We’ve not chronicled a project for a
long time and these original
Gustav Stickley circa 1900-1910 Ladderbacks are so lovely (and often poorly conserved and restored)
that it is a good way to begin again!
We will chronicle our process using the armchair, below; similar protocol was used on all the chairs as needed.
These traveled from Pasadena to the current owner, an avid preservationist.
We assessed them first in his home, right, then brought them in for a full assessment in our studio under proper lights.
We found several splits which
needed to be repaired, and had a better
idea of the full scope of work.
MPFC worked with our client, CK, to establish treatment protocol; all aspects of the armchair will be photographed for documentation and delivered to CK.
Joints were loose, and seats had split through leather and webbing.
All the original innards were intact, and the wonderful decorative nails in place!
The original finish was in good condition as well.
All the chairs needed to be disassembled (click if the YouTube does not load).
Mitchell explains why in the video above, but to leave them as-is will court a future break in the mortise and tenon joinery as they are used and they continue to rock.
The original leather was split,
and as these chairs will be used for another century, it was decided to reupholster in matching leather.
MPFC planned to color the saddle
leather to match original leather,
which was said to be jappaned originally.
All innards would be cleaned and
reused if possible, however,
many parts were disintegrating,
as you will see when we excavate the layers of the leather seat.
The finish was in excellent condition,
right, and would be treated with infill
as needed using matching traditional materials created by MPFC, then waxed.
To disassemble or excavate the upholstery we begin with the
historic decorative nails. Mitchell created a handy hand-tool for getting under
the historic nails to lift without damaging them, gently tapping under each nail with this sharp thin tool. It is time-consuming and precise work.
Each nail is inspected and straightened as needed.
Each one is labeled and we map their location.
If this seems a tad overkill, understand that these were hand-driven by a craftsperson,
and they do not always go into the holes straight. By mapping them we can ensure they will fit back into the original holes during reupholstery. Also, we note the way the upholsterer plied his (usually at that time) craft, such as the temporary tack used
in the third image above, to secure the show cover before the decorative nails
were applied. A bit later we will show how this mapping of all the holes
also allows us to know how many times the piece has been upholstered.
The chair is turned over to allow us to remove the upholstery tacks on the seat underside.
The original label is carefully cut away while still attached to the original burlap.
Canvas and label are placed between two acrylic cauls to press it flat.
We will not reattach the fragile label, but carefully preserve it and
place it back inside a pocket created for the chair.
The show cover tacks are also carefully removed, as we do not want to mar the wood frame. These tacks will not be reused — indeed many are rusted — but will be offered to our client, CK. At least a few will be saved from each chair to accompany other artifacts.
The leather show cover is lifted in its entirety off the seat.
We discover writing on the underside of the leather, “60” or “68” followed by what
may be a name: “Mac.” This writing has transferred to the cotton topper.
(If anyone knows what the word is please send me a message!)
It may be the upholsterer’s name.
Tacks holding the cotton muslin undercover are carefully removed; the undercover was lifted. A small portion of it will be saved for CK.
One day cotton of this sort may not be available and then these artifacts
will be interesting historical bits that tell a story.
At each step of the way Mitchell is carefully recording the tack holes.
Underneath the topper is the felted lint topper.
The felted cotton lint stuffing is no longer available.
The topper will be cleaned and reused, and is also an artifact.
Lint stuffing of this nature tells a story of its own.
Mitchell marks the final row of tacks on the outside of the frame,
the webbing tacks, on the heavy Mylar. It is clear to him from the lack of extra
unaccounted for holes that this is the original show cover and upholstery buildup.
The jute webbing tacks are carefully removed, and at this time all items tacked into the front of the frame are off the chair. The jute is also tucked away for storage for CK.
The final seat deck, a cotton canvas (which had the label cut out of it) is tacked
onto the top of the apron frame. These tacks are also carefully lifted.
All parts are removed from the frame.
Clockwise, beginning with the leather show cover, are the leather, the muslin cover, the lint pad, the jute webbing, and the cotton seat deck.
The various tacks (far right), the decorative nails (in four labeled bags), the map and the original label (pressed between acrylic cauls) are awaiting for storage or rebuilding.
The frame is bare and can be re-assessed. No surprises. The rear apron stretcher on this armchair was badly warped, though it was hard to sow in an image.
Reparation of the frame begins with more disassembly,
on an as-needed basis for each chair. Corner blocks are removed, labeled,
and screws are placed back into original block holes for safekeeping.
5/16-inch white oak dowel secured the mortise and tenon, except for the arms,
which used 3/8-inch white oak dowel. In order to disassemble the compromised joints,
the dowel was carefully drilled, first by piloting with a hand gimlet, then a small brad point and drill bit, then successively larger drill bits.– all to ensure accuracy. Coved chisels assisted in removing small bits of doweling clinging to mortise walls..
