Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rejuvenating an Old Prayer Desk.

It's such a delight when I get to play with beautiful old furniture. I had an urgent job to do for a customer. An old prayer desk needed some attention. It had spent many years in an undercroft under the Rectory, until my customer had taken custody of it. After looking after the prayer desk for a few years, she felt the time had come to hand it back to the church from whence it had come, as a new priest was coming soon who wants to have use of a prayer desk. Time to give it a serious birthday!

I advised against us trying to strip it back and re-polish it, as antiques lose their value and lose their wonderful "story" when we remove the imprint of that story. I suggested a good cleaning, and we agreed it would be worth replacing the missing carving on the front. With the task defined and the deadline given, I loaded it into my ute and took it away. Oh, what a nice piece of furniture!
Front view of the prayer desk.

Rear view.

Plenty of built up grime visible in the carvings.
 There is a small brass plaque on the top. I Googled the name to find about this person. It would appear the prayer desk was made in honour of Melina Florence Parnell, who was the Principal (and owner) of the Claremont Girls High School for 30 years from 1895 to 1925. We don't know if it was made around 1925 when she retired or around 1944 when she passed away. When she retired she sold the school to the Anglican Church, who renamed it Saint Hilda's Girls School, which still operated today.

The prayer desk is made from Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata), which means it was made here in Perth, Western Australia. That's why it is so heavy! Jarrah is a beautiful material, and I know it well. However, after all these decades it was a bit dirty and stained. My task was to clean it up. I started by cleaning it with orange oil. A toothbrush helped shift the layers of dirt built up in the carvings and corners of the joints. Some 0000 Grade steel wool helped the orange oil shift the spider poo spots and other caked on gunk. The old stains in the original finish on the kneeler, presumably caused by spilt communion wine, would remain, still telling their story. The cleaning process worked a treat. I later applied a coat of furniture wax to rejuvenate it further.

Cleaned up and looking like new!
Yep, it looks good from the side as well...

 The etching on the plaque is very faint now, after many years of being polished (and worn away) with Brasso. The tell-tale sign  is the Brasso stain in the polish around the plaque. Fantastic. This piece of furniture oozes stories.

The plaque is much easier to read now it is has been cleaned.
The piece is in very good condition really, given its age and the fact that it spent some years in the corner of an undercroft before going into the care and custody of my client some years ago.   However, one small carving was missing from the front of the piece. That was the next challenge - to make a replacement carving. It is safe to assume it would have been the same as the existing one on the opposite side.

The missing carving would be the same as this one.
The three carvings across the front edge were originally glued into place. This was a common practice. However at some point the glue has come unstuck, maybe under impact, and the carving long gone.

That's the spot. One carving, gone missing.
 I started the process by cutting a piece of jarrah the right dimension but "overlong" to aid cramping on the bench. I then drew the centre flower and started carving.

Getting started...

Still rough, but it's taking shape.

The scroll saw being used to cut the outline before carving the outer leaves.
The carving is 2.5 inches long. The back of it had to be shaped to fit into the curve of the scotia behind it. A good fit will be important to obtain a good glue joint, so a contour gauge made that task easy. I didn't expect to make a perfect replica, but to get a close match would be OK. In fact, small variations in a piece of furniture are the hallmark of it being hand made. The completed carving was glued in place, given a coat of shellac, and then treated the same way as the rest of the piece during the rejuvenation. The resulting colour match was pretty good.
The replacement carving now fills the void.

Loaded back in the ute ready to be returned - job done.
The photo above shows how good the piece looks now that the missing carving has been replaced.

I'm pleased with the finished job, and so was my customer. It was certainly a pleasure and a privilege to be given the task of bringing this beautiful piece back to life. I confess I'm not that excited about contemporary furniture - especially the modern minimalist stuff. It's the older furniture which bears the marks and sweat of the craftsman who laboured over it which really makes my heart sing...

While working on it, I often wondered about the person who originally made this piece. Saw marks, chisel cuts, and other subtle reminders of the process they underwent to craft this prayer desk all spoke to me across the years. I hope I did 'em proud by my efforts, and acknowledge their skill and craftsmanship. I also enjoyed learning something about the amazing, Melina Florence Parnell, in whose memory this piece was originally commissioned and dedicated. A vibrant woman and educationalist who was ahead of her time.
Yes, and it's nice to know this beautiful piece, so laden with stories, will soon be used again for the purpose it was originally intended...


  1. Amazing restoration!

    I've happily stumbled upon your website. I've recently inherited tools, but I don't know how to use them.


    1. Angelina, it is a wonderful thing to inherit tools. There is something very special about using tools which have been used by others before you. I have many tools which have been passed through several pairs of hands for more than a century, and I will pass them on again when I am done.
      It's like a musician inheriting a Stradivarius Violin. It's a great honour, a joy, a responsibility ... and musicians know that instruments sound better the more they are played. Good tools are the same.
      You can easily learn how to use them, and an exciting new world will open up for you. If you need help finding somewhere/someone to teach you some traditional hand tool skills and techniques, just flick me an email and I could probably give you some contacts and leads. Enjoy!