KEEPING IT ALL TOGETHER
copyright 1989 John T. Kramer
The primary thing most antiques need is two or three coats of my Antique Improver; and possibly fresh glue.
Both are natural materials that work with, rather than against, the wood as modern products do.
They require periodic, though not frequent, replacement or replenshment.
Nearly all traditional arts and crafts (the products of pre-industry)
require some form of continuing maintenance. They can survive
long on neglect, much longer with a modicum of care.
The dry or mortared stone wall must be restacked or tuck pointed and
patched every several years. Fine leaded glass windows must be
reglazed every hundred years or so. Even the Sistine chapel
requires a little attention every half millennia.
Wiping on my Antique Improver is well explained in my brochure.
It should be done after any necessary regluing and/or repair is
The most frequently needed (and most often done wrong) repair is the simple regluing of loose joints.
Nearly all “professional” repair shops don’t have a
clue about glue. They can stick it together real tight but, once
they do, the overall life of the piece has been shortened (read value
reduced) because the modern materials used may cause more extensive
We have been sold glue “stronger than the wood” as a
benefit for many years now. On the surface this sounds like a
good idea. When we examine the primary purpose and function of
glue this becomes ludicrous in the extreme.
The purpose of glue is to keep the joint from coming apart; the
strength is in the joint itself. Any quality piece of furniture
will, at some point in its future, require careful disassembly to
either affect an internal repair, or to examine and learn from the
past, something it may be then crucial to know.
A great many pieces will undergo stress which will cause their
loosening of joints caused from dragging across the floor (when
re-arranging furniture), moving across country with the tame-gorilla
corps, or simple hard use with occasional abuse. It is just
furniture and it was made to use, every few years it requires a little
attention – less often with little abuse.
It can take the abuse and come back for more indefinitely if the
repairs are properly done each and every time. A little of the
wrong thing as a stopgap measure can wreak grave havoc later. The
only time modern glue is useful is when we must repair broken wood,
even then highly questionable on an important antique.
Never disassemble a tight solid joint, unless absolutely necessary to complete other repair.
If you detect the slightest movement in the joint it is generally
better to carefully disassemble and reglue the joint. If you are
working on a stretcher-less chair that doesn’t come apart easily
– DO NOT FORCE IT OR YOU WILL BREAK IT.
Never, never, never use any nails, screws, strap iron, or other
detritus not original to the manufacture in the repair of
antiques. There are no uses for any form of plastic or epoxy in
repairing fine furniture. The best furniture is made entirely of
wood; fine furniture can incorporate well chosen and used small
quantities of plywood. Chipboard and syhtnetic materials make
serviceable furniture of a known service life, no matter the fancy
brand name. Repairs must be entirely consistent with original
We can document the decline of quality to accommodate mass production
with the progression of the Industrial Revolution. Basically, the
older the furniture the better the quality. Of course there have
been schlock workmen and corner cutters during all periods; the lesser
quality of furniture, the better the chance it has already passed away.
Conversly there are a very few doing work as well as its ever
The first step in preparing to reglue a loose joint or piece of
furniture is to examine it thoroughly. Remove any nails, screws
or bits of metal not part of the original construction.
Be certain the blade of your screwdriver precisely fits the screw head
else you will cause additional damage. This is the most common
cause of damage.
Too tight screws which have rusted and “welded” themselves
in place can be loosened by holding a red hot copper on the head to
heat the screw and loosen the rust. Do not touch the wood with
the soldering copper.
The only exception to removing foreign metals from a piece of furniture
is some of the artful baling wire repairs done to chairs from the first
half of the twentieth century. These were from necessity since a
great number of factory-made chairs (usually exhibiting a large number
of stretchers, more than four) were so designed that it doesn’t
much matter how you glue them together, they are going to soon come
apart. Only remove one of these beautiful wire engineering
marvels if the job has failed or the work poorly done.
On the farms in the winter the owner would reach a level of frustration
that caused them to take the repair material they knew best and
engineer a repair that resolved the problem once and for all.
They would wire the seat to the legs twisting and bending the wire in a
uniform and artful manner that made a sound structure. Many of
these repairs have lasted for years and show every indication of
continuing to serve well. You won’t have any better luck
keeping it glued together than its former owner – give the wire a
coat of Antique Improver to protect, and enjoy. It is an
important part of the historic record.
Once all the detritus is removed study the construction and knw how it
comes apart. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.
Separate loose joints aiding the effort with methanol shot into the
joint with a syringe or a water steamer, encourage stubbornness with a
rawhide mallet or pine maul.
Clean all joints thoroughly with strong vinegar (hot stinks more, but
works better). It is not generally advised to scrape joints clean
as many authors suggest as this ruins the fit of the joint by the small
scrapings of wood.
Framed Panels and Bread Board ends should never be glued. If
there is no evidence of prior gluing it should probably not be glued
now. Many forms of construction require free movement of the wood
in certain pieces to ensure the integrity of the whole.
