In Techniques

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A tale of two sitters. These two chairs were built at the same time and reside in the same house. Yet one is worn more than the other – why this happened is key to know when adding age to your project.

Adding wear and tear to a piece is like writing a convincing tale of fiction.

It’s your day off. So, you go into your shop to make a new piece of furniture. How do you want it to look when you’re done? Well, it’s a new piece. So, that’s how it should look – new. You gently sand out every blemish from the raw wood. You carefully apply the finish. You rub it down until it is so perfect it gleams. There it is. Not a flaw.

A growing number of woodworkers have a different impulse. When they complete a piece of furniture, they want it to look like it has been kicked around for a couple hundred years. They want their furniture to look worn and used. How did this trend get started? Follow the money. These furniture makers discovered that well-heeled customers are willing to pay for this look.

When Did This Happen?

This fascination with worn and aged furniture dates back to the 1970s when a scholar named John T. Kirk  wrote a book titled “The Impecunious Collector’s Guide to American Antiques.” In the book Kirk included the seminal chapter titled “Buy It Ratty and Leave It Alone.” The chapter’s title says it all. Before Kirk, the trend was to take antique furniture to a refinisher and have it scraped and sanded so it looked new. Paint and dark finishes were removed to show “the natural beauty of the wood.” Kirk realized this process destroyed antique furniture. He advocated loving it and enjoying it just as found, with all its wear, use and even damage.

At the same time, Early American scholars at major museums were beginning to understand that furniture is more than just quaint objects from the past, handy for furnishing period rooms. Like written documents, early furniture is full of information. When studied in a disciplined way, lots of new things can be learned from it. For example, by studying old finishes, scholars learned that stripped and skinned antiques did not look anything like they did when new. By stripping the furniture they claimed to love, antique collectors had been creating a false impression.

Antique collectors picked up on this trend begun by Kirk and began to pay big money for furniture that was untouched by refinishers. The public tapped into this trend through television programs such as “Antiques Roadshow.” We’ve all seen the look on a person’s face when the expert says, “By stripping this piece you devalued it by $25,000!”

Windsor chairmakers were the first woodworkers to capitalize on this trend for new furniture that looked old. Here’s why. Many of our customers are antique collectors. Only the wealthiest collectors can afford a set of original 18th-century Windsor chairs. So, it is natural for less wealthy (but still well-off) collectors to turn to us for copies of the chairs they cannot afford. These folks make great customers because they are used to paying big bucks for the things they collect. A fair price for a set of handmade chairs doesn’t scare them.

There is a catch. These people don’t want their new Windsors to look new. They want their new Windsors to look like the astronomically priced original chairs they cannot afford.

In response to this demand we Windsor chairmakers began to work out techniques to create the worn and aged look our customers seek. Our success was catching and the trend spread. Today, you cannot pick up any home and garden magazine without seeing furniture that has been artificially aged. You also find artificially aged furniture in country furniture stores. Even name-brand furniture factories have begun to produce this stuff.

The trend is now spreading to woodworkers who make types of furniture other than Windsors. Those who would never have dreamed of producing anything but a gleaming, perfect finish now find themselves making worn and distressed pieces for customers and spouses.

Yes, But How Do You Do it?

The problem with artificially antiqued furniture is that too often it looks, well, artificial. The way to avoid that problem is to understand how furniture wears. That’s the topic of this article.

To artificially age a piece of furniture convincingly, you must understand that wear is a story. Wear tells the trained and observant eye what happened to a piece of furniture through the decades. Wear documents the piece’s life and the events, occurrences and happenings that it experienced over a very long time. Real wear is history. It is the piece’s diary.

When you create artificial wear on a new piece of furniture, you too are creating a story. However, your story is fiction, and like any good fiction, it has to be plausible. People should be able to read the wear you created, and understand (and even believe) your made-up story, just like they can read the history of a genuine antique. Here is an analogy. If I were an English professor, this would be a course in creative writing.

