by Mitchell Powell, PA, AIC
We are properly conserving a French-made Planter’s Chair, circa 1860, belonging to a Portland preservationist. Hand carved persimmon wood, European Beechwood frame, original innards, unmolested finish. We’ll follow the chair in detail through excavation to the new show-cover.
Above, then chair from all sides.
1: Excavation, Seat
We begin with excavation. Excavation is the discovery process, and I am always shocked at the thought that many people give this job to the youngest interns with little oversight. The more experienced you are the more valuable the information gleaned during these beginning stages:
- where the piece may have lived;
- personal predilections of the individuals using the pieces;
the environment in which the piece lived;
- tracking of dates when various upholsterings took place,
- the regions where various upholsterings took place.
MPFC takes more images during excavation that any other phase. There is so much history, both original and secondary upholsterings, to document while undoing of the piece. Also, sometimes we want to go back and see what our eyes did not connect as important in the first stage…
This excavation was performed in two parts, as you will see.
This is the excavation of the seat.
Passementerie is the last item to be applied and the first to come off the chair, which is how it goes down through the layers, a bit like an archeological excavation.
Conservators are interested in preserving the history of an object. To that end, we save samples and items as they are removed, noting their location. When the project is completed, they are given to the client in part or whole, and/or we keep interesting samples for ourselves. You might not know what part of the story an item or mark informs.
This is also when we make our final assessment for our client, and may need to tell the client if changes in the estimate are necessary.
Turning the chair over,
we found a tag which tells us that this chair was sold secondhand with this showcover, including who performed the fumigation. This tells us it was sold before the mid 1970s, when the State of Oregon stopped the fumigation laws for secondhand
upholstered item sales.
What appear to be original
ceramic wheels are in
The showcover was removed from the seat. Mitchell finds a layer of paper-wrapped cotton (wadding), popular with European upholsterers in the early 20th century, at the probable time of the second generation upholstery, suggesting it took place in Europe. The wadding is no longer obtainable in the states.
He also got his first glimpse of the bottom of the metal back frame.
Samples of passementerie and fabric are kept.
We found a missing decorative scroll to be replicated, left.
As Kate photographed the chair, she began to realize there is no way to
frame a symmetrical view because the frame is not symmetrical!
Mitchell looked at the frame with new eyes. While the back and two legs are badly twisted, the chair is quite sturdy, and not in danger of tipping or breaking. Causation of the twisting in the metal back frame may be due to someone sitting oddly, favoring their right side (much like Kate does, even when on the puter!)
Mitchell sees the
first evidence of an earlier fabric, identified as a green velvet.
Usually we see bits of earlier fabrics; this
time only one.
Mitchell began to remove layers of the seat; each step is documented, above.
- The first three layers are most likely from the current upholstered showcover,
- two layers of cotton toppers,
- and a horsehair pad, in two layers, top is new horsehair, not original.
Mitchell surmises the chair
had between one to three
showcovers. Good fabric,
proper foundations, and
proper care can make a
show cover last a long time.
All materials are cleaned
and reused unless there are
issues which prevent that,
such as cat urine.
The seat is partially excavated, right.
2: Excavation, Seat, Continued
Removing the second generation hair topper, above, Mitchell encounters the original hair topper, properly lashed to the seat deck. He noted the lashing pattern, then cut and lifted it, which is protocol on each layer. The seat deck hessian was exposed; after vacuuming, he inspected it.
Mitchell wears a mask when excavating after encountering molds, dust and debris which
can mess with your lungs!
Lashing patterns noted, and details of the fit, above.
We loosened the inside arms to inspect the carvings and connections.
Above, an example of the damage careless upholsterers do to frames, including carvings, or damage when the frame maker does not include tacking foundations which allow for tacking without encroaching into decorative elements. Mitchell will change the protocal slightly to include a tacking block to preserve the carving from future mistakes.
We will repair the lovely carving.
There was damage to the connection between the carving and the metal frame on both arms, also to be repaired. This may be a wear-and-tear issue, or possible a design issue.
We discussed this and all other issues with our client as we found them.
The original fiber seat pod came off, to be cleaned and conserved. The spring deck was exposed. Over the years the hessian stretched on both spring deck and seat deck to conform to the stresses. Lashing patterns were noted.
Spring deck burlap was removed, and Mitchell inspects the original springs, including the dirt, as we sometimes find odd bits sometimes, including coins. The debris was vacuumed.
The springs are heavy rolled steel, which we will clean and conserve. Mitchell noted the tie pattern before removal, but did not cut the ties yet. He usually does not cut ties until the last moment necessary. He also counted and noted the tie hole patterns as he lifted the tacks holding the ties to the frame.
