Article – Society of American Period Furniture Makers

Repairing a Dog-damaged Period Chair
by Timothy Puro

Download: SAPFM Journal Article – Monroe Furniture Bannister Chair Repair.pdf

Figure 1

Figure 1 Chair, post-restoration.

As a cabinetmaker, you are also in the repair business. Your family, friends and clients turn to you with damaged furniture and often you feel obliged to do the work. I know how you feel. As a woodworker, I started repairing family furniture and found that I enjoyed doing the repairs, but I had trouble getting my new work to match with the existing finishes. So I sought out classes on spot repair and furniture touch-up to make my repairs unnoticeable. Doing better-looking repairs attracted more damaged furniture and before long I was out of the banking business and in the furniture restoration business. This article describes the materials and techniques used to repair an 18th century rocking chair (fig. 1) that was damaged by Lola, a dog with discriminating taste.

DECISION MAKING FOR REPAIRS

Figure 2

Figure 2 The author referred to Don Williams’ Decision Making matrix in crafting his treatment plan for the chair.

This chair is an important artifact in my client’s collection, as it was collected by her family in the 1920s to furnish a period house in Massachusetts. According to family lore, some of that furniture was purchased from Israel Sack. In deciding how to approach the dog damage repair, I turned to the Decision Making Matrix for Conservators (fig. 2) designed by Don Williams, Senior Conservator of Wooden Artifacts at the Smithsonian Institution. The matrix balances the competing concepts that you must consider when making a decision on how to proceed with a repair. The first question to ask is, “Should I do anything?” The dog damage is now a part of the chair’s history of use, just like the parts that were replaced by a repairman years ago, or the screws that were added to repair the back (figs. 3–5). Sometimes it is appropriate to embrace the damage as part of the chair’s daily use and do nothing. In this case, the client’s expectation was that the rocker should look like it did just before the dog chewed it. One repair option would be to disassemble the rocker and make new parts to replace the damaged arm and rail. Alternatively, new wood could be patched on the front rail and arm and the patch could be shaped using rasps, scrapers and sandpaper. While these repairs meet the requirements of the owner to make the damage go away, the repair process removes original material, thus violating the owner’s desire to have the object retain as much original material as possible. Therefore, these options would not do.

Figure 3

Figure 3 Detail of lower back rail. The right hand banister is a later replacement

Figure 4

Figure 4 Detail of repair to left side of lower rail.

Figure 5

Figure 5 Detail of repair to right side of lower back rail.

Once it was determined that the repair method should retain as much original material as possible, the next question to consider was, “What repair material should be used?” Since the chair would be subjected to daily use, the fill material had to be robust enough to take dings and dents without falling out. Also, the client wanted the repair to be unnoticeable to a casual viewer of the chair. After considering the options, I decide to use two-part epoxy putty to fill the damaged area and then apply a faux finish over the epoxy.

THE REPAIR PROCESS

In order to ensure reversibility of the repair, I applied a thin coat of hide glue to provide a barrier coat between the old wood and the new work (fig. 6). This allows any future conservator or restorer to remove the repair using heat and warm water. For this repair, I chose the two-part epoxy putty sold in hardware and woodworking stores as QuikWood® or Kwik Wood. These putties allow 20 minutes of open time and cure in an hour. I did not want to sand through the original finish that surrounded the repairs while sanding the fill material flush with the seat, so I used credit card-sized ¼” thick clear plastic cauls to shape the epoxy putty in the damaged area, using the intact wood as a guide (fig. 7). To keep the cauls from sticking to the epoxy, I used water and saliva to lubricate the caul and to smooth the work. After applying the putty to the void, I worked the plastic caul back and forth until the putty was smooth. Once the epoxy putty cured, the fill was lightly sanded with 220 grit sandpaper. Now that the repaired areas were smooth, it was time to add color.

Figure 6

Figure 6 The damaged arm after application of hide glue

Figure 7

Figure 7 Damaged areas are filled with epoxy and lightly sanded.

Figure 8

Figure 8 The arm, post-restoration.

The epoxy was not stained using an oil based stain but in-painted with an artist’s brush. I began by applying a one-pound cut of dewaxed blonde shellac to seal the epoxy. Once the shellac dried, dry artist colors were mixed with Mohawk’s graining liquid on a palate and applied with a #4 red sable liner brush. To add visual texture, color was also padded or pounced on the surface using padding lacquer and pigments. The intact corner of the seat and arm shows that the two paint surfaces were worn with the wood showing through, so I tried to mimic that look with my repair (figs. 9 & 10). When I achieved the proper color blend, my work was too glossy, so to kill the sheen I carefully sprayed a dead flat aerosol lacquer to the repair area. After a minute or two, I dabbed my index finger in the wet lacquer to disturb the finish to provide texture.

Figure 9 Figure 10

Figures 9 & 10 Due to differences in old and new surfaces, an unnoticable repair can be a more realistic goal than an invisible repair.

