Have you been wondering about the history of a favorite Arts and Crafts Antique or who might have been the maker of your latest find? Do you need to know how to care for a damaged finish or what to look for when buying early-20th-century pottery, furniture, metalwares or other collectibles?
Expert David Rudd is American Bungalow’s knowledgeable guide into the fascinating and often confusing world of antiques. Send your questions and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org and share your find with other readers. We look forward to hearing from you.
David Rudd is president of the Arts and Crafts Society of Central New York and owner of Dalton’s American Decorative Arts in Syracuse; visit his shop at daltons.com. The opinions expressed in this column are David’s own.
From Issue 77, Spring 2013:
DURING MY 30-PLUS YEARS as an Arts and Crafts dealer, I have seen many pieces destroyed by well-meaning people who were simply trying to enhance a form to fit their décor. I’ve seen beautiful finishes ruined by layers of sloppy polyurethane and paint, as well as completely and irreparably altered forms. When you come across one of these altered but potentially collectible pieces you may be tempted to bring it home to try to save it. The question to ask yourself is, will it be worth it? Or, is it past the point of no return—a point when the time, effort and expense of restoration exceed the rewards?
When I was a boy, I remember my grandmother wanted a “hutch,” in the popular style she’d seen in furniture stores in the 1950s. Up-till this point she had a respectable, no-name mission-style sideboard with a matching china cabinet; to her, it was just dated. To fulfill her dream, my grandfather cut the legs off of both pieces, gave them a nice coat of yellow paint and stacked the china cabinet on top of the sideboard. Grandmother now had her hutch.
When it comes to restoration, I believe in restoring pieces that can retain some of their original integrity when the process is finished. The hutch was a lost cause; eventually, it was donated to charity. Too often, restoration just isn’t feasible. But, I’m happy to say that I’ve had other, more worthwhile projects which are now living a new life as functional and beautiful objects.
The issue of when to restore arose recently when a garishly painted table was brought into the gallery. It was a very familiar table, delicately built to represent a flower form. With that in mind (and not realizing who the maker was) the owner had painted it, appropriately or inappropriately depending on your viewpoint. When I saw the paint imbedded in the grain of this poor table, I nearly gagged.
The owner of the table had purchased a lake home south of Syracuse. He found this table, left by the previous occupants, on his screened-in front porch where it probably sat for decades. Wanting to brighten up the décor on the porch, the new owner and his wife decided it would look nice freshly painted.
After inspecting the paint job more closely, I realized it wasn’t a lost cause. This was a very early, c.1900, experimental table by Gustav Stickley’s United Crafts, a form which is quite rare. This was a period that drew on designs from the mid- and late-19th-century from England and France where organic forms in furniture designs were being used. Gustav Stickley briefly visited the organic form as well. For a short time he produced a series of flower-form tables, cleverly designed with the table legs simulating the base of the plant and the table top opening into a blossom. This table, Poppy Table No. 26, was quite a find.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FINISH
When it comes to value in the early work of Gustav Stickley, the most important factor is the condition of the original surface. Arts and Crafts collectors take this to the extreme, while some other areas of collecting place less importance on original surfaces. A piece by Stickley with the original surface is worth many times what a refinished example would be worth. Still, the rarity of the poppy table made it an excellent candidate for restoration, though the process itself would be labor intensive, and not cheap.
I explained to the owner what he had and further explained the benefit of having the table restored properly. We discussed the rarity and value of the form in good original condition, the cost of proper restoration and the value post restoration. He gave me the go ahead for a full restoration. I’m sharing our step-by-step process to give you an idea of the time and effort required to properly restore a piece like the Poppy Table.
NOW THE WORK BEGINS
Under my supervision my restorer began removing the paint (I recommend removing in layers). We use a citrus-based stripper rather than a more aggressive conventional stripper. To clean stripper residue, mineral spirits are then used.
With 90 percent of the coating removed, we evaluated the wood. Decades on a covered porch had taken its toll; there was a warp in one of the top boards. The table top was taken apart and the board steamed flat. On the underside of the table, beneath more paint, we discovered and were able to save a small red and white gum label. Once all the paint was removed we filled the grain with wood filler.
The last ten percent of painted wood is always the hardest to remove. For this stage, a stiff bristle brush (a toothbrush works well) and dental tools are recommended. Care must be taken to avoid doing more harm than good. When paint is removed correctly, some of the original color remains, which can be used as a base for stain or dye (we use aniline dye) to achieve the desired color. Several applications usually need to be applied and built up. One of the advantages of dye is that it will permeate the rays of quarter-cut white oak so the finished product is not striped or spotty. A few days drying time is required.
Applying the finish may be the easiest part of the restoration. We use a one-to-one mix of shellac and alcohol (formula charts are readily available online). Using a tack cloth on the surface removes any dust particles. Alcohol dries very quickly, so it’s important to have all supplies ready. We used natural bristle brushes to apply an even, thin coat over the entire piece. Surface absorption varies, so a second or even a third coat is often needed, sometimes just in certain areas. In between coats, the surface was rubbed down with #0000-grade steel wool and wiped with a tack cloth. We allow the piece to dry and cure for a couple of days. The last step was to apply a thin coat of a quality paste wax to protect the surface. The idea behind waxing is to allow the wax to wear, not the finish.
WELL WORTH THE EFFORT
We were all very happy with the results, especially the owner of this beautiful form. And while the restored table is worth considerably less than the same table with the original finish in good condition, its rarity and historical importance made it worthy of saving. With a bit of care going forward, we can rest assured that the Poppy Table will be available for future generations to enjoy.
David Rudd is president of the Arts and Crafts Society of Central New York and owner of Dalton’s American Decorative Arts in Syracuse (Daltons.com). The opinions expressed here are his own. Contact David at David.Rudd@ambungalow.com. We also invite you to post questions and share photos on Facebook, either to American Bungalow’s page or to Dalton’s American Decorative Arts page.Pin It