The chair was turned over, and under the dustcover he found three layers of webbing, which is very unusual! Two of them were likely applied in order to save the springs. This second layer (top) is the creamy webbing above, not lashed to the springs below.
The first webbing applied over the original in order to save the springs was the darker herringbone webbing in a criss-cross pattern. It was also not lashed in any manner to the springs, also very odd. As Mitchell removed webbing, he continued to note holes and tack positions. They tell the story of the number of times the chair has been upholstered and in what manner.
Mitchell was down to the original webbing, properly woven in a basketweave pattern. He believes he knows the history of the webbing patterns, which, along with tacks from upholstering showcovers and hessian, and after noting and marking the spring tie tack patterns, gave him the clues as to the number and nature of the upholsterings. He feels secure in that the chair was reupholstered twice in its lifetime beyond the original, and the person who performed the second upholstering did not retie the springs.
The seat drops out!
Musings at this point about the Planter’s Chair:
- European Beech (frame) was not commonly imported in the states.
Persimmon wood (carving) is native to India, but was grown all over the south, and even into the colonies, which offers other clues.
- The original webbing and subsequent webbings were uncommon to the USA, but found in England and Europe.
- The contraction and patina of the foundational woods (European Beech), and the excessive rusting of tacks and metal objects were consistent with exposure to very high humidity, such as might be found where there is good rainfall and relatively high temperatures, and possibly salty air.
This information, coupled with what little provenance was available, led Mitchell to surmise the piece may have lived in France (where it began life) but also lived in either the tropics or a city like New York. The fact that it is a planter’s chair, with carvings reflecting plants that grow in tropical regions (sugarcane or tobacco) makes him lean toward Latin American or the Caribbean.
The seat is fully excavated,
and we move to the inside back, next post!
(I apologize and suggest you turn off the music!)
3: Excavation, Back (Partial)
Mitchell previously loosened the inside arms around the carvings. He turned to the outside back, beginning with the arms, and after noting the stitching pattern used, cut the ties to the showcover.
Moving to the inside arms, the showcover, then not-original top cotton batting was removed exposing the original buildup on the arms.
The last generation upholstery
styling moved away from
the traditional tufted back
in favor of a slip-backed style
which accentuated the
lumbar section of the inside back.
Mitchell cut the hand-stitching
joining the lumbar section
of the show cover, which
began to reveal the
original styling beneath.
The showcover dropped, and he inspected the inside back for the first time. New second generation layers of cotton batting and horse hair was exposed; one clue now is the difference in the colors of the hair used.
The second generation cotton batting and horsehair was removed, labeled, cleaned and reused as appropriate for the conservation. What may change our use of this generation of materials is what was about to be revealed: a tufted back!
The top horsehair removed, the final pattern for the buttons of the tufting were exposed. This appeared to be filthy (at first glance it could be soot or carbon buildup), but it was actually a topper of lint “flocking”. Flock or flocking was the common name attributed to lint findings left over from the cloth milling industry, often used during the mid to
late 19th century in stuffing seat squabs, especially in England and France. It was also occasionally teased out onto second stuffing surfaces to act as a soft malleable batting.
A 17 oz hessian membrane was used in the original foundation work,
stretched across the steel hoop and lashed along the edges. The stamped letters are likely to be from the mill for the hessian burlap.
Several things happened at this juncture instead of the complete excavation, standard protocol.
First, extensive patterns
were taken of the original
inside back, right, and will be covered
in the post on Upholstery Buildup.
Mitchell chose to temporarily encase
the entire inside back
within a muslin wrap until frame repairs,
finish repairs, and the
seat buildup was completed.
This protected the historic inside back
stuffings from losses in information
of the fibers during those
Mitchell prefers to have the information from the excavation in his head as close to the buildup/conservation time of a given part as possible… in this case, after the seat buildup he will turn to the excavation of the inside back.
We move to the frame conservation!
4: Reparation and Finish Work
The frame’s joinery had issues in two places; one was a surprise.
Mitchell gently disassembled the legs and the front apron,
in order to clean the old hide glue from the
mortice and tenon, readying it for reparation.
Tack holes on all possible parts of the frame were conserved using picks and warm hide glue. It takes less time than other viable solutions; one gets into the rhythm and the picks are tapped into the abandoned tack holes filled with hide glue.
Mitchell’s note: I do not recommend the application of epoxies, putties and/or slurries of glues (PVA or hide) made of wood flour and shavings for surface leveling, as they will not impart structural integrity. They will not hold tacks. Ultimately they are not reversible as they are nearly impossible to remove from historic wood surfaces and substrates. Many epoxy-based glues and putties will thwart future conservation efforts into perpetuity.
