by Bob Flexner
Thirty-five years ago, I traded $125 worth of work for the mid-19th-century Empire chest-of-drawers pictured here. You could argue that I paid too much, because the amount of work involved in restoring it was considerable, but it was an impulse trade and I could see that the chest would be beautiful when fully restored.
Alas, more than 30 years had to go by before the motivation to tackle the project presented itself – the desire of my daughter-in-law to have the fully restored chest-of-drawers.
The problems were typical for Empire chests-of-drawers, or for any old veneered chest-of-drawers for that matter. Veneer was missing in several dozen places, and the drawers didn’t slide well because of wear to both the bottoms of the drawer sides and the runners the drawers slide on.
In addition, the shellac finish was so badly crazed that it almost totally hid the beautiful wood underneath.
In this article I’ll show you how to make the repairs. But first, a word about animal hide glue.
Almost all furniture glued up before the 1950s was glued with animal hide glue. This is glue made by soaking and cooking animal hides to remove the protein, or collagen, which becomes the glue. Many types of hides can be used, but cowhides are the most common.
The great virtue of this glue for furniture restorers is that it is much easier to deal with than modern glues and adhesives. Joints are usually fairly easy to take apart by dissolving the hide glue with hot water or steam, though using denatured alcohol to crystallize the glue is much easier and is the method I use. Once the glue is crystallized, joints can be knocked apart with a mallet, and veneer or wood strips can be separated with pressure from a dull chisel.
The glue is then easy to remove from the surfaces by washing it with hot water. This needs to be done to achieve “clean wood” before regluing with any modern adhesive, and it’s usually a good idea even with hide glue.
Article: Dive into the details of hide glue with Bob Flexner
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From the August 2015 issue