Fine Furniture and Built-Ins
Major André's Bane
We were commissioned to build a colonial drop-front secretary for a Kansas City couple. They knew the exact piece they wanted us to reproduce and the museum in which it was housed.
During our research into the piece's provenance, we discovered that it was locally famous in Tappen, New York as the very secretary at which General Washington signed the death warrant for convicted British spy, Maj. John Andre, on October 1, 1780.
John André was a British officer during the American Revolution. A favorite of the British Commanding General Sir Henry Clinton, the handsome and charismatic young Andre rapidly rose to the rank of major and a position on the General's staff.
He was admired by friend and foe alike, including the American commander, Gen. George Washington whose prisoner of war Andre had been for a few months before being repatriated in a prisoner exchange.
André was Benedict Arnold's British Army contact during Arnold's treasonous plot to sell the critical American fortress at West Point to the British for 20,000 pounds - an enormous sum for the time. Had he succeeded, Washington's ragtag Continental Army would have been flanked by the British and most likely annihilated.
Captured on September 23, 1780, while carrying condemning documents, André was tried by court-martial in Tappen, New York and convicted as a spy. The British ignored the American offer to exchange Andre for Arnold. The 31-year-old major was executed by order of General Washington on October 2, 1780. Arnold fled to England where he lived out the rest of his unhappy life condemned by the Americans and distrusted by the British.
In the late 1700s there no standards for dimensioned boards. Every cabinetmaker cut and planed his boards to a thickness he preferred. The wood in the secretary was a full 1" thick - a dimension that today we refer to as 5/4 ("five quarter") stock. Our reproduction is fabricated from 5/4 mahogany.
The exterior of the piece is an exact replica of the original Andre secretary. No one knows what the interior looked like because the pigeonhole assembly is missing — a not uncommon fate of 18th-century pigeonholes. However, it was likely to have been plain and functional unlike the very decorated interiors being made in Europe. We designed one consistent with the period to fit the secretary, including the almost mandatory "hidden" compartments (nearly everyone knew how to find them).
The case sides are joined to its top with hand-cut dovetails. In the original, these were probably concealed by applied molding, which has long since disappeared.
All drawer fronts are also joined to drawer sides with hand-cut dovetails. The drawer backs and sides are joined with finger joints cut with a backsaw — a technique consistent with 18th-century cabinetmaking.
The solid wood drawer bottoms are recessed into dadoes cut in the drawer sides using a plough plane. Since the bottoms are solid wood, they need to expand and contract, and are glued only at the front so the back takes up the expansion.
The base is made from solid 4" mahogany stock. The original's base was 5/4 stock. It was not strong enough to hold the weight of the piece, which has an obvious sag.
The drop-front lid is a single piece of wood. We were amazed to find it, and suspect it may be the last 24" wide mahogany board left anywhere. The edge profile on the lid was cut with a scratch bead (see main article) rather than on a router or shaper, to make it more authentic for the period.
The finish is lacquer over shellac, hand rubbed to a high gloss. The tint is permanent aniline dye. We prefer this to stains because dye does not mute the wood's figure like stain.
The authentic period hardware from Ball and Ball is made the same way as it would have been in the late 1700s, sand cast then machined and polished. The sole difference is that this hardware is protected by a thick clear coating so it does not tarnish and require frequent polishing.
The finished piece weighs over 150 lbs. It was built to last for at least 200 years, and baring mishap or accident, with reasonable care, it will.
We craft fine furniture and built-ins to match any decor or preference. From traditional to avant-garde, from Chinese to French Provincial, there is no look we cannot reproduce. Whether you want a wall of lacquered Asian cabinets, an entertainment center to match your Art Deco living room, a set of Tansu chests under the stairs, a faithful copy of an heirloom chest, or your antique armoire converted to hold your big-screen TV — whatever you need, we have the tools, the know-how and the experience to build it right.
A Claw & Ball-Foot Mahogany Dining Table
This project started when our customer bought six early American dining chairs at an auction. These elegant pierced-splat Chippendale-style chairs were made of mahogany with serpentine legs and claw and ball feet. Beautiful chairs. And in excellent condition.
