Repairing And Polishing At Home
( Originally Published 1907 )
IT is not as if the dictum of Miles Standish about doing a thing one's self could always be applied to putting into good condition old furniture that has suffered from age and use. Often, and perhaps generally, if one wants an article of furniture well repaired, the best way is to send it to an expert craftsman. But, on the other hand, there are a great many things which one can do one's self, and which it is convenient and advantageous, as well as economical, to do. The cultivation of a certain handiness and adaptability in regard to old furniture tends to increase the enjoyment of the collector. "Now, what are you going to do with that`?" asked a friend, as he looked at a shabby wooden chair, perhaps no older than 1815, whose top rail was missing from the back, leaving curving, horn like projections above the middle slat and the slender spokes. He smiled as he asked the question, and there was the suggestion of gentle scoff in his voice.
In truth, there was not a promising outlook for filling the gap where that top slat ought to be (slats, it should be said, are strips running horizontally across a chair back, and a splat is the piece running vertically from top to bottom in the middle), for we knew from the mate of the chair that a new slat would be hard to make. For one reason, it would have to be bent on a difficult and unusual curve, and unless made precisely right it would look decidedly unattractive.
We looked at it thoughtfully. "You mean, that it is a subject for the scrap-heap?"
"Well, you 've got to get a scrap-heap some day," he responded airily, "and you may as well begin with this old chair-like those early Ohio settlers, you know, that took a nonogenarian along to begin the cemetery with."
In the face of this friendly taunt we were bound to make use of that chair. And, when the idea came, it was, like many another illuminative idea, extremely simple. The curving projections were sawed off, close above the middle slat. The knobs were planed and smoothed into a receding curve.
Then, as the chair had always been a painted one, it was sandpapered, and painted a cream white, and placed in front of a dressing-table; and guests have used it there and expressed their wonder that there should be such a fetching, short-backed chair.
Before one can really come to the love of furniture he must patiently and personally handle it till he has patiently and personally learned it.
You are, say, more or less hazy in regard to the actual construction and merits of a Chippendale chair. Well, after first catching the chair, choosing a shabby one that needs general restoration and polishing, take a stout, broad-bladed knife and begin to scrape. Hold the edge of the knife to the wood at right angles and draw steadily toward you. The chair, in its checkered career, has probably had several coats of varnish and probably a coat of paint. Work hard, and see that every particle of this coating falls to the floor. No injury will come to the wood if you use care. Good mahogany seems glad to be scraped, and is not easily scratched or raised in shavings, when the knife is heavy and straight and the strokes even and if there are no digging motions. Instead of a knife, glass is used by some, but it is treacherous and easily scratches.
As the chair is cleared to the wood, and you thus become on intimate terms with it, you will increaseingly realize that the patient, personal touch is causing you to take in to the full every point of outline and beauty. As each corner is finished you will notice not only the curves but the mode of construction; as you work on, over the curves of the perforated splat and the shape of the stalwart legs, you will begin to understand a Chippendale chair, you will see why this cabinet-maker of St. Martin's Lane could give his name to a school of design, as the monarchs of France, on their side of the Channel, gave theirs. As the American dealers of to-day patter of Chippendale and Heppelwhite and Sheraton, and perhaps even of that Shearer whose fame was almost lost in the glory of his rivals, so-, in the shops of Paris, the dealers' talk is punctuated with the famous Quatorze and Quinze and Seize.
By the time you have your chair scraped and clean you have not only learned the merits of construction, but you have discovered the faults and weaknesses that time has brought to your specimen.
Even the beginner can do many things toward restoration, and it is a particularly keen pleasure to see a battered treasure return to beauty under one's own hands. A table-top comes to mind as one of the things that yielded some of these thrills. It had seven marks, round and sunken, where the wood was crushed by sharp blows, apparently from a hammer. An old cabinet-maker had told us how to raise such dents, and we followed his directions although with misgivings as to success. Water was dropped in each depression; blotting-paper was laid over it, and a warm flatiron, not so warm as to scorch the wood, was placed over each blotting-paper. The old cabinet-maker had smiled queerly when he said that it would need many applications. For a whole day, each time those irons were found cool more water was applied, with a blotter and another mildly warm iron. Slowly, magic was done; slowly the wood swelled and rose! Fortunately, no wood was missing. The blows had merely sunk into the table without breaking it. Moisture and heat gradually swelled the sunken fibre and it resumed its old smooth surface, while at the same time there was no effect whatever upon the wood surrounding the dents, which therefore remained level and smooth.
