Furniture Detective: Don’t fall to pieces when disassembling furniture

Once you have made the decision to refinish an older or antique piece of furniture, naturally the next thought is the schedule of events that happen between now and the final coat of finish.

That schedule is normally presented in the following order, with some minor variations on occasion: 1) Strip 2) Repair 3) Iron and Sand 4) Stain 5) Fill if required 6) Sand Fill 7) Restain and finally 8) Apply Finish. That’s a pretty reasonable list except that it leaves out two very important steps, which should be the first and last steps, respectively: disassembly and reassembly.

Disassembling a complicated piece can be a daunting proposition, but proper disassembly makes for easy reassembly and taking it apart is really not that bad and is an absolute must for clean, professional looking results. You just can’t strip, sand and finish well around hardware left on and around glass panels still in place; so with that motivation, take a good look at your intended project.

Often, at first glance, the reaction is, “It doesn’t come apart.” But the response to that is, “It didn’t grow there. Someone put it there and if they put it there it will come apart.” Let’s demonstrate the process by disassembling a 1930s Colonial Revival bookcase secretary with glass doors and a slanted drop front.

The most important tools in this process are pencil, paper and masking tape. Time spent here is worth three times the time in reassembly. Start by removing the large drawers under the drop front. As you remove each drawer, number it and inspect it, making note of any repairs that may be required later such as loose or missing veneer, worn or missing slides and anomalies in the hardware and locks.

Next remove the hardware from the drawers, and if there are variations in size or pattern in the hardware, note which piece goes where on what drawer. Put the screws for the hardware in the hardware and tape them. 

Remove the locks if there are any and don’t forget to number the locks on the back with a piece of masking tape with their corresponding drawer number. Tape the screws in the holes of the lock.

Next remove the glass doors. As you remove screws from the hinges, place them in order nearby so they can be taped in place in the hinge when it is removed. Start by removing screws in the case first so the door comes away from the case with hinges still attached.
As you remove each hinge from the loose door, use an awl or sharp screwdriver to scratch some ID on the back of the hinge so that it can be replaced in its original position later. Something like “LTC” on a hinge leaf means this leaf belongs on the “Left Top Case” and the other hinge from that door is labeled “LBC” or “Left Bottom Case.” After hinges, locks and pulls or hardware are removed, then remove the glass and label it with tape so you know which door it goes to and which side is up and which faces in. Then remove and label the muntins, the “grill work” on the outside of the glass.

Now remove the shelves. They should just lift out and expose the shelf supports, which are also removed. If they do not lift out but appear to fit in grooves they can be tapped out the back after the back panels are removed.

Usually a secretary like this has two back panels, upper and lower and both must be removed carefully by pulling the nails from the back side, not by pounding the panels from the front, as they will splinter. After the panels are removed the back of the inside cubby hole structure is revealed. Usually the cubby holes are nailed into the top deck from the rear and inside the cubby slots. Locate the nails and carefully pry the cubby down and remove it out the back of the cabinet. Also remove the small drawers in the cubby and disassemble the small interior door just as you did the glass doors.

Now remove the drop front. This one is sometimes not so obvious in its removal. Lower the drop to its full horizontal position. There are two sets of hardware associated with a drop front, the hinges that allow the drop to move up and down and the support structure that operates the drop front supports that extend from the case for the drop to rest on.

First, locate and remove the screws from the support operator and move it out of the way if necessary. Then release the hinges, labeling as above and taping screws in place. Remove the drop front to a table and remove locks and hardware as before. Remove the drop front supports out the back of the piece after releasing the operator arms. The piece should now be fully disassembled except for removal of the finial. Check to see if the finial is loose or if it is nailed, glued or screwed in. If at all possible remove it.

You now have one big task left: the “body count” or a list of pieces. You should end up with a list that looks something like the following:

1 case, 
2 back panels, 
2 glass doors, 
2 muntins, 
2 shelves,
1 cubby hole,
1 small interior door,
3 small interior drawers,
2 document drawers, 
1 drop front,
3 large drawers,
2 drop front supports and
1 finial  plus a large can of appropriately labeled hinges, pulls and locks.

As you proceed through each step of the finish schedule, refer to the body count often. Nothing is worse than being done only to find the last small piece you forgot about.

Good luck.

Read more of Fred Taylor’s “Furniture Detective” columns.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


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