Cherry Secretary

I have some new pieces to repair and prep for painting or other finishing. I thought I’d show you some ‘before’ pictures and discuss the required repairs and possible refinishing ideas.

First a digression on purity of intent, respect for the builder…yada yada yada… If you read books about furniture, you’ll quickly meet the purist, the guy who says, “don’t paint it, don’t fix it, leave it the way it was made” … And in the antiques marketplace, any work to modernize a piece, fix the finish, repair a leg, etc. meets with disdain and may well devalue the repaired piece. But we’re not in the antiques trade, we’re interested in working furniture, tools to live on. The criminal part of repairing a 100 year old bench, so it can actually be used, isn’t ruining the creators vision for the bench. The criminal part is repairing it instead of selling that broken bench to some collector for way too much money. Then you can afford to build nice new benches!

Truthfully, of course, we understand the importance of historical perspective. Important artifacts should be preserved in their context, but actually living in a museum isn’t much fun.

This is a mixed Chippendale / Hepplewhite / Federal style slant front secretary. The drawers are serpentine fronted, but the balance of the piece is straight lined. The primary wood is cherry (I think) Well it’s a reddish hardwood with figure typical of cherry anyway…

The pediment carving seems not ornate enough. It’s actually to my taste in its simplicity, but Chippendale stuff was usually much fussier. The simple wooden knobs and clean upper lines are what suggest Hepplewhite to me. I think the diamond shape of the glass is typical of the american federal period. Of course all the antique books always talk about mixed styles as a hint of faking or suspect provenance.

It has an interior that little kids just love, complete with secret compartments and mysterious hard to reach places.

Interior cubbies

Inside, there’s another hint that this might not be so old. The little door is held shut with scrap of leaf spring in the body, catching a protruding screw on the door. The screw looks quite modern, out of place in this secretary. Of course it might be a later repair. The doors of the bookcase are held shut with a captive ball-bearing-and-spring-in-a-sleeve in the case. Another fairly modern convenience.

Broken glider

Speaking of repairs, the desk leaf has separated into its three parts, the breadboard ends are quite loose. Also we’ve lost some hardware from the clever brass mechanism that pulls out the desk support glides. A funny thing about the desktop, the center piece should have shrunk more across the grain than the breadboard ends did with the grain. But the center section is actually a mm or two longer than the ends. This implies that the center section is either soaking wet, or it started out a little larger than the ends, perhaps to compensate for the shrinkage.

Silly feet

I guess you’d call these clawfoot bracket feet. Or maybe the stubbiest cabriole legs on the planet. Another suspicious mixing of styles. Also there’s only half a ball on these feet, was this cut down or is that part of the creator’s vision?

And while we’re here, those drawers are mighty suspicious, look at all those perfect little dovetails. Those were machine made, I think we’re in the 20th century, Toto…

Backing panel

And here’s the final ugly proof, the back panels are some kind of pulp board. At least there’s nails, not staples, holding on the panel, so we can hope the thing is at least 50 years old or so.

Well this is almost certainly a 20th century reproduction of an imaginary 19th century secretary. It’s a very nicely made piece of furniture, with a few flaws: The bracket feet weren’t fastened to the case well enough, they need to be removed and reworked. The back panel, typical of 20th century furniture, is pulling off the case, ripping out its nail holes. All that pulp board is such junk, I may replace that with a piece of thin luan plywood, stained to match the interior. The glass is loose in the doors and should be re-puttied.

But what about painting it? Well maybe not, the finish is still very attractive, it would be slightly criminal to cover it with paint when the varnish on it is good for another hundred years.