This basic process was used for the removal of all necessary dowel pins.
With the dowel pins removed, the desiccated hide glue allowed for fairly easy
separation of the joinery. All bits of glue were removed by hand tool or
by sandpaper, another time-consuming job. Mitchell did not find it necessary
to remove the back splats from the stiles; only that which might endanger joints
in the future were disassembled. This was discussed in the video on the previous post.
All frame parts disassembled and ready for repair.
There is a label on the inside of a rear stretcher.
There was so much dirt covering the label we could not see the label clearly.
With a damp cotton swab, Kate cleaned carefully around the red areas taking care not to remove red markings. The label was visible after cleaning, below.
At first we thought the sticker was the first United Crafts Mark, indicating the chair was made between 1902-1903, however, we do not see an indication of the box surrounding the signature. This led us to the second red Craftsman Workshops Mark, used from 1905-1912 (one wonders what was used in between) which coincides with the Craftsman Paper Label, used between 1907-1912. This places our chairs between 1905-1912.
Stickley used the phrase, “Als ik kan” — “to the best of my ability” on his mark.
Warm hide glue was used to secure radial splits and lifting tangential grain.
A split on the upholstery apron injected with hide glue, top; and below,
injecting warm hide glue into lifting tangential grain prior to cauling and clamping.
The split and fissures were cleaned if possible —
unless to do so would court further damage.
Warm hide glue was brushed or injected to secure,
then the splits were cauled and clamped to cure.
The tangential grain after curing, secured.
Upholstery seat apron tack holes were filled
with hardwood dowels using hide glue to set.
Warm Hide glue was injected into each hole and
hardwood dowels were tapped into place.
By the angle of the dowels sticking out you can see how the tacks
were often placed in at an angle, as we are filling the original holes.
The porcupine seat aprons sat overnight to cure, above.
All the little dowels are cut, above, however, Mitchell leaves them a bit proud so
he can feel where the original tack was placed and drive the new tack into the same hole during the reupholstery phase. This assists in keeping the apron strong for generations.
The chair is ready for reassembly, above.
White oak dowels in the 5/16th size were not available for months
even through online stores. Mitchell reduced a 3/8 dowel by first scraping,
then tamping it through a dowel sizer, above.
At this time all parts were ready for assembly.
The assembly had to be done in one unbroken period, because while the hide glue
was still viscous, the frame has to be stabilized and set level then clamped to cure level.
Below, images on the entire chair being assembled before the glue set up!
Thin coats warm hide glue covers all parts, mortise and tenon and dowels.
on rare occasions where mortise or tenon walls were excessively thin pieces of white oak veneer were cut to size, soaked in warm hide glue until pliable, then set onto tenon walls to minimize gaps and ensure proper glue bond between the elements. (Images unusable.)
The front arms and aprons were assembled, then placed into the back.
This simple rectilinear frame required many clamps to stabilize during curing,
but not by any means the most I have seen;
odd shaped chairs sometimes require inventive clamping!
The frame was leveled, stabilized and clamped to cure overnight.
The next morning the frame is ready for the finish preservation and infill phase.
The chairs were covered with radial fissures, mostly from shrinkage over a century
of use and exposure to the elements, including possible oil heat.
These were filled with our hot pigmented carnauba wax infused with
tree resins delivered into the fissures using a batik writer
(art tools come in handy in our studio). This is allowed to cool, and scraped to level.
Why fill (other than cosmetic)? Prevents pest infestation.
The new dowels used to secure the mortice were in need of pigment,
delivered in a formula to match the original historic varnish
(MPFC creates from shellac flakes and violin pigments),
and carefully applied with a cotton swab so as not to run onto the original finish.
This was allowed to cure overnight.
(I am cheating and showing the same area after wax in the last image.)
Our specially formulated wax (created for this project of carnauba, polymerizing oils,
and tree resins infused with finely ground earth pigments) was applied liberally.
4/0 steel wool was used on areas where there were excessive
amounts of scaling and carbon accumulations.
All the chairs had areas of minute splintering, which is problematic due to fabric catching on the area and pulling large chunks of the frame away. In these areas a very fine sandpaper was covered in wax and gently used to smooth the dangerous splinters off, while slightly pigmenting the open grain.
All this was was allowed to sit then wiped and polished using prewashed
cotton osnaburg, followed by a final polishing with a woolen baize cloth for a dull sheen.
Finish was completed, above and below.
Below, before an after images of a severe radial split,
a damaged left-facing arm top,
and the left-facing leg dowel infills.
Note: Scratches exhibiting in final finish images around new dowels are not caused by MPFC. We did not level the dowels after they were inserted into the chair mortises because of the risk of damaging the original finish, however, in the original production by Stickley there were several areas where the dowels were leveled and scratches and saw chatter marks were produced around the dowel mortise walls.
