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A traditional furniture conservator, restorer and maker discusses his life experiences and his philosophy of work. If you love marquetry this is the place to discuss it. All work is done with hand tools and organic traditional materials and methods.
Updated: 1 hour 8 min ago

New Furniture?? Not My Problem!

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 5:05pm

Me Looking At New Furniture
During my career restoring antique furniture, I have gotten fairly good at screening calls.  I am always amused at prospective clients who have lived with a piece of furniture for years, perhaps even their entire life, and who have never really looked at it.  Until it broke or was damaged somehow.

Then they call a refinisher to see about getting it "restored."  Of course, these people are people who actually have jobs and hobbies and spend their time doing other things than looking at furniture like they were in love with it.

So I have a series of simple questions, like: "What wood is it?"  When they don't know, I ask the back up question: "Is the wood red (ie. possibly mahogany), brown (walnut?) or yellow (oak for sure).???"

Another series of investigation starts out "What do the feet look like?"  To which the standard answer is "I don't know, I never looked."

The final question is the most obvious: "How old is it?"  And I always get the same response: "It's old!"  Which, of course, is meaningless.  Old compared to what?  Your car?  Your dog?  At this point I hit them with my best shot: "Is it an antique?"  That is when they always say, "I'm not sure, but I know it's old.  I got it from my grandmother."  Always the same type of response.  In the end I insist that they send me a photo since that is the only way I know what they have.

I anticipate the email with photos so I can find out exactly what kind of work is involved.  The majority of the time it is disappointing, and some of the time amusing (to me; not to the client I'm sure) and in rare instances it is amazing and exciting.  A good example happened this week when a caller asked about repairing water damage to their dining table.  Here is the photo I received:

"Water Damage"

Clearly, if you have a table made of MDF with paper thin veneer and finished with a conversion varnish, it is probably not the best idea to use it outdoors in the rain.

I am writing this post since there were three instances this week alone which made me think of the consumer and modern furniture production.

The first one was a call which mentioned a Mission Oak Dining table and "several mahogany pieces."  When I arrived I was shown a Mission Oak table which was very clearly brand new.  The finish on the entire top had peeled away from the wood, leaving large bare spots all over the table.  The finish which was not peeled was cracked and ready to delaminate.  When I asked how old was the table, they informed me that they had bought it two years ago, new.  The "mahogany pieces" were actually mahogany (African) and old (1940's).  I sent them to another refinisher.

Then something exciting happened.  A young couple came in and purchased 4 nice New York dining chairs from me.  These chairs were made in 1850 and were solid Brazilian rosewood, with the original seat upholstery.  They told me they had been buying IKEA furniture, but it always fell apart after a few years, so they wanted to "do the right thing" and buy something with a "low carbon footprint."  I think that furniture manufactured over 150 years ago must have a very low carbon footprint.  Actually, I think at that time it was a whale oil footprint.

When I delivered the chairs, they immediately placed their IKEA chairs out on the curb and, within 5 minutes they had disappeared.  Talk about recycling!

But the most amazing story just happened here at work.  The door bell rang and I opened it to find an older gentleman.  He asked me if I could fix his drawers on two chests he had.  I started to explain that wood drawers often wear out on the lower edge of the sides and the wood runners would also need some repair.  He said that wasn't the case.  I then said that some more modern drawers have a center slide under the drawer, and if that was not in the right place the drawer would be hard to open.

 He said "No.  Actually there are metal slides for the drawer."

"Oh, I see.  What you have is more like office furniture?"

"No," he replied, "It's high end furniture I just bought it, and I paid a lot of money for it."

At that point I told him that I couldn't help him.  But he said that what was wrong was the screws holding the slides were coming out and he could see that they were in the way.

"Why don't you just screw them back?" I asked.

"Because it would void the warranty," he insisted.

"But, if it's high end furniture and under warranty, why don't you just have the store fix it?"  (I suppose this was a dumb question, but I was now in new territory.)

"They have already sent out a repair man twice and he can't seem to fix it!"  He was exasperated.  All I could mutter was "I am sorry, but I can't help you."

As I closed the door of my workshop, I was relieved somehow that it was actually closing out the modern world, and that I could return to my glue pot and workbench in peace.

Categories: Hand Tools

OBG Raises Questions and Provides Answers

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 9:17am

Made Possible by Old Brown Glue

I developed and used Old Brown Glue nearly 10 years before I began selling it to the "public." That was almost 15 years ago, and I was naturally concerned about how others would be able to use this glue and what questions they may raise.  Since that time this glue has been used for making American Indian rocket ships, artificial kidney stones, as a bonding agent for exterior sprayed finishes, applying veneer to 10' tall architectural columns in Florida, Alaskan native drums, "craquelure" finishes, and too many other odd projects for me to remember.

Of course, my intention in making and selling OBG from the start was so that other woodworkers would be able to use it and appreciate its unique features, as I have.  So I was pleased to see the increasing number of furniture makers and luthiers who are using this glue on a regular basis.  And, since my name and phone number is on the label, I am constantly hearing from these people and answering their questions. I am happy to be of assistance, and always ready to respond to emails or phone calls, since I feel somewhat responsible for the success of their projects.

In order to fully understand how glue works, it is instructive to discuss not only the glue but the properties of the wood itself.  How the wood is prepared, what species it is, how it is joined and other factors contribute to the success or failure of the work.  That is why studies of adhesion spend a lot of time discussing the material and how it is prepared.  See the article in Fine Woodworking, "How Strong is Your Glue?"

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) defines an adhesive as a substance capable of holding materials together by surface attachment.  There are a variety of forces at work which make this possible.  The most common is called "mechanical bonding" meaning that the surfaces are held together by an adhesive that has penetrated the porous surface while it is liquid, then anchored itself during solidification.  With some adhesives, there are also other physical forces of attraction, which are referred to as "specific adhesion".  These include intermolecular attraction forces which form bonds between the adhesive polymer and the molecular structure of the wood itself, such as van der Waal's forces and hydrogen bonding.  I believe that covalent bonding is also a factor, which is 11 times stronger than hydrogen bonding, but at this time there is no clear evidence that such bonds constitute an important mechanism in adhesive bonding to wood.

