The first step in working on a piece—like this rather forlorn, century-old box—is a good assessment. Sometimes this requires nothing more than our five senses and experience.
In this case, we know right away that the interior is irredeemable. The edges are quite thread-bare, and the cloth smells strongly of mice. In our experience with pianos, one thing which will never fade from our olfactory memories is the smell of mouse pee: it sinks in to, and never comes out of, textiles. So, we know that the green velvet has to go!
Happily, the rest of the box is in great condition. The corners are still strongly glued, and were originally re-inforced with splines. While not as strong as dovetails, this is still quite a good construction technique, and it has served this box well for over a century. The hardware is original, and of solid brass. The key is missing, which we can deal with. There is a lid stay which prevents stress on the hinges, which again is a condition-saving extra in a box like this. The original burlap on the bottom is also worn, and is coming free.
The original finish is intact, although the shellac has seen some losses. Happily the finish on the interior tray is fabulous: shiny and full of warm colour. This gives us, and the box’s future owners, a feel for the original designer’s intent and execution in finishing. One of our pet peeves in the antiques business is dealers who slap a coat of polyurethane on everything they sell, thinking that this is ‘a nice finish for antiques’. A beautiful, warm, example of original 19th century shellac finish like this shows just how dull, yellowed, and obscene that practice is.
Our conclusion: this box is in rough condition, but well worth the effort in saving.
The first step in de-construction is to carefully remove the hardware. We label everything, and keep it in ziplock bags, to avoid wandering bits & pieces.
Because the original adhesive used was hide glue, it is easy to loosen the interior fittings. After about sixty years, it can become brittle, especially in non-wood applications like this, where there is exposure to the air. We carefully pull off the interior fittings, with a view to learning how the original makers did their work. That way, we can imitate their methods, using suitable replacement materials.
With some persuasion, the velvet-lined panels pop right off, revealing a base of cardboard. We can match their overall thickness, even if we use different materials to replace them. Good records are important, even in the smallest project. Details like this mean that the interior tray will fit just as well when we are done as it did originally.
Because the exterior of the tray is so well-preserved, it will require minimal effort. The bottom is covered with black paper, and this just needs the corners re-glued. The leather pull-tabs are perfect in condition, size, and softness, with no trace of rot or hardening; we will leave them in place for another hundred years.
The panels in the main compartment are constructed similarly. However, the rests on which the tray sits are actually separately covered pieces of pine, glued to the wider cardboard-based pieces which are, in turn, glued to the sides. Pine is a very open-pored wood, which means that it will have absorbed—you guessed it!—mouse pee. We will have to fabricate new tray-rests, using wood as originally done. And again, we make a note of thicknesses and other dimensions, so that everything will fit properly when we are done.
As a point of interest, the pine-and-cardboard dual panels in the bottom are also nailed in place, although rather half-heartedly. Perhaps the manufacturer didn’t want to wait for all that glue to dry between each step? This reminds us that assembly lines and efficiency-over-craftsmanship was never limited to the 20th century.
3. Ready for the Next Step
Finally, we have stripped the old fabric away, recording the shapes and sizes of everything we will dispose of. The hardware is carefully stored away. Old glue residue has been scraped off, and everything is ready for re-covering. We are ready for the next step: the exterior finish, which will be the subject of our next blog entry.