Dutch Ladderback Ca 1600

Edit, update: The chair featured in this article is very old. It was probably well into it’s use at the time Henry Hudson first made his way up the river which became his namesake.  It was originally a woven seat. It was never meant to be upholstered.  Once the die was cast, the first upholstering created untold damage to the old and fragile rails, and there was no
possibility of going back to its previous woven construction.

There are many things about this chair’s construction and materials which deserve defining and exploration.  In this brief article I only alluded to those particulars. That said, all the decisions made relative to materials and engineering were considered relative to the impact of the historic parts and the long term preservation of this historical, structural, decorative object.  Once tacks and staples were introduced to the foundational members the seat structure was evermore compromised, as we discuss. The lignum vitae side-rails were split making it impossible for them to withstand the shearing forces created by a woven seats tensions.

As the piece was to continue to grace a home (not a museum), I settled upon a plan of practical engineering which would allow for weight distribution to be spread over the surface of a cushion while also minimizing the impact of downward forces upon the historic structure.  Ultimately, almost all downward and oblique forces were removed from the fragile side rails and instead transferred to the newly fashioned front
and rear rails, floating plywood platform and goose down cushion. MRP

It started when our client noticed her family chair collapsed in the front.  Prior to the 20th century, this chair was a woven seagrass seat.  Someone decided to upholster it.  When we brought it in for treatment, we were not prepared for the “hack job” performed during its last  conversion.  A previous upholsterer used an old plywood sign to bridge
the aprons, and applied one piece of webbing to secure the platform, along with various nails and hardware.

When we fully and carefully excavated
the chair, we found both front and
back apron were terribly eroded by
beetle infestations.  The cause of the
collapse of the apron at the right-facing
leg to apron join was that a good deal
of the apron was missing.
Rather than repair the problem,
previous poor upholsterers had
continued with their “slap-dash” fixes,
this time using a single piece of
webbing to hold up the platform,
or seat deck. Also, the pressure of the
right-facing apron not holding its own weight caused the left-facing apron
mortice to pull down and split the
left-facing leg in multiple places.

Further, the lignum vitae siderails had been split along multiple radial lines
from prior successive indiscriminate applications of decorative nails.
Compounding these splintering breaks and voids fragmented sharp staples protruded from the surface and deep gouges to the surface from the sloppy use of previous upholsterer’s ripping chisels used during the removal of previous upholstery covers.

The first thing we did was to remove a gazillion staples and repair the damage previously created by many tack holes in the side aprons. Nail holes were filled with hide glue and hard picks were tapped into each.
This effectively fills the voids in the lingum vitae and creates a stronger side apron.  Due to
age and tight construction,
we elected not to disassemble and replace the siderails.

A Japanese saw  carefully cuts
the pins to the surface, and
these are gently sanded flat.


Old mortices were carefully bored of remnants of mortice and glues.

The centuries old chair was too fragile to be taken completely apart, so an innovative apron was designed to allow a new apron to slip into the space.  Having seldom seen this kind of response to the dilemma of age,
my parameters for the new aprons were:

  1. to lock or snap into place as
    the legs could not be splayed to
    insert a new apron,
  2. to conform to the original
    hand-shaped legs,
  3. to be no bigger than the slim
    profile of the original apron,
  4. and when all parts were in place,
    to be locked into position as
    a strong unified structure.

To that end I designed an interlocking tenoned bridge.
I used Eastern hard maple for both its slight surface crushing ability and its ability
to hold a tenon when kerfed.  For the kerfed bridge spline/tenon I chose
a thick sliced tangential grain rosewood with white oak locking pens.

Each new apron was made
of several pieces:

  1. Two hand-shaped
    Eastern hard maple
    parts to make each
    apron with Eastern hard maple dowel inserted
    into each end,
  2. A long locking tangential grain rosewood bridge,
  3. Two smaller locking
    center joints at the fulcrum, also of rosewood, top and bottom,
  4. Four hard white oak pins to unify the center joint.

Once assembled using hide glues and a mixture of gap-filling PVA,
the apron was stronger than the originals, and also beautiful.
I was sorry to have to cover it up!
The new design prosthetic accepted the upholstery perfectly.

In an ideal world the chair might have been returned to its original woven seat.

I did not want to place webbing around the side aprons as an additional seat support because of their modest connection (girth of tenons) and their previous mishandling by upholsterers.  I settled upon the structural bridge and attached the plywood to the
two new rails.  The original plywood signboard was actually a piece of
early 20th century ply, which was made of solid wood core instead of layered veneers.

The plywood was cut in the center to allow for a cushion drop, and furred out to accept foundational webbing.  This effectively dropped the center of gravity in the seat allowing for greater comfort during sitting once the fresh down cushion was installed.

Our client did not want a new silk showcover and asked us to utilize the existing show cover.  Our second problem was the previous upholsterers had cut the original silk seat deck show cover with NO extra margin beyond the eroded stapled edges — they had literally cut it to barely cover the edge of the desk.  The edges were tattered from the staples.  I used a second piece of silk to reinforce and allow for a new secure edge, and also cleaned up the tattered edges by overlocking the edges so they were no longer unraveling.

Hair and cotton batting to soften the edges, and the new deck
was placed onto the repaired seat with just enough room!

The previous cushion was replaced by a new handmade down cushion with baffles to keep the feathers from migrating.  I also reinforced the edges of the original show cover as the prior upholsterers had not overcast the edges, so the cushion silk would not unravel.
Note:  The shape of the cushion was not redesigned, just restuffed.
Now, as the cushion is sat upon the down will compress over time, allowing the sitter to not only drop into the seat properly, but will also insure that the sitter’s weight will now be evenly distributed over the entire chair’s structural surface, mitigating the potential destructive downward force upon the four hundred year old frame.