The reason I suspect that these molecular forces are a factor is that water has a strong molecular attraction to wood, primarily through hydrogen bonding with hydroxyl groups of the cellulose which is in the wood.  Since protein glues are carried by hot water, it is obvious to me that they would have excellent penetration into the wood surface and form specific adhesion with the molecules of the wood itself.

Animal glues are derived by the hydrolysis of the protein constituent collagen of animal hides and bones.  They are described as "hydrolyzed collagen', and are actually various amino acids which join in polypeptide linkages to form long chain polymers.  Studies have indicated that most glue molecules consist of single chains terminated at one end by an amino group and at the other end by a carboxyl group.  Cross linkage between protein molecules is possible through hydrogen, ionic and covalent bonds.

These glues are manufactured in a wide range of average molecular weights but are graded for commercial use by a test instrument called a "Bloom Gelometer." In general, woodworkers use glues rated at 192, 222, or 251 average gram strength.  The higher the number, the faster it sets and the more brittle the bond.  The lower the number, the slower it sets and the more flexible the bond.  I have used Milligan and Higgins hide glue, gram strength 192 for the past 45 years, both in the glue pot and it is the basis for the formulation of Old Brown Glue.

The addition of urea to protein glues acts as a gel depressant, simply lowering the gel point.  Franklin and Titebond both manufacture and sell a similar liquid protein glue, and they use other chemicals to achieve the same result, such as ammonium thiocyanate or dicyandiamide.  Because of the large number of hydrogen bonding sites on the protein molecule, an amazingly diverse number of additives can be used to modify animal glues, producing a wide range of results.  My goal was simply to lower the gel point, using the most basic organic chemical, and I chose urea.

The inspiration for this decision was my participation in a research group in France some 20 years ago.
The group was called ADEN, and was a joint collaboration between the Musee des Arts Deco, in Paris and the Ecole nationale Superieure des Technologies et Industries du Bois, in Nancy.  One of the research projects involved testing the use of protein glues, with and without modifiers, in bonding wood to wood and wood to metal.  Long term environmental stress testing was done to anticipate aging.  The results wer published in a paper in a paper by Aurelie Garcet in 1996, titled "Etude des Colles D'Origine Animale Utilisees Pour la Restauration de Marqueteries Anciennes."  The general results of that testing included adding thiourea to the glue but thiourea is a known carcinogen.  The only difference between urea and thiourea is that thiourea contains a sulfur molecule, so I decided to do my own testing with urea after I returned to my workshop.  It took me 37 different formulations to achieve the results I wanted.  Surprisingly, it did not take a lot of urea, but for obvious reasons, I cannot exactly state how I formulate the glue.

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) has a subgroup, the Wooden Artifacts Group (WAG) which I have been a member of in the past.  This group publishes papers in their WAG Postprints, and in 1990 published a paper by Susan Buck, from Winterthur.  The title was "A Study of the Properties of Commercial Liquid Hide Glue and Traditional Hot Hide Glue in Response to Changes in Relative Humidity and Temperature."  Of course, this was before OBG was developed, so she used "a new, unopened bottle of Franklin Liquid Hide Glue with an expiration date of January 1991".  I should mention that Franklin was the first company in America to sell liquid hide glue.

Her conclusion states:

Based purely on strength characteristics this testing indicates that liquid hide glue is the glue of choice for repairing a join which will undergo significant stress, such as the structural join of a chair in regular use.  But, more importantly, that decision must also take into consideration the environmental conditions.  Under normal conditions of 50% RH and room temperature liquid hide glue provides the strongest bond.  However, hot hide glue proved to be the more stable of the two glues under extreme conditions of high heat or high humidity, and thus would be the ore desirable choice if fluctuation environmental conditions are anticipated."  The "extreme" conditions in her testing occurred at 84 % RH and 150 degrees F.  This is not surprising, as protein glues are reversible and those are the exact conditions under which the glue converts from solid to gel to liquid.

In fact, reversibility is one of the most important features to me in deciding to use protein glues in my work.  All furniture needs repair.  If you cannot reverse the finish or bonding agent easily, the furniture cannot be repaired easily.  One of the reasons antique furniture has survived for centuries is that it can be easily repaired.  As soon as modern adhesives or modern catalyzed finishes or epoxy fillers are used, the antique is damaged severely.

The fact that protein glues are "reversible" always raises questions, since modern synthetic adhesives are not, in fact, reversible.  You need to get both humidity (water molecules) and heat to the surface of the glue to liquify it.  That means that, if the wood joint is well made and tight, and there is a protective finish applied to the wood, and perhaps a wax is applied to the finish, and the object is in an environment which is not the surface of Venus, then the glue will hold.  However, if you throw the chair or guitar into the jacuzzi and leave it overnight, it will come apart.  Seriously, luthiers need to repair their instruments, and I understand that they use a range of glues for different reasons.  Liquid hide glues as well as hot hide glues in different molecular weights are commonly used and work perfectly, and there are instruments which are centuries old to serve as a testament to this fact.

All modified liquid protein glues have a shelf life.  Unmodified dry hide glue has an infinite shelf life, but when the protein is in solution the presence of water facilitates a chemical breakdown of the glue.  The pH changes over time.  Normal protein glue is in the 6 to 6.6pH range.  OBG is formulated to start at 5.5pH when fresh and decay to 6.0 after 18 months in the bottle, regardless of storage conditions.  Keeping it in the refrigerator prolongs the shelf life, and it can be frozen and thawed as many times as you wish, further extending the useful shelf life.

What happens to the glue over time in the bottle is that the viscosity changes as the pH changes.  It starts out as a gel in the bottle, which requires heating to use, and eventually becomes quite thin and liquid past the due date.  It also develops a strong ammonia smell, as a result of the chemical breakdown of the urea, and this is an indicator that the glue is no longer good.  I always recommend you buy it and use it fresh, before the due date, and if you are not sure, do a simple overnight test.

