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Building Period Reproduction Furniture by Glen Huey

Jul 7, 2016 | Expert's Corner | 0 comments

There is some discussion on what exactly constitutes reproduction furniture. Is it pieces built using tools and techniques that woodworkers used in the 1700s? If so, are we to pit saw the wood into planks, use hand tools for the entire build and hand scrape the surface for finish? I think not. If it were possible to bring the best furniture-makers from the 18th century into today, I expect they all would immediately favor the woodworking machines we have at our disposal, but they would continue to use hand tools where it makes the most sense. In other words, woodworkers from the days of old would be hybrid woodworkers – a mixture of hand and power tools – just as we should be today.
What is reproduction furniture? To me, it’s about staying true to the designs we copy and about the quality with which we build: it’s the lumber we choose, the joinery we use and the finishes we apply.

Let’s Begin with Design
If you build a drawer section based on a period four-drawer chest, then set that upon a modified lowboy base, that’s not a reproduction of a highboy even though the two parts may have came from period work. That’s considered a “married” piece. (A married piece can also be sections from two like pieces of furniture that are fabricated to fit together.) You might find such a piece in an antique store or auction house, but your copy is not a reproduction because that design was not originally found in period work. It’s my opinion that reproductions must follow the original designs from the period.
A true reproduction keeps the design details, too. The moldings are copied. The foot is copied. Even the height, width and depth are sized to the original. That objective is fine when reproducing case pieces, and while it can be carried out when building tables and chairs, there is a problem with which to deal. How do these pieces fit into today’s homes and to people of our time?

People are considerably larger today than they were in the 1800s. Antique chairs measure about 16” to the seat. That’s low when compared to the standard chair today with its seat positioned around 18” off the floor. And if we are to change our seat height, how does that effect the relationship to the table as we’re seated?

When I began building furniture, I held table heights to 30”, but have built a few that reach up to 31”. If you compare that with the antique table heights that are traditionally at 28”, you can see how things change. If you make these adjustments, is that a reproduction, or should you consider that an adaptation of an original design?

Before moving on to the actual building of reproduction pieces, let’s look at the materials used. Study antique furniture and one of the first features you’ll notice is the thickness of the stock, especially the drawer blades. It’s not uncommon to find 7/8”, 13/16” or 1” thick blades separating the drawers. You can also find drawer fronts and case sides at these thicknesses.

Walk into most hardwood stores to find lumber in the rough or milled stock that is 3/4” (4/4) or 1-3/4” (8/4). (You may find stock at 13/16”, but that’s to give you a chance to actually flatten the board before using it.) Seldom will you find other thicknesses. To get different thicknesses, you need the proper woodworking machines in your shop (a fair investment), or you need to know a friendly hardwood dealer willing to mill stock to your specifications.

Furniture built with adjusted sizes, so as to use lumber that’s readily available, is usually going to result in an adaptation and not a reproduction.

How It’s Built
Again, study antique furniture –­ you’ll notice that philosophy is often repeated – and you’ll not find much mechanical joinery on furniture from the 1700s. You will find nails and some use of screws, but pocket screws as we know them today are not found. That’s not a bash on pocket-screw users or manufacturers. Those fasteners have a place in woodworking; however, it’s not in reproductions of period pieces.

The same holds true for biscuit joinery, knockdown hardware and staples. When it comes to period reproductions, your choices for joinery are somewhat limited and traditional. Let’s look more closely at a couple examples.

My favorite joinery method for period reproduction work is the dovetail joint. Dovetails are used extensively in furniture throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Why such an extensive use? Remember, nails were expensive at this time – so expensive that decrepit houses were sometimes burned to retrieve and recycle the nails. Glues of the day were made from animal hides and were susceptible to failure. Therefore dovetails, a joint held together through construction without relying on glue or other fasteners, was the perfect choice.

To build period reproductions, you need to understand dovetails. Hand-cut dovetails, for the most part. If you are reproducing William & Mary furniture, the dovetails used during the period had rather large, equally sized pins and tails (the two parts that make up a dovetail joint). If however, you are building in the Queen Anne or Chippendale periods, the pins are narrower than the tails – so narrow that it’s nearly impossible (Queen Anne) or is impossible (Chippendale) to cut the pins with dovetail jigs in use today. I say that because the pin needs to be thinner than 1/4” at its narrow point and, due to the shank of your router bit being 1/4” or 1/2”, it’s beyond the capability of most jigs. If you’re looking to build period reproductions, sharpen your chisels, get a good mallet and dovetail saw, then hand cut the joint.

The mortise-and-tenon joint is another joinery method often used in period furniture. You can find the joint used to attach drawer runners to the drawer blades, where aprons meet table legs, and, of course, where the rails and stiles meet in doors.

It’s impossible to say if all the mortise-and-tenon joints found on antique furniture are more than a stub tenon – a tenon that extends 3/8” or even a 1/2” into a mortise – but it’s a safe bet they are. Better furniture-makers of the day followed a guideline that suggested the tenon length be four to five times the thickness of the tenon. That establishes a strong and reliable joint and makes the use of router- or shaper-made door joinery a “no go.” Don’t look for joinery shortcuts if you want to reproduce period furniture.

Quality in Finishes, Too
If you’re favorite finish is polyurethane, leave it in the can if you intend to build period reproductions. Polyurethane was not a period finish from which to choose. In fact, furniture finish is one area that many woodworkers debate. We know furniture built during the late 1700s and early 1800s had film finishes and even colorants were applied to the furniture, but there was no single finish that was available to all shops. Each shop made its own “secret” mixture.

From the time I began building reproductions, I’ve used an aniline dye to add color to my work. Aniline dye has no solids and therefore penetrates deep into the wood resulting in a rich coloration. By contrast, oil-based stains are solids suspended in a carrier. Those solids tend to “muddy” the look of the wood. Also, aniline dye works to bring out figure and grain patterns to make the furniture pop.

When it comes to film finish, I have to admit that I missed my definition of a true period finish for many years. My choice for topcoat was lacquer. I sprayed lacquer for years before understanding that a true period finish was more likely not lacquer, but shellac. That, and the fact that I tired of the smell of lacquer, caused me to switch to shellac.

Even with the use of dye and shellac I fell short of a great finish, at least in my mind. I created reproduction furniture, but it was not what I would call a museum-quality reproduction. A true period-style reproduction, in my opinion, can sit unnoticed beside antiques. The finish is as important as how the piece is built. To achieve a great finish, there has to be a build-up of layers to that finish, and the piece should show wear in the appropriate areas.

That build-up can be from glazes (a stain trapped between two layers of finish), or from a manipulation of other film finish, such as tinting shellac then applying it in uneven coatings to selected areas of the furniture. The build-up also highlights the worn areas. That is a museum-quality reproduction. The process takes time, but is worth the effort.

As you can see, building period reproduction furniture is a mind set or something you aim to build. There’s picking the right project and staying true to the designs, but the biggest challenge is to build using what is considered to be the best joinery methods then finishing the piece so it is undetectable when placed next to the real thing. It  takes effort, but when everything falls into place, your work can only be bested by a top-level antique and you forgo the over-the-top prices.

— Glen D. Huey
Senior Editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine