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Best guesses

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It’s great to have access to an original when making a reproduction, but sometimes you can’t. In those cases, you have to make your best guess. It’s a pleasure to learn you guessed right.

Last spring, I made a reproduction of a 19th-century folding table of a type frequently used by officers during the Civil War. I had a few good photos and some overall dimensions, and knowing that there was a lot of variation in these tables was confident that my reproduction was period-authentic.

These tables have two sets of hinged legs that lock into place when the table is set up, using a common mechanism of the period. However, try as I might I couldn’t get a close look at one. Some peeks at a distance, yeah – usually in museums – and an occasional glimpse of a portion of the mechanism in period photos. Using the specs I had plus my best guess at the design, you can see the result in the photo below.

Here’s how it works: When those hinged leg sets are extended, the ends of that thin strip on the underside of the table snap into mortises at the inside-center of each leg set, holding them at 90 degrees. The strip is flexible; all you have to do is lift the ends out of those mortises and fold the legs down. The tension in the strip holds the legs against the underside of the table.

This weekend Sally and I visited the boyhood home of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in Lancaster, Ohio. One room had been set up to show Sherman’s camp headquarters, and was complete with a cot and other items, including an original table very similar to mine. We had a wonderful guide who graciously allowed me into that exhibit, and to crawl under the table for a close look. Lo and behold, I got the mechanism exactly right.

I’d like to say that I’m a real smart guy in all of this, but the truth lies more in the nature of good guesses. I had to guess at how a woodworker in the 1860s would have made something like this function based on what I knew he had to work with. But when you think about it, isn’t that what he did originally? In each case, we both came to the same logical, best-guess conclusion.



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