Modestly bruised or worn tenons, where gaps could effect efficacy of the reglued joints, were laminated with thin veneers made from similar wood species prior to regluing of joint. Warm hide glue was applied to cleaned conserved parts, and clamped to cure.
Tack holes in the carved decorative arms were also conserved. We puzzled over the relief carved design facing the inside part of the arm, and the flatter plain surface facing the outside arm of the chair. At first the visual effect seemed confusing (makers have been known to make mistakes) but as Mitchell ventured further into the project he realized it was not a mistake.
Mitchell was surprised to uncover the decorative arm to metal frame connection, fragmented into multiple disintegrating bits.
Kate’s note: This is also to remind you that sometimes surprises happen after assessment, during conservation processes. It is advised to work closely with your clients about payment, keeping clients informed if adjustments in costs need to be addressed resolved.
The disintegrated parts or blown out broken parts were carefully removed and a clean surface to attach a connecting piece of hard wood was created, the connection fashioned and the piece assembled. A small bit of carved decorative wood was loose and glued with warm hide glue, then clamped to cure. All the glue used in the reconstruction was warm hide glue. Hide glue is strong and reversible when properly applied and of good quality without bulking agents or chemical additives. We once made all our hide glues, but now we use Old Brown Glue, and only make fish or rabbit hide glue when necessary.
All the holes in the
chair frame were conserved.
Small cracks and chips found
in the frame were also repaired
with warm hide glue,
and clamped to cure.
Picks were leveled using
a chisel, right.
The repaired persimmon-wood carved arm front tenons were brushed with warm hide glue and returned to original positions in the cleaned, prepped seat side rail mortice. Perfect fit!
The historic steel hoop was reconnected using historic slot headed screws, securing screw and hoop to the backside of the decorative arm front.
Finally, the assembled and glued chair was leveled and clamped to cure for 48 hours.
Mitchell retrofit the inside arm frame with a tacking block; previously upholsterers toe-nailed into the frame inappropriately, which caused most of the damage. This type of retrofit is a preservation measure.
In this case, it creates a visual design element, allowing for a structural gully around the decorative arm foundation resulting in recessed contours around the arm which are embellished with the decorative show cover and woven braids.
The historic springs were in good condition; after inspection Mitchell cleaned them of rust and occlusions using Gamblin’s Gamsol (Odorless Mineral Spirits).
A carved scroll was missing on the left-facing leg and loose on this leg.
The decorative scroll was carved from walnut, joined to the leg proper then glued and clamped to cure. The chair was ready for finish conservation.
Stain infill was determined.
The “stain” was created by dissolving powdered pigment in isopropyl alcohol. Mitchell applied our stain to cure until completely dry. After, a topcoat of blonde shellac was applied to fix the infill color in place.
We used an encaustic wax on the entire frame finish in several applications until burnish-able. MPFC created the wax by infusing bee and carnauba wax with powdered pigment plus “drying” oils to polymerize the mixture and act as a fixative.
Jumping ahead, this is the appearance of a conserved original finish, above: warm, a slight sheen, and if you looked closely, evidence of the wear of time.
The frame is conserved and restored!
5: Buildup, Seat
The chair was turned over. Upholstery conservation on the conserved frame begins underneath. Mitchell intends to web the frame in the original basket-weave pattern, same placement, using similar webbing to the original.
If you remember the oddly placed webbing (last image above), the more Mitchell considered it, the more he realized this was likely NOT the original webbing. Tack hole patterns suggest a tightly woven webbing of greater width, also European. In this, the oldest generation found, note it is likely numerous courses are missing.
The webbing was a high quality herringbone jute, modest in width, metric, of European origin. The upholsterer chose to overlap the edges of the spring instead of supporting the spring at center (the spring could fall through, see third image). It may have been rewebbed from underneath, as the springs were also not lashed to the webbing.
Mitchell placed his webbing in a tightly placed basket-weave with very little space between courses of webbing, in keeping with the French style of upholstering. We chose to rewebb and place the webbing in what appears to be the historic position. The historic position/patterning corroborates our supposition that the chair was made in France or was created in the French style.
We keep samples of original show covers, burlaps, muslins, and webbings for our clients.
Webbing completed; Chair turned right-side up!
Cleaned springs were placed,
still tied, into position. Mitchell
realized that to preserve the
decorative arms a second,
additional prosthetic block was
needed underneath the block placed in earlier.
A double blocking system was the totality
of the addition on both sides.
Mitchell noted the direction of the
springs during excavation, and places
them properly into position.
The four-way double tie was completed, above.
