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Passing the Smell Test – Telling Good Advice from the Bad

by Fred Taylor (11/14/11).

Gluing a small piece of veneer into a loose mortise before gluing in the tenon will create a tight wood joint. This is a repair that passes the “smell test.” (Fred Taylor photo)

Need some advice about furniture? Want to know how to repair that chair or fix that ugly spot on the table top? Have a question about the properties of a specific finish or what stripper to use on a tough project? Finding advice about furniture issues is about as hard as catching a cold in January. Getting good advice is sometimes a little more difficult, but it can be done with some attention to detail and some hard work.

The first place to go is, obviously, the library if you are fortunate enough to live in a major metro area with good public services. But even then, how long will you have to devote to the search to find the specific answer to your specific question? Probably a lot longer than you are willing to wait.

So who do you ask? Most of us don’t know enough about a specific subject to ask the penetrating questions of an “expert” that would reveal the depth (or lack of it) of his or her knowledge. If we knew that much, we wouldn’t need their help. It’s sort of like going to the doctor. You don’t understand everything that’s said but you trust the practitioner. The same holds true for advice about furniture. You need a source you can trust, someone with a track record that can easily be verified or with a public image established over long years of good work. But you also need one more important thing. You need to apply the “smell test” to any advice you receive.

What the heck is the smell test? It’s that old sixth sense that kicks in when something isn’t quite right. It’s like buying milk just before the expiration date on the carton. The dating tells you it’s good and the store guarantees its products, but just in case you check it anyway—you give it the “smell test” just to be sure. The same cautionary approach is often wisely used when accepting advice about your furniture. The source may be reputable, the advice sounds perfectly reasonable and acceptable, the outcome appears to be desirable. But does it pass the smell test? Is it a common-sense answer? Do you feel comfortable with it?

I ran across just such a case recently in an advice column on furniture care and repair written by a columnist for a major metropolitan publication. The original question had to do with repairing the chronically loose joints on a set of 45-year-old wooden dining chairs. The chairs reportedly had to be disassembled and reglued every five years. What was the long-term solution? The “expert” suggested four possible solutions, three of which included the addition of metal of some sort to the wooden chair joints:

• The only non-metal solution involved the use of epoxy glue rather than wood glue. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t hold a loose joint any better than white school glue would hold it. It would just guarantee that the next time the chair needed repair (because there will be a next time) the structural components of the chair, the legs and stretchers will shatter instead of the joints opening up cleanly.

• The first suggested metal application was the use of turnbuckles and wires to secure the chair legs and frame. That would certainly look upscale in a formal dining room setting and eventually the chair would just fall apart.

• The next suggestion was to use a perforated metal strap known as Mr. Grip in the holes of the loose joints. The rough metal would hold the stretcher tight – until it just rips out again, this time tearing up the end of the stretcher. That was a variation of a construction technique called the “LOCK-JOINT” used in chairs in the late 1920s made by the Colonial Manufacturing Company of High Point, N.C. They used a metal fishhook-like device to secure joints. It worked great until the wood shrank, the joint got loose and the steel split rivet ripped open the joint. You don’t see many Colonial Manufacturing chairs around today.

• The final metal application was the use of small brass screws inserted into the joints. The screws were a bad enough idea to start with, but the brass-screw idea was even worse. Brass screws don’t have the strength to stand up to that sort of stress. They will snap before the wood does.

The point is that the “expert” giving all this advice had obviously never successfully repaired a wooden chair in his life. This was demonstrated by his total lack of understanding of wood joints. His approach to the repair problem just didn’t pass the smell test.

If a wood joint is chronically loose it’s because the wooden components of the joint don’t fit right. The fix is to make them fit. If the hole—the mortise—is worn bigger or the stretcher—the tenon—has been reduced by wear or abrasion, or both, the answer is to fill the void in the joint with some sort of wood that will have the same reaction to glue, stress, temperature and humidity that the original wood will have. No metal application will match that. After cleaning out old glue, wrap a thin piece of veneer around the tenon or insert it into the mortise to create a tight wood joint when the parts are assembled. Make the wood work with you—don’t work against it—by adding foreign material like metal.

The solution should pass the smell test.

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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