Improve the Past, or Recreate a Fatal Furniture Flaw

Iris Carved Panel from Byrdcliffe DeskOne of the things I like most about building reproductions is that it takes me out of familiar territory and puts me in a place where the easy way out isn’t an option. If left to my own devices, I would not make the challenging choices that were made by far better designers than I am, and the furniture I build wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting. Since last July, I’ve been trying to decide how close I should stay to the original in a piece that I keenly want to build. The problem is this; there is a construction problem in the original that caused failure in the major element of the piece, a carved, triptych panel.

There are actually a couple of issues with the panel, one that I was aware of before seeing the original in the flesh, and one that came as a surprise. I had studied photos and original drawings before traveling to see this piece, and the drive was long enough to consider numerous options. There are renderings both with and without the mitered frame around the panel, and beneath the green stain is solid cherry, except for the panel itself. The two rendered versions indicate that there was some indecision before building began, and perhaps some debate between builder and designer.

I’m not wild about the idea of the mitered frame, but it is possible to make that work, if the frame around the carvings were traditional frame and panel construction and the frame made of tight grain rift or quartered stock. That would be the best way to accomplish this. The worst way would be to do what the original builder did over a century ago; glue up three boards side-by-side to make a single wide panel and carve in the stiles and rails. I had never imagined that the original piece was built that way and was amazed when I saw it. That construction maximizes the distance that this panel, about three feet wide will move when the humidity rises or falls. The proof of that is in the condition of the piece, and repairs that have been previously made.

Click on the photo to see a larger version. About 1/8″ has been added to each of the outside vertical pieces on the mitered frame. That repair had to be made to make the panel operable, after it had shrunk. The panel is hinged from the bottom, and when it moved, the mitered frame came with it. To make matters worse, the hinges attach to the sides of the panel and the sides of the case. When the wood moved, the the hinges let go, and the panel flopped on the lower corners, causing the damage you can see. This piece now lives in a stable environment, so hopefully it won’t move enough to cause further damage.

So what does a would be reproducer do? I’m toying with the idea of building two, one green and one with a clear finish. The green one would be built as the original was, doomed panel and all, and the other would have the panel “made right”. But I don’t know if I really want to do that.

What would you do?

–Bob Lang

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5 thoughts on “Improve the Past, or Recreate a Fatal Furniture Flaw

  1. Why build something you know will fail if you can envision a way to capture its spirit yet make it last at the same time? Question answered.

  2. I couldn’t agree with Beth more. The definition of insanity is repeating a behavior and expecting a different result. Reproduce the piece and allow for material movement.

  3. Unless you are creating a copy for a museum, or for a client that wants an exact reproduction; make it to the best of your ability, improving the construction where you can and retaining the design.

  4. 1. How long would it take to fail, if built faithfully like the original? If a relatively long time, put a note in a secret pocket: “I told you so!”

    2. If for a rich customer who is willing to pay for faithfulness, charge him/her 20X what you would normally charge.

    3. If for YOU, do it the right way, and be happy it will last a long time without failure.

    I am with Beth. I believe that learning IS a major part of our journey. Learning should include everything from the early Egyptians, or even earlier times, to the most modern pieces. Did the Ark *really* survive intact? Or did some early incarnation of a mortise and tenon get a bit loose, but still held? Will my finger joints fail before I die? My daughter will be pretty upset at me if they fail before I die; if they fail afterward, her upsetness will fall on very deaf ears. Dead ears, actually. 😉

  5. Depends on who’s commissioning it and what they expect. Faithful copy – inform them of what will happen and let the cards fall where they may. Perhaps because the hinge is unseen, it can be fixed to one or the other part and the other end attached in a manner that allows shrink and swell.

    For me – the panel would “float” in it’s mitered frame, the construction allowing for the nearly 1″ of possible change in size. Exactly how much is going to depend on the time of year it’s constructed and the environment it’s going into.

    Or – make it a veneered panel. Some veneer over MDF could capture the look and perhaps be invisible to anyone that looks.

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