Leather Top Table ( More Carving like a machine )

This is a low table, factory made, machine carved, it was built sometime in the first half of the twentieth century. It came in to the shop missing one leg otherwise in fair condition. One of the existing legs was split where it connected to the pedestal when someone drove a nail in to reinforce it. The split leg was removed and used as a pattern for the new leg.

2001 The original legs were glued up with a cross grain strip down the middle for reinforcement, I did the same with the new blank.

2003After I glued up the blank I transferred the pattern to it with dividers.

2004Here you can see the marks left by the dividers. The measurements were taken directly from the original leg with dividers and transferred to the blank with the dividers and drawn in freehand.

2005By mounting the blank to a board I am able to use the leg vise to hold it while carving.

2006Further along.

2007By mounting the original leg under the new leg, I can make close comparisons and transfer direct divider measurements to the blank.

2008Further along.

2009More holding options.


2011Almost done.


2013By clamping blocks to the legs.

2014I was able to clamp and glue the legs to the table.

2015All the legs in place.

2016The leg stained with raw umber and Vandyke brown. You can see that it is not quite dark enough.

2017Here I applied a burnt umber glaze.

2018The glaze wiped down all that is left is a little toner and it’s done.

2019Then I will need to do a little work on the top.


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Carving like a machine ( game table )

A game table probably from the 1940s missing one leg and parts of the other three. The challenge here is to hand carve parts that look like they were carved by a machine.

202 I cut poplar blocks for the missing pieces of the feet.

201The blocks were glued in place with hide glue

203I made a stencil from an existing foot, traced it on all the blocks and roughed them out with a saw.

204I was able to clamp the legs in a vice to carve them without removing the legs.

205One foot repaired.

206I made a template from an existing leg, cut out the parts and glued them up.

207Roughed out leg mounted in the vice.

208The leg carved and shaped.

209Gluing the new leg in place.

210All the new parts glued in place.

211The new leg stained with burnt sienna and burnt umber.

212Finished with lacquer, toners and a glaze.

213The finished table closed.

215and open.

214You may remember this top from the post on cleaning a finish.

table top

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The Miniature ( Dog Cart 2 )

Where we left off the last time, the new spokes are installed.

101Here is the complete running gear.

102 The cart with all the new parts. In addition to the obvious wooden parts a few metal pieces were also made.

103Coloring and finishing the spokes, for this I used thin washes of artist’s acrylic paint to build the color. then sealed it with garnet shellac.


Adding some dirt and age with earth pigments.

110All; the replacement parts finished and the rest cleaned.


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The Miniature ( Dog Cart, part 1)

A dog cart made by the Birdsell Manufacturing co. These carts were made very much like the full size wagons the company made. They were popular from the 1870s to the 1920s. They were even sold through the Sears Roebuck catalog.


I recently had the opportunity to work on one of these dog or goat carts. Below are the running gear notice that one rear wheel is missing the spokes.


Here the spoke blanks are being planed in preparation for turning the taper.


The spokes were turned on the lathe and fitted to the hub with a round tenon.


Removing the steel tire from the wooden rim.


The wooden rim was just nailed to the spokes, on a full size version they would have been morticed.


Removing the nails from the rim. The rim is clamped over a dog hole in the bench so I can drive the nails out.


The rim is clamped to the spokes to mark the length.


The wheel and running gear repaired.


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Systems ( the chicken or the egg )


There are a several guides or systems, that are said to help one learn to “design” furniture. The most cited examples are, the column orders, the golden rectangle and the Fibonacci series  among others. There are  problems with all of the systems one is that they were not developed to help design anything. They were used after the fact to help analyze a piece that had already been designed and built, in that regard they can be helpful.

While there must be pieces somewhere that were built using one of these systems, the vast majority do not fit. All you have to do is try to apply any of the systems to a piece, very few if any pieces will fit exactly into one of the systems. You would think that if the designers of the pieces we believe to be noteworthy had used a system up front that there would be pieces that fit the system precisely. While there are pieces that have some elements that fit a system and others that come close, it is rare to find an antique piece that fits a system exactly. Throughout history many talented individuals with a natural sense of design built furniture, much of it following the fashion of the day, and at a later date, people tried to figure out how they did it.

Another problem with any system is that how we see any piece is modified by the place in which it is seen. In other words how we see any piece depends on where we see it. A seven foot tall piece may look too tall in a room with eight foot ceilings and too short in a room with twelve foot ceilings. Just as a shirt with horizontal stripes will make you look heavier than a shirt with vertical stripes. Design is dependent on how we see and none of the systems acknowledge this.

