20th Century Casters – More Rust than Roll

This assortment of 20th-century casters present more problems than solutions for most homeowners.

This assortment of 20th-century casters present more problems than solutions for most homeowners.

One of the mysteries of the universe to me is “Why do so many 20th century pieces of furniture have wheels or casters on them?” A clue of sorts can be found in the generic name of many early 20th century items, those that are known as “Colonial Revival.” These pieces are modern replays of generally 18th-century North American furniture originals, which in their own right often owe their existence to earlier European styles, but that’s another story.

In the 18th century, carpet and other floor coverings were in much less general use than in the 20th century, and as such, floor care did not consist of carpet sweeping so much as the mopping of wooden or stone floors. Brass casters and forks or porcelain wheels served as lifts to keep the furniture off the floors during mopping so if the piece did get wet, it was the brass wheels and not the wood that had to deal with the moisture. The small wheels also were useful in moving heavier pieces small distances around the floor for cleaning purposes. But that was then and things are different now.

Carpeting and area rugs have been in general use for most of this century so the floor thing is no longer a valid reason for wheels. The truth is, I think, wheels just became a stylistic item with no real function other than to emulate earlier period styles. Then Art Deco added wheels in some cases as purely style innovations, for they were not emulating anybody!

The problem with these stylistic devices is that they often become a problem in their own right. Sooner or later, if a piece has wheels on it, someone is going to try to roll it across the carpet in order to clean around or behind it and then the problem starts. The 1-inch diameter wheels common on most 20th century pieces are really not built for speed. In fact, they are hardly built at all, and a close examination of the wheels and their support structure will reveal very lightweight materials and less than rugged manufacturing specs. The legs in which these casters are installed are very often painfully slender and frequently made of poplar, which tends to weaken over time as it dries out. This combination of design and structure often results in cracked or broken legs when the piece is rolled. In addition to leg wear-and-tear, the case structure of these pieces can take a beating as they are twisted and turned by the uneven rolling process.

After only a few trips around the room, cases need to be repaired because drawers no longer fit and doors don’t work due the torque applied to the main body. The long-term results of casters in beds is even more apparent. The stems of the casters are built to swivel in a metal sleeve in the wood, and the wheel itself is mounted on a fork in such a way as to be off center of the stem so that the effect of the wheel is to never provide a stable foundation for the leg. When a bed sits on four unstable foundations it will tend to move slightly with each nocturnal twist and eventually the side rails begin to fit not as snugly as they should and the joints in the bed frame itself begin to work loose. And each little loosening makes every other joint a little looser.

So what is the solution? If the piece is a 20th century piece, get rid of the wheels. Just take ’em off. Their absence will not detract from the value of the piece unless it is a very rare collector’s item and will in the long term aid in the preservation of the piece. This of course does not apply to Victorian furniture or to almost all other 19th- or 18th-century pieces. The only other time you need to be concerned about removing the wheels is on a table where height is very important. A 20th century dining table always has a height of 29 1/2 to 30 ½ inches, without exception. This is also standard writing surface height and a variation of even an inch or two is very noticeable. Such a height variation however is not critical to a chest of drawers, vanity, bed or china cabinet.

The wheels themselves are generally easily removable, either by just pulling them out of their sleeves or by using a screw driver to pry them out. But that still leaves metal sleeves in the legs to rust on your carpet or scratch your tile or wood floors. Removing the sleeves is not quite as easy a removing the wheels, especially if they have rusted in place a little.

The simple way to removal is to drive a wide bladed screw driver into the sleeve (be careful not to get carried away and split the leg) and turn the screw driver using a wrench or vice-grips. The sleeve should break loose inside and start to spin. As it spins retract the screw driver and the sleeve will come with it. If that fails, use an electric drill with a 3/8-inch bit to slowly start the sleeve moving and it should come out. If all else fails just drill it out! After the sleeve is out glue a 3/8-inch dowel in the hole, trim it flush with the leg and install a nylon tip in the end of the dowel. No more rust and no more roll. Now the temptation to “grocery cart” a nice piece of furniture has been removed and it will be much happier in the long run.

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Fred Taylor is a Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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