Restoration of an Antique Rococo Desk
Updated: Jan 22
When objects carry much more than their simple function.
A Little Bit of Background
I recently had the pleasure of restoring this antique piece of furniture. What a story lay behind this family heirloom! Built in 18th century France, it made its way many years later to my customer’s grandmother’s house. The war came and with it the Nazis who, among other things, stole it from her. Thankfully she survived the horror and after the war, she was able to claim ownership of the antique secretary desk by revealing something special about it: a secret drawer—rococo ébénistes had a thing for hidden drawers which can often be found in their builds. She passed the desk down to her daughter, my client’s aunt, who passed it down to her nephew living in Israel. It was doing pretty well, enjoying the sun and the change of scenery until a pup, a very cute one may I add, went running through its legs…. not a good idea. It was too much for this fragile 250 something year old lady. And that is how I got to meet her—thank you puppy!
So here is how she came to me. The joints on the left and right of the front rail were broken and so was the bottom of the desk.
Hum … the Real Thing or a Copy?
Why I believe this is not a copy but an original rococo (Louis XV for the French) piece of furniture. Well, among other things:
—The drawers are assembled with only three dove tails, a piece of wood, hiding the dove tails, is glued on the side fronts of the drawers, the sides and the back of the drawers are the same height, the bottom of the drawers are simply nailed to the sides front and back of the drawers, the nails are square pegs.
—There is no sliding rail for the drawer, it slides directly on the bottom panel of the desk.
—The top of the bottom panel is flush with the top of the front rail
—The presence of sapwood on the bottom panel and front rail (which you will find out below why it is a problem)
All of the above are typical of that period.
Now let’s Get Technical! What Was Done?
This pretty thing has a lot of aches and pains and could use a good dose of TLC (dulled out finish and brass hardware, missing veneer throughout the piece, cracks in the veneer and in the solid wood, etc.). But what was important to my client, and within budget, was making sure it was structurally sound and functional.
The structural damage was as follows:
—Worms had completely eaten the solid wood of the front rail as well as the front of the bottom panel. That is why when the dog ran into the desk, everything collapsed. Remember what I said about sap wood being a problem. It is the part worms like best, they can turn wood into dust! See for yourself what these little things can do.
It is interesting to see how on the bottom panel the worm holes disappear as soon as we reach the heartwood.
—Both tenons of the front rail were torn off from the rail ( revealing a nail from a previous unhappy repair... that was not the way to go)
So, what to do. The type of restoration will vary depending on a number of things. One of them is the object's destination. This is not a museum piece and will still be used, so I had to make sure that while doing all I could to keep it as much of it as possible (if more than 30% of an antique piece is not original, it is no longer considered as an antique), I also needed it to be structurally strong enough to continue to be used by my client and his familly. I Therefore chose to cut off the dust-like-sapwood from the bottom panel and from the front rail in order to replace them with new wood. The new wood is of the same essence as the old elements (oak for the panel, pine for the rail) and of the same hygrometry. This is very important so that the in the future the add-ons behave the same way as the rest of the desk.
—Although all of the front rail was damaged, I wanted to, at least, keep the desk’s original veneer. I therefore kept what we call the "crust" which I would later glue to the new rail I built.
Figuring out the right angle for the new rail did take some test and trial. But I finally got there.
—As for the joinery of my new rail, I could put a tenon only on one side of the rail. It would have been impossible to reassemble the desk without completely disassembling it first if the joinery was a classic tenon and mortise on both sides. Dissembling furniture to restore it and reassembling it afterwards is something that is commonly done. However, in this instance the desk was completely covered with veneer. Therefore, to disassemble it, I would have had to take off the veneer without damaging it to be able to re-glue it once the piece reassembled. This also is something that is sometimes done but, here, and given the condition of the veneer, the amount of work and risks it would have entailed was huge and did not seem appropriate as another solution was possible: A tenon on one side and a dove-tail-shaped-half-lap with matching floating tenon on the other would be strong enough. After having checked that the new rail and joinery fit nicely on the desk, I glued the crust in place.
It was now time to replace the missing veneer on the right corner of the rail. I did not have walnut burl veneer, but I did have a lighter burl veneer which I glued and shaped
After that I colored it, which in fancy French is called intégration chromatique (chromatic integration) which is really simply playing around with water colors ; ).
After cutting off the damaged sapwood and glueing into place the new piece, I shaped it to match perfectly what once was there.
I dry fit everything. Saw that all was good and glued everything back into place using hot hide and bone glue. And voilà! ready to go.
When I delivered the desk, my client said surprised, “it looks like it was!” at first I misunderstood him. I thought he was referring to when I took the desk and not to before the dog ran into it. After he clarified it to me, I could see how moved he was to finally have it back, as he remembered it and as he loved it. I could feel the presence of his grand-mother looking over us...