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Monday, June 16, 2014

Two Empire Chairs (ca.1800)

The Completed Chairs

 Recently I worked on two chairs made in France circa 1800. It is a little difficult to firmly put these chairs in one stylistic category, although I conservatively lean towards the French Empire Period which lasted roughly from 1804-1814, I have good reason to think that at least the arm chair was made prior to 1800 which strictly speaking would put that chair in the Directoire-Consulate period (1795-1799) that bridged the gap between the Louis XVI period and the Empire period. Both chairs are made primarily of Mahogany with Beech used as a secondary wood. The chairs  are also decorated with Bronze Mounts that were once coated with a gold and mercury amalgam called Ormolu, in which the mixture is applied to the cast bronze and then heated, removing the mercury and leaving a thin layer of gold applied to the bronze. Over time this layer has been removed by cleaning, but evidence of the original gold was visible in many places.

the arm chair in particular was very broken and the customer and I decided the best course of action was to remove the upholstery so that I could access the broken areas better and make better repairs. Ultimately this meant removing the back from the chair and dismantling it. Below is a photo of the chair as it came into the shop followed by some photos of the damage to the back legs of the chair.

Upon removing the upholstery from the chair, I found a signature on the rear seat stretcher. the signature was written in India ink and appears to say "Filjame" followed by a date of either 1798 or 1793. This date was very hard to read and the more I looked at it the more I felt like it could say something else! Below are some photos of the signature.

I spoke with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City concerning the signature. The museum houses a large collection of Continental furniture and so I figured they might know of this maker. The had not heard of him, but suggested that this could also be the signature of an upholsterer. My feeling about it is that it is the signature of the cabinetmaker due to the interior prominence of the signature. This signature is well executed and centered on the interior of the rear seat stretcher. It was meant to be seen ( once the upholstery was removed) and it almost seems to exude pride in workmanship. Although this is all speculative, it is my feeling on the matter.

As far as the date is concerned, being signed in the 18th century would make the chair older than the Empire period by a few years. All of these styles evolved and several design motifs spanned periods, especially when they were short lived. The tendency we have to place a piece of furniture in a specific period is relatively modern, and to the maker and the original owner, it would have been a chair made in the latest fashion. Either way , it is a well made chair that employs beautiful West Indies mahogany and great design.

Once the chair was dismantled, the first step in repairing it was to glue all of the broken pieces in place. These were all centered around the joinery in the back of the chair, in one case where tenons for a seat stretchers meet the rear leg and in another, where the crest rail is joined to the rear leg. In either case, these areas were weakened by removal of wood to create mortises and further weakened with the introduction of pegs, used to secure the joints. At first, these joints were sound and the loss of wood was countered by tenons glued in place. After 200+ years, the glue failed and the wood became brittle, leading to the structural failure. Below are a few photos of the broken pieces being glued in place on the right rear post (The direction is given as if you were facing the chair).

The left rear leg, seen below was in much worse shape.

Here is the left rear leg after it was glued back together.
One problem in this leg was that when the joinery was pegged, the holes from the pegs broke the internal shoulder of the mortise, making this shoulder structurally pointless. I decided to rectify this by removing a bit of wood and putting a patch that would be solid and bridge the lower and upper parts of the leg. Again, the location of this mortise is at the seat stretcher/leg intersection.

To create this patch, I employed a new method for me. It involves creating a negative space for the patch with a stacked dado blade (picture a bunch of round table saw blades sandwiched together in the table saw). I first clamped the leg to the table saw fence and secured it in position, and then raised the blade into the stationary leg. This can be seen below.

Leg clamped to the fence, the blade is lowered into the table.
Detail of the photo above.
While the blade was running, I slowly raised it into the wood, removing the damaged material and creating a negative space in the diameter of the blade.
Below is a photo of the leg with the arced negative space cut by the dado blade.
A similar procedure was done on  the other leg, where the crest rail met the right leg.
A close up of the damaged area.
The damaged area being removed by the dado stack.
Once the negative spaces were made. I milled a piece of mahogany to the exact thickness of the space cut by the dado stack. I then used a compass to trace an arc at the same diameter of the dado blade. I then cut the arc out on the band saw, giving me a patch that fit perfectly into the negative space made by the dado blades. Below is a photo of me scribing the arc. I clamped a piece of poplar to the mahogany to give a center point of the compass and then drew the arc.
Clamping the patch on the rear right leg.
The patch on the rear right leg once it was pared flush with a chisel.

The patch at the seat level on the rear left leg before and after it was pared flush.

Drilling out the patch on the rear right leg to create a mortise that would accept the crest rail tenon.
The completed mortise.
I learned of this method of patching by discovering it's use in a chair I was reparing. While not handwork, I like this patch because it is an effective method of repair and can be concealed within the workpiece a lot easier then a hand cut patch. I have used it in several scenarios and have found that it works great every time.

The side chair was in far better shape structurally and really all that it needed was to have the finish cleaned and the upholstery changed to match the armchair. Here is a photo of the side chair as it came to the shop.
A close up of the ormolu mount on the splat. Neoclassical themes abound!
To clean the Ormolu, I decided to use alcohol on a soft rag in opposition to an abrasive like fine steel wool. This would preserve any gold left on the bronze. Below is a photo of the same hardware cleaned.

Here is a photo of the side chair with the finish restored ready to go to the upholsterer. Because I did not need to fix any structural problems on the chair, I left the upholstery on and the upholsterer removed it.
This photo shows the arm chair restored and ready to be upholstered.

These final photos are of the chairs once they returned from the upholster.

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