You can also heat and cool it for normal use as often as you want and as many times as necessary.  We do this all day long to adjust the viscosity for our work.  Simply take hot water from the tap and place the bottle in the water.  In a few minutes it is ready for use.  One advantage is that you can use the water to clean your hands since the glue gets very sticky and we often use our fingers.  Of course it is not toxic at all.

There are questions about how the urea affects the glue strength over time and why it is softer than hide glue on the surface.  My research seems to prove that OBG cures over time by loss of moisture, which is a factor of the wood and environment.  Thus, when the glue is applied to a joint or other surface and pressed together, the wood absorbs the moisture, allowing the glue to cure fairly rapidly.  However, the glue which squeezes out and rests on the surface retains a high degree of water for a fairly long time.  It might take days or weeks for it to completely dry out, which makes it softer than hot hide glue, which always dries brittle and hard.  I think this is an advantage in my work, since I often work with period finishes and the hot hide glue will damage the finish when I try to remove it.  I find the liquid glue cleans up easily with cold water and a sponge, conserving the original finish.

Thus, inside the joint, after the water has dispersed and the glue has cured, there is no longer any reaction between the protein glue and the urea modifier possible.  The glue is stable over time, and I have tested many projects over my career which gives me the confidence to continue using and promoting this wonderful material.

Further reading can be found in my article, "Why Not Period Glue?", published in the Society of American Period Furniture Makers Journal, November 2001.
Categories: Hand Tools

Fine Art or Decorative Art? Makes a Difference!

Sat, 08/16/2014 - 9:39am
Made of Wood.  How Can This Not Be Fine Art?

Three things happened to me when I lived in Paris off and on for a decade in the 1990's.  First of all, I sat at the feet of Pierre Ramond and sucked up all the valuable knowledge he was happy to throw at me.  Secondly, I got to meet many of the most important furniture and museum conservators as well as discover their suppliers, like Patrick George.  However, the most significant aspect of those travels was being accredited by ecole Boulle to receive their students in my workshop for a "stage" of work.

"The Shack"  by Patrice Lejeune

In total, I received 18 different marquetry and ebeniste students, and each one was a valuable experience for both of us.  They got to work in an American workshop.  They got to live in San Diego, which is, in my opinion, one of the nicest places in the country to live.  I got to speak French and teach as I worked.  It was wonderful, but terminated suddenly when Pierre retired in 2000.

"White Cockatoo" by Patrice Lejeune

I had just about given up on having any other workers in the shop at that time.  After all, I had worked alone for 30 years and I had a comfortable routine.

"Gaetane" by Patrice Lejeune
Then I was contacted by Patrice Lejeune, who had already graduated from ecole Boulle and was working in Paris. He had just gotten married and they both wanted to leave France and live in America.  He had heard about me from one of his friends at school, who had spent a stage here.  When he wrote me, my immediate concern was could I afford to hire him and what was the process for a work visa (H1-B)?

"No Child Left Behind" by Patrice Lejeune ($50 shown for scale only)

The short answer about the visa is that it was time consuming and expensive.  Believe me.  First of all, I had to prove the "equivalence" of his education and that he would not replace an American worker who could do the same work.  As to his education, we spent a lot of money hiring a professional search team and they could only find one school in the country which would provide his education: the American School of French Marquetry in San Diego!

"3ism" by Patrice Lejeune
As to him putting an American out of work, we were required to post the job requirements in many different places.  We got a lot of calls.  However, the job requirements were that they know how to make and restore French marquetry, and are proficient in French polishing and traditional restoration.  Nearly every applicant said the same thing: "I can learn that!"  Sorry, but I needed experience in the field and Patrice had already both the education and the professional experience.

"Four Different Aspects of a Nebulous Thought" by Patrice Lejeune

He now has his green card and is a full partner in the business.  He has really contributed to our success and the level of our work has been dramatically increased, since we both criticize each other's work and we are both obsessive about perfection.  Sometimes at the expense of cost and deadlines...

"Dance Muse" by Patrice Lejeune

There is one thing that Patrice has done here that I would never have thought of.  He has made modern marquetry art.  Lots of it and in many different styles.  He has also pushed the process of marquetry into a new direction with new techniques that he developed.  He has also won awards and sold several of his pieces.

"Circle of Life" by Patrice Lejeune

In France, where marquetry has a long and respected tradition, there are often shows in different parts of the country which feature marquetry "art" and these shows are well attended by the public.  Readers of this blog should know by now that I consider marquetry, and specifically Painting in Wood, to be a fine art.  Unfortunately, the history of this field in this country is that, unless you glue it onto something functional, it is not appreciated.  That means that if it hangs on the wall it never sells.

"Cherry Blossom" by Patrice Lejeune

That is a crime.  Art made of wood is just as beautiful as art made of oil and canvas.  It takes just as much talent.  It should be considered, at least, as "mixed media" which is a legitimate form of art, and can be quite valuable.

"3ism #2" by Patrice Lejeune

That is why I thought it was time to post some of Patrice's work.  After all, it hangs on the walls of the workshop and school, and I get to enjoy it every day.  I thought I would share it with you.

"Summer in the City" by Patrice Lejeune

In particular, he has developed a series of contemporary mosaic designs which are abstract.  They are new and colorful and evoke images of modern life.

"Tide at Torrey Pines" by Patrice Lejeune

Finally, in case you like dogs as much as I do, here is a portrait of a dog in wood.

"Oreo" by Patrice Lejeune

Categories: Hand Tools

American Folk Marquetry

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 9:22am

English Apprentice Board c.1885

The last few days I have been thinking about geometrical designs in marquetry.  One of the reasons is that I need to prepare new samples to take to the WIA show next month in Winston Salem.  The other is that I just finished restoring a series of nice pieces which had amazing marquetry surfaces.