Hammer dents, it is well to remark, ought always to be looked upon with suspicion, and the piece of furniture upon which they are found should be examined, as to authenticity, with unusual care, for the making of such dents is a trick often resorted to by the unscrupulous to give a false appearance of age to a counterfeit.
The most effective way to treat fine woods, after they have been scraped clean and repaired, is by means of what is known as French polishing. And French polishing may be done at one's own home, with keen pleasure in the result of one's efforts, and, it may be added, with a very considerable financial saving, for it is an expensive kind of work to have done by a professional polisher. It is a fascinating art to understand, and here is how it is done.
Let us presume that the article to be polished is of mahogany-and yet, except for very slight modifications called for by questions of coloring and filling, the rules will fit almost any wood.
First, the piece of mahogany, after it is scraped to the wood, is rubbed with powdered pumice-stone and boiled linseed oil-rubbed hard and long with a rough woolen rag, such as a piece of ingrain carpet or horse-blanket. Seeing a workman in the Rue St. Antoine at this very work, and examining his rubber, we found that he had a stone within it to give a hardness to the pressure of the cloth and oil and pumice-stone upon the wood. Since then, with us, a stone is used and it is certainly an aid to efficacy The beauty of the finished work depends upon the smoothness given the wood by this rubbing.
But veneered wood must not be thus rubbed, for it would soften the glue, nor does veneer need it, for the wood chosen for veneer is usually very smooth and close-grained. Wood which has been well cared for and is unmarred under the old polish does not need this preliminary work to be long continued, for the effect of the pumice-stone and oil of years ago has not been lost.
Should a soft place appear where some inferior piece of wood has been used, apply a coat of glue and water and leave until dry. This will harden the grain of the wood.
Crevices should be filled with a cement of beeswax and resin and vermilion, heated together, and run into the hole with a warm chisel. Should a depression be found in an otherwise smooth surface, as is frequently the case at the centre of a knotty and gorgeous part of the mahogany, do not try the water and blotter method, for, the wood not having been crushed, it will not rise. But, with a brush, dip into the bottle of polish, described below, and generously cover this spot. As often as this hardens drop more until the depression is built up to the proper level. When perfectly hard it can be rubbed smooth with the rest of the surface.
We have always found sandpaper, even of the finest quality, a scratchy and poor substitute for pumice and oil and energy.
After the surface feels smooth and satiny, wipe the wood dry and clean, and place it in a well-lighted room where there will be no dust. It is well to do the work in a room where tools and bottles shall remain undisturbed.
Now, for the actual polishing, have a wide-mouthed quart bottle for the necessary mixture. There is some divergence among workers as to this, but here is a mixture that we have found admirable : One pint of grain alcohol; four ounces of dry shellac of a light color, crushed small; and half an ounce each of gum arabic and gum sandarac, powdered fine. This bottle must stand on a sunny window-sill, or on a warm register, or in a hot sand bath, but never near fire, for three days; and with sundry shakings it will turn into a thick and rather clear liquid with no sediment or undissolved matter. The sandarac sometimes settles, but still has a slight waterproofing influence in the mixture.
Now to begin. In your hand have an inch-thick, four-inch square, of folded flannel, soft and fine. It must be covered with a piece of old linen which is not linty. Open the square and pour in from the bottle a tablespoonful or less. Gather the corners and edges into the hand so that a round, plump cushion, with the polish in the heart of it, protrudes, covered with the fine linen. Touch this linen with one slight dab of linseed oil and take a cautious light stroke down the grain of the wood toward the light from the window. Very slowly, and without ever resting this dauber on the wood, a back-and-forth movement must be made. The polish begins to appear. The wood glows. The fire of its color gleams. Happiness steals over you. You return to the bottle for more. As skill grows you can sail gayly back and forth and by many parallel long strokes you will cover the small surface you are first attempting. For you will be wise, and not begin with the top of the dining-table, but take a leg or, better still, a candle-stand or a dressing-glass frame.