Also, not all the original bores
were straight, which caused —
both in Stickley’s dowels and in ours —
areas where there was a slight dip
on the angled side.
We also found several tear outs and
chipping along pin mortice walls
which appear to have been created
at the time the chairs were constructed,
such as the one shown right,
along the inside of the right-facing arm,
shown after finish and wax fills.
We are ready for upholstery!
BUILDUP + NEW SHOWCOVER LEATHER
The frame is repaired and the finish conserved;
Stickley chairs do not have dustcovers, and so the underside of the canvas seatdeck is visible if the chair is turned over. We wanted the new to have the look of an older chair, and so we tea-stained the 14oz. cotton canvas prior to installing onto the chair frame.
Choosing a jute webbing to match an older chair is difficult because many older jute webbings are not made, or are not available even from Europe via web searches.
In this case, Mitchell chose a French jute webbing that was closer to the weight and
weave structure, even though it did not have the stripe running up the side,
which many other contemporary jute webbings have — though it was a close choice between the one to the far left, which was a bit too wide.
The webbing was applied exactly as the original jute webbing. Mitchell can feel the slight bump of the tack hole picks and so placed the tacks back into the same holes.
The original woolen lint batting was cleaned and reused.
The batting was recarded onto the seat.
A thin topper of 100% cotton was applied.
Stickley chairs sat quite flat, similar to Empire style seating; Mitchell was careful
not to add too much, and formed it to a modest crown on top of the seat.
The 400 count cotton percale muslin seat cover was carefully placed. In this instance Mitchell did not use the original tack holes as the original Stickley upholsterers used a tack pattern that was haphazard and would result in the percale tearing earlier than necessary.
Buildup is complete. We are ready to prepare
the Show Cover of 4-5 oz. vegetable tanned strapping leather.
Above, the original leather, much aged, and the new leather.
The new leather is a bit pinker than shown —
fluorescent lighting changes the color slightly!
The first step: we thoroughly cleaned
the leather, above, with Fiebing Dye Prep.
Human hands and factory conditions can add unseen grime which interferes with dying.
We tried several dye combinations in
1-2 coats on bits of leather that were unusable before we found the one that worked.
We used Fiebing Pro dyes, and finally
hit on a formula of approximately
50-50 Mahogany and Chocolate.
We surmise the original may have been closer to Mahogany, but wanted the leather to also work with the deeper tones of
the aged varnish on the chairs and
the other Stickley pieces our client owns.
A glamorous life, this messy finish work!
First coat of dye applied, swirled on in overlapping layers, and sometimes
requiring deep rubbing to penetrate the skin even after cleaning.
The camera brightens and exaggerates the dye pattern a bit but you can see the
first coat left the skin coloring a bit uneven; we let it thoroughly dry overnight.
After each coat dried, the surface was polished, removing excess color.
The second coat deepened the color saturation and evened the dye pattern. Dying done, the leather is ready to be upholstered after another 24 hours and a good polishing!
The dark black spots are blemishes which we must avoid when upholstering.
Conserving Original Decorative Nails
The original decorative nails are quite bent and must be carefully straightened.
Again, each nail is labeled to be replaced into the original conserved hole.
The shank is placed into the vice and pressed, then re-positioned and pressed
again until the shank is straight enough to be replaced into the chair.
Sometimes a gentle tapping is needed to make the top cap lay flat again.
We are ready to begin;
all preparations in advance are complete.
A pattern was created from the form of each chair,
noting center-line, placement and shape.
Leather was carefully cut to avoid blemishes.
The edges were dyed, then waxed and burnished.
A very thin (remembering that the Stickley sits rather flat) felted cotton batting
was placed over the muslin onto the seat form to act as a buffer between the muslin and leather and helps prevent wear as the seat is used. Mitchell feathered and sculpted
the batting to be as he remembered the seat.
To be authentic, the seat must eventually sit like an older Stickley.
Mitchell placed enough batting into the seat buildup
so that as is quickly settles it will be the proper loft.
The cut seat show cover is placed onto the seat and tacked into place.
The original Craftsman paper label was too old and brittle to be replaced onto the chair.
We made a photocopy of the original label, and added our conservation date.
This was placed onto the underside of the chair, and the original was placed into a protective covering and given back to our client along with other bits of historical material.
The seat is ready for decorative nails. Pilot holes are drilled into the conserved original holes, and the decorative nail ever so gently tapped into place. In the four chairs conserved, only one decorative nail was broken and was repaired by our blacksmith!
Completed conserved chair is
ready for action at the dining table!
AFTER, IN STUDIO
She’s a beauty!
A final image,
comparing the new seat and leather on a conserved Stickley
to older original leather on an untouched Stickley…
After a year of use the new loft will be in alignment with the original intention.
Also, note that we did not replace the leather on the Stickleys where they were
in fact still gently usable — that is original leather on the other Stickleys!
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