It seems that my work goes in stages, from one topic to the next.  Perhaps the secret of my success is that I just follow the flow as it arrives and focus my talents on the job at hand.  Early in my career I realized a pattern to the work which made it easy.  The first week, for example, I remove the hardware and finish, studying each job as to the proper approach.  I would do this with several projects at the same time.  I cannot really work well if I have only one job.  I need to juggle many jobs simultaneously, to be happy.  The next week would be spent with repairs, filling the bench with clamps and glue.  The next week after that I would focus on sanding and coloring the surfaces as needed.  Then I would spend time cleaning up the shop so I can shellac and polish everything at once.  Since the shop was then clean, I would spend a week upholstering.  This pattern would repeat itself with little variations for most of my career.

That said, there are exceptions.  Yesterday I spent the day outside the shop weaving cattails into a natural rush seat for an antique French chair.  The weather was nice, and I have a place in the shade on the North side of the shop with a gentle breeze.  It was a pleasant distraction from the routine.

However, back to the topic this morning.  American Folk Marquetry.  What is it?

In 1998 there was an exhibition at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and a book published by Richard Muhlberger, which is in my collection.  This book "is the first volume to record the history of marquetry and the American masters who handed down the tradition from father to son.  Never before has American folk marquetry been investigated, cataloged, or recognized as a distinct body of work."  Obviously more work needs to be done in this area.

In reviewing this book I notice a common thread.  All the work relies on some form of Tarsia Geometrica and Tarsia a Toppo, and the last two posts on this blog have been an effort to explain how this work is done.  One of the important facts about this work is that it is made with either a veneer saw or knife.  A chevalet is not needed, but in some small areas a hand held fret saw is used for curves.

Another fact emerges in this book.  The most important analysis of these pieces focuses on how many pieces of wood and how many species of wood was used.  No discussion of the form or overall design is really attempted.  Most of the pieces stand as a miscellaneous combination of unrelated marquetry motifs.  There is no serious relationship between the form and the decoration.

Here is Frederick Hazen's (1829-1908) secretary, made in Massachusetts between 1862 and 1869.  The  author is careful to mention that it contains 21,000 pieces of wood.

Lots of Pieces!
Another thing I note about this book and its discussion of these pieces is the terminology.  The term "Male Quilting" is promoted and a long discussion of the relationship between marquetry and sewing makes the strange claim that they are somehow connected.  "The making of quilts and marquetry is similar in that they both depend on a patient, additive progression from detail to detail, until plain cloth or naked wood is embellished with multiple designs that are also made of cloth or wood."

By this reasoning, I can easily point out that Painting in Wood and Painting in Oil are related.  Therefore, marquetry is an art and deserves to be appreciated exactly like fine art is in the market place.  Unfortunately, the real world does not support this idea.

Here is a rather standard Davenport desk form covered with Tarsia Geometrica, and featuring the cube:

Circa 1860
Here is a box on stand with drawers covered in Tarsia a Toppo:

Not made by Shakers!
I am fortunate to have a talented business partner, Patrice Lejeune, who graduated from ecole Boulle and has worked with me for nearly a decade.  He spends his "extra" time here at work picking up scraps of veneer from projects and designing modern marquetry panels.  He is not American nor is he a Folk artist.  His work is very professional, modern and high style.  That said, I think you might be able to see a relationship with his work and the American Folk Art shown above.

For example, this is one of his pieces of wall art:

"Rain on the City" by Patrice Lejeun

Here is another:

"City Map #2" by Patrice Lejeune
I think his work is wonderful and something I could never do.  I am too old fashioned.  However, when I see his designs, the first thing that comes to mind is not, "how many pieces?"

Finally, in reading the Forward to this book, American Folk Art, I find this observation:

"The craftsmen whose work is celebrated in this book did not make their livings at marquetry.  The hours of labor necessary to ornament an object with marquetry were worth far more than anyone was willing to pay for the product.  Consequently, the men who made folk marquetry always required a means of support other than selling their fancy woodwork."

That remark reminds me of the day I proudly opened my antique store in June, 1969.  Another antique dealer in the neighborhood walked in to examine my stock and the first thing he said was "What do you do for a living?"  As if being an antique dealer was a hobby and you needed a "real job" (as my father always reminded me) to survive.

Well, it has been 45 years and I still make my living as an antique dealer, furniture conservator, furniture maker and, most importantly, marquetry maker in America.

That said, Patrice's work is Art and should be worth millions!

Categories: Hand Tools

Tarsia a Toppo or Inlay?

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 10:26am
The Cube Design "inlay" around the Drawers is Tarsia a Toppo

Charles Montgomery was one of the most important men in my life, even though I only met him once.  Isn't it amazing how someone can have such an impact in such a short time?  Of course, I had followed Mr. Montgomery and his work for nearly a decade before I met him.  During my time at Winterthur, I managed to find a drawer in the back room of the library where his 3x5 index note cards were kept and I read every one more than once.

At that time I was working on my personal research project: "The Regional Characteristics of American Empire Furniture 1815-1845" and wanted to show it to him.  So in August, 1977, I travelled to Yale and walked into his office.  His secretary was very pleasant and told me he was returning from Europe and would be in the following Monday.  I left my name and contact information for where I was staying in Hartford and left, unsure if I could actually get a chance to see him.

To my surprise, early on Monday I received a phone call from the secretary telling me that Mr. Montgomery would be pleased to meet with me the next day.  I hurried down to Yale and was waiting for him when he arrived that morning.  I noticed that his secretary had a desk full of work that I assumed needed Mr. Montgomery's attention after his trip.  Instead, as soon as he walked in, he shook my hand, smiled to his secretary, and said that he would be in conference and not to be disturbed.

He invited me into his office, which was a desk surrounded by books and file cabinets.  He pulled out a yellow legal notepad, picked up a pen, sat down and said:  "Tell me what you have found."  We talked for 4 hours.  At the end of my "presentation" he said that I needed to follow up on some other lines of research, in particular the "Price Books" of that period.

