Duncan Phyfe was a Scotsman (1768-1854) who immigrated to New York in 1794. He also happened to be an extremely gifted designer and maker of furniture.
While he almost assuredly was not the first to use the pedestal and leg arrangement for the support of tables, particularly dining tables, he is especially well remembered in their description. How many tables have you seen described as “Duncan Phyfe” or as “having Duncan Phyfe pedestals”? (Illustration No. 1) No doubt quite a few, whether they are Georgian, Empire, Federal or Depression. They almost all have one other thing in common other than their name: They almost always have one or more loose legs that need repair.
Since Duncan gets the credit, he also gets the blame for the difficulty of the repair on his legs and pedestals, because of the curves. But there is a way (actually a system) to repair these creatures that involves a standard approach, lots of ingenuity on your part and good use of clamps, blocks and physics, but does NOT include the use of screws, nails or straps.
Most early “Phyfe” pedestals, say before 1850, used dovetail joinery to attach leg to pedestal. This consisted of a triangular ridge on the leg fitting into a matching cut on the pedestal. (Illustration No. 2) This is a very tight joint if properly cut and fitted but extremely difficult to repair if broken. It usually involves rebuilding the outside edges of either the cut or the ridge or both to make a new joint, but the assembly required is the same as for pedestals of a later manufacture. Virtually all pedestal bases from the Civil War to today are assembled using two dowels in each leg joining it to the pedestal. (Illustration No. 3) These dowels are generally larger in diameter than those used anywhere else because of the tremendous forces on these curved legs. Most of these dowels are 7/16-inch or, more commonly, 1/2-inch diameter, and many of them are broken by the time you get to them.
The first step in the repair process is to completely remove the loose leg from the pedestal (after removing the pedestal from the table), not always the simplest of tasks. Patience, a rubber mallet and wooden wedges are useful to remove the leg. Work the leg up and down by hand to loosen it enough to slide a thin, wooden wedge in the opening between the leg and pedestal, either top or bottom. Then, apply force with the hammer in the opposite direction to open up the opposite joint. Next, insert a slightly larger wedge in the opening created and apply more force. Be careful not to break the leg. When the leg is off, drill out and replace any cracked or broken dowels and scrape out all the old glue in the holes and on the dowels. (Glue doesn’t stick to glue.) Also, remove any nails or screws left over from original assembly or previous repairs.
Clamp the pedestal upside down to a stable work surface in a location where it can remain overnight. Next, cut a block from some soft wood, such as a pine 2-by-4, that has the same curve as the leg at a point just above the end of the pedestal. Screw another block into the bottom of the pedestal and connect the two blocks with a clamp, as shown in Illustration No. 4. If you got the angles and curves right, the leg will snug up to the pedestal with no further clamping required. Just clean up the glue squeeze, and you’re done. If two legs are loose, you can cut the block that is screwed into the pedestal so that it has flat surfaces facing each of the two loose legs. That way, you can clamp both legs at once. It saves one overnight drying rotation.
If the angles don’t work exactly right with the clamping arrangement above, you may have to adjust. Start with the basic array, but add clamps, as shown in Illustration No. 5. This way, you use opposite-side legs on two- or four-legged pedestals as a clamp anchor, as well as using the work surface itself to provide another anchor. Be sure the opposite-side legs are sound before clamping to them, and make sure the work surface is strong enough.
There is an infinite variety of clamping arrangements useful on curved surfaces such as Duncan Phyfe legs. I hope this stimulates you to find them as needed. ?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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