198 uniform copy

On February 13, 1776 Thomas Nevell credited Thomas Proctor for a “Uniform Coat” and Edward Bonsall for a “pair of Lether breechs”. July was six months off but the Continental Congress had previously met in Philadelphia at Carpenters’ Hall, which Nevell had helped design and build, in 1774 and 1775. In December 1775, John and Margaret Macpherson’s son John had been killed in the Battle of Quebec, perhaps the first commissioned officer from Philadelphia to die during the Revolution. Nevell anticipated war and readily took up the patriots cause, serving for several years as an officer in the Continental Army. He ordered and paid for his own blue coat and leather pants, the uniform of the day. A uniform we have all been reacquainted with thanks to a extraordinary recent Broadway play.

198 uniform

There is a gap in the entries in Nevell’s daybook from November 9, 1777, less than two months after the British Army began their occupation of Philadelphia, until January 12, 1780, when there is one entry, then another gap until August 16, 1782.

After the war the scope of Nevell’s business changed. He was 62 years old in 1783 and now began spending more time measuring other tradesmen’s work than on arduous building projects.

411 Triumphal Arch

In 1784 Nevell was given a last, large project by the State of Pennsylvania, building Charles Wilson Peales Arch of Triumph across Market Street celebrating the end of the war. We will leave that story, and the story of its “miscariage” for another time.

411 Triumphal Arch copy

 

More information and photos of the carved mahogany stove plate pattern at the Burlington County Historical Society.

The size of the pattern is 26 inches high and 33 inches wide. The ground of the relief carving is on the shy side of 5/16 of an inch below the upper surface. I don’t believe a router was used to lower the background. It’s difficult to see in the photographs but the ground has an undulating surface, even with some areas of slight tear-out as the flat carving gouge used to produce the ground was worked across the grain, the carver knowing the tear-out would disappear in the iron casting.

At the HABS site I found photographic copies of older photographs of the carved pattern now at the Burlington County Historical Society and a six-plate stove that used the pattern for the sides. I had previously believed that no stoves made with this pattern survived, but one did, at least until sometime in the late 19th/early 20th century. It appears to be in an advanced state of deterioration and I do not know of its present whereabouts. We also now know that a side pattern for a 10-plate stove was at times adapted for use in a 6-plate stove. And we know the design of the front plate pattern that accompanied the sides, a large urn with trailing leaves and flowers.

Pattern. HABS photo

6-plate stove made with pattern in the Burlington Historical Society.

6-plate stove made with pattern in the Burlington Historical Society.

Thanks must go to Charles Cunningham who donated the pattern to the Burlington County Historical Society in 1934. I wonder if it could be found out how he came by it. Picked it from a pile of discarded wood patterns at Batsto?

Pattern label

Pattern label

No discussion of Pennsylvania and New Jersey stove plates can fail to mention the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a little over 30 miles north of Philadelphia. Among the tens of thousands of artifacts Henry Chapman Mercer collected for his museum were hundreds of stove plates. You can examine them in the “stove plate room” at the top of the museum.

stove-plates

A corner of the Stove plate room at the Mercer Museum.

It was over 30 years ago that I photographed the carved mahogany front plate pattern for a cast iron stove, seen below, when it was displayed in a Plexiglas vitrine in the center of that room.

I’ve just done what the HABS photographer did in the 1940s, made a photograph of a (my) photograph so the image in it could be freely shared and not lost to time.

Front plate pattern. Mercer Museum

detail

Detail of BCHS pattern.

detail

Detail of BCHS pattern.

detail

Detail of BCHS pattern.

I recently spent the day working at the Burlington County Historical Society in Burlington, New Jersey. While there I was able to examine and photograph what is, for me, one of the treasures of their collection – a carved-wood pattern used to produce one side of a ten-plate cast iron stove. A small number of complete cast-iron stoves along with numerous chimneybacks and disassociated stove plates made in the Philadelphia region during the second half of the eighteenth century survive, but less than a handful of the carved wood patterns used to make an impression in moist sand into which the molten steel would be cast are extant. Primarily produced in furnaces in the Schuylkill Valley and West Jersey, or South Jersey as it is known today, six-plate stoves were introduced about 1760 and ten-plate stove were probably being made by the early 1770s.

In 1766 a dam was built on the Batsto River near its junction with the Atsion and Mullica rivers and the Batsto Furnace was established. The mahogany side-plate pattern at the Burlington Historical Society was probably carved in Philadelphia c. 1775. Its low-relief blend of rococo and neoclassical elements marks the end, in the eighteenth century, of carving playing the primary role in the decoration of furniture and other objects produced for, and desired by the gentry. The winds of many changes were blowing.

Enjoy the photos, they will open to full size when clicked on.