Before I move on, a word of warning: You are the author of a fictional history for your work, but your customer (or the piece’s recipient) is buying it. Consult with the customer to be sure you agree on the story. Like the real thing, artificial wear is also irreversible.

Let’s begin by dispelling the urban legend about the antique faker who makes all kinds of money by beating furniture with chains and burying it in a manure pile. That’s like the story about drying the cat in the microwave. It doesn’t happen. When you understand wear, you know why the story is untrue.

The Two Kinds of Wear

Over decades and centuries, furniture experiences two types of wear. The first is caused by ordinary use. The second type is incidental. Wear caused by ordinary use is predictable, while incidental wear is random. I am going to tell you about both types, but like the song, “Nothing Beats the Real Thing, Baby,” nothing beats examining real wear.

Students taking a course in creative writing do best if they also read a lot. Any city of any size has a museum with a collection of early furniture. Go see it. Visit museums of local and regional history. Go to antique shows. You can even see authentic wear on furniture in secondhand shops. Fifty years will not create the same amount of wear as 250 years, but the wear on second-hand furniture is the real thing.

Mechanical Wear: Some ordinary use is mechanical. For example, when sliding in and out, drawers rub against other parts. Desk lids come into contact with loppers when they are lowered. The lower edge of a door being opened and closed may rub on the frame, especially if the hinge has worn. If a drawer has a lock, the key will wear the wood around the keyhole. There may be damage from the lock where it scratched the lower edge of the drawer divider above it. If the lock is on a door, it will scratch and wear the adjacent stile.

Open and shut case. Though fairly modern, these cabinet doors have been opened tens of thousands of times and show a typical wear pattern.

Some drawers have pendant pulls or bails without backplates. After opening a drawer the user drops the pull or bail so it contacts the drawer front. This will eventually create a small indentation. A pendant pull can swing and will scratch out a short arc.

Repeated Movement: Clothes being hung on or removed from a coat or clothes rack will cause wear. The same happens with a blanket or quilt rack. Shoes will scratch and wear a footstool or a stepstool. Bottles, cans, shoes and other objects placed on shelves will scratch those surfaces. Furniture that holds everyday objects – for example a pipe or candle box – will show wear from the regular removal and return of those objects.

Foot traffic. The moulding close to the floor of this chest bore the brunt of the piece’s contact with the feet (and likely the walls) of its previous owners.

Far and away, the most ordinary wear on furniture is the result of contact with the human body. Wear occurs in circles around drawer pulls as fingers pulling on the knob also touch the wood. Wear will occur in the place on a chest lid where hands repeatedly grasp the lid to lift it and hold it open. Gate legs and butterfly supports have to be handled to swing them into place. They will evidence hand wear. These parts are also mechanical and will make scratches on the underside of table leaves.

People sit so their legs rub against adjacent table legs. Thus, it is predictable you will find wear on the inside edges of table legs as well as on the tabletop. Sitters’ elbows and hands wear the edges of the top. If the table has a stretcher, people will put their feet on the stretcher and wear it.  The shoe foot of a trestle table is another natural place for diners to rest their feet.

The Special Case of Children

Families have always bought child-sized furniture for their kids. These small pieces are great favorites with antique collectors and command high prices. I’ve probably made and sold more children’s chairs than any single type of adult chair. Children create their own particular patterns of wear. For example, in the past children learned to walk by resting a child’s chair (usually a small ladderback) on its back and pushing it ahead of them. The rubbing and scratching of wooden stiles against wooden floors (with dirt and grit mixed in) would wear a round stile flat.

When telling a story of wear caused by children, remember that kids are antsy. Children sit in highchairs until they are old enough for their chins to reach above the tabletop, generally five to seven years. During all that time their busy feet wear the foot rest. They kick their feet as they sit in a chair. They bang their feet against the chair legs. They hit the table leg up higher than an adult. They squirm a lot more than adults. So, the wear on a highchair will be more extreme than on a chair used by grown-ups.

