Occasionally I am asked to repair or restore antiques. Usually, I avoid restoration work since it involves an enormous amount of time and significant materials for which the client does not want to pay for nor has an appreciation for the amount of work involved, plus it is virtually impossible to guess what is involved until the process ensues.
On this particular project, the table was a family table used by a family of six. The parents are now deceased and naturally the sentimental attachments are there… besides the client is a friend.
The table is a Federal Style Drop Leaf originally made between 1800 and 1841 (according to my research). More than likely the table was made in Richmond, Williamsburg or Norfolk, Virginia. There was no maker’s make. According to the inscription on the underside, the table had been given to my client’s father, William Smith, back in 1972 by the widow of Joseph Tabb who owned Summerville Plantation in Gloucester, Virginia. It served as the Smith family dining table for decades. During its journies, it had been moved a lot and laid in storage. The table was stained with a number of circular black stains and it had hundreds of scratches and deep gouges. The table skirt was missing veneer. Truthfully, it was pretty beat up and I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
The top has a flame pattern in the grain and it was thought to be walnut or possibly mahogany. I photographed it and sent it far and wide around the globe and the unanimous consensus was that it was indeed walnut. Much to my surprise, it’s not.
The whole top (and drop leaf) is made of a single slab of Osage Orange. AWESOME! The tree it was milled from must have been huge.
The largest one I have ever seen still lives at Santee Farm in Corbin, Virginia and is said to be about 300 years old and is in Virginia’s historical register as the oldest known Osage Orange tree and is about five feet wide. On this particular tabletop, the tree must have been at least 8′ wide and probably older than Moses. Not a far stretch when considering Capt. John Smith arrived in 1607 to establish the Jamestown Colony and Fredericksburg was considered “frontier” in 1720.
As written in colonists’ journals, the trees were massive and one could easily navigate a horse-drawn carriage through the woods. What a site that must have been. The Indians had practiced controlled burns in the forest for millennia to eliminate underbrush (preventing enemies from sneaking up) plus they possessed no steel axes. Fallen limbs were used for firewood. It was said that a squirrel could venture from the Atlantic to the Mississipi without touching the ground. Don’t know that to be a fact but the old growth canopy must have been fantastic.
How I determined that it was Osage Orange wood began after the stripping process. The top had numerous coats of shellac and some crude attempts at filling the gouges. When the stripping process was complete I was a bit perplexed at what type of wood it was. It had the grain pattern of walnut but the wood certainly was not. Dragging a card scraper over it produced a fine orange dust. Odd. It had to be a North American hardwood but nothing I had ever worked with. It wasn’t typical and the slab was huge. So what was it?
Well, after a lot of research and looking at a ton of photos I was certain that it was Osage Orange. I even ordered some Osage Orange sawdust on Amazon, and sure enough, it was an exact match. Osage Orange is named after the native Osage tribe of American Indians that prized the wood for making bows. The tight grained wood posses properties that when dry remains flexible and is impervious to decay or rot. The “orange” part comes from the fruit it bears that is a bright lime green orange sized sphere. The wood is still prized for fence posts today since they seem to last forever.
The rather bland looking naked wood reacts to mineral spirits in an amazing way. It instantly transforms to a beautiful reddish brown and the grain patterns explode. Simply stunning.
The black rings were a nuisance and looked bad. I treated them with oxalic acid and they faded away after several applications. The lighter scratches were lifted using water and a hot iron. The deeper gouges were filled with clear epoxy resin and planed flush. The tops were then hand sanded.
The drop leaf had a very faint 12″ long split. Two walnut bow-ties were installed on the underside to brace the split, and it was also filled with epoxy resin.
The legs are made of walnut as was the veneer. The frame is poplar and pine. The frame and legs were all loose and needed stabilizing as did the frame corners. Dowels were installed everywhere, pieces were reglued, and it is now rock solid.
The remaining walnut veneer was removed and replaced. The legs were refinished using #000 steel wool and mineral spirits. Everything was finished with several coats of Danish oil, then top-coated with wax, then buffed.
Note: there was no stain was applied anywhere.
All the handwrought hinges were restored.
Now it’s restored to its original beauty. Hopefully, it will last another 200 years.
It was an interesting yet very time-consuming project (it took about 80 hours total), four times longer than what I originally estimated. While working on it I couldn’t help but wonder about the craftsmen of yesteryear that built it and the stories that table could tell from the people who sat around it.
Here are two pics of the table in our client’s home:
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