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Destroyed responsibly

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Step one in building my latest piece of furniture is to destroy another one. Well, destroy is the wrong word; maybe dissect is better.

The next reproduction in my current book project is a 19th-century folding chair. The oak chair features bentwood arms, fabric seat and mortised-in slats on the backrest. Extremely comfortable and very sturdy, and with hand-peened rivets at all pivot points, the whole thing folds flat.

I’ve re-created other folding chairs, but none this intricate so I needed a good look at an original to guide me. I found one on eBay in pretty bad shape that went cheap and was perfect for my needs. When making reproductions of historic pieces I typically take lots of photos and measurements, but having an original allows me to make exact patterns. All you have to do is destroy the original and start tracing.

Right there I’ve probably given every restorer reading this a heart attack. Most restorers will tell you that the best restoration is none at all: Historical objects should be left exactly the way they are and enjoyed as-is. I generally agree with this sentiment, and relish museums where I can see original pieces in the exact condition in which they were found. In fact, I own a couple original artifacts that I won’t so much as clean up lest I destroy the historical significance.

So why the difference with this chair? Well, for one thing the chair is not historically important. They made these by the zillions, and there are plenty still around. But the main reason is that this chair is far from museum quality. No, that’s being nice. This chair is a wreck – wood cracked, seat rotted, missing rungs, and some key joints reinforced with modern hardware. Still perfect as a guide, though. And I’m not destroying it so much as disassembling it. In addition to exact patterns, I can get a good look inside those mortise-and-tenon joints, and remove the period-incorrect hardware somebody used on it. As a result, my reproduction, because it will be exact, will make the chair live again.

Then, when I’m done with my repro I’ll clean up all the parts of the original, replace the missing rungs, make a new tapestry seat, and reassemble it, restored to useful condition. Many purists won’t like what I’ve done, but I’m not a purist.

By re-creating a perfect copy from the original – and then restoring the tired original to life – I prefer to think that I’m practical.

Till next time,


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