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Thursday, February 19, 2015

National Oak Roll Top Desk (1917)

The Completed desk
One of our recent restoration projects was an oak roll top desk made in 1917 by National Desks. Presumably, this is the same company as the National Furniture Company of Mt. Airy, N.C. I found no reference to a National Desk Company but when I researched National Furniture Company Roll Top Desks I found several examples of similar roll top desks. In each case the general design was identical but the details like the hardware and the arrangement of the cubbies were different. Without being exactly sure of the manufacturer, I am certain of the date of manufacture and the subsequent retailer. 

The desk was labeled in different places in different ways. The most prominent label is a plate on the interior one of the drawers. The label said Clark & Gibby, NY. At first I thought that this was the manufacturer but we later found stamped on the top of a drawer front "National Desks" as seen below:

I believe that National Desks, or more likely the National Furniture Company, was the manufacturer and Clark and Gibby was the retailer. After removing the interior cubbies to make repairs, we found this label:

The label shows the style and model number,indicating that a specific model had options that would be contained in a particular style. Also in the lower left hand corner is a completion date of 1917. This would have been used in the manufacturing process and not meant to be seen by the public, but it is always nice to find something like this because it pinpoints a date.

The roll top desk as a form developed in the second half of the 19th century. It's immediate predecessor was the cylinder desk which worked the same way but had a solid quarter cylinder for a lid. Here is a photo of one of these I restored and the links to those posts concerning its restoration:

As you can see, the"cylinder" part was solid and veneered with walnut. The roll top desk differed in that the lid was comprised of many half round slats adhered to a sheet of canvas. These slats would move in a a track in a similar fashion as the solid lid, but because they were separate, this made them more flexible. This allowed desk lids to take shapes or follow tracks that did not move in a fixed arc. What followed were lids with ogee profiles (probably the most famous) like this one:

 As the from developed there were a lot of designs, but in the beginning of the 20th century, a larger desk came on the market with a roll top that followed a single curve. At the time, it was labeled a modern roll top desk. The desk I worked on falls into this category. Below are a few photos from around 1917 showing the large "modern" roll top desk in use:

The desk had a lot of wear and tear and also many mechanical issues. The finish was in a restorable condition so we concentrated first on the repairs. 

The veneer along the sides had loosened and then chipped away over time leaving this:

New oak veneer patches were cut to patch the missing portions as seen below:

The case was generally loose and needed to be tightened. That process can be seen in the next photo. Besides that here was lost of "nuts and bolts" repairs, like replacing missing stop blocks, building up drawer bottoms, stabilizing interior runners, etc.

After all of the repairs were made, the finish was cleaned and restored using shellac. The finish was faded in several places so stained the desk selectively, as well as touching up the patches. I also made keys for the locks and generally made sure everything was working well. The completed roll top desk can be seen in the photos below.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

X- Frame, or Campeche Chair (ca.1820)

The completed Chair
Strictly speaking, this is not a Campeche chair. The Campeche chair is a type of chair popular in the plantations of the south and was made in Mexico and in the southern United States in the 18th and early 19th century. The name comes from Campeche, Mexico, a state bordering Yucatan in southeast Mexico. The form is believed to have originated there.

While these chairs were being made there, Europe saw the emergence of what the English refer to as a X-Frame Chair. This name comes from the X shaped base of the chair that can be seen from the side. The X-frame design is a twist on The Curule chair, an form first seen in Ancient Rome and later to reemerge as part of the neoclassical period of European furniture history. In the Curule chair, the X-Frame that makes its design is seen from the front of the chair.

The design for the X-Frame chair is so similar to it's Central American cousin, that all of these chairs are commonly referred to as Campeche chairs. What ever you want to call it, this chair is very rare and of all of the examples I looked at in researching this post, it is the finest.

The primary wood used in the frame is West Indies mahogany (see my last post) and the entire frame is inlayed with sand-shaded satinwood. The curvilinear design is very much in keeping with the neoclassical ascetic (for comparison, see my last post) and the workmanship throughout was outstanding.