As you can imagine I floated out of that meeting and the rest of the day was a blur, as I continued on my trip.  When I returned home the next week, I found a letter from him.  It was dated August 16, 1977 and said:

"I enjoyed seeing you last week and remembered after you left something that I should have told you about, namely, an article I had on regional characteristics in a wonderful book, American Arts, 1750-1800: Towards Independence.  It dealt with regional characteristics and I enclose a xerox copy for you.
Good luck to you."

The next year I heard that Charles F. Montgomery, Curator of the Garvan and Related Collections of American Art and Professor of Art History, had died at the age of 68.

The reason I am thinking of this episode of my life is that Charles Montgomery wrote one of the most important books on American Furniture I have: American Furniture: The Federal Period, published in 1966.  I asked him to sign my copy when I was there, and he graciously wrote: "For Patrick Edwards, on the occasion of a most interesting discussion about Empire furniture.  Good Luck."

In this book, he began to create the basic structure for "regional characteristics" as a way to understand American furniture, and his work is certainly responsible for the quality of research and analysis that is currently being conducted.  He discussed form and design, including decorative elements, as well as wood species and construction features, and started the classification of these features using documented examples from each region.

One page of the book, in particular is significant, as it is the first time I am aware of that the "inlay" motifs found on furniture are attributed to a region.

Taken from Montgomery's Book

Charles Montgomery referred to this material as "Stringing and Banding" and most woodworkers I know just call it "inlay."  Mr. Montgomery did not explain how it was made or why he considered it to be a regional characteristic beyond the fact that it was found on documented pieces from a certain area.

It was a decade later that Dr. Pierre Ramond published his work, Marquetry,  that I actually began to understand the process of how this "inlay" was made, and why it might be localized to a certain region. In addition, I learned the proper name for this decoration: Tarsia a Toppo.  The real problem with the term "inlay" is that it is both a verb and a noun.  Thus, I can describe "inlaying the inlay" into my furniture, but it is not clear what I mean.

Pierre shows the process of making Toppo in his book.  His chapter on "Procedures" breaks down the historical development of marquetry into 5 methods, each with a uniquely different process.  Tarsia a Toppo is one of these.  The reason it is local to a specific region is that a workshop making Toppo generally only makes Toppo, and not other work.  The design is built up in a block which is quite large, and then strips of "inlay" are cut off and sold.  To survive in the market place, a Toppo maker must have several cabinet shops in the area to purchase his stock.  That is why a Toppo supplier in New York would usually supply New York cabinet shops and a maker in Boston would supply Boston and the surrounding area, and so on.

Pierre illustrated the making of Tarsia a Toppo here:

Taken from Ramond's Book

I am sure that there are an infinite number of possibilities for Toppo design.  That is one of the exciting things about the process.  If you can imagine it, then you can build it.

These days, inlay banding or Toppo is manufactured commercially and sold in supply houses.  Here is an example of "store bought" and "home made" strips:

Commercial Strips on top and Home Made on bottom
Over the years I have made toppo for projects and restoration, generally since I work in thicker material and modern strips are too thin for my use.  Also, I like the subtle irregularity in the design which matches the hand made work I do.

Here are some of my examples:

Home Made from Sawn Veneer
And for lectures, I have made a larger than usual example to pass around:

Sample Toppo
There is a sub-set of Tarsia a Toppo which is unique to England.  It became popular during the 19th century and is called Tunbridge Ware.  I have a book written by Brian Austen and published in 1989 which goes into great detail about how it was made.  I usually compare it to needlepoint, in that the design is made up of small squares of wood in different colors.  Like Tarsia a Toppo the design is made up into a large block and then cut into thin strips which are glued on the project.  Here is a page from Mr. Austen's book:

How Tunbridge Ware is made
Here are two examples of this type of work which are also from his book:

Two examples of Tunbridge Ware

Rosewood Box with Tunbridge Ware 
Another example of this type of work is a method used in Japan.  I first heard about it from Pierre and almost didn't believe it was possible.  However, now that I see it on YouTube, I believe it.  It involves the same method of making a pattern in a block.  The big difference is that the strips are not sawn off the block, but instead a razor sharp plane is used to strip off the surface, which is then glued down on the project.  Simply amazing.  

Here is one example of the Japanese Tarsia a Toppo method: Japanese Work

Like the Tunbridge Ware I would not like to be asked to restore this kind of surface.  I am kinda spoiled by working with 1.5mm thick sawn material.
Categories: Hand Tools

Tarsia Geometrica Part II

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 10:10am

Italian Commode

To continue the explanation of Tarsia Geometrica and its various forms from the previous post, I would like to return to the term "frisage."  Obviously this term is French and not much used in American woodworking shops.  However, it is really well known under different terms in our language.

To put it simply, the worker in veneer often takes a flitch of veneer and matches it in some way to make a decorative pattern.  In English these are called "book match" or "slip match" for example.

Take this Italian commode, which I recently had the pleasure to restore.  The facade of the drawers have a frisage made of French walnut, and the border is a frisage of lignum vitae.  The border is a good example of using the sap wood and heart wood of a dark species to create a vibrant effect.

Look at the end of the commode:

Italian Commode with Decorative Frisage

This frisage is made by using a pattern to cut the veneer as follows:

Two Common Frisage patterns

The pattern used on the commode is the "diamond" or "square" which is illustrated by the right example. Simply changing the direction of the grain and using the same method creates the "reverse diamond" or "cross" as shown on the left example. You will note the chalk on the left pattern.  I use this to show what can be done by placing the left pattern over the right pattern and cutting through both at the same time with a homemade blade of a certain thickness, like 2mm or 3mm or larger.  This will produce two results:  a diamond center with a reverse diamond border, and a reverse diamond center with a diamond border.  The gap left by the saw blade is then filled with an inlay strip of the appropriate width.

Using another pattern produces the butterfly pattern:

Butterfly Frisage

One of the most fantastic (and rare) examples of frisage is found on a few pieces from the 18th century and starts with sawing the log of wood at an angle.  Logs can be cut perpendicular across the end which produces "oyster" veneers.  However, by sawing at an oblique angle you produce "sausage" veneers.  If you have seen any of my tall case clocks, you will note I use both of these frequently.