GRADING A REPAIR

I have been asked if I do invisible repairs and the answer is no. I use epoxies, burn in sticks, wax, markers and paints to repair damage in the wood and in the finish. Light reflects from an intact 18th century finish differently than from a 21st century repair. The best one can hope for is a repair that is unnoticeable
to a casual observer. As with most skills, you should practice repair techniques on sample boards or derelict furniture before performing spot repairs on your clients’ furniture. However these are skills that, like carving and turning, can be mastered with practice. So if repairs are a part of your shop, you should consider
adding artist pigments, a liner brush, and shellac to your tool kit, and in-painting to your repertoire of skills. Once completed, I delivered the repaired chair to my client and she was pleased with the results. Then she said, “Would you please repair an early 19th century pine cabinet that Lola has chewed on?” Didn’t I tell you the dog had expensive taste?

PADDING ON COLOR

One method of adding color to a repair is to apply dry artist pigments to a small French polishing pad dampened with padding lacquer (see sidebar next page). I have found this technique documented in books dating from 1900, but I am sure artisans were using this color padding technique long before then. Color padding is not only used for repairs to old furniture, but it can also be used in new work to hide a sap streak, or heaven forbid, to repair damage to your new furniture before you deliver it. If you talk to furniture touch-up artists, they will refer to this technique as “finger padding” or “French patching.” Patching is an old term for spot repairing furniture, so French patching is applying color with a French polishing pad. Color padding is done with dry artist pigments, sold as padding stain by Mohawk, and as touch-up powders by Wood Finisher’s Depot. These retailers offer a wide variety of colors and it leaves an aspiring French patcher wondering which colors they should buy. However, you only need a few earth-tone colors to do most repairs on furniture.

QUICK COLOR THEORY

Figure 11

Figure 11 A red color swatch is helpful for picking out the red (left) and green (right) in sample boards.

You may have been exposed to color theory in the past. You were told that if you mix red, yellow, blue, black and white, you can make any color. You might have even tried to mix colors yourself and all you ended up with was a medium brown color or grayish-black. Here are some tips to help you mix the color that you want.

An artist’s color wheel shows a number of ways to make brown. red and green make brown. orange and blue also make brown as well as yellow and purple. However, most of the time I am blending reddish-browns and greenish-browns to match cherry, walnut or mahogany colors. if you can learn to see red and green in wood, you can learn how to touch-up using reddish-brown and greenish-brown pigments.

Woodworkers I talk with say, “How can you see red in that finish? All I see is brown!” I have to admit that I had the same problem when I first started doing furniture touch-up. You have to train your eye to see reds and greens in a finish. One way to do that is to employ what I call the “Red Trick,” which was taught to me by Alan Noel, an accomplished finisher in Atlanta, Georgia. Go to the paint store and find a large paint sample of a vibrant red. Then lay that sample on furniture in your home. Suddenly, your 1920s Jacobean-style walnut dining room table will look really green to you. Your 10-year-old cherry chest appears redorange. You should even be able to see a red or green cast in yellowish golden oak furniture.

TOUCH-UP COLOR PALETTE

Purchase the following dry artist pigment colors: raw umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna, black and red. Raw umber is very green and it is the color used to make greenish walnut stains. Burnt sienna is a reddish orange-brown and is used to make cherrycolored stains. By intermixing these two colors, you can make a lot of brown colors. For mahogany colors, mixing red and black will give you a purpletinged cordovan color.

MATERIALS

Dry artist pigments are available from Gamblin, Mohawk Finishing, Olde Mill Cabinet Shop (see ad p.103), and Wood Finisher’s Depot. Padding lacquer such as Wil Pro™ and Lac French™ can be purchased from Mohawk Finishing. Wood Finisher’s Depot sells padding lacquer as well.

FINGER PADDING TECHNIQUE

Instructions

use an old cotton sheet or mohawk’s trace cloth to make a pad about the size of a golf ball
(A). Apply a few drops of padding lacquer such as Wil Pro™ to the pad
(B). The pad should be lightly damp, like a dog’s nose. Apply finish with the pad to the area to be repaired using the pendulum motion used for French polishing. then
tip your fi nger into the jar of pigment and lightly apply a thin coat of powder to the surface
(C). The powder has to be applied when the finish is partially dry so it will stick, but the surface cannot be too wet with finish or you will get dark clumps of color on the wood
(D). Needless to say, this is a technique you should try on a practice board first.

After the pigment is applied to the surface, gently touch the surface of the repair area with your pad in a pendulum motion to lock in your color
(E). When you first do it, you will most likely pull off all the color, but keep practicing and testing your technique. You can also lock in the color by lightly pouncing the surface with your pad. if the color is wrong or if you put on too much color, you can wet the pad with more padding lacquer and wipe off all the color you have applied.

With the proper technique, you can build thin layers of color, each layer locked in with padding lacquer. the pigments can be mixed on the surface of the wood to get the desired color. So, if you need a medium brown color, you can blend the reddish burnt sienna and the greenish raw umber on the surface to get the color you are looking for
(F). You should only mix two or three colors at a time. mix more and you might get a muddy brown color. If you have trouble mastering the pad, you can apply the pigment to the wood with your fingertip and then lock in your color using an aerosol spray lacquer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Puro is a professional furniture restorer and an on-site furniture spot repair artist. Tim started restoring furniture part-time in 2002, and three years later he had enough work that he was able to leave an 18-year career in banking to pursue furniture restoration full-time in his adopted hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. Tim has studied furniture finishing, repair and restoration at the National Institute of Wood Finishing near Minneapolis, Minnesota and has taken courses in furniture conservation offered by the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute. Tim serves as an instructor of finishing and furniture restoration classes at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking.