Workshop reveals craftsmanship behind re-creating historic furniture

By Brenda Sullivan - ReminderNews
Windsor - posted Wed., Nov. 20, 2013
Bob Van Dyke, director of the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking in Manchester, demonstrates how the intricate shaping and piercing work was done on the stretchers of a certain style of 19th century breakfast tables. Two reproductions are now on display at the Windsor Historical Society’s Strong-Howard House. Photos by Brenda Sullivan.
Bob Van Dyke, director of the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking in Manchester, demonstrates how the intricate shaping and piercing work was done on the stretchers of a certain style of 19th century breakfast tables. Two reproductions are now on display at the Windsor Historical Society’s Strong-Howard House. Photos by Brenda Sullivan.

The newly-opened parlor of the Windsor Historical Society's Strong-Howard House now includes two meticulously-crafted reproductions of early 19th century breakfast tables and a tea table made by Doug Smith and Dick Tomkins, students at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking in Manchester.

The pieces were commissioned by the historical society, and the school headed by Bob Van Dyke will next reproduce a Chapin High Chest dresser based on an example from a collection at the Wadsworth Atheneum.

The reproduction breakfast tables, modeled on a Connecticut Valley example in a private collection, were chosen from among excellent examples submitted by several students by curator of collections and interpreter of the Windsor Historical Society, Christina Vida.
On Nov. 12, the society hosted a demonstration by Van Dyke of the techniques behind the tables’ design that drew both history buffs and woodworking hobbyists.

Van Dyke began by showing slides of “Pembroke tables,” which he said is a term often used interchangeably with “breakfast tables,” and he noted the intricate designs of the stretchers – crisscrossed, carved lengths of wood placed between the table legs to give it stability.

The design chosen for the reproductions most closely resembled ones that would have been found in early 19th century Windsor homes, which were less ornate.

Before creating patterns for his design, Van Dyke said, he examined other examples, such as those at the Manchester and Middletown historical societies.

Van Dyke talked about the process of recreating historic furniture – from painstaking measurements, to studying construction techniques unique to the piece, to problem-solving when confronted with difficult features of a design.

The goal is to create finished pieces that are faithful to the original but not necessarily using the same techniques as the original craftsman, he said. "We reproduce them as exactly as possible, not necessarily by hand," Van Dyke said.

Working with both hand tools and power equipment, Van Dyke demonstrated how he and his students reproduced the pierced work of the stretchers which tapers to extremely narrow lines punctuated by a tiny circle.

Using hand tools, two spoke shaves – one with a flat bottom and one with a curved bottom, he then demonstrated how these tools produced a smoother curve on the outside of the stretchers than a mechanical sander. The power equipment would produce bumps, "nice smooth bumps," he said, and laughed.

The reproductions are made from cherry wood and Van Dyke talked about the fact that the wood will burn when it’s shaped with power equipment partly because of the sugars in the wood. He said he solved that problem thanks to a tip from a fellow woodworker, which was to cover the cutting area of the wood with clear tape.

He also showed the group a tool he created to smooth the narrowest inner parts of the piercing, a thin 6-inch ruler to which he affixed self-adhesive sandpaper.

The group talked about what kinds of materials 19th century woodworkers might use, since sandpaper was expensive to buy – these could include shark skin or the leaves of cattail or horsetail plants.

For more information about the Strong-Howard House and upcoming programs, including a Dec. 3 Lunch and Learn talk on “George Howard’s Diary and the War of 1812,” visit the website at http://www.windsorhistoricalsociety.org.

For information about classes at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, visit http://www.schoolofwoodworking.com.


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