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There were several questions I didn’t have the answer to during my week teaching at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking. I’m using this post to correct that with the hope that those who attended the class stop in here from time to time.

Several years ago I decided to make an another attempt at finding a business that would produce a name stamp I could use on tools, particularly carving tools, but other tools I’ve made or collected as well. Until recently I had hadn’t been satisfied with what I found offered, mainly because I couldn’t find stamps with classically formed letters with serifs. Having collected historic tools for decades and using primarily historic carving tools, I’ve long been acquainted with the custom of owners stamping their names on tools to identify them. Many of the tools I use have owner’s stamps, a number of them more than one. One chisel had three previous owner’s names stamped on it and it now has a forth, mine. While I signed wood tools that I made from the beginning, I was hesitant for years about marking tools that others had manufactured. In truth, I didn’t even think about. Perhaps it was a bit of not feeling worthy of the tools or not knowing if I was using them to their full potential. But as time goes on, you develop your skills and the tools that have come along on that journey with you become old and familiar friends. With carving tools in particular, you grasp the handle – where the owner’s names are stamped – and there is an intimacy with an object and the past that is rare in today’s world. The old line carving tools them being extensions of your hand is not an exaggeration or a nostalgic tale. You carve with your whole body, arms back, and legs.

My tools are in perfectly restored condition, can do anything a carver asks of them, and the years I’ve used them has deepened their patina. If I stepped away from them tomorrow, I would be proud to have my name on them in the condition I left them. It was time to find a stamp.

As we all know, this type of search is easier than ever to do today and I quickly identified a business I thought could make the stamp I wanted. Buckeye Engraving in Kent Ohio, makes hand stamps, dies and brands exclusively. There is even someone on the other end of the phone to discuss the process and clearly no job is too small, all I was ordering was one stamp with six letters and a period. You send a drawing or word document of your design, they send you a PDF at actual size as they will produce it. You can print it, cut it out if you want to see how it looks where you will use it, explain any changes or modifications and in a week or so your stamp arrives. It was a great experience. Look them up if you need something similar. www.steelhandstamps.com

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stamp

stamp on handle

A previous owners initials “JS” on the handle at top.

Gammercy saw

A Gramercy Tools dovetail saw from Tools for Working Wood with a homemade handle.

The topic of contemporary extraordinary carving commissions came up and I could not remember the name of the British carver who recently completed a reproduction of the Uppark House Servery Table, a pair to the table being lost in a fire in the house in 1991. It was Peter Thuring and his shop who took on this once in a lifetime project. The result is stunning. See it here. The craft continues.

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I’ve had inquiries from a number of people who have signed up for the class I’m giving at The Marc Adams School of Woodworking in May, about what materials and equipment it will be useful to have on hand besides their carving tools. Most students I encounter, whether new to carving or having practiced for some time without formal instruction, do not have their carving tools shaped and sharpened in a manner that will allow them to work as efficiently as possible or produce the results they desire. This is a basic introduction to my shaping and sharpening equipment.

The majority of modern carving tools are capable of performing as well as any tools of the past. Modern tools when purchased may come to you sharp and might cut cleanly, but they are typically not shaped in a manner best suited for optimal performance. Before the end of the 19th century, carving tools did not come from the maker sharpened. The only people who were purchasing tools were professional carvers who during their apprenticeships had been given formal instruction on sharpening and caring for their tools. Those traditions had been passed down from generation to generation, but were rapidly being lost during the first half of the 20th century. I spent too many years striving to understand, and recreate those traditions while working full time as a professional conservator/restorer.

Books that taught carving, including chapters on sharpening, to the public began to be published in the third quarter of the 19th century and I examined as many as I could find, attempting to translate the words on the page to actual practice. Over the decades a greater number of early carving manuals have become available and I continue to seek them out. I also collect more recently published instruction books to get a feel for how others have trained in woodcarving, worked at it professionally, and ultimately began to teach it to others.

One goal I have for the class is to shorten the length of trial and error time students often go through attempting to get to the place where they can just concentrate on carving. My years of trial and error have allowed me to now know that any tool I pick up will carve as well as it possibly can, the only limitations to the outcome of a project will be my own skill. The tool will not be blamed.

Bench stones

For sharpening the bevel of carving tools I use two bench stones seen here in the walnut boxes I made for them.