After you feel master of the back-and-forth stroke, try a circular movement, which seems to surface things over and make progress. Return to the bottle for more liquid as needed, and renew the linen should it wear through, for the wool fibre will stick to the wood and destroy your surface. A very occasional dab of oil will be necessary on the linen.
One beauty of French polishing is that it is dry at once. There is no waiting to see if it is going to harden or set.
Keep on until the quality of the polish is deep and resplendent, until it suits taste and fancy, and until you are sure you have never seen a finer finish anywhere, in friend's or rival's home or in dealer's shop. Your arms will be weary and your hands very sticky by this time; but rinse them in alcohol and save the rinsing in a bottle, for you may use it later.
Next morning it is a little appalling to see how much the fine polish has gone in over night. But this is not very discouraging, for it has really gone in and has not evaporated. Instead of going on at once with more polish, take the old pumice-stone and oil rubber and rub the surface down to dullness; with a less vigorous stroke, however, than on the bare wood. Wipe clean, and again take the linen-covered, soft, woolen rubber (which will keep for many days without hardening if dropped in a covered can when not in use), and begin to put more polish on. Were you pleased yesterday? You will be more than that today. How the polish improves is a constant delight. The beauty, and the possibilities of beauty, in mahogany grow upon you, and you see in fancy the shabby old desk and the Empire work-table undergoing this very metamorphosis within the week. Put on all the polish that the wood requires; be sure to put on enough; and leave it again over night.
In the morning comes the last and most delicate of the operations. The work can be left as it is so far as durability is concerned, but another hue to the rainbow can be added by what is called spiriting off.
Take a roll or piece of soft linen, such as a fine but worn-out handkerchief. Tear off hems and mono-grams or fold them in, to insure softness. Take the alcohol you used for rinsing your fingers, or put a few drops from the polish bottle into fresh alcohol. Moisten your soft roll of linen in this and skim over the surface of your work with it. The end to be accomplished is to run the polish together into a hard and resisting surface. This moist rag will do wonderful things if a little skill is acquired in its use, but one lingering smear of it will lift the polish from the wood and leave the work of days a ruin, only to be scraped away.
French polishing leaves a brilliant deep polish on the wood, which a blow will not turn into a yellow mark, with fractures, as is the case with varnished wood, and it is as good and strong as ingenuity has invented. Should a duller surface be desired; and it is more effective on sombre old chests of drawers and many heavy old pieces; rub the finished surface very gently, and very little, with flannel and pumice-stone and oil. It is the work of a few moments to change from brightness to dullness, yet we have known bills to be sent with six dollars' extra charge for this desired dull finish.
There are many "superstitions" to be followed, as coffee drinkers call such ceremonies as putting sugar in the cup first and coffee on top.
Never use the polish bottle on a dull or humid day. It will be contrary and sticky. Scrape and rub with oil and pumice on the dull days. You must have bright skies for good polishing.
There are many more points which emergencies will teach. If a bubbly ugly smear appears, showing where the polish has stuck to the rubber instead of to the wood, stop all work on that part for the day. Next day, when it is hard, rub with pumice-stone and oil and see if you can go on with the polish. If it is not a bad case this can be done. If it has been a case of leaving the rubber on the wood while you went downstairs, you had better betake yourself to the knife and scrape clean for a new beginning.
When flutings, or receding angles, or carvings which cannot be reached by the rounding surface of the polisher are met with, a slim and slender brush of fine hair should be dipped in the bottle and the liquid lined into these difficult places; then the pad may be resumed for the polishing of the surfaces around these same parts.
Now and then a stain is absolutely necessary, where a patch is to be made like the original. Never use a colored varnish or a commercial stain, but dye the bare wood with a dye made of bismuth brown and alcohol, to which a granule of aniline red is added.
