Monday, March 15, 2010

New Life for a Beautiful Old Table.

The job I have just complete was to re-build an old table. This beautiful oval extending table is a family heirloom - but has had a hard life too. The owner approached me, keen to have the table repaired and the missing extension leaf replaced. So I picked up the table from their home and have begun the rebuilding task.

The two halves of the top are removed here, showing the damaged frame.

The damage was extensive - more than I realised when I put the table in the back of my ute. It was when I started to investigate the table closely in the workshop that the true situation became evident. See the pic above! A jarrah table with cabriole legs, the extending mechanism is of the winding type with a crank handle. The end rail which houses the winding "socket" was smashed into 4 pieces. Of the 8 primary joints in the frame, 7 of these were broken. In most of these, the tenons were broken off inside the legs.

Rebuilding the Table Frame.

The table had been repaired before, long ago. However these repairs had failed too, so I pulled these joints apart as well, removing the metal brackets used in that old repair. These tenons had been broken also.

This pic shows the top of a leg, showing a typical broken tenon. The other broken tenon I have removed already from the mortise which has been cleaned out.
I have made two new ends for the table frame - as one was smashed into 4 pieces and the other was split through the middle and with the tenons missing on each end.
This pic shows one of the side rails with the tenon smashed off it. Rather than replace this whole side rail, I cut out a piece of it and housed in a new piece which would include the missing tenon. The next pic shows the result...

This side rail had a new section added which included a new tenon. Here the screws are being added to reinforce the glued lap joint. Note the slotted countersunk screws being used, in keeping with the original table. How long since you saw Nettlefords 9 gauge screws, Woodies?

Pulling apart the table gives away the secrets of how it was made. It was obviously made in a workshop environment, a combination of machine work and hand work. It is clear dado blades in a table saw were used to cut the table button grooves and the sliding mechanism grooves in the long side rails. A table saw was used for cutting one cheek of the tenons, and hand sawing cut their shoulder. The back face of each tenon was the back face of the rail. A mortising borer (probably on the end of a table saw spindle I reckon) was used to cut the mortises in the legs, as evidenced by the round ends in the mortises. Hide glue was used to assemble the table - most of which had held despite the abuse - hence the mortises had snapped off rather than the glue giving way. The table buttons were fashioned by hand, and yellow pine angle blocks were used to shore up the inside corners of the frame. Glued and nailed. The glue on these blocks had failed on many of the joints - it was the nails which mostly held these in place. The jarrah had been stained to a dark walnut colour on the visible faces. The curved corner wings of the cabriole legs were glued and nailed in place, with a dowel also used with each of these on the far end of the table. Very simple construction and mechanism. I will add new corner blocks to the 7 joints that I rebuild, as well as replacing the two ends of the frame.

One of the re-built corners around the leg. With the top corners of the cabriole "wings" broken off and missing, you can see here how I am gluing in small blocks which I will then shape to complete the curves at the transition point.

This pic shows one of those missing top corners of the cabriole "wings" now in the process of being shaped to complete the nice flowing transition to the leg.

The table frame here is rebuilt and prepared ready for staining and finishing. I moved the frame out of the workshop into the patio, where there would be better light for the staining and finishing. To get the new jarrah to match the old finish, after some trials I used a walnut flavoured wiping stain to get the colour up and then applied several coats of shellac over the lot. This was followed by a dark furniture wax -with a hint of walnut flavour in it as well.

Here the frame is being re-attached to the two halves of the top. As I was using only slotted traditional wood screws, the good old "Yankee" spiral ratchet screwdriver came in very handy for fixing the table buttons. They still can outclass the cordless drill/driver for screwing in slotted screws. When repairing the frame, I often used a slotted bit in a brace, for much more purchase. Wonderful!
The extension mechanism's threaded rod needed straightening, so I did that as best I could using a metal vice and an anvil. Much better. The threaded nut is cast brass or bronze, with the manufacturer's inscription: J & A, F'cray, V. I did a bit of googling for info about "J&A" in Footscray Victoria, but I have not found any info at all. Does anyone out there know anything about this foundry or manufacturer? It might help to date the table... At this stage I am guessing that the table was made in Perth sometime between 1900 and the 1920's.

Making the new Extension Leaves.
Now that the rebuilding of the table has been completed, it was time to get onto making the missing extension leaves. The table extends about 18 inches to the limit. Instead of making one wide leaf (which are a pest to store) I made two narrower leaves, as these are easier to store, not too heavy, and more versatile.

The challenge with these jobs is obtaining the right material to match the old. Lots of old furniture was made from timber finished to 7/8ths of an inch in the old language (22mm). Somewhere along the way, someone out there in the timber industry decided that 1" rough sawn timber would be dressed to 3/4" (19mm). The standard dressed sizes for jarrah in Western Australia for decades has been ex- 1" to 19mm and ex-1 1/2" to 30mm. It's a lot of wastage when you think about it, but I guess that reflects one of the down sides of high volume mechanisation. The only way to get 22mm thick dressed timber is to dress it yourself - either from 25mm rough sawn stock or to boil down 30mm dressed sticks - even more wastage and very expensive!

However there is one more alternative. Salvaged timber. I frequent my local salvage yard where I often buy timber which I recycle, and keep an eye out for those rare goodies which come in from time to time. Some months ago, I came across some old shelving which had come out of an old house which had been demolished. At the time I had snapped it up, as these were jarrah boards 2.7m long and 250mm wide. I bought 2 sticks at 22mm thick and 2 at 33mm. So one of these 22mm sticks gave me the timber I needed to make the two leaves. Lucky I hadn't used it already! Fancy that - 7/8" thick nice wide boards and about the same vintage as the table! Just perfect.

Sorry, there are no photos of the making of the leaves - I was too focused on what I was doing to remember to take any pics!

Making the new leaves was easy. Trying to match the colour was a real challenge... but then, it almost always is with restoring old furniture. I had several goes with a range of different stains but just couldn't get a perfect match. Three times I got the finished polish on and decided it wasn't good enough - so had to take it all off and start again! What I have settled with is a bit reddish in tinge, but actually it looks really nice in the centre of the table. I will never guarantee to be able to do a perfect colour match - for good reason!

We had a very nasty storm the other day in Perth. At least $100 million in damages across the city. At the time we had moved the table into our house from the workshop area, to make sure it would be safe. The pic above shows the table where I left it in our living area - completed and waiting to be returned to the customer. The rags under the feet are to protect the jarrah floor from drag marks and to reduce friction when the table is extended and wound back in again.
This next picture shows the table with the leaves removed and sitting on top.

What a delightful privilege has been to give new life to a wonderful old piece of furniture. In many ways, furniture and people have a lot in common...

Job done - and the table's story continues to unfold...

The story of the table is echoed in the way that it has been made, the battle scars and stains in the top and the frame, the marks of the earlier repairs which were made to it long ago, the old-looking new extension leaves, the memories embedded in it of the family which have passed it down the line, and the new structural repairs which I have just undertaken. This and more all adds up to create the story of the table - which gives it it's character and identity.

I am told that the family are looking forward to gathering around the table to have morning tea on the morning I will be delivering it back to it's proud owners. A new chapter of the table's story begins...


  1. I love this post, thanks for sharing it with us! The table looks amazing, you gave it a new life :) I'm also planning to restore my grandma's old table for my new dining room.

  2. Thanks for sharing this.

    There's lots of really insightful advice on offer here.