There was an approximately twenty year period when large pieces like the first item featured on this page were made in France. The distinctive crest marked whether it was from the 1890's or the first decade of the new century. The earlier pieces had an inverted S and the later pieces had an inverted C, as is illustrated to the right. They were all made with walnut and adorned with fancy veneer patterns and large decorative carvings, most also had mirrored doors as this one has.
The second piece is a small table with a fairly simple design made in the 1930s.
Both of these pieces were interesting due to the veneer work we were called on to do in restoring them to a renewed beauty and utility. Below we tell the stories.
This photo shows the worst example of a problem which was present on most parts of this armoire. It had been taken apart and stacked and was water damaged.
The two side doors have been removed, both were warped, the right door so badly so that it was not possible to mount it in all three hinges. The veneer on the side panels was badly buckling from the water.
In addition to much damaged veneer, there were bits and pieces missing here and there. This is the easiest to see. The inside of the doors were all veneered with bird's eye maple.
The two photos below illustrate some of the repairs done on the inside of the doors. Bird's eye maple begins fairly white and ambers over time. We will later do a little to blend the colors of the old with the new. The attempt was to preserve as much of the original veneer as possible. Applying all new veneer would have been easier. Patching is difficult, especially so as to get precise tight fitting seams between old and new.
The outside of the doors also needed veneer patching. The general ambering of the aged wood is also seen here, along with a mellowing of the blueish tone of the walnut into a more golden orange. The precision required by the repairs is again evident here, again in the tightness of the seams, but also in the alignment of the grain direction and the mirrored seam at the keyhole.
The insides of the side panels had buckling veneer as well. Placing pressure on the bottom of the inside of a box is difficult. This shows you what was required.
All the veneer on both side panels needed to be replaced. The white surface is the sanded side panel after the original veneer was removed.This is the first step, cutting and laying out the new veneer.
The veneer for the center diamond was specially chosen to have the same linear pattern but a pronounced dark to light contrast to emphasize the diamond. Here all is glued onto the flat surface of the side.
The outside perimeter of the veneer laid down in the previous step needed to be trimmed straight. The final step was to glue in place, the lighter colored, straight grained, framing veneer. All of this veneer is walnut.
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We will start the story of this little table showing it to you ready for refinishing. The final step prior to the finishing was to add the beading along the edge of the top. Much of the original beading was missing. We used what came with the table to complete the beading along the bottom edge. The beading along the top would be slightly larger modern beading, but after finishing, it looked like it belonged. It would have been possible but very costly to hand-make beading the same size as the original. Sometimes in restoring pieces, appropriate compromises must be made to recreate the original intent at a reasonable cost.
This table required a lot of work we are not picturing here. In addition to missing much of the beading, the original veneer on the top surface was gone and all the joints were loose. The finish wasn't in great shape, but because so much of the surface needed to be replaced, the old finish needed to be removed as well.
Rather than attaching a new book and butt matched walnut veneer to the top, which was the probable original veneer, this customer wanted to do something different. She chose a burl redwood veneer attached in a book and butt matched pattern. We suggested a thin, straight grained walnut frame.
The photo to the right and the one above illustrate one way to trim veneer to create a perfect seam at the joints. First you need a solid and true fence. We used this thick piece of maple, trued on a jointer. Two mating veneer surfaces are then squared up under the fence and a sharpened veneer saw is used to cut the seam. Razor blades and routers are also used for this task. In these photos you cannot see the clamps holding the maple and the veneer under it motionless as it is cut.
Once the cuts creating the four quadrants are completed, those four pieces are taped together on what will be the top surface. Sometimes the outer edge can be trimmed after the veneer is attached to the base. In this case, since we intended to add the thin walnut frame, the outside needed to be squared and trimmed as well as mated to the walnut frame strips. Complicated. Not a project for first timers! In this photo you can see the walnut frame prepared and taped to the redwood center. There is one more challenging step to go.
The walnut trim needed mitered corners. A mitered corner is one cut to match at a 45° angle. That also is tricky. We used our maple fence and lined it along the opposing corners. As long as we had been accurate in our work so far, that alignment would yield perfectly mitered corners. This time we used a razor blade to accomplish the cut. A razor blade does not leave a "kerf," which is material loss equal to the thickness of a saw blade. When creating a mitered corner it is important to create a perfectly mating seam which is an extremely difficult multi-step process with a veneer saw. As before, the maple fence is securely clamped in place.
All the work creating the new top is done other than gluing it to the original veneerless top surface. What you see here is the underside, the side which will receive a coating of glue. The opposite side has blue tape holding all the joints in place until the glue takes over that job.
This is the best photo we have of how well this wood selection and veneering job turned out. The redwood burl veneer is dramatic and full of vibrant life. The walnut frame helps to focus the eyes and creates an interesting contrast. You can also see that the seams are tightly fitting at all points.
Projects like this are why we love our work!
Most woods will shrink as they age and lose internal moisture. Many pieces we work on have issues at mitered corners where the shrinkage shows up dramatically. Since there is shrinkage at all four corners, the wood can't simply be snugged up at one corner to make that one good--that would leave larger gaps at the other corners. Further, the shrinkage is uneven from outside to inside the miter, and even if you were to snug the joint, it would no longer be tight. Either new trim pieces would need to be made, or the corners filled, which is what we did after this photo was taken.
At one point this was how this table looked. Completely disassembled, finish removed, marked for regluing, ready for sanding. When you are sitting at home or standing at a garage sale looking at a piece like this was, you have to have vision and a willingness to spend some time and money, or you should turn away and not give it another thought!
Was all the work worth it? We don't know what your answer would be and perhaps you don't either because we aren't telling you how much it cost to do all this. Think: way more money than what you would spend on a new piece of furniture almost anywhere. But this is a somewhat custom designed piece ready for the next century of use. At the very least, we don't know how anyone could say it isn't a striking and beautiful piece.