In the twentieth century science began to understand how we see and how it influences design. If you want to learn to design furniture you need to study the modern understanding of vision and it’s connection with design. There are hundreds of books on design many good and many bad, studying design is not easy, that’s why so many people search for and advocate some simple system.

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Pompous Ramblings, You Can’t Buy Skill

After rereading this post I’ve decided I sound like a pompous ass, maybe I am.


On the woodworking forums, there are endless debates over which grinder, plane, chisel, saw, hammer or any other tool or machine is the best and only one to buy. Frankly these threads get old and I tend to not read many of them, unless I am to tired to work and to awake to sleep. I realize that there is a constant stream of new people entering the woodworking world, so I guess, in some way there is a need for the rehashing of theses topics.  Recently while reading the latest best tool debate, I had a thought. What they are  really debating is “can you buy your way out of acquiring a skill”? Can you buy a grinder that works so well that you don’t have to learn to how to grind your blades without burning them, or more generally can you buy your way out of acquiring the skill necessary to use a tool? I have been as guilty of trying this as any body I have lots of tools that were supposed to make tasks in the shop easier, most make no difference at all or minimal at best, I have a wet grinder that hasn’t been used in years, lots of sharpening stones, hundreds of planes and chisels. After many years of buying and using tools I have come to the following conclusions.

Good tools are a pleasure to use, but even the very best tool eventually goes out of adjustment, gets dull, has wear. You must develop the skill  to use and maintain your tools. If you can’t make an old plane do what you want it to do, and you don’t know why, buying a new plane won’t help, and if it does it will be temporary. There is no way around developing the skill needed to use, set up and maintain a tool, you can’t buy it.

Developed skill is cumulative. Each new skill you learn adds to you previous skills and transfers to others. The building of skills leads to mastery. The mastery of one tool adds to the mastery of the next.

I’ll probably get grief for this but I believe you develop skill faster with hand tools than with power tools. Are power tools faster than hand tools? In some cases they certainly are, but in some cases hand tools are actually faster. If I need to surface 500 feet of rough lumber I hope I have my power planer, at the same time I know if I only need 18 inches of molding I can strike it faster with hand planes than I could set up the router table or shaper.

There is something that happens after you have used hand tools for a long, long time. I’m not sure I can convey it in words, it’s about skill and knowing your tools. At a certain point you no longer are conscious of the tool you are using, all you think about is what you want to do and it happens. The tool becomes an extension of you body, you can feel the wood through the tool, you just make stuff.  In the 60’s we used to call it being in the zone, it may have something to do with zen. Some people experience it with a musical instrument, some on a bicycle. If you have experienced it you know what I am talking about, if not you will think I am nuts. Once you have this experience, it becomes addicting and you find you use the hand tools more and more. After a while you can see other people doing it and you can recognize it in the work.  For some people and I’m one, this is why the process of wood working becomes more important than the final product. It doesn’t matter what you make or even if you ever finish it, it’s not about the stuff it’s about the process, it’s a journey as long as your moving it’s good.

At this point the tool marks take on a new meaning and you no longer want to totally get rid of them, they become part of the story, just as brush strokes become an important part of a painting, the tool mark can be an important part of wood working. They are the record of the journey.

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Clean a finish before you decide to strip it off

Here we have the top of a small folding game table from the early to mid 20th century, as you can see it is fairly rough. Most people seeing it would immediately say it needs to be stripped and refinished. However before I ever make that decision I like to determine if the piece is rare, has any historical significance, what the finish is and give it a good cleaning. In this post I will go thru the process of cleaning step by step.

table top

This is the top of the table when it is folded.


The first step is to remove the dust and lose dirt and debris with a soft brush and cotton rag.


Next I like to inspect the surface under black light, the various resins used in finishes will fluoresce a slightly different color when viewed with the black light. By comparing the finish to a sample board of various finishes it’s sometimes possible to identify the finish. Even if you can not identify the finish you can determine if there is more than one finish on the surface.   Some times a piece has been over coated or has been spot repaired in the past, under black light it’s easy to see if there is more than one resin present even if you don’t know what they are.


In this case the black light showed only one finish present, I was relatively sure the finish was lacquer which I confirmed with a solvent test, that is what the white spots are from in the next picture. Without knowing what the finish is you don’t know what is safe to use to clean it.