Once all joints are cleaned, other necessary repairs have been
completed, the work laid out for re-assembly, and clamping prepared, it
is time to prepare the glue.
Another thing must now be prepared for the tightening of loose
joints. No matter what glue is used if the joint does not fit
snugly, no glue will long hold. Glue is not filler. Many
joints over the years lose their fit due to poor regluing and the
natural contraction of wood at different rates dependent upon the lay
of the grain.
To refit these joints the best choice is to use a layer or two of
cotton or linen string or cloth X’d across the end of the joint.
Choose the weight and thickenss to match what is needed to make the
joint snug. Do not fit too tightly as splitting of the wood may
Do not use bits of steel wool or the new toothed metal grip
strips. The squirt-in liquids to swell the joint to refit cause
damage over the long term. If a joint is so loose it cannot be
filled with bits of cloth, it requires rebuilding with wood.
Now that all is ready we’re prepared for a really sticky subject.
Hide glue is, and always has been the best wood glue we can use.
It is made from the scraps of hide and hoof otherwise left on the floor
of the slaughter house. It comes in two basic forms –
liquid and dry.
Liquid hide glue is available in squeeze bottles that are used in the
same way, and which are just as inconvenient to use, as any squeeze
bottle glue on the market. As soon as the excess glue oozes out
it must be wiped clean with damp cloth or sponges, dipped in constantly
freshened water. Sears sells it in small bottles, some woodworker
supply companies offer Franklin brand and label. They both work
fine. Liquid hide glue must be used fresh; shelf life is less
than one year.
A liquid hide glue can be made from granulated dry hide glue that has
an unlimited shelf life. The difference is the commercial variety
has little odor, the stuff you can make stinks to high heaven.
Hot hide glue offers several advantages, not the least of which is easy
cleanup of the excess which oozes from the joints. Merely wait a
couple of hours or so until the glue reaches a rubbery consistency much
like that of overdone jello. Once this has occurred simply peel
the joint clean with your thumbnail.
Granulated or pearled hide glue is available from any good woodworking
supplier (if they don’t carry the staples hide glue and shellac
they probably don’t have anything else you’d ever
need). It is sold by the pound. You will also require a
glue pot, skimming spoon, heat source and glue brush. The glue
brush can be anything from a fine natural bristle brisled glue brush to
a rolled metal handle disposable, to a pounded willow stick. The
heat source can be built in, a wood/coal/oil/etc. stove or fire, an
electric or gas hot plate, etc. Any old tablespoon will work fine
for skimming froth and impurities from the top of the pot.
A glue pot may require a little more thought. Of course the
people who sell you the glue will also sell you a rheostat-controlled
electric pot for a hundred dollars or so. Some report that
electric potpourri pots work as well. You may find an old cast
iron, brass or copper double boiler pot at a yard sale or antique
shop. Or you can make a good pot out of a couple of tin cans.
To make a pot, place a heavy piece of wire in the bottom of the large can and set the smaller can on it.
Fill the inner pot about half full of the dry glue and then add enough
water to cover. Plug in the electric pot or fill the outer pot of
the double boilers two thirds full of water and place on the heat
source to boil. When the glue is fully dissolved and runs in a
steady stream from the brush, it is ready. Add water to thin
– glue to thicken. Do not let the outer pot boil dry as it
will scorch and spoil the glue. Keep a twig (bark on) of willow
or dogwood in the pot at all times to keep the glue fresh. Apply
hot straight from the pot. Leave in clamps for 24 hours.
Clamping must be devised specific to every job. A wide variety of
commercial clamps are made, all of which are good for some jobs, none
of which are suitable for every job. Band clamps, parallel jaw
clamps, bar or pipe clamps, modern trick clamps, ancient trick clamps
and many more are useful. Yet many times the better method is to
resort to a few tricks your great grandparents knew.
Old bed springs cut to single coils with points on each cut ends are
useful for holding “dutchman” repairs in place while the
glue dries. Long breaks or joins are sometimes best served with
thread or cordage. Go bars, wedges, weights, rubber bands,
clothespins, all and more can be used to good advantage.
Any rope or cordage used to tie a windlass clamp should only be of
cotton, linen or silk. Be careful of applying too much pressure;
windlasses are quite powerful. The metal feet on commercial
clamps must be padded with small pads of a soft wood or thick
leather. Nylon strap band clamps should be padded with thick
cloth or leather. Many plastic foot clamps require padding to
avoid denting the wood or marring the surface.
Areas you wish to protect from glue can first be covered with glue
resist. It is made by first freezing, and then shaving while
frozen, a chunk of beeswax. The shaved wax is then covered with
turpentine, the bottle tightly stoppered, and placed in a warm place to
dissolve over several days. The softened wax is then wiped
liberally over the area to be protected, and nowhere else. When
all the work is done it is cleaned off with turpentine.
No glue works well when the temperature is too hot or cold. 65 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit seems about right.
The purpose of clamping is to apply pressure against the direction the
joint could come apart and hold it snugly without any motion while the
glue dries and cures – at least 24 hours.