A patch around a keyhole, or an inset of new and light-colored mahogany, may be darkened by wiping over with lye water and rinsing off.
The continued application of lye or caustic soda in any form causes mahogany to darken into purplish hues. Many restorations come home from workshops of high repute with this queer dull purple gleaming from the wood as the result of an easy way of removing the old varnish with lye. Time and again have the uninspired restorers of old furniture pooh-poohed the folly of scraping wood and advocated the lye-can. With lye, the old varnish or polish comes off in one-eighth of the time needed by scraping, but the fire of the wood disappears too, and there comes in its stead the ugly purple which has little resemblance to the rich color of good wood well treated.
Inkstains so frequently sink into the very fibre of the wood that it is well worth knowing that, if covered with a drop of water into which one or two crystals of oxalic acid are then pushed, the ink will disappear. But watch the operation, and wipe away the acid as soon as the cleansing is complete. Remember, too, that oxalic acid is poison.
For the many things, little and big, that may be done at home, it is well to set aside a small room as a home workshop. We set apart such a room, away from the main part of the house, and gilding, upholstering, cabinet-making, polishing and general re-pairing are carried on with a very simple array of tools in which hatchet and tack-hammer and kitchen knife play star parts.
However, we have one useful machine. It is made from an old sewing-machine, so antiquated as to have no friend or owner. It is now a brass polisher! Polishing andirons and candlesticks and pewter mugs and pewter platters is always looked upon as a task out of usual household lines. Silver is polished without a murmur, but brass and pewter are looked upon with no eye of favor in the kitchen. And so, we had to present the polishing of brass and pewter as an easy task; hence the sewing-machine, made over with a felt burnishing wheel by a village artisan. No longer, now, is burnishing a task, and the machine was not difficult of construction. The arm was knocked off, and the felt-covered wooden wheel was attached. In buffing, putz or brass polish is used.
It is always pleasant to know a simple method by which some serious-seeming difficulty may be overcome. An old banister-back chair, which antedates the days of Chippendale, with generous rush seat, and a front rung with a huge knob in the middle, was preliminarily cleaned of its green paint; then, its dull black was restored by first applying logwood boiled in water, and, when this was dry, by brushing over with vinegar in which rusty nails had been left for several hours. The chair had a dirty mussy brown color when the work was done, but in a few minutes the color became ebony-like, and was a great success. The advantage of this, over painting it black, is that the very fibre of the wood is dyed, and the chair does not, therefore, wear white on the arms and edges.
It is always well to have on hand a sheet of mahogany veneer, which can be purchased at some wood warehouse where you have spied the sign of "Veneer" from passing trolley or from high-level bridge. Scissors will clip a piece of harmonizing streak and grain for some spot where it is needed; and with a clean surface, freshly-made glue and a heavy weight, or, still better, a wooden clamp, you can easily do the work of mending veneer. Or you may relay loose veneer by cleaning it, using fresh glue, and replacing it under pressure. The glue should be of fine quality; preferably, of German make.
A blister in old veneer may be laid by slitting it in the middle and pouring in some glue, working it thoroughly under every part of the blister, pressing out all that you can, and then laying a very heavy weight on it.
Time enters into all these things, and the beginner is apt to become impatient while waiting for glue to harden and veneer to adhere.
Once learn the art of putting in rush seats in chairs-it may easily be learned from some worker of the old school-and you are not only ready to re-pair a rush seat that has become broken and ragged by use, but you need never hesitate about acquiring some fine old chair, with broken bottom, when opportunity offers, although you would probably let the prize pass if you had not learned this art.
There are many things which the collector himself may do. You may put on missing handles of brass or glass-first waiting until, in some junk-shop or odd corner, you find the handle of precisely the proper period. You may do a myriad of things with broken furniture, thereby acquiring personal knowledge of the admirable old-time ways, and, especially if you live at some distance from a city, saving your-self endless trouble in shipping articles of furniture back and forth. Beginning by doing the work from motives of economy or convenience, you will soon acquire a real love for it.