Bench stones open

I use only oil stones for sharpening carving tools. The lower stone is a man-made, approximately medium grit India oil stone. If a tool needs shaping as opposed to regular maintenance, I will start with this stone. If there is a lot of metal to be removed, you might start on a coarser stone or a motorized grinder can be used very carefully. Above is a wide, natural Translucent Arkansas stone. These are expensive but will last several lifetimes are are hard enough that they maintain their flat surface for years. I use this stone after the India or for flattening a bevel that has been rounded over after repeated stroppings.

slips

Slip stones are used on the inside surface of carving gouges. They are used to create inner bevels if desired or to remove the wire edge created when working on the outer bevel. Several different shapes are needed for the different curved edge profiles of the tools. Again, medium India stones are used first if creating an inner bevel, then Translucent Arkansas next. In the upper right corner is a Soft Arkansas slip stone. The grit is roughly equivalent to medium/fine India stones and I use them interchangeably. You’ll need one or two hard stones with knife edges to work on V-tools.

Pye slip stones

I also use several sets of the slip stones designed by the woodcarver Chris Pye and made by Norton. Each set contains of different thickness stones comes with either a course or medium India stone and a Translucent Arkansas stone that are square with each edge a different radius allowing them to more closely fit a large variety of gouge profiles. Can you get along without them? Sure, but I appreciate Pye’s thoughtfulness towards fellow carvers and ability to work with a company to create a new product that benefits all carvers.

strops

Finally both bevels are stropped with some type of fine abrasive. Traditionally the abrasive is applied to leather which is glued or nailed to wood forms. In the middle of the photo is a flat rectangular block with a this leather cover works similarly to the bench stone on the outside bevel. Around it are pieces of wood with rounded edges covered in leather that mimic the slip stones. The abrasive is a mixture of chromium oxide, a metal polish in liquid form, and tallow heated together to create a paste.

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Loose pieces of leather, both thick and thin, are used without a wood backing for wide flat gouges or narrow gouges.

wood carving

This was the first woodcarving instruction book I purchased, I was lucky in that it was probably the best available at the time. It can still serve as a good introduction to woodcarving.

Wheeler

It was originally published in 1963 as “Practical Woodcarving and Gilding”, updated in 1972 and I purchased the 1979 edition in 1980.

plateplate2plate3There I learned about inner bevels, the “line of light”, how to sharpen a V-tool, the perils of uneven sharpening, and leather strops.

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Vitruvian Shell

 

 

 

 

In 2011, a wide audience was introduced to a genre painting by Thomas Hicks (1823-1890) of a kitchen interior while it was on loan to Winterthur Museum as part of the exhibition “Paint, Pattern and People, Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850”. It was also included in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition as figure 3.1, heading the chapter “Families: Owners and Inheritors”. The painting, for the authors of the catalogue, represented “romance and nostalgia for the past” in the early days of the Colonial Revival. The authors continue, “Propping open the door is a Philadelphia armchair, probably more than a century old. Once a treasured heirloom but now an old-fashioned relic with a broken splat, the chair is a lingering reminder of a proud past. Many such objects were handed down from generation to generation, valued by some for their association with ancestors but disregarded by others as old fashioned, only to be rediscovered by another generation and revered as treasured heirlooms. Over time, many were refurbished, refinished, or otherwise restored to make them more presentable or valuable.”

Hicks

Kitchen interior by Thomas Hicks, 1865
The Dietrich American Foundation

Those of us who have “refurbished, refinished, or otherwise restored” historic objects most often deal with objects whose past is murky and unknown beyond the last several owners. If, at the end of our twentieth century, we had provenance for an object to the beginning of the century, we considered ourselves lucky, if we had knowledge of it back to the middle of the nineteenth century we were ecstatic, as this was the time before the Colonial Revival when, by the 1890s at least, anything, and everything, could, and often did, happen to furniture in restorers’ shops.

A Philadelphia compassed armchair was purchased by a collector from a dealer at the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 2000 and was brought to me to “refurbish, restore, and refinish.” It was sold and purchased knowingly as a chair compromised with prior restorations. It was “irresistible” to the dealer who had it “priced accordingly” at the show, a fraction of the value of a similar chair retaining all its original elements. A relic, perhaps, in so many words. The proper left arm and arm support, the crest rail, the pedestal, and the front seat rim were replaced. The proper right arm support had a restored break, the proper right arm was patched at the joint to the rear stile, and the lamination for thickness on the rear stile above the arm was replaced. Last, there was a large patch to the splat at the top of the proper left side. But it was, and certainly was originally, as the dealer wrote in his ad, an elegant and beautiful chair.

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Advertisement from the 2000 Philadelphia Antique Show catalogue.

As I began to work on the chair, researching an appropriate crest design, patterning the arm and arm support, and choosing walnut whose grain and texture best matched the chair, I had a nagging thought that wouldn’t go away – that I had seen the chair before. I think it was most strongly felt during the difficult process of finding a piece of wood that would match the grain of the splat. Even though pith was present in the board used for the splat and it was not difficult to see why it would have broken at such a fragile point, it was an unusually shaped loss.