The joinery on one of the legs as well as one of the arms had loosened and I cleaned and glued the joinery in my shop. Other then that, I cleaned and waxed the existing finish on the chair. Because of the work done on the chair, I chose not to photograph the repairs, but chose to focus instead on the completed photos. This is quite a rare chair and I wonder if I will ever see another like it come through my shop!


Late Classical Mahogany Rocker (ca.1840)

The Completed Rocker
What is good mahogany? What do people mean when they say "This is good mahogany, or that piece has fine mahogany in it"?

The answer  to these questions could fill up a book, in fact it did. Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America by Jennifer L. Anderson traces the United States love of this wood through the 18th century and well into the 19th. It is a comprehensive look at how we used and abused this wood to the point where it is in some cases in a state of commercial extinction. If you have any interest in the subject, I highly recommend this book.

In and attempt to answer the question a little more quickly, The two main types of mahogany used in the production of fine furniture are Honduran Mahogany (swietenia macrophylla) and West Indies Mahogany (swietenia mahogani) Both are fine woods and can be polished to a nice shine, but latter is what people refer to as good mahogany.
Swietenia Mahogani is found throughout the Caribbean region and when originally harvested, differences in the micro climates where the timbers grew gave the wood different characteristics, giving rise to many different names, including Haitian mahogany, Cuban mahogany, Santo Domingo mahogany, Jamaican mahogany etc. While all of these woods had different characteristics they were all swietenia mahogani. Distinguishing what wood came from where these days is difficult so the name of West Indies mahogany has been adopted when referring to swietenia mahogani.

 Swietenia macrophylla, or Honduran Mahogany is found in a much larger geographical area including much of Central America. The trees are bigger and produce quality lumber that is still being produced today. 

In the 18th and 19th century, it was common for cabinetmakers to use both woods in a single piece of furniture, usually reserving the West Indies mahogany for the showier places like drawer fronts, while the sides of a case for a chest of drawers might be made of Honduran Mahogany. Each piece of furniture was different, but when it was available, West Indies mahogany was generally preferred.

Today, Honduran Mahogany is the only true mahogany commercially available. The only West Indies mahogany available is old stock or pieces reclaimed from furniture and architectural pieces. When possible, I use reclaimed West Indies mahogany to make repairs, but when the repairs are substantial, I use Honduran and apply stain and touch up to blend the repairs into the existing wood.

In the case of the rocking chair, the majority of the chair was made from exquisite West Indies mahogany. One of the rockers was broken and in need of repair, involving the use of bridging patches to span a very broken component. 

In order to make room for the patch, I need to remove some of the wood around the broken area. I used a router to do this. Even though it is a small amount of wood, I always lament the fact that I am pulverizing a wood that is no longer available. I try to keep these repairs to a minimum and only do what is necessary.

When I routed the wood, I was left with a pile of shavings of West Indies mahogany. Below is a photo of those shavings next to a piece of Honduran mahogany used for patching.

The first thing to notice is the color difference, The West Indies mahogany being a rich dark color, while the natural Honduran mahogany is much lighter. If the shavings were one piece of wood, you would also see that the grain is much, much tighter and the wood resembles cherry more than Honduran mahogany in some cases. The result is a wood with unbelievable natural color and and compact grain which lends itself to a high polish.

Below is a photo of the completed repair I spoke of above. You can clearly see the color difference here.
As far as the rocker is concerned, Once the repairs were made I cleaned the existing finish and polished it with Dewaxed Shellac. It did not take many coats to bring the finish to a high polish. All of the repairs were touched up and the chair was eventually waxed. The result of the restoration showed off the beauty of this wood. No stain was used on the rocker originally  and the only staining I did was to blend in the areas I touched up, as seen in the photo below of the same repaired area.

Below are a few photos of the the restored finish. The embroidered upholstery was old but not original. This piece is a stunning example of  a late classical rocker made probably in a city center like New York or Philadelphia. To me, the most stunning aspect was the fine mahogany used to execute the design of this chair. A most remarkable wood the likes of which we will never see again!