The Stranger Below: Silent Chairs and How to Get Them to Open Up

OK, so you stumbled upon a beautiful antique chair. Now, how do you tell when it was made?

Some pieces of furniture are like an open book. A casual familiarity with the trade allows you to readily identify the period of a piece of golden oak or to correctly label a Victorian Rococo Revival couch. A number of technical elements can easily tell the age of a drop-front desk and a bed is a dead giveaway based on the hardware of the siderails. But what about a chair? Chairs are not quite so open about themselves and, like a friend’s skittish pet, it may take a while to get to know it—and for it to know you.

The first thing to know about a chair is what kind of chair is it? Chairs and similar seating platforms have been made for thousands of years, but in modern times in the Western world, chairs boil down to one of three types: turner’s chairs; Windsor chairs; and cabinetmaker’s chairs.

Turner’s chairs are exactly what they sound like. They are assembled from pieces turned on a lathe and usually employ a round mortise and tenon joint for the construction. Everything is round in the eyes of a turner. This type of chair was one of the first that was mass produced because of the simplicity of the elements and the construction.

A Windsor chair consists of a more or less flat seat, into which legs are inserted from below, again using a generally round mortise and tenon joint. The upper section of the chair consists of turned spindles inserted in the seat and topped, usually, by the bent hoop that composes the equivalent of a crest rail. The distinguishing feature of a Windsor is that no element of the chair is continuous from top to floor. Almost everything has a terminus in the seat except the lower stretchers (which connect leg to leg), back hoops (that form arms) and crest rails (that sit impaled on stiles, which are implanted into the seat but do not contact the floor.

Cabinetmaker’s chairs are made from sawn and shaped elements, often elaborately carved. The normal joint in this type of chair is the rectangular mortise and tenon, and in the later incarnations of the industrial age, the dowel joint. The most commonly seen chair in today’s market is the cabinetmaker’s chair.

The round dots on the back rail of this mid-18th-century chair are the “trennels” that help stabilize a mortise and tenon joint.

The corner of this 18th-century Philadelphia Chippendale chair is blocked with a vertical piece of softwood, like pine.

Cabinetmaker’s chairs, at first, seem to be the hardest to read. No joinery is visible, except the occasional through-tenon peeking out the rear stile or the apparent presence of a wooden pin—the “tree nail” or “trennel” —securing a mortise and tenon joint. Without these scant clues and without performing some destructive testing, like opening a joint, it is very difficult to tell if the chair was assembled with mortise and tenons or dowels. But there very often is another clue that can be used if it can be seen. That is the manner in which the corners of the seat frame are blocked.

Since most cabinetmaker’s chairs are upholstered, access to corner blocking is not always easy unless the chair has a removable slip seat or unless you are able to remove some of the bottom dust cover to see into the interior. If you can get there, though, you may find some real help in identifying the chair.

In the early 19th century some chairs, especially English Regency style chairs, used only a cross-corner brace set into notches in the rails.

This shaped block attached with screws was used in the late 19th-century Victorian period.

The blocking in mid-18th-century chairs was almost always done using a soft wood with several small blocks in each corner. The grain of the blocks usually runs vertically and, since all fasteners of that period were handmade, very few 18th-century corner blocks have original nails or screws in them. In keeping with the concept of “workmanlike manner”—i.e., if it doesn’t show don’t spend any time on it—most original 18th-century corner blocks are unfinished, just like the insides of the seat rails.

By the beginning of the 19th century, many cabinetmakers were no longer using the corner blocks and instead relied on a type of cleat to span the corner and connect the front rail to the side rail, bypassing actual contact with the corner altogether. These narrow cleats were usually a hardwood with the grain running horizontally and were glued into notches cut into the tops of the rails. They were fairly shallow and did not extend the full depth of the rails.

This is what a mortise and tenon joint looks like on the inside. The square hole is the mortise. The square tongue is the tenon.

This Depression-era block only touches the rails and does not fill the corner. It is attached with screws and has hole in the middle for the screw to attach the plywood seat.

By mid century, with the Industrial Revolution reaching maturity and the factory system in full swing, corner blocking became more elaborate. Many Victorian era pieces, especially later in the period, had blocks shaped to cover each corner completely, securing two rails and the leg. In addition to being glued, many blocks of the time also had the newly introduced, machine made, readily available gimlet screw to help hold it fast.

Another technological innovation influenced corner blocks at the beginning of the 20th century. This was the development of commercial plywood. This new type of surface became the seat bottom of choice in much of the mid-grade furniture production of the first half of the century. Some way was needed to secure the new seating material to the chair and screwing it to the corner blocks was the logical step. Corner blocks of the Depression-era emulated those of 100 years prior in that once again they did not actually cover the corner but only connected rail to rail. But this time they were glued and screwed and had another hole in the center to accommodate the seat bottom fastener.

With the advent of strong dowel joints, reinforced with new resin glues, corner blocks almost became superfluous to the structure of the chair. Their new job focused primarily on holding and supporting the seat.

So the enigmatic chair does have something to tell you after all. You just have to get to know it a little better.

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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  1. Janie Samansky says:

    Mr. Taylor, I have been following you for several years and LOVE your articles. I also have your book and your DVD. Please keep teaching us!!!