A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

March 2012

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Details and more photos

Mysterious Holes

We jumped at a little six-board coffer recently. It's nicely carved and has a rich, dark color, and original, and rare, pintle hinges -- all very desirable. But what makes it really stand out is its long, low proportions, which are as beautiful as they are unusual.

And as a bonus, it comes with its own little mystery. One lid cleat has two holes that correspond with holes in the side of the coffer, obviously for something to be inserted. But what and why?

The holes are certainly very early and look to have been made when the coffer was. They are off-round, and have been cut out by a curved gouge, not drilled with a bit. The only thing we can think of is that whittled pegs were inserted into them to keep the lid closed. Though two seems a bit of an overkill -- one would have done the trick.

Which brings us to the lock. This is the original lock and hasp, or at least, it's the only one the coffer has ever had. Maybe it wasn't fitted when the coffer was made, but was added later in the 17th century. The pegs might not have locked the lid against thieves, but at least they would have kept it firmly shut, particularly if it were used for travel.

If so, there would have been no metal in the original coffer, except for nails. We rather like the idea that the maker lived in a remote village where the peddler and his packhorse rarely visited. So locks and hinges (many of which were made in Birmingham) would have been in short supply and expensive. The few nails joining the boards would have been made by the village blacksmith.

Do any of you have a better explanation for the holes?


Marquetry or Veneer

After the Restoration, London became a party town, and life became fashion-driven, sophisticated, and flamboyant. Oak seemed boringly old-fashioned by the glitterati: walnut matched their taste much better, particularly when it was gussied up by a veneer artist.

When a joiner wanted to add some color to his oak, he inlaid contrasting woods, such as holly, boxwood or ebony (or ebonized boxwood,) into the surface of the oak. Inlay is easy to define.

With veneering and marquetry, however, all of the structural wood is covered with large or small pieces of veneer to create an entirely new, patterned surface. The difference between the two is that with veneering, the natural patterns of the grain of the wood are allowed to determine the overall design. With oyster veneer, the veneers are from angled cuts across a three- or four-inch diameter branch.

With marquetry, the grain of the wood does nothing to shape the final pattern: the pattern comes only from the eye of the artist, and the different woods are used like paint to lay it on.

Often, of course, both techniques are used in one design. The lace box lid has oyster veneers (some replaced with burl) in part of the marquetry design. The oyster-veneered table top has marquetry-like circles and loops imposing a man-made design upon the grain of the wood. But overall, the lace box is still marquetry, and the table top still oyster veneered.

Details and more photos of the table

Details and more photos of the lace box


Details and more photos of the table

A Gate-Leg with a Difference

Small trestle-based gate-legs are thin on the market, and they're popular because of their small size and versatility. So we usually buy them -- provided, of course, that the price is right.

We also like having things in our inventory that you won't find anywhere else.

This trestle-based gate-leg met both criteria. It's small and versatile, no problem there, and it has three features that you're unlikely to find anywhere else.

First, it's the only gate-leg we've owned that has no turned elements. Perhaps the rural joiner who made it saw no point in sharing his profit with a turner -- or perhaps there was no local turner for him to turn to (excuse the pun).

Second, the wide boards that he used for the trestles are joined at the top by a box, whose top is dovetailed to them. This means that the base was self-standing before the table top was fixed to it. We've never seen this construction before. Then, as a bonus, the joiner cut a drawer quite low down in the box at one end.

The third idiosyncratic feature is his choice of wide, straight-cut boards for the trestles.

No turnings, box-construction, plain boarded trestles -- our joiner liked doing things his way -- probably from a mixture of stubbornness and creativity. But the result is a clean-lined, unfussy table where the curve of the leaf contrasts happily with the straight lines and right-angles everywhere else. Exactly the simplicity that, 300 years later, the Arts & Crafts movement tried to emulate.



Extraordinary Windsors

American Windsor chairmakers never came up with a Windsor anything like this. But English Windsors pushed the envelope further. For those of you who haven't read John's article on “Extraordinary English Windsors” in the New England Antiques Journal, click on the chair on our home page,