Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Earlier today I was poring over some pictures of old furniture, mostly what you would call 'rustic' or 'country' pieces. Definitely not the fancy city-made pieces that show up on the Antique Road Show or being offered at auction by Sotheby's. Nope, this stuff is home-made, usually by the homeowner himself or maybe the nearby craftman with a little bit of talent. In many cases, at least in Texas, that would be the Swiss or German emigrant carpenter. The best books on the subject are 'Texas Furniture : The Cabinetmakers and Their Work, 1840-1880' by Lonn Taylor and David B. Warren, and 'Early Texas Furniture and Decorative Arts' by Cecilia Steinfeldt and Donald L. Stover. Sadly, both are long out of print, and rather pricey on the used book market. And luckily, I have copies of both that I picked up when they were still available at rather reasonable prices. (They are not for sale!)

In the other room, I have the old armoire that was supposed built by one of the Gruetzmacher's in Galveston, back before 1900. It went through the Galveston Storm, which may account for its lack of feet, and some other water damage along the bottom edge. Over the years it's lost its cornice, leaving me with a difficult decision of choosing a replacement when I have the piece restored. Hopefully, there's a picture of the piece in one of the old Gruetzmacher photos that Aunt Grace and Elizabeth had, and if those photographs are still extant.

The armoire still has remnants of the various paint jobs over the years, especially that hideous lime green crap from the early 1970's. Over the years, I've removed some of this stuff, but because of the time involved to remove even a small amount, I keep setting the piece aside for another day. But once you get under all the paint, and then remove the original, gone-to-black varnish, you end up with wood that has a warm, mellow patina to it. I'm guessing pine.

One of the front door panels has a piece that has been replaced, a device or technique known as a 'dutchman'. Usually, this technique is used to repair a hole in the wood caused by a mouse or some other critter chewing through, but as this newer panel is much larger (8 or 9 inches square), the reason for replacing it is pure speculation. It may simply be a case of the original panel had a defect that didn't appear until after the armoire was completed.

At the top of the armoire is a series of thin wooden decoration, curving upward into the now missing cornice. This gives an idea of what the original cornice looked like. The inset panels in the doors also have a curved edge, which further suggest the lines the cornice may have taken. Studying the aforementioned books, I have a number of examples of similar pieces that will help in designing a new replacement cornice, when the time comes.

Replacing the missing feet causes another design dilemma. As the originals seem to have been sawed off, I propose to design a petestal for the cabinet to sit on, rather than try to incorporate new feet into the old armoire. I do wonder how high the original legs were. My first thought is that 4 to6 inches would be about right, making the total height of the cabinet about 6 feet, without the cornice. Perhaps the legs were much longer, from 12 to 15 inches, giving the armoire a much greater height, which might be more fitting in the high ceilinged houses of the late 1800's. But because this would make the interior hooks be almost 7 feet high, I think, unless original pictures provide contradictory information, I will use the lower legs, which would be more appropriate for use by a normal-sized person.

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