What he wanted us to do was build a matching table with serpentine legs and claw and ball feet using traditional 18th century methods and tools. OK, we could do that.
Research and Preparation
First, we had to find a source of 5/4 mahogany. Today's typical prepared boards are 4/4 ("four quarter") boards, which are 3/4" thick. The finished dimension for these boards, however, had to be a full 1" typical of the period: in the trade, these are referred to as 5/4 ("five quarter") boards. We did find some in Wymore, NE from a company called Mill Direct which was able not only to supply us with 5/4 boards but also with 4" stock for the legs.
Next, we needed to do some research on 18th century dining tables. We quickly found out that early dining tables had no respect for the standard table dimensions of today. Every Colonial cabinetmaker had his own idea of the proper height, width, and length of a dining table — and no two had the same idea.
We cleverly reckoned that the most compatible table would be one made by the chair maker. He would dimension his table to match his chairs. The chairs were, or so the antique experts told us, most likely from Philadelphia in the late 18th or early 19th century, and possibly made by a student of Benjamin Randolph (but not by Randolph himself which would have made them worth many thousands of dollars). So, we needed to find a museum that had a table by Randolph and copy it.
Turns out that chair making in the 18th century was a craft unto itself. Chairmakers did not make tables, and only a few cabinetmakers made chairs. Furniture was not made in suites as it is today. Chairs, tables, and casework such as sideboards and chests were purchased separately from different makers.
We did, however, locate a table in a collection in Hartford, Connecticut that was a good match. The curator of the collection was delighted to sell us photographs and measured drawings.
All tables are made pretty much the same way. Four legs are joined to a frame (which is called an "apron"). The table top is attached to the frame. That's really all there is to it. If the tabletop is solid wood, allowance must be made for movement in the wood or the top will crack and split over time.
Today, most solid wood tops are built with the boards oriented along the long axis of the table. This design minimizes wood movement. The top of this table, however, was oriented across the long axis. No one had a clue why. But the wood movement could be as much as 1/2" from season to season. That is a lot of contraction and expansion and we had to attach the top with special care to accommodate that much movement. The maker of the original table did not allow for the movement, so his tabletop has split into several places.
We first joined the four apron members to the four 4" square posts that we intended to use for the serpentine legs. The joints were pegged mortise and tenon — by far the strongest option. Although we did use glue, the pegging and careful fitting should have been enough to hold the members together mechanically without the need for glue. If the glue does ever fail, however, the joint is easily disassembled and reglued — a major consideration in a piece meant to last for hundreds of years.
A mortise and tenon joint is properly cut when it takes one or two thumps with the heel of your hand to force the pieces together. If they slide together easily, the joint is too loose (and may come apart). If you need a mallet to force them together, the joint is too tight (and may split the wood). Once all of the joints are cut, the legs are fitted to the frame without glue (dry fitted) to make sure everything goes together properly, the joints are tight, and the apron is square and level.
Shaping the Serpentine Legs
To get a pattern for the serpentine legs, we placed stiff white cardboard behind a chair leg and, using a bright light to cast a strong shadow, traced the leg's shadow on the cardboard. That gave us the pattern for the chair leg. To get a table leg, we had to lengthen the pattern and make a slight change in the graceful serpentine curve to fit the longer leg.
To cut the leg, the pattern is drawn on both sides of the front of the leg, and carefully cut out on a band saw. The old cabinetmakers would have used a frame saw, but it's the same technique minus the electricity.
Once the rough cut has been made, the legs are individually shaped to final form with a spokeshave, scrapers, and rasps. The first leg to be shaped becomes the pattern for the other three. Finally, using carving tools, we cut in the claw and ball foot. This looks more complicated than it really is. The serpentine leg seems almost naturally suited to a claw and ball foot — which is probably why the early cabinetmakers thought it up in the first place.