The Hard Life of Chairs

Speaking of chairs, no piece of furniture has a greater amount of its surface in contact with a greater amount of the user’s body than does a chair. So, the wear on a well-used chair is substantial. The sitter’s butt shifts back and forth on the seat. The sitter’s back rubs against the chair back. The sitter’s hands rub and wear the chair’s hands (notice how chairs are anthropomorphic). Sitters rest their shoes against the chair’s medial stretcher, wearing it. Sitters hook their feet over side stretchers, wearing the front ends of those parts.

Your hand was here. Applying this wear over the entire piece would be wrong. This burnished sort of rub-through occurs where your hands rest.

At the other extreme, some pieces of furniture get very little wear from ordinary use. A bed is a good example. When using a bed, you don’t generally touch the wooden parts. The mattress and bedding are all you come in contact with.

Real rear and water wear. This authentic Windsor shows significant wear in places that the owners’ bodies rubbed the chair, and from puddled water, as the piece was left outdoors for a period of time.

To help you better understand how furniture wears, become conscious of your own interaction with the furniture in your house. Notice how you sit in a chair. Notice how you hold knobs when you open a drawer. Observe how you scratch or bump shelves and boxes as you take things out or put them back.

Almost erosion. This seat has seen so many backsides that the finish has disappeared and even some of the soft earlywood is wearing down.

You will notice that while ordinary wear from repeated movement is predictable, it is far from uniform. Use is often specific. This is the problem most woodworkers have when aging furniture. They repeat exactly the same wear on every surface. They do the same thing to every piece in a set, creating a result that looks artificial.

Think Specific, Not General

That’s not how ordinary wear happens. For example, if you sit at the same corner of the table for every meal, you will wear one leg more than the others. If an area of a piece of furniture is protected, it will get no wear at all. So, if a table is against a wall, the rear surfaces of the far legs will seldom get touched. In a bureau we keep the items we use most in the most convenient drawers. So the top drawer will show more wear than the bottom drawer.

Sometimes you see it. This heavy mirror was occasionally dragged across the floor when it was moved, hence the wear pattern on the bottom edge of its frame.

A lamp table near the door will get more use than its mate that is tucked in a corner. Most people are right-handed. They are more likely to hold up a chest lid with the left hand while rummaging with the right. You get the idea.

When you use your dining room, notice that some chairs get most of the use. Eight years ago I made a set of six sackback Windsors for our dining room. The one on the end of the table has experienced considerably more wear than the others. Why? It is the one we are most inclined to sit in when at the table. Eating alone, that is the chair each of us uses. Eating together, there is always someone in that chair.

We don’t just eat there. We work and read at the table. If we need to use a chair somewhere else, the one on the end is the one that gets taken, as it is most handy. It even gets more coats and clothes thrown over it than the others. The result is a greater amount of wear.

On any piece, the more prominent surfaces will come into the most contact with the human body during ordinary use. Examples are: corners of drawers and upper edges, the raised surfaces of carving, and corners and edges of flat surfaces, such as shelves and tabletops.

Placement in the House

A piece’s original cost will affect the amount of wear it receives over the decades and centuries. High-style parlor furniture was more highly regarded by later generations and was often better cared for than more simple pieces, even after it was out of fashion. High-style furniture was kept in rooms such as the parlor that were less frequented than were utilitarian rooms, such as the kitchen. So, you will usually find less wear on a mahogany dining table than on a pine kitchen table.

The above is a general statement. Sometimes high-style furniture was demoted when it went out of style and was replaced by more up-to-date furniture. It was sometimes moved to areas of the house where there was more activity. Plain furniture experienced the same demotion. However, it often went out to the workshop, the barn or some other service building. Keep these events in mind when creating artificial ordinary wear for a customer.

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