It occurred to me I was remembering another armchair of similar form with a similar loss, but that it was not necessarily an actual chair I has seen, but an image of it. Finally, it hit me and I recalled a painting in Elisabeth Garrett’s At Home, the American Family 1750-1870. I didn’t own the book at the time and it took some days before I was able to sit down with the book and find the painting I remembered to compare it to the armchair I was working on. The painting was the Thomas Hicks picture Winterthur would include years later in their exhibition. Every point of the chair in the  painting corresponded to the walnut armchair in front of me. Aside from all the design details matching, on the chair in the painting there was the split in the proper right arm support that I had just re-secured on my chair. The seat rim was clearly missing; you could see the full thickness of the loose seat frame on the chair in the painting. The proper left arm was being held with wire to the rear stile, soon to be lost, along with the arm support. And there was the loss in the splat, again, identical to the loss I had just finished patching. Hicks had observed, then painted the wood grain of the splat, including the streak of pith, so accurately as to leave no doubt the chairs were one and the same. I now knew something that added immeasurably to the history of the chair – by the 1860s it had been regulated to an out building in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and used to prop open the door on pleasant days in the spring. And in 1865 Thomas Hicks was drawn to paint the scene, perhaps in a building on his family’s property or that of a close neighbor. To my eye, with its dramatic lighting and placement, the chair has been given center stage in Hicks’ painting, he meant our gaze to be drawn to it.

restored armchair

The armchair from the advertisement with its current restored elements
before coloring of the new wood and finish work.

 

detail

Kitchen interior by Thomas Hicks, detail
Dietrich American Foundation

I’ve seen any number of objects I’ve worked on in old photographs, you assume if an object has been around since the invention of film there’s a chance it may well have depicted in a photograph. And grand objects are sometimes found as props in paintings. But discovering a once superb, but now broken-down armchair being presented as the subject of an exquisitely rendered painting? Well, that was new for me.

We all intuit that antiques are time machines traveling among us, the tangible past. The scars on this armchair remind us that its past is real.

Table

In January we had the opportunity to examine a c. 1715 Delaware River Valley dressing table at Christie’s. Furniture historians have been aware of this table since the publication of Wallace Nutting’s Furniture of the Pilgrim Century 1620-1720 in 1921. It was subsequently illustrated as plate 394 in Nutting’s Furniture Treasury, at the time in the collection of Edward C. Wheeler. Jr. of Boston. Two related tables with similar leg and stretcher designs but with the more common three drawer facade are in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Chipstone. I think the cataloged date range is too broad. 1700 would be a very early date for a London version, perhaps 1710-1720 is a more accurate date range.

PMA.1925-69-1

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Table 2

At Christie’s the table shared an alcove with a pair of Philadelphia compassed chairs and was spot-lit like a movie star, which paid off for Christie’s and the consignor when it sold for $665,000.

top

The frame and top of the table are mahogany. The catalogue describes the legs as maple. The thick, opaque finish layers on the legs make identifying the species problematic. The legs may be maple, there is also a possibility they’re cherry. In either case, mahogany was not used for the legs. Perhaps a matter of choice by the consumer or more likely, the joiner did not have access to mahogany in large enough dimensions for the leg turnings.

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Solid wood is used throughout. The sides are lap-dovetailed to the front, the back lap-dovetailed to the sides. A missing single-arch moulding once surrounded the drawer opening and continued around the side.

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back

The turning in the middle of the stretchers is replaced. It most likely resembled the original pillar and platform two-piece turnings that survive on the related tables. The single, turned drop on the front rail does appear to be original.

finial drop

drop

The drop and the legs are round-tenoned into blocks glued and nailed to the interior of the frame.

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interior

Thin mahogany strips bent to curves on a heated pipe are nailed to the bottom edge of the front and sides. Used on veneered frames, they would protect the vulnerable, exposed edge of veneer. They are redundant on solid wood furniture yet the tradition and aesthetic lingered in Philadelphia where solid wood construction was preferred.

edge

Quarter sawn hard pine drawer sides and riven Atlantic white cedar bottoms nailed to the sides, back, and a rabbet in the front.

drawer side

bottom

The dovetails on the sides of the drawers were scribed before being sawn.

drawer in

Saw kerfs extend only slightly into the drawer front to help in wasting the notches in the front for the tails of the sides.  The saw kerfs are measurably thicker than those left by saws made after the middle of the eighteenth century, most likely the joiner used a saw of hammered iron, not one made from rolled steel.

side in

There was one bit of information the catalogers at Christie’s had not unearthed during their research of the table. The table had previously been auctioned at the sale of the estate of Robert T. Vanderbilt of Green Farms, Connecticut in November 1957 for $4,040.

It was a great pleasure to finally get to meet the little table whose whereabouts had long been a mystery. My object file is on it has grown exponentially.

Parke Bernet

 

 

 

 

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