The next step is to do the heavy cleaning, remember that there are usually three kinds of dirt and grim on a surface, water soluble and oil soluble and non-soluble. In each category you need to start with the weakest solvent and move to the next strongest until you remove what you are trying to get rid of. On this piece I used an all in one formula that, I have been told, was developed by the British Museum. This formula is relatively safe but with this and any other cleaner test on an inconspicuous spot to be sure it does no damage to the surface.

8 oz Turpentine
4 0z Denatured alcohol
2 oz White Vinegar
1 oz Murphy’s oil soap
1 oz Brasso
1 tea spoon household ammonia

Mix in the order given and shake well. If you know the finish is shellac you can back off the alcohol to be safe.

Some people say that turpentine is not necessary that mineral spirits will work, I have had mineral spirits cause some old shellac finishes blush (turn a cloudy white) so I no longer use it.

Just like the solvents start with the least aggressive applicator a cotton rag and progress to the stronger, a white nylon pad, a gray pad and so on.


As you can see this formula did a good job of cleaning this piece. It removed every thing except three areas of blush and several areas of black stain and some paint that is non-soluble.


The paint and any other non-soluble debris I removed with a razor blade.


At this point I determined that there were three areas of lifting veneer which I repaired before continuing.


Here we see there are a number of black water stains, these can be removed by bleaching. Again start with the least aggressive bleach and move to the strongest until you get results. In most cases water stains are caused by iron, the bleach to remove iron stains is oxalic acid, the least aggressive of the bleaches. If this did not work, next I would try household chlorine then swimming pool chlorine and finally two part wood bleach.

The blue liquid in the jar is oxalic acid based deck wash from the local hardware store I put it on with a brush and scrub it in with a green pad then let it dry, repeat until the stain is gone.


Below the top is partially bleached you can go as far as you want or leave some of the stains where they are depending on how you want the piece to look when done. I almost always go this far before I decide whether to strip or not. Normal strippers will not remove the black stains any way so not much work is wasted even if you do strip the piece. If a piece has true historical significance it should not even be bleached. The distress is part of the history. My personal preference is to do just enough bleaching to make the piece, when retouched, look like a well cared for antique but leave enough distress so the piece looks as old as it should.


I have not yet decided whether this piece will be retouched, re-amalgamated or striped and refinished. It will depend partly on the customers budget.

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The Erie canal was completed on October 26, 1825, it’s completion opened the areas west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlement and trade. Shortly after, Milwaukee began as a Great Lakes port and further opened the Midwest to a second migration of immigrants. Unlike the the first migration to the east coast which was mostly English, the migration to the Midwest was much more diverse with people from much of Europe. In the early 19th century, preindustrial furniture of the Midwest we find more of these diverse influences.

This is a cherry and butternut dresser with southern German or Alsatian influence. I believe it was made in Wisconsin prior to 1865 but after 1830, there were few Europeans settlers in Wisconsin prior to 1830. Due to the mixed wood construction it may have been originally painted.


Here we see one rear leg missing.

009  Another view of the missing foot.


Both back legs were worn short so that the dresser sat very off level. I glued in two blocks to level the case.


Begining the repair of the missing foot.


Piece added.


New foot in place.


More pieces added.



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Spitting in the Wind ( preaching to the choir )

test_board_01aIf you have not read Jack Planes post on hide glue, you should.

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Orchard Lawn [The Gundry House]

Orchard Lawn, the Italianate home built in 1868 by Joseph Gundry is the home of the Mineral Point Wisconsin historical society and their museum. The society has many photographs of how the house was furnished when it was built. They have found many of the original objects in the local community and are searching for the rest. In the attic of the home they found samples of the original carpets and wall coverings. The company that made the carpet is still in business in England. That company remade the carpet in 24 inch strips as the original was done, they then sent a man from  England to hand sew the strips together and install the carpet. The wall coverings and murals are also being recreated as funds become available.

About a year ago I restored 3 chairs for the Gundry House. Not long ago I visited the chairs to see them in their setting. The pictures are poor, there was no light and I did not have a tripod, but you can get the idea.

One of the above two had a broken leg and they both needed the leg joints to be reglued. I had to remove the seat upholstery and then put it back.

This one also needed to be reglued, and the seat had several holes and rips. I removed the seat and sewed it to a black backer cloth and put it back on. The backer reinforces the the original upholstery and helps hide the holes. The backer has a texture that matches the original and with the backer in place its hard to find the holes.

If I get back I will take a tripod and replace these pictures.

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