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Home > News, Articles & Multimedia > Blog Entry > Discretion and Valor: Knowing when to ‘Just Say No’ to Furniture Repair

Discretion and Valor: Knowing when to ‘Just Say No’ to Furniture Repair

by Fred Taylor (06/12/12).

When a chair breaks in these places it’s time to find another chair.

There is an old adage you may remember; “Discretion is the better part of valor” It applies to the purchase and restoration of antique furniture as well as the other parts of our lives. Knowing when something is not practically repairable to original or usable condition is most often an acquired characteristic—a gift, really—generally found in the more mature segment of any collecting population. Sure, there are times when a talented and inspired restoration artist can do what seems to be a miracle, but the right combination of the challenge, the talent and the inspiration occurs fairly rarely in the real world. Therefore, most of us need some general guidelines on when to expect a miracle and, more importantly, when not to.

The following are some of the situations I have encountered in two decades of furniture restoration when it is best to “just say no.” Granted, each of these situations has a “yes, but…” attached to it, but in the long run “no” is the right answer.

Significant water damage to the top of an oak (or walnut) treadle sewing machine cabinet: After these machines were replaced in the 1920s and ’30s with electric machines, most of the old treadle machine’s cabinets were relegated to the ignominious role of plant stand and, as such, received as much water as the plants. Usually, the water damage is severe and someone has probably already started peeling off the old veneer with the bright idea of just refinishing what’s under the veneer. Most experienced refinishers already know to pass on these and knowledgeable collectors will do so as well. Just say no.

Chair leg broken completely off horizontally where a stretcher intersects: This is a case of looking easy and being impossible. You can’t just glue it back on because it won’t stay and there is no place to vertically dowel the leg back on because a significant amount of the wood in the leg has already been removed to accommodate the stretcher. This can probably be repaired to look like a chair leg but it will never function as a chair leg, i.e. carry one fourth of the weight placed on the chair. Just say no.

Back stile of a chair broken of horizontally at the seat joint: You can do all kinds of cute vertical inserts across the break, like splines and biscuits and tenons and … but see above and save yourself the aggravation. Just say no.

Rear leg of an upholstered chair (club, wing, fauteil, bergere) broken horizontally at the level of the fabric: This exposed leg portion is usually only the bottom eight inches or so of a piece of wood that forms the entire back structure of the chair, from floor to crest rail. If this main structural member is broken at its main stress point, just say no.

Side rail to a bed has had the hook ripped out: This usually occurs when one person tries to move (drag) a bed to clean under/around it rather than waiting for help. If the side rail hook isn’t ripped out, then the headboard or footboard probably was, which is much easier to fix than the side rail. The hook is generally held into the side rail by two metal dowels of 19/64-inch diameter but only engage about an eight of inch of wood on each side of the hook inside the rail. If the wood in the rail is fairly intact, the hook might be reinstalled with new holes drilled for the metal dowels. If the wood in the side rail is shredded, just say no. Get a new rail.

A 20th century Colonial Revival dining table is warped from heat and/or moisture: If the table were an 18th-century solid mahogany table, no problem. Apply water, heat and stress and the solid wood will respond. The same applies to a walnut mid-19th-century table or even an early 20th-century solid oak table. But in the case of Colonial Revival, you probably are dealing with the five layer veneer process and each layer of the table is now stretched or compressed at right angles to each other layer and the chance of getting it back straight falls in the category of … just say no.

Stain the mahogany to look like oak: The first question is “why?” Mahogany is already generally darker in its natural form than is oak and staining by definition can only make something darker. You can only down on the spectrum; you can’t “stain up.” Of course, you can go through the tortuous process of bleaching the mahogany to bright white and staining down to oak but again, why? Why not just get something else to match the oak and appreciate the mahogany for what it is? Just say no.

Refinish a piece that has been belt-sanded: This process is painfully obvious from the deep sanding marks all over the piece and the uniquely wavering flat surfaces that result from a hand-held belt sander in the hands of an enthusiastic wielder. Severe belt-sanding marks are more or less permanent additions to a piece of furniture. If you detect-belt sanding marks, just say no.

Broken tea cart wheels: The most common affliction of tea carts is that the wheels fall apart. Usually, the spokes break where they fit into the hub or they just all come rolling out at the same time and you are left with a rim and a hub and a handful of spokes. Don’t even bother with the repair effort. Either order new wheels from Van Dyke and be done with it or, better yet, just say no.

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

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

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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4 Responses to “Discretion and Valor: Knowing when to ‘Just Say No’ to Furniture Repair”

  1. After 40 years in the antique furniture restoration business, I’ve come to conclude that all of questions about whether to restore or not restore usually can be sorted out on the economic or sentimental level. None of the problems listed above are truly impossible, they are just impractical when the pieces concerned don’t either have the monetary or sentimental value to justify the work. If someone has a family set of eight 18th c. Chippendale chairs and one of them is broken at the seatrail/backstile junction, it may even be practical to replace the entire leg and backstile. If the set is 1950′s Leavitz I would recommend just dropping the set off at Goodwill and driving away quickly.

  2. From what you said, depending on the extent of the damage, it may be a good idea to examine it to see if it’s fixable. Good read.

  3. Steven Green says:

    Exactly. When to say it can be done and it should be done are two different things. So basically, we say it can be done, but if it depreciates the value, then should you do it? Furniture repair needs a lot of thinking whether to do or not to do.

  4. Dana Caffrey says:

    This is something I really should know. I have this very old rocking chair given by my grandma, I want to restore it but my mom said it’s time to let it go. I think she’s right. I will dispose it tomorrow.

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