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One of the endearing qualities of well-made antique furniture is that it actually can be used for its original purpose on a daily basis. Unlike some “collectibles” and hobbies, furniture is not just to be looked at and admired from afar. Certainly, there are rare and expensive forms and types that should not be used in the interest of preservation and history. But most of us don’t own any of this, so we must be able to use what we spend our time on and money for.
In order to get our money’s worth from antiques, our “functional art”—as furniture is sometimes called—must be maintained to a minimum standard of working order. For example, doors must open and close freely without stressing the door or the case, drawers must present themselves easily and the chair must support the weight with a quiet sturdiness that inspires confidence. And the most vulnerable of all portions of the furniture, the top, must be able to survive the objects placed on it and the activities performed on the surface.
But how can we insure the integrity of the top while still performing our daily tasks? A number of methods have evolved over the years. One of the early attempts was employed by the French on medieval writing surfaces. They spread a soft wool cloth called a “bure” on the surface to protect it as manuscripts were written and Bibles were copied. The use of the woolen bure gave rise to the English word “bureau,” which came to mean something else entirely.
In the 19th and early 20th century, it became popular to inlay a piece of leather in a desk top to provide a softer background for writing implements and preserve the wood surrounding the leather. This is fine if you like leather (or leather substitute as used in later years). Another effort involved the replacement of the wood altogether with plastic laminate resembling wood. This laminate is generally impervious to daily activity but has acquired an aura of imitation and cheapness, which has no place in antique furniture.
The finish of the wood itself, of course, is the first line of defense and finishes are getting harder and more durable with each new development in the chemistry of coatings. Modern urethanes, conversion varnishes, catalyzed lacquers and water-based finishes are much more durable than shellac or lacquer, but they often impart a hard or plastic look to the object, not at all in keeping with the “mellow” aspect of antiques. And all but the thickest “bar top” coating will not protect a top from dents cause by falling objects. The modern finishes also present another set of problems in that they are difficult, if not impossible, to reverse, creating obstacles to touch-up and repair people as well as refinishers, if the need ever does arise.
The practical answer to the problem is glass. Once a rare and prized commodity, affordable modern glass now surrounds us everywhere. Correctly placed on an antique surface, it will provide protection from almost every potential disaster but can be instantly removed if desired to expose the preserved beauty of the original top.
Obtaining the right piece of glass for your antique involves several steps. The first is making a pattern. If the piece you plan to protect is square and easily measurable, the solution is simple. Just be sure you and the glass cutter agree on terms. Is he to cut inside or outside the measurements? Is your tolerance for error within a ¼ inch? An 1/8 of an inch? A 1/16th? Less? Is the glass-cutter using the same type measuring device as you did? For example, if you used a cloth tape and the glass mechanic uses a steel one, will the measurements come out the same?
If the piece has curves or any unusual cuts, a pattern has to be made. In most cases brown paper laid on the surface and edges creased with a finger will give a reasonable pattern. Patterns that must fit inside a raised edge such as gallery are more critical, since the glass won’t bend or fold to fit. And who should be responsible for making the pattern? The answer to that depends on how much is at stake. If the total project is a $ 10 problem, you don’t need to pay the glass company a service charge to make the pattern. If it doesn’t fit the first time, try again. But if the cost is substantial, it may pay to have the company make the pattern, no matter how simple it may seem. If they cut to your pattern and it doesn’t fit, you are stuck. If they cut to their pattern and it doesn’t fit, it’s their problem, not yours.
Glass that has been cut naturally has a sharp dangerous edge and you have several options to ponder on this subject. The common approach is to have the edges “polished”. This means they are slightly sanded with a diamond paper to remove the sharp edge but still maintain the appearance of crispness. A more radial approach is a “pencil” edge; in effect a bullnose rounded on the edge of the glass. This works in some cases but it is hard to correctly cut a piece glass to fit properly because it ends up looking “short” with a pencil edge. The more formal approach is to have a “dressed” edge, where a slight bevel is given to the top edge to take off the sharpness. Discuss your options with the glass folks to determine exactly what you want and what they are capable of doing.
Finally, never set glass directly on a finished surface. The surface and the glass will eventually bond and removal of the glass will entail some removal of finish. Use clear plastic disks to allow air to circulate beneath the glass.
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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