Here is a large piece of sausage cut tulip wood veneer which is then assembled to create a wonderful frisage pattern:

Sausage cut Tulip veneer

So, frisage relies on using the same species of wood to create a pattern.  As I pointed out in the previous post, using different species and more complicated patterns creates a different term: jeux de fond.  I mentioned using a simple jig to cut the elements. Here is that set up:

Simple Jig for cutting Cube elements with Material and Saw in place

The saw is controlled to cut exactly 60 degrees.  The stop is set so the the material is exactly the same length on all sides.  The saw has no kerf so the cuts are fine and accurate.  The material packet is composed of three different species, in a long strip, glued on the end and planed to fit exactly between the two wood strips on the jig.  You push the strip (shown in the photo sideways for illustration) in the groove between the wood strips up to the stop.  Then you saw the packet and remove the pieces.  Repeat by sliding the strip again up to the stop and saw.  With this method you can easily and accurately cut hundreds of pieces for the cube.

As I mentioned also in the previous post, you can change the wood species and get dramatic results:

Different Examples of Cube Jeux de Fond

On the left is a cube made of the single species of ash, which creates a modern effect.  Next is a cube made of oak, with a similar result.  Then there is the classic cube with three different species.  On the right is a cube made of tulip which has a gradual change in the wood from heart wood to sap wood, and that effect is quite different.  Obviously there are unlimited choices, using the same jig.

Creating a different jig produces the "chevron" jeux de fond pattern:

"Chevron" pattern

I should mention that these examples are some of the samples I made over 20 years ago and have managed to drag around from talk to talk.  They have suffered, and at one point, actually got rained on, so they are in rough shape.  I think it's time I made some new samples...

Next post will discuss the "tarsia a toppo" method.
Categories: Hand Tools

Tarsia Geometrica

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 4:46pm
English Jeux de Fond Coffer
I remember clearly the first time I was in France and visiting an atelier where several ebenistes were working.  Looking at their work, I noticed some of the marquetry was very geometric.  In my efforts to impress them, I used the term "parquetry."  They looked at each other with obvious blank expressions, and then looked at me as if I had just fallen off the turnip truck.

"C'est du placage, pas du parquet. Nous ne sommes pas menuisiers, nous sommes ébénistes."

(Translation:  "That's veneer, not flooring.  We are not 'menuisiers', we are 'ebenistes'."  In point of fact the former works in solid wood, and the latter uses veneer.)  It turns out that it is common for English speaking woodworkers to confuse the term for geometric marquetry with the profession of laying solid wood flooring.

They were helping me to understand that using the English/British term "parquetry" is not correct when  discussing a form of marquetry generally known as "frisage" and in particular "tarsia geometrica."  Another term for a version of this type of decoration is "jeux de fond."  Pierre Ramond's book discusses these terms in great detail, but there is general confusion about what they mean exactly.

Simply put, the overall term for the process of making this work is "tarsia geometrica."  This term includes other specific terms for different patterns which all use repetitive patterns in wood to achieve a decorative surface.

"Frisage" is used to describe simple book matching of slip matching of larger veneer surfaces, usually to create a background.  Normally, frisage work involves using the same species of wood in a way that creates a pattern.

"Jeux de fond" is also referred to historically as mosaic work, as it involves much more complicated patterns of shaped elements, usually with different species of woods.  In many cases it creates a 3-D effect.  The most well known pattern is the cube, made up of three different pieces, each a different color density.  This pattern is also found in quilting and tile work.

Recently, I had the opportunity to restore several excellent examples of tarsia geometrica.  One was an Italian commode, made late in the 18th century.  The other was an English coffer, made early in the 19th century.  Each one needed extensive work in re gluing the marquetry and re polishing but in the end they looked magnificent.

I will discuss the commode in the next post, as it included a technique known as "tarsia a toppo" and I want to clarify why that is different, even though the final results are similar.

I want to start with the simple cube design:

Cube Design on Assembly Board

This is a rather common design and forms the basis for what follows in this discussion.  The cube is made of three elements, each one identical to the other in shape and size, but different in species.  By changing the wood species and grain direction of each piece, you can vary the effect.  I use a simple plywood cutting board, with a 60 degree slot for my back saw, which has little or no set to the teeth.

I will explain more about the cutting jig soon, but today I just want to discuss how this motif is used in a complicated jeux de fond pattern.  To illustrate further, consider if the cube elements were cut in one size and then also cut twice as long and combined.  This would be the result:

Small cube sitting in back of large cube
Now if you take the same design and turn it 180 degrees it changes:

Large cube with little cube removed

This effect is an optical illusion that the brain automatically understands.  Since light naturally comes from above, the brain computes the top of some form as being lighter.  When the design is rotated 180 degrees the brain understands it as a completely different image.

I thought I would make a sample panel which incorporated both of these designs with a common joint in the center:

Compare Left side and Right side
Another experiment I tried was to make a three dimensional grid:
Experimental Grid design on Assembly board
There are lots of ways you can develop different designs with this idea.  The English coffer at the top of the post uses the cube in a very imaginative way.  There is a lighter grid floating in front of a darker grid, which in itself forms a cube space.  To add to that, there are three smaller cubes at the intersection.
It is a wonderful pattern:

How Many Cubes?
So, during restoration, I took the time to trace this pattern for future projects:

Include wood species and grain direction
Here is the top of the coffer with the nautical compass in the center:

Coopered oak top with jeux de fond marquetry

Next post will continue this analysis and compare with similar marquetry decoration.
Categories: Hand Tools

The Chevalet Pandemic

Sat, 08/09/2014 - 8:36am
My dictionary defines "pandemic" as "occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population."

I fee responsible, in some way I suppose, for introducing the "chevalet" to North America some decades ago.  I remember back in 1991, while demonstrating on this tool publicly at a local museum, the surprise and interest that it generated.

