How Was the Vanity Chair Built?

Xray of chair back

Xray of back leg

Xray of Chair Back

Back Leg Xray

This is the second post, in a series of three that shares what I learned about factory built arts and crafts furniture while restoring a Vanity Chair from Asheville, North Carolina’s Grove Park Inn. Read the first post.

First I set out to understand how the chair was built. To preserve the vanity chair’s integrity, throughout my examination, disassembly, and restoration efforts I consulted with veteran Smithsonian-trained furniture conservator Ron Blank. Our initial examination involved using x-ray technology to examine the chair’s joinery. This allowed us to understand the chair’s construction and develop a disassembly strategy that would not violate the integrity of the joints.  In his conservator’s report Ron described the construction by saying,

Dowel Construction Was Used Throughout the Vanity Chair

“The chair is assembled with a combination of [spiral grooved] dowel joinery and mortise and tenon joinery.  The low bannister-back consists of a plain crest rail and conforming lower rail attached to the back stiles by dowels.  Between the horizontal back rails are three vertical slats attached by mortise and tenon.”

Determining the original seat covering material provided a mystery that took a while to solve. The only clue we had was that cleats were attached to the interior of all four chair-rails (presumably to secure a type of slip-seat assembly) and that 90 degree brackets were used to secure the seat to the cleats. I spoke with several Arts and Crafts furniture experts and could not find a conclusive answer. However, the popular speculation among Arts and Crafts experts was that it had either a woven rattan seat or leather covered cushion seat.

An Original Woven Rattan Seat

Ultimately another trip to the Grove Park was necessary to solve the seat cover mystery. I examined half a dozen more vanity chairs.  Eventually, I found a seat that produced odd sounds when someone sat on it. Even though the chair had a padded, fabric upholstered covering, these sounds were consistent with a woven rattan seat. When we removed the fabric covering we found what appeared to be an original woven rattan seat. It was in poor shape and had been modified to allow easy application of the upholstery. I suspect this was done in an effort to restore the chair to use in the least expensive and quickest way possible.  Later I was able to find two similarly configured woven rattan seats that matched the weave-pattern, seat-frame construction, and method of attachment to the seat frame as the one found under the upholstery. One of these examples was found on the inn’s shoeshine chair located in the Carolina Walk area and multiple examples were evident on the front porch rockers, which I learned still contained a few original seats among the majority that had been restored.

Ineffective RepairsA Compromised Dowel and the Alleged Culprit

Our examination also revealed that the vanity chair has been repaired once, if not several times during its life. These repairs were consistently put into effect by inserting long screws into the chair’s original joints, presumably to repair loose or wobbly joints that had evolved over time. We noted a solitary screw and plug inserted in one of the lower stretchers, where the stretcher joins the front leg.  The lack of a screw and plug on the other stretcher joints suggests that these are the result of a previous restoration campaign. It also appeared that several of these repairs were done without regard to the structural integrity of the dowel joinery. These repairs involved driving long screws directly through the dowels lengthwise, which all but compromised the utility of the dowel joinery.

Finally, Ron’s examination of the chair’s finish provided more details about its life. Ron noted:

“The finished surface appears to have been restored or replaced entirely.  The existing finish is unidentified resin with no age cracks visible, suggesting that the finish is recent.”

With the original finish gone we would have to consult others before deciding how to refinish the chair.

In my next post I’ll wrap up this series with a post discussing the restoration of the Vanity Chair.