Wax On, Wax Off: A Look Inside The Center's Antique and Fine Furniture Studio

Stephen Ryan performs imitation sand shading work on a marquetry for a chest of drawers.

Stephen Ryan performs imitation sand shading work on a marquetry for a chest of drawers.

Woodworking shops through the centuries—from ancient Egypt all the way until the Industrial Revolution, have been, for the most part, relatively unchanged. Despite variations in readily available materials or slight alterations in technique passed on from master to master, the art of furniture making and conservation essentially revolves around a number of basic, yet important hand tools.

Michael Young and Stephen Ryan re-enhancing a leaf motif on a marquetry for a chest of drawers.

Michael Young and Stephen Ryan re-enhancing a leaf motif on a marquetry for a chest of drawers.

Today, when the Antique and Fine Furniture Department at The Conservation Center in Chicago approaches repairs of dated objects, the conservators—Stephen Ryan, Michael Young, and Andrew Rigsby—strive to preserve the integrity of the original craftsmanship that has been passed down for generations.

“Having a studio properly set up with access to traditional tools is the best way to approach antique and fine furniture conservation,” said Stephen Ryan, Senior Conservator in the department. “In order for us to achieve the most realistic finish as possible, we investigate the history of each individual piece, and then mimic how a craftsman might be working during that time period.”

Andrew Rigsby conserving a chest of drawers. Andrew and his colleagues craft historically-accurate tools for their conservation practice.

Andrew Rigsby conserving a chest of drawers. Andrew and his colleagues craft historically-accurate tools for their conservation practice.

Drawing from their combined depth of knowledge and experience, Stephen and his colleagues are able to tackle a myriad of antique or furniture repair projects that passes through The Center’s laboratory. Whether that means aging a specific type of wood or hand carving ornamental designs, the conservators go above and beyond to make sure that each individual step of the process has their full attention to detail.

Since it’s not always easy to acquire a 250-year old hammer or a Viennese varnishing device, Stephen, Michael, and Andrew must create tailor-made artisan tools to help with difficult projects. “Many times, a specific job calls for a specific tool—and it’s just easier for us to use the materials we already have and invent something that you can’t readily buy at the Home Depot,” said Michael. “Some of the instruments regularly utilized in our workshop are truly one-of-a-kind. We prefer to use these to highlight the hand’s work, imperfections and all.”

Senior Conservator Stephen Ryan carving a back split for a chair at The Center's Antique and Fine Furniture studio.

Senior Conservator Stephen Ryan carving a back split for a chair at The Center's Antique and Fine Furniture studio.

The process of preserving furniture is based equally on methodology as much as it is on actual execution. Employing the entire working knowledge of the history of tools, the conservators at The Center lend an air of authenticity to their work, and keep their craft in relation to how the pieces were originally produced. “It’s not that we don’t embrace modern techniques, but in our shop, tradition rules,” says Stephen. “We’d rather stick with durable and easily reversible materials and handwork. We pour much heart and soul into every piece of antique and furniture that enter and leave our studio—and feel proud of the work we do.

Here are a selection of tools that the furniture conservators at The Conservation Center have hand-crafted to align with historical furniture making practices:

A table, called a donkey, contructed for marquetry. It allows the conservators to cut around decoration penciled in previous to cutting.

A table, called a donkey, contructed for marquetry. It allows the conservators to cut around decoration penciled in previous to cutting.

A soft hammer made in-house, used when a regular hammer would potentially dent or damage the surface. It's great for little brass pins and leather.

A soft hammer made in-house, used when a regular hammer would potentially dent or damage the surface. It's great for little brass pins and leather.

An 18th century-style leg vise. This handmade version joined with a modern vise on a table elongates the grip of the vise.

An 18th century-style leg vise. This handmade version joined with a modern vise on a table elongates the grip of the vise.

A woodcarving mallet made from lignum vitae—a kind of dense, heavy wood—balancing the hammer and providing more control and power to the conservator.

A woodcarving mallet made from lignum vitae—a kind of dense, heavy wood—balancing the hammer and providing more control and power to the conservator.

A veneer hammer acts like a squeegee and iron combo to level and hold veneer down as glue hardens. Used in place of a modern hydraulic clamp.

A veneer hammer acts like a squeegee and iron combo to level and hold veneer down as glue hardens. Used in place of a modern hydraulic clamp.

Justin Gilman

The business end of Twin. In charge of landing interesting new projects, making clients happy, and coffee. A maker of beautiful music and master of oral sound effects. A secret Jim Henson nerd. Will always find ways of working smarter. Will never participate in karaoke.

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