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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Regency Rosewood And Beech Sofa (ca.1820)

The Completed Sofa
A recent piece that I restored was an English sofa made during the Regency period. The sofa was made primarily of Beech and had Brazilian Rosewood veneer inlayed with brass in a process known as Boulle work, named after a French cabinetmaker named Andre Charles Boulle (1642-1732) who specialized in Marquetry and invented the process. The process employed in Boulle work is to layer a sacraficial piece of veneer with a piece of the primary veneer being used and a sheet of contrasting veneer or metal. On top of these layers an image is applied. Using a fine saw, the layers are simultaneously cut through producing a piece of veneer with a positive and negative image as well as a piece of metal or contrasting veneer with a positive and negative image. The image itself is sacrificed in the process and the sacrificial veneer is used to keep the valued veneer from splintering with the force of the saw.  The cabinetmaker is then free to use the veneer as the image and the metal as the groundwork or to use the metal for the image and the veneer for the ground. In fact, pieces can be seen where one image is on the front of the piece and the reverse is on the opposite side. The difference between this and marquetry is that with marquetry, each piece is cut individually to create the image.

During the time when this technique was first developed, examples were seen in silver and tortoise shell. The silver was sometimes also engraved. For most of the 18th century, this practice was out of favor, but it came back into use in the early 19th century in England and can be seen on pieces made during the Regency period. In most of these pieces from the Regency period, brass and Rosewood are used. This is commonly seen in sofas as well as occasional tables and chairs. 

Most of the front facade of the sofa I worked on was covered in Boulle work. Where it was not covered, The primary wood (Beech) was stained and fauxed with India ink to simulate Rosewood. In addition to all of this, the feet were capped with cast brass casters that were extremely ornate and echoed the design of the Boulle work. Below is a photo of the sofa when it entered my shop.    
 The central image on the veneer is seen in the photo below. This was seen in four separate places on the sofa and was probably made all at once. The image is a stylized plant growing around and out of an Urn. The urn is a commonly used symbol in neoclassical furniture forms.

 While walking through a friends garden, I realized that the plant in question was a Poppy plant. Once I looked at the image closely, I could see the seed pod in the center of the image flanked by the serrated leaves. Below is a close up of the seed pod followed by some poppy plants showing their seed pods and serrated leaves.

 The piece had some veneer loss as well as some missing brass. In addition to this, the finish was in really rough shape and the joinery in the back and in the feet was loose. One other major problem was that the brass casters had completely seized with corrosion. Below is a close up of one of the casters and the brass inlay held in place with some string.
This photo shows a veneered board that was applied to the skirt of the sofa completely dislodged from the sofa.
The next two photos show some of the brass lifted from the leg.

The many photos that follow show the process of checking for loose veneer or brass, lifting it to clean the old glue beneath it, and clamping it back in place with new hide glue. The hide glue takes about 24 hours to really dry, so there were many clamping sessions that went on for several days.

The photo below shows an area where the brass work was actually missing. The next photo shows that area cleaned of its old glue

On the opposite side of the image was the same piece that was missing in reverse. The piece was lifted so I was able to slide a piece of brass sheet below the original and, using an X-acto knife, trace the image onto the new brass. The image was then cut out and reversed and fit into the area that the brass was missing. The completed image is seen in the last photo. Apologies for the flipped photos in this section, but you get the idea!

This photo shows the brass work and veneer above  being glued in place.
The back of the sofa is a separate frame held in place at the bottom with tenons and at the top with screws. This is to allow the upholsterer to upholster the seat. The joinery on the back of the sofa was very loose. In the photo below you can see the back with each piece marked with blue tape to indicate the orientation and the position of each piece. The back was then disassembled, The glue was cleaned, and the back reassembled. This process is shown below.

Once the repair work was completed, I turned my attention to the finish. The finish was in bad shape and really needed to be stripped. The danger in this was that the Beech wood had been fauxed with India ink and I did not want to loose this. The finish was a shellac based finish and the solvent used was alcohol, so I used alcohol to slowly smooth out the original finish and reverse the damage done to the finish. The result was a finish that was very thin and needed new finish to be added to it. The other result was that the India ink was preserved. One other piece that came out of this was that the finish was removed from the brass and the brass was brightened to contrast the Rosewood. From there it was just a matter of coating the sofa with new finish and waxing it. Here are a few images of  the restored finish before the sofa was sent to the upholsterer.

Below are some photos of the sofa back from the upholsterer. The fabric was gold in color and picked up on the brass quite well. The upholsterer also made Bolster cushions for the sofa, seen in the last photo. The result was a stunning sofa that in my opinion was really worth the effort put into it.


  1. JOhn Mark -- In addition to the beautiful work & restoration, the telling is fabulous, and educational. We are glad to be the benficiaries! Thanks, Judy&Roger

  2. This sofa looks beautiful. Would you be willing to sell it?? I work for a theatre company in upstate New York and this piece would be perfect for my show.