The Table Top
The top of the table is made of 5/4 mahogany boards. The edges of the boards were carefully squared and pegged and glued together. The top was then cut to its final size. The edge of the table is profiled in a recessed curve. The pattern is not a typical one used in modern tables, but is graceful and elegant and fits the style very well. Today we would use a router or shaper to cut a straight even profile with a few hours work. In the 19th century, a cabinetmaker would have used a hand molding plane, but such planes were not common in the earlier century.
An 18th-century craftsman would have cut this with a shop-made scratch bead. A scratch bead does not make an exact and straight profile. A little unevenness and a slight wave are almost inevitable, which is part of the charm of the original table, something we wanted to reproduce. We made up a scratch bead and practiced on scrap wood until we had the technique down. It's hard work and takes hours and hours to do. But the authentic result is well worth it.
AssemblyTo assemble the table, the legs are first joined to the apron. Holes are drilled through the legs and into the tenon for pegs. The holes are slightly offset so as the pegs are driven in, the joint is pulled very tight. The apron is squared up. After 24 hours to allow the glue to set, the top is attached to the apron using floating fasteners. These allow the top to move freely in response to changes in humidity, yet keep the top firmly attached. Then the top is removed again for finishing.
Sandpaper was not invented until the 19th century. To prepare a piece for finishing, the old cabinetmakers used planes to even the surface, and scrapers to smooth it out. In a very well equipped shop, sharkskin would be used for the final smoothing.
A wood surface prepared with scrapers looks different from one finished with sandpaper. A scraper cuts the wood fibers, sandpaper scrubs them off and deposits fine wood dust that has to be removed. A scraper produces fine, almost transparent curls of wood, much like a plane. A carefully scraped surface looks almost shiny. We scraped the tabletop absolutely smooth and finished by touching up the rest of the piece with very fine sandpaper (We don't know where to get sharkskin).
The underside of the top was deliberately neither scraped nor sanded. Finishing wood in the old days was such a laborious task that any surface not exposed to view was usually left pretty rough — some famous pieces in museums even have bark still on the wood here and there where it does not show. We just made sure that no dinner guest would get splinters in his or her knees, and left it at that.
Staining and Finishing
Early American furniture was seldom stained. If it had been, finishers would have used vegetable dyes, which would have long since faded to nothing. The colors we see now are the result of 200+ years of the wood aging. Since we did not have time to wait 200 years, we helped the aging process along with a permanent aniline dye. We prefer dye to stain which muddies the grain figure. Dye does not.
The finish is three coats of brushed lacquer over a seal coat of clear shellac. The original piece would have been oiled or shellacked. Lacquer in the 18th-century was rare and expensive. The tabletop would probably have been French polished — a technique for forcing shellac mixed with pumice well into the wood for a glass-like surface. Lacquer, however, is a better choice, even if not entirely authentic. It resists stains and damage very well, yet can easily be refinished. Each coat was rubbed down with fine pumice, and the final coat polished with rottenstone to a high shine.
We can Build One for You Too
Such fine hand-craftsmanship is not something everyone wants or needs. Most of the furniture and built-ins we create are more suited to machine work, and we're good at that too. We save our clients most of the cost of hand-made cabinetry by using factory-made modules where possible for all of the custom look at a fraction of the custom price. But if we need to handcraft a piece of heirloom furniture, we can. We don't have to walk away from or compromise any piece we build because it involves old, hand techniques we are not familiar with.
We also have access to a lot of hardwood at very reasonable prices — hardwood grown, harvested, dried and milled in Nebraska. While the rest of the country seems to be running out of good furniture-grade hardwoods, Nebraska has not even been discovered as a source of good quality hardwoods by the national lumber providers. Fine woods such as walnut, maple, and cherry are available as are the less common, exotic, beautiful woods such as hackberry, Kentucky coffee, osage orange, and aromatic cedar: to name but a few. See our Guide to Nebraska Hardwoods for Cabinetmakers and Woodworkers for a comprehensive list of Nebraska hardwoods.
For all of your built-ins and custom furniture requirements, whatever they are, if you want to ensure quality work at a reasonable price, contact us and let's talk about it. You will find our workmanship second to none, and our prices very reasonable. We guarantee our craftsmanship with a written three-year warranty no one else even tries to match.