Then, a decade later, I sat on stage in front of the SAPFM audience at Williamsburg and introduced it to a large group of woodworkers.

At the same time, I started ASFM and began selling kits and plans.

Today I sat down in front of my computer and Googled the term "chevalet de marquetrie" then clicked on "images" and was amazed.

Try it.  See for yourself.  Take a few minutes and see how fast good ideas can spread.

PS:  If you are already infected and one of these tools sits in your shop, let me know.  Send photos and I will post them so others can be warned!  By the way, there is no known cure...
Categories: Hand Tools

How To Veneer a Column

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 2:06pm
Damaged column with contact cement

I think it is probably obvious that I love antique furniture.  In particular, I am fascinated with the quality and variety of designs that were produced in Europe and America.  The high point of this period was during the 1820's and best represented by the Monroe Doctrine.  If you look at the furniture made in major American cities during that decade, you see rich Cuban mahogany, with highly figured veneers, and carved elements representing cornucopia, lion's heads and paws, stars, and other Egyptian, Roman and Greek motifs.  In addition to all this elaborate decoration one of the most common elements was the use of veneered columns, usually with a carved capital or imported gilt bronze mounts.

I was always fascinated with the veneered column as a form, and very early in my career as a furniture builder I did some research to try to duplicate it for my self.  I failed miserably.  Several times.

I began with hot animal glue and wet jute webbing.  I put the hot glue on the column, wrapped the veneer around and then added the webbing.  I tried to then heat the webbing on the theory that it would shrink and pull the veneer tight.  I remember reading something somewhere about this, and they suggested holding the column near the fire, but I live in San Diego, and it is not often that I have access to an open fire.

Next I tried to use bicycle tire tubes.  They were messy and applied uneven pressure, leaving marks.  Also, I couldn't work fast enough and the glue set before I was ready.  There was no way to add heat, since the tubes would distort and loose their stretch.

It was nearly 15 years after that when I was involved in a conservation group in Paris and discovered that I could modify the glue to give a longer open time.  I began experimenting with urea and, after 37 different formulas, found a mixture that worked.  That was the creation of Old Brown Glue.  It was designed to solve the problem I had struggled with all that time, and the first time I used it to veneer a column it was a success.

In December 2004 I wrote a column for Fine Woodworking (Issue Number 173) that was published in the Master Class area of the magazine, called "Low-tech method for veneered columns."  To go along with this article, they put one of my pieces on the back cover, the Bonheur du Jour.  This piece is one of my early favorites, and has large veneered columns on the base and small veneered columns on the top.  The veneer is some plum pudding Cuban mahogany I purchased years earlier in New York, and I didn't have enough to do the entire desk, so I used a contrasting Honduras ribbon mahogany in the upper section.  That meant that I had no surplus material if the veneering didn't work as planned.

I thought the article would create a bunch of interest and I expected a lot of phone calls about veneering columns.  The only phone call I got was from a person who wanted to know where I got the mounts and if I would sell him the blueprints to make the desk.  He was disappointed to learn that I don't use any plans or measured drawings when I build furniture, and the mounts were from Paris.

Recently a table came into the shop for restoration and it included a column which had been veneered using a cheap mahogany veneer and contact cement.  This table was English Regency and made with Brazilian rosewood.  The client agreed that I should remove the mahogany and use rosewood, which is now on the endangered species list.  However, I have a lot of rosewood, sliced very thick, which pre dates the ban.  Most of it was harvested over 50 years ago and the quality is amazing.  I purchased it from an old cabinet maker early in my career and have kept it for special projects.

As I began to do this job, it occurred to me that it would make a good video.  My partner, Patrice, has been successful at filming and editing videos here at work, and he set up two cameras to record the work.  Our videos can be seen on YouTube by searching for our channel.

The real breakthrough in my efforts to veneer columns was the direct result of my problems with my back.  All my life I lifted heavy objects and stressed my back without any problems.  However, when I was 48 I actually damaged my back and suffered a period of pain.  The doctor recommend that I use a stretchy band of rubber to exercise my muscles and rebuild my strength.  As he handed me a short piece of the stuff, my mind immediately realized this was the perfect solution to the problem I was having with inner tubes.  Sold as "Rep Band" (resistive exercise band for exercise, rehabilitation and conditioning) by Sammons Preston, it comes in different strengths.  The purple is the strongest (level 5), and a box has 50 yards.  Here is the link: Rep Band

Veneering a column actually is very simple with this process, but it takes a few days.  The reason is that the glue sets slowly, which is a good thing.  It allows time for the application of the glue, veneer and elastic bands.  Then, over night, the glue begins to set and the veneer shrinks to fit on the column.  The next day you can cut the overlap and make a joint, reheat the glue at the seam and wrap it up again.  One more day and it sets completely, even though if you have any problems you can simply reheat the area and fix it.

Sit down, get a cup of coffee and watch me veneer a column: Veneer a Column

I think if you watch the video you might be encouraged to try veneering a column yourself.  It is fun and rewarding and adds an element to your furniture design portfolio which you may not have considered previously.

Just don't call me and ask for plans to build the table.

Properly Restored with Hide Glue

Categories: Hand Tools

Another Milestone for Old Brown Glue

Tue, 07/15/2014 - 11:35am
I remember when I was asked by Joel at Tools For Working Wood to supply him with the liquid hide glue I developed and named "Old Brown Glue".  Before that, simple word of mouth about the glue meant that we would get a phone call from time to time asking if we could sell a bottle.  I guess we were selling about 3 or 4 bottles a week, on average.  Joel suggested that we make two sizes available, a 20 oz (net weight) and a 5 ounce.  I resisted putting the glue in smaller bottles, since I used it all the time and the larger bottles were fine.

In any event, for several years, Tools For Working Wood was the only place where you could buy the glue, outside of direct sales from my business.

Then the internet took over, and people who used it wrote nice things about it.  Cabinet makers, chair makers, luthiers, and even museum conservators all commented positively and the phone calls increased dramatically.

