutcheon and the results can be seen below. You can also see how much dirt and wax was removed around the escutcheon area by the hot water used to clean the excess glue. Later in the restoration the drawers were cleaned and this evened out.
The drawer dividers are fitted into the case using a half dovetail joint as seen in the photo below. Originally, these joints would have been covered by a thin piece of Walnut trim running vertically and glued to the front edge of the sides. On both sides, these strips were missing. The customer supplied me with a 19th century bed that we cut up for Walnut with a similar tone and surface. The wood matched beautifully! The photos following the photo below show the new strips being fitted and glued to the case.

The skirt of the case was originally veneered with Walnut veneer. Much of it had buckled and been lost. Below are some photos of the veneer replacement using veneers made from the bed rails of the 19th century bed. Not only was the color and surface right, but I could cut veneers to thickness rather than using modern thin veneer and having to build it up.

Above the skirt and across the sides was a homemade band of stringing that was composed of a piece of Walnut sandwiched by two lines of Maple. Much of this stringing was missing as seen in the photo below.
I glued up a long line of it using the Old maple veneer I had and the Walnut from the bed. I used tape and clamps to glue it all together as seen in the two photos below.

After the stringing was glued, I ripped appropriate thicknesses of it on the table saw and set about inlaying it in the groove on the chest. Where a crack intersected the stringing, I broke the stringing so that it followed the natural wear of the chest.
The next three shots are some random repairs. I think they mostly were gluing glue blocks in place.

After all of the repairs were made, I cleaned the finish and added a few coats of  shellac to bring the finish back to a good look. the object was not to erase the wear, but to retain it and seal the finish to protect it and also shine it up a bit! The photo below shows the chest during this process.
The completed chest in all of its glory! It really looked great when all was done and it was a pleasure to bring this fine piece back to a usable condition. It was also great to work on a local piece and much time was spent musing on the character of the original craftsman.
Special thanks goes out to Nancy Anderson of Londonderry brasses. She found the perfect pulls for this chest that fit the original holes perfectly. Most chest like this would have had oval pulls, but this one appears to have originally had rare round pulls. The shadows of other pulls in the photo below were from subsequent pulls including the wooden pulls that were on the piece when it first arrived in my shop. Thanks Nancy!
A nice period key fit to one of the original locks. Above you can see a piece of wood missing from the drawer divider. I was very selective with what I did and did not repair so that the age and wear of the piece would be maintained.
Some additional photos of the chest can be seen below.