With a little bit of extra care by the owner and the careful choosing
of future upholsterers, this chair should grace their home for another century.

Before and after, with
and without cushion, above.

     

Written by Mitchell Powell  ©MPF Conservation.
May be printed for your own use ONLY, not for use on blogs without permission.

About MPFConservation

We are a conservation and restoration firm located in the Pacific Northwest, specializing in objects: furniture, but also other objects; wood, stone or metal furniture or objects; lacquered and painted furniture or objects; traditional finishes on furniture or objects; quilts, beaded objects, and some textile reparation and interior architectural elements, such as leather or upholstered walls. When you think about conservation, equate it to restoring the furniture or object the best way possible for the history, life and value of the object. We are fully qualified to perform museum-tectbook treatments, but also flexible enough to work with private clients to allow for daily use of objects. We work West of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico, and once in a while venture beyond the West for specific treatments. Kate and Mitchell Powell are partners in work and in life; we each have our specialties in work and in our marriage. Mitchell is the cat charmer in both! To see our work visit our official website: http://www.mpfconservation.com
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8 Responses to Dutch Ladderback Ca 1600

  1. I HATE TO SEE NICE PIECES COVERED IN GLOSS PAINT, IT’S CRIMINAL, CHINA

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  2. Deborah Collier says:

    All upholsterers would benefit from reading your process and insights with this one. It’s as much about what we shouldn’t do as what we should do. And how much a knowledge of structure and related repair/restoration skills are paramount as a basis for good upholstery. Also, the history is fascinating. I learn so much from these posts. (My clients thank you.) In the US I run across a load of dining chairs that have just a piece of plywood across the seat, and the habit is to just stick a piece of 2” foam on it, cover it, and call it done. Can those seats be done the same way you’ve treated the seat here, but built up with coir and hair instead of a separate cushion? The aprons often seem not quite hefty enough to take webbing and sitting stress. Is there a standard for apron size that can be applied to determine treatment? Sorry, lots of questions. Thanks.

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    • Deborah, thank you for your kind comments! Let’s see, as to your first question: Even if an upholsterer does not have woodworking skills a simple examination of the components, connecting points (joinery) and tacking surfaces should allow the upholsterer to understand what is necessary to cause the least amount of damage, to a frame, during the upholstering process. Developing strategies: tack and staple size, excavation methods, and thinking into the future of the piece, goes a long way in preserving a frame. On question number two it sounds like there may be three actual questions, so for simplicity I will try to address it as one question. Almost all dining chairs, even those with plywood platforms, can be built up using traditional methods. If one wishes to drop the center of gravity on those platforms the center can be cut out in the way I did on the ladder back chair. There is a typical size/scale to many of those boxing’s, though I also take into consideration the standard seating height (floor to the back of knee which is typically 18 inches) as a guide. I am unclear about your question relative to the apron size being able to take webbing. If you send me a few photos to my email address I can guide you toward a happy conclusion (mitchellrpowell@aol.com) If you are new to traditional upholstering techniques, or even if you have been practicing for years, it is very useful to connect with some of the great upholsterers who practice these techniques. Go to Instagram and look up Laurent Beaugeard, Bruno lopez, Fabien Godrie, and you will begin to find others, as well who practice these techniques. Of course, there a re a number of books on the subject, but only a few which are decent. I can guide you relative to books as well as a couple of traditional schools of upholstery which may be useful to follow, or even attend. I hope this answers your questions, though it sounds like, on the project of which you are speaking, it may require thinking a bit out of the box. Send me an email and I will offer up my two cents. best, MRP

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    • Deborah, Another thought as I go about my day. That 2 inch number seems to be typical for “modern” dining chairs, though i think it can be nuanced in order to fit a need without interfering with overall scale of the chair. Though 18 to 20 inches is fairly standard that too might be able to be played with just a bit depending upon the center of gravity of the seat. let me know if I can be of further service. Regards, MRP

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  3. Dan Antion says:

    When I started reading this, I was thinking that you were going to walk away from this one. That was in pretty bad shape. Have you ever turned down a project because it was too far gone or because the previous repair was too hideous?

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    • Yes, there were a couple of those, earlier in my career, which i am thinking of approaching the museum who made the original request. In both cases my choice to not go forward had to do with issues relative to very badly damaged textiles. As we have advanced in our skills, over the last several decades, those projects which seemed impossible are now not. Relative to woodworking projects I’d have to say there has never been a project which I felt could not go forward in some fashion. Finishes/ traditional coatings (varnishes, etc.) are another thing. Occasionally there are coatings which are too damaged by modern over-coating to be removed without damaging what is below. With a few the surface wood, below, has been compromised to the point of no longer being able to hold the tension of a varnish or paint, or pollutants of various types (cleaning products, cosmetics, hydrocarbons, food fats, etc.) have made amending the varnish or paint impossible.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dan, Teeeheheeee! As I worked today I was thinking about my response to your question and then I had to laugh; almost always the negative component,the “deal” breaker, relative to a damaged piece, has been a “damaged” client! Yep, yep, we have had mostly wonderful clients, over the years, but there have been just a hand-full, usually individuals who claim fabulous wealth, who are bigger pieces of work than the object. Thankfully, this is the exception, but entitlement, for a few, can create an aura of deserving more, but for much less and in less time than it takes Ikea to fill a back-order. Hmmmmm, what’s an objects conservator, who performs the impossible, do? 🙂

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