Over the next few weeks, I will document the entire process of building a Federal period breakfront, from interpreting photos to making working drawings, to the finishing. I will include all of the successes and mistakes (hopefully there won’t be many of the latter). Some of the entries were posted over 3 years ago, but some were not re-posted after a hosting migration, some 2 years ago and the last 2-3 entries were never posted.
This entry will begin with a bit on the history of the piece, what changes are being made, and preparing the drawings.
The breakfront is in the collection of the United States Department of State, and is on display in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. It is a massive piece, measuring 89 ¼” high and 96 ½” wide. Several sources attribute the breakfront to the Salem or coastal Massachusetts area, but Robert Mussey (see below for a list of the titles referenced in this article) in his excellent book on the Seymour’s attributes it to them. Whoever made it, it is an impressive piece; appearing quite delicate despite its massive scale.
As with any project, this one begins with assembling the reference materials. In this case there are several fairly good photos of the breakfront, in various books. The Mussey book has the best, in that it is taken straight on , is in color, and has a lengthy description of the piece. Yet, if using only this photo, you may think the center section is considerably taller and deeper than the flanking sections. The photo in Treasures of State is of somewhat poor quality but does show the relationship between the center and end sections, and also has a description of the piece. The photo in the Sack book is much clearer, and very accurately shows the relationship, between the center and end sections. A photo in Becoming a Nation is so small as to be of no real value.
Even a careful study of detailed photos, may not result in a true reproduction, because of course a photo will only get you so far, but often it is all that is available. When setting out to reproduce a piece from a photo, I always think of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.
There is one error in it, which escaped the attention of Felix de Weldon and others involved in making the statues. By the time work started on the monument in 1951, M-1 carbines had been retrofitted with bayonet lugs, and these were used as a reference, during the sculpting. The original movie of the flag raising, shot by Bill Genaust, clearly shows the carbines carried by Ira Hayes and Michael Strank, lacked a bayonet lug. I bet the rear sights are wrong too, but enough of the obscure history. So, when I find a missed detail in my work, I feel better, knowing an important national monument isn’t perfect either.
The customer decided not to reproduce the Butler’s drawer. I can understand why, since it has limited usefulness in a modern household. I would have liked to make it, but it would have added considerably to the construction time. The original was built in only two sections, but I’m going to make it in 6 major sections; moving and shipping this behemoth is going to be difficult, not to mention expensive, enough without having it being any more unwieldy than necessary. This approach will cause its own set of issues, but those outweigh the alternative.
To prepare the drawings, I used a dial caliper reading to .001” to measure a part of the photo, for which there is a known dimension. Take that reading and divide it by the known dimension. This will result in a factor that can then be used, to determine any other dimension. For example, the photo of the breakfront in the Mussey book, measures 5.712” high, which when divided by 89.25(the actual height of the breakfront) is .064. Now this factor of .064 can be used to determine other dimensions on the breakfront. As an example, if some part in the photo measures 1.167”, its actual dimension is 18 ¼” (1.167÷.064 = 18.234 which is rounded up to 18 ¼”). Depending on the quality of the lens and how carefully the camera was leveled, there may be some distortion in the photo, so it is a good practice to determine a factor for both the vertical and horizontal dimensions. In this case they were very close, with the vertical factor being .064 and the horizontal .062. If the photo had not been taken straight on, the same method would have been used, but the horizontal dimensions would have been less accurate. In this case a certain amount of interpretation, would have been necessary, based on your sense of proportion; in other words drawing it out full size or to scale and seeing if things look right.
I make a quick sketch to set out the large overall dimensions. Depending on the complexity of the piece, this drawing may be enough to go ahead and start construction. The many components of this breakfront, requires more details and this is best accomplished with a full size drawing. The drawing doesn’t have to be a masterpiece; just good enough to get the details on paper, and have a document to take dimensions from. Here again, the dial caliper is used to pick out the fine dimensions. To achieve maximum accuracy I use a magnifying glass made for stamp and coin collectors, to insure the particular element is being measure precisely; even a small error in measuring will result in a large error when scaled up.
I make the drawings on brown kraft paper, which erases cleanly and holds up well during construction. I think the real benefit of the drawing is not so much the dimensions, which are of course important, but how the process of drawing them, fixes the interaction of the various parts in your mind, and allows you to “see” things you might not have otherwise. In the case of this project, I found the setback of the flanking cases, was somewhat dictated by how much the hinges for the full overlay doors project past the edge of the door. In a very real way, when the drawings are complete, you have already built the piece.
Despite, complicating the drawings to a degree, I wanted to have the plan show both the upper and lower case superimposed over one another. This means there are quite a few overlapping lines, so to keep things clear the lower case was drawn with a standard pencil and the upper case with a blue pencil. Thus drawn, there can be no discrepancies in the way the upper and lower cases align.
Now with the drawings in hand, I can move on to a creating a cut list; a necessary task, which I nonetheless despise.
In the next installment, I will tackle the stock selection and preparation for the lower carcass.
Becoming a Nation
Jonathan L. Fairbanks
Treasures of State
Clement E. Conger
Alexeandra W. Rollins
American Antiques from the Israel Sack Collection, Vol. 1
Details of publication unknown
The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour
Robert D. Mussey Jr.