French Feet and Apron
This area can be shaped later after the feet/ apron assembly is glued in place. Also leave the area around where the fan will go over sized, so that it can be later filed to exactly match the fan. The aprons are cut to length, so that when combined with the feet, the overall width and depth of the foot/apron assembly is just a 1/64” bigger all the way around than the bottom of the case. Here again the thinness of the veneer on the case allows for a very small margin of error. Glue the feet to the apron upside down on a flat surface. This is another situation where hide glue works better than modern glues, as it requires no clamps, just firmly press the joint together while wiggling it a bit, and hold for a minute while the glue gels. The foot/apron assembly is glued to the case with small glue blocks, mitering those around the feet. The profile of the apron is refined with fine files. I don’t worry about leaving behind a few file marks, but I want to remove all traces of machine marks.
I debated I whether to use an applied drawer bottom, or go with a standard drawer bottom housed in a groove. I chose the housed drawer bottom, because I think it looks better. When setting out the dovetails, allow the side to extend down past the front , by the thickness of a piece of veneer, This will require placing a piece of veneer between the drawer front and the fence as the groove is run for the drawer bottom. Later after the drawer is assembled, you can plane the bottom edges of the sides to achieve a uniform gap all the way around the drawer. After dovetailing I took one final pass on the interior of sides and front with a finely set smooth plane to remove handling marks, and applied a coat of dark shellac. After the shellac cured, I knocked down the raised grain, and applied a coat of wax, taking care to keep it away from the glue surfaces. The drawer is glued together with hide glue with urea added to slow the gel time. The drawer bottom is a piece of 3/16” pine, beveled on its front and sides to fit in the groove. The bottom extends past the back and it is glued to the drawer back. The extension of the bottom on the back is planed to form a drawer stop. I cut the groove in the drawer front extra deep, so the bottom can expand here. The bottom is only about 6 ½“ wide so there won‘t be much expansion.
Finishing inlaid pieces present the special challenge of how to color the wood without affecting the inlays. Of course in time the color will happen naturally, but to achieve the full impact of the inlays, some form of coloring is in my opinion necessary. My early inlaid pieces were colored with aniline dyes.
This required sealing the inlays with shellac or lacquer, a laborious process, and yet the results weren’t spectacular. Also, mahogany as noted will darken over time, so what looked good today, could be too dark years from now.Potassium dichromate is an often used chemical, that will color mahogany, but its health hazard kept me from going that route. I also tried lye, which worked quite well, but I disliked how caustic it is. Placing the piece in the sun will also work, but the sun can do more than just darken wood, and I’m not crazy about the idea of having my carefully constructed furniture warping in the sun. I now use hydrated lime, mixed with water. It will impart a beautiful color to the mahogany and is not dangerous or caustic. It also has proven to be extremely light fast and color stable, showing no appreciable darkening over time. While I have not heard of any period references to using lime to color mahogany, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn it was used, since chemical coloring was quite common. The lime does have some down sides. It is best sprayed on, and can only produce one color, red. Experimentation is absolutely essential. Depending on the ratio of water to lime, you can have almost no effect to a nearly black color (especially on crotch mahogany). If the color ends up too light, it can be darkened with a stronger lime mixture, but if too dark, you’re stuck. For this chest, I chose a lighter tone than I normally use, because the original appeared lighter, and with the crotch/swirl veneer, I needed to avoid the over darkening associated with lime and these veneers.
The surface tension of the dye will allow you to brush the dye only where you want it. I then dyed the eagle and stars with a yellow dye with a touch of brown added. When this had dried I coated the eagle with two coats of blond shellac. The entire chest other than the bottom board was dyed with the same yellow/brown dye. This will give a golden highlight to the finished mahogany and make the inlays look more like period pieces. Spray ( or carefully brush) on the lime, working from the bottom up, so that the mixture won’t run on to an untreated area and leave a mark. The color will change almost instantly, but as it dries, your heart will sink, as it will take on a horrid dusty orange color. There is no need to neutralize the lime; the oil and or shellac I have used over it, have been uneffected by it, but I do wipe the surface with a damp rag to clean off the dusty coating, before applying anything over the lime.. Like fuming oak, the true color will reveal itself when the finish is applied. Normally I would have used a tinted oil, or just plain oil to bring out the color, and give depth to the grain, but in this case the test showed the oil would have overly darkened the crotch//swirl veneer, especially the oval on the top ( again a common problem with this grain pattern). With that in mind I used one fairly thin brushed on coat of de waxed dark shellac, followed by about 6 coats of blond shellac. As rule, I fill the grain on mahogany, but the veneer on this piece had very small pores as did the solid mahogany for the feet and apron . The interior lids could have used filler, but for reasons of color consistency, I just applied a few more coats of shellac to them. When the shellac had cured, I wet sanded with 320-400 grit paper. Then I used padding lacquer to bring up a deep shine. Straight from the pad, the lacquer is too glossy for my tastes, so after letting it dry over night, I rubbed it down to a nice satiny sheen with liberon fine steel wool backed with an art eraser, using mineral oil as a lubricant.
Work in straight strokes, lifting at the end of each stroke. This prevents the slight distortion in the scratch pattern from working in a back in a forth motion. Clean off the oil with warm soapy water, and wax if desired.
The knobs for the lids were turned from imitation ivory. This is also a delicate operation, because the resin used to make the imitation ivory, is brittle while cool, but with the heat from turning, it becomes kind of rubbery . My first attempt at using the material a few years ago ended up in the trash. I now have a collet chuck for the lathe, which helped immensely , and I also turned them at high speed, but took very light cuts, stopping when the resin seemed to be getting soft, which wasn’t often. I also resorted to using fine needle files to do some of the shaping while they were turning in the lathe ( in fact I often resort to files when turning wood) I turned a ¼” diameter x 3/16” long shank on the knob, and used a forstner bit to drill the hole in the lid, being careful not to drill through the lid. Apply some brown wax to the knobs to mimic age. The knobs were glued in place with epoxy .
Well, there it is, a masterpiece of design, from an era when even simple boxes were adorned with lavish decoration . I’ve built dozens of reproductions, and all the while I’m making them, I think of those craftsman who made the originals. Working entirely by hand, often in candle light, 60 plus hours a week, they produced items that stood the test of time, both physically and ascetically. While it is a blow to my ego to admit it, I’m not even close to being in their league.