Note: The wear-points found on the old iron springs indicated the piece was originally a four-way tie. Clearly the maker crafted it with the intent of the user dropping deeply into the seat with a low center of gravity, ergo, the four-way tie. So much can be learned by paying close attention to details during excavation!
The springs were covered with a tight jute hessian, creating the Spring Deck, above.
The hessian was tied to the springs in a four-point pattern, above. Mitchell sees an unintended homage to the Holbein stitch and wonders about the connection. The Holbein is shown in the buildup, and will be taught in our classes.
The historic seat deck pod was cleaned, hand-blocked, selectively teased and made ready for installation.
Additional coir was secured to the conserved pod, and the pod was placed onto the Spring Deck.
A beautiful polished hemp open weave burlap covered the original hessian, and was tacked into place. Both the historical pod and the new topper were used.
The fiber pod was marked, readied for lashing into place using 12 ply waxed linen twine. Three rows of lashing established a firm front edge and edgeroll, while two courses of twine transited the seat contour keeping stuffings in place, establishing a center of gravity for a comfortable sit. The third front row of stitching performs double duty in this instance.
After decades of performing work on fiber pods, I am still impressed by their ingenious design! It is easy to comprehend how fiber stuffed into a casing performs relative to compression and return during a sit or recline, but it is the lashing twines (simple thin strands of tightly twisted fiber) which become the building blocks for the fiber pod’s structure and longevity. Strategically placed, patterned and knotted, these strings act like sub-floors and stud walls in a building. They make for a cohesive structure which can flex yet remain firm and shapely, and allows the fiber pod to last decades under consistent use.
The Seat Deck is conserved (above right, the inside back is revealed completely excavated); we move to the inside back excavation!
6: Excavation, Back
With the seat buildup completed, Mitchell removed the protective covering from the inside back.
He excavated the original inside back cotton topper and horsehair, above. A thin batting of cotton flocking lint, original to the piece, was exposed; a good deal of the color is the actual color of this flocking, though it was also dirty.
Both were cleaned and teased as necessary, and laid face down.
The crest (fiber filled) edgeroll and adjacent collar was lashed to and around the perimeter of the crest to arm hoop, over the heavy hessian foundational membrane. After inspection, notes and patterns were created, then the edgeroll was carefully removed.
The serpentine hair-filled crest and arm “collar” were carefully lifted from the steel hoop frame after anchoring stitches were cut. Mitchel retained the stitches within the hessian so he could refer to them to replicate the original stitch patterning as necessary.
The serpentine hair-filled crest and arm “collar” was laid atop the original inside back in the order removed.
The “cumberbund” — the lumbar filled support — was carefully removed, patterned, cleaned and readied for reapplication. It was also placed atop the other inside back pieces in the order removed.
The hoop frame exposed, with the original hessian foundational membrane, above.
Finally the original hessian foundational membrane was removed, and the steel hoop (frame) was fully exposed. Notice the nice contour to the seat pod at the rear. From an upholstering engineering perspective, the roll around the seat rear and inside arms play an important function relative to a semi-firm barrier between the inside arm and inside back, keeping a tight fit between those elements. The roll also acts semi-independently from the central portion of the pod, where the primary center of gravity exists, allowing the sitter to drop into the springs without collapsing the seal between the lumbar area of the inside back and the seat. It is also easy to see the geometric flavor of the Art Nouveau style, though the chair precedes the production of that style by several decades.
The back is fully excavated!
7: Buildup, Tufted Back and Seat
The inside back completely excavated. Note (even if you can’t see it) the frame’s steel hoop tilts to one side, a product of repeated sideways sitting by an inhabitant. As we move on, it will sometimes appear as if our upholstering was “off” when it was actually the tilt of the back’s steel hoop.
14oz jute hessian was chosen as a replacement for the original inside back and arm foundational membrane.
The symmetry of the hessian grain positions relative to the frame positioning and lack of symmetry was calculated and transferred by graphite and chalk to the hessian in order to insure the best positioning of the woven medium. The hessian was stretched and pinned then lashed with heavy 12-ply linen twine in a locking blanket stitch.
Mitchell placed double cross stitches along strategic
points of the hoop and
vertical supports to ensure
the hessian did not
move over time.
The seat and back now will be built together.
On the seat, arms and back, the buildup occurred in reverse order of excavation; what came off last went on first.
Second stuffings (horsehair) was secured to the conserved pod and additional hair added over the lashings to replace original hairs broken over many years of use. A new cotton topper was placed upon the hair. A 7 oz cotton/hemp muslin was stitched to the pod, making the surface ready for the new showcover.
Historic hair filled cummerbund (lumbar filler) was lashed into position using linen twine and covered with 9oz open weave hessian.