The next phase was when Lee Valley called and placed a large order, forcing us to design labels in both French and English, as well as convincing the Canadian government that our glue was not toxic or dangerous.  As soon as we finished with the paperwork, our glue was placed in stores across Canada.

Soon after, Rockler contacted us and began stocking our glue in their stores.  Between Rockler and Lee Valley, I was cooking glue every week, filling bottles and shipping out large boxes of product.

That meant I needed a cooking space in the business, as well as a bottling place, a labeling place, and a shipping department.  At that point, there was a fairly continuous flow of glue from one end of the business to the other.

We joked about contacting Home Depot and visualized seeing our product sitting on the end isles next to the infamous Gorilla.  Yeah, right...

However, last month we were contacted by Woodcraft Supply, and they placed a very large order!  In fact, they followed up that order with two more, even larger.  Now I am cooking glue every day, going through 50 pound bags of Milligan and Higgins glue as fast as I can open them.  We are needing to order bottles and labels all the time, and the glue is everywhere.

The other day, I searched on Google for "Old Brown Glue" and found the first ad for this was on Amazon!  Woodcraft is selling our glue on Amazon!!  Check it out.

Move over Gorilla, who needs Home Depot?
Categories: Hand Tools

Shop Tour!

Thu, 07/10/2014 - 1:39pm
Ring the Bell
The front door at my business used to have a stained glass transom window above it.  It was lovely, as it faced West and the setting sun would shine in through the glass.  My wife, Kristen made it, back in the "hippie" days and it really gave the front room class.

However, two things conspired to change that.  First of all, the transom was held in place with a chain, which allowed us to open it and let the air in.  One day that chain came loose and the window fell completely open, hitting me on the head.  Of course, I fixed it, but the bump left a mark.

The real reason was that KFC built a "restaurant" across the street, some 30 years ago, and connected their sewer line to the main line which runs directly in front of my shop.  Before KFC, my business was the first building on the end of the line, and there were no problems.  As soon as KFC began to operate, I found large quantities of "effluent" bubbling up out of my front toilet.  In fact the front room, which was full of antique furniture, had 6" of standing sewage when I arrived the next day.

Of course, KFC denied any involvement, and the city inspector accused me of putting "something" down the toilet, threatening to shut me down.  My damage claims were denied, and I had to clean up the mess.  The only good news was that KFC quietly relocated their drain to the larger commercial sewer directly in front of their store, instead of the smaller residential line in front of mine.

The city inspector determined that, since the sewer line had a very shallow slope, and that the front toilet was on a slab at ground level, it was easier for overflow to come out the toilet instead of lifting the manhole cover.  That was the news that signaled the end of the stained glass transom.

At that time there was news that a contractor in Los Angeles had laid a new basketball court improperly, and it had buckled severely and needed to be replaced.  This floor was made of 3/4" T/G hard maple, and finished with all the basketball lines and such.  The contractor had taken a saw and simply cut the floor into 12' x 8' chunks and piled them outside.  They were free for the taking.

Several of us guys (the ones with trucks) drove up there in a caravan and loaded up as much flooring as we could lift.  I remember my truck sitting on the axle, as I drove home with my headlights pointing to the sky.

Soon, I had a beautiful new hardwood floor in the front room, which raised the floor (and the toilet) over 6" (more than enough to solve the overflow problem).  The result was that I now hit my head on the transom window, which needed to be removed.  That meant I had to build a new front door, which ended up nearly 8 feet tall.
3815 Utah Street

That was over 35 years ago, and I still miss the light coming through the window.

The rest of the building has been changed and adapted to my uses over the years.  Thanks to Asa, at Fine Woodworking, I can invite you to take a tour.  This link will take you to a short presentation.

3815 Utah Street Shop Tour

I hope you enjoy it, and if you are ever in San Diego, please ring the bell and visit.
Categories: Hand Tools

COPE'S Patent?

Sat, 07/05/2014 - 12:30pm
Who is Mr. COPE?
I have posted several times about the importance of identifying original hardware as a primary means of authenticating antique furniture.  See my recent post on "Respect the Screw."  It is always a moment requiring thoughtful consideration as I work on antiques, whether I should remove a screw or other metal element which has never been touched before.  It is easy to x-ray furniture, and in the future, as they search more and more for period furniture which has survived, it is obvious that they will resort to x-rays to see the type of screw thread under the wood, without disturbing it.

In addition, during the 19th century, there were numerous design patents issued in several countries which are a matter of record, and it is common that the owner of the patent would mark his hardware accordingly.
Undisturbed and Original from 1825

I found it interesting that two different pieces of furniture came in for restoration at the same time, each with plate castors marked "COPE'S PATENT."  I searched briefly on the web and found lots of English Regency and early Victorian furniture with the same castors, but could find no real reference to the patent or its dates.

Marquetry Chest
The first piece which came in was purchased in France, and is a very interesting marquetry chest.  The inside is upholstered in tufted, floral fabric, and there is a large engraved key plate, which is very unusual.  The hinges which fasten the top are fixed with blunt screws dating pre 1846, but the wheels, marked "COPE" are fastened with later pointed screws, so they may not be original.  It is possible the round feet were added at some point.

In any case, it is not clear if this chest is English or Continental in origin.  The highly developed marquetry surface is a unique form of "jeux de fond" which includes a 3 dimensional pattern incorporating the cube in a grid.  Really interesting and creative.  I know of no other pattern like this in my experience, and I am dying to copy it on something.  The main veneer is Brazilian rosewood, and I suspect the chest was made around mid century.

English Rosewood Tilt Table
The next week I picked up an English Regency tilt top center table.  I was pleased to note that it had its original castors, also marked "COPE" and each fastened with original screws which were untouched.  In fact, this table is in fairly original condition, also made of rosewood, with gilt trim.  It appears to be from around 1830 or so by its style.

I wanted to post this and ask if anyone reading this has more information about these castors.  It would be great if I could find out more about Mr. Cope and his wonderful wheels.

Categories: Hand Tools

by Dr. Radut