Today’s blog post was written by guest author Peter Reckling, a student worker for Special Collections & Archives. Peter is currently a junior at Southeast Missouri State University, studying historic preservation.
The idea of furniture restoration first came about when the Special Collections & Archives manager, Roxanne Dunn, approached me about restoring a table that was on display in the Reading Room area of Special Collections & Archives. She had heard about my previous ventures restoring pieces of antique furniture as a hobby. I was more than happy to resume this practice and assist with increasing the longevity of historic pieces of furniture belonging to Southeast Missouri State University.
This project has been extremely interesting in terms of learning the processes of restoration. I am especially interested in the ways furniture construction has evolved over the last two centuries. The types of materials used, for the underlying structure as well as the attachment hardware, have evolved due to changing availability of materials and aesthetic/stylistic trends. Every piece of furniture has a unique way of being crafted and tells its own story.
The very first piece to be restored was a small table from the Wildwood house of Southeast Missouri State University. The table was built circa 1924. It was donated to Special Collections & Archives a few years ago and was in pretty “used” shape, with water rings and sun faded marks on the surface. The goal was to bring this table back to its original glory, or how it would’ve looked when it was first placed in Wildwood. The wood stain was selected based on photographic evidence and was a beautiful English Chestnut. This stain brought out the rich, dark grain and the soft, golden touches of an era gone by when furniture was still crafted by hand, with care and craftsmanship in mind.
It was decided that all of the pieces to be restored would use the same stain for its richness and historic usage in the Common Era (circa 1900-1920); the era that all of these pieces come from. The first step in the process was to sand off all the original stain. Removing the surface layer opened the pores of the wood and allowed for a new coat of stain to be applied after completion of sanding. This took hours of delicate work, especially around delicate pieces of trim and “turned” areas, making sure not to lose the profile and shape of the original piece.
After this initial sanding, I completed a second sanding with a less coarse sandpaper to smooth the surfaces of the piece. After it had been fine sanded and thoroughly brushed off, the first coat of stain was applied and then wiped off to give an even finish. I checked after the first coat of stain to see if it was the desired finish, you can add more layers of stain to make it darker or leave it as is. After I let the stain dry and fully set, I applied a coat of boiled linseed oil for sealing the wood grain. This step added a bit of coloration that created the “golden” aura of the wood grain.
As for the hardware, it was placed in a sandwich bag full of ketchup and sat in a refrigerator for about 48 hours. The acidic compounds in the ketchup were strong enough to cut through the grime and clean the metals; primarily brass, iron and steel. After letting the hardware parts sit in the cleaning solution, I took them out, washed and dried them – and voila! The antique brass pieces were restored to their original state.
I was very excited to complete restoration work on multiple other pieces over the summer. My favorite and most interesting piece to restore was speculated to be Sadie Kent’s original library desk from 1919! I also worked on a parlor table, reference desk, end table, display table, and two chairs.
The wood types vary on a lot of these pieces, being “tiger striped” quarter sawn oak, pine, walnut, and chestnut! Two of these species of wood have since been labeled as extinct. Yet in recent years, farms have been started in order to grow these trees back to large populations.
With so many furniture pieces already restored, this project is well underway. Future projects include 4 original reading room tables, a solid oak table from the President’s Office, and cataloging stations for Dewey decimal cards. The original reading room tables were discovered this summer in the Polytechnic building of Southeast Missouri State University. After restoration, they will be reintroduced into the former original Reading Room of Kent library that is located in the current home of the Instructional Materials Center on the 3rd floor, in the north side of the building.
The majority of the pieces are expected to be finished by the end of summer 2019!
For more information about this project please read a recent article published by the Southeast Arrow:
Additionally, you can view a television news story about this project from KFVS12: