Glass panels are some of the more attractive features of any piece of furniture, especially if the piece is old and the glass is original to the piece and has survived unbroken. Old glass, like an old dog, is happiest when left alone because it is set in its ways, brittle and can be cantankerous. Both should be left alone as much as possible and disturbed only in dire circumstances.
The two circumstances under which old glass should be disturbed are when the glass is broken and must be replaced or when major work such as refinishing or structural repair is about to be undertaken. Don’t kid yourself about not removing the glass to refinish a piece. Not only will the refinish job not be done as well as if the glass were removed but as much glass is broken in the refinishing process as in the removal and reinstallation. The same holds for structural repairs to a cabinet. If the piece is to be clamped or otherwise stressed in any way, the glass really should come out.
CAUTION: In all cases of glass removal, whether broken or unbroken, remember that the primary objective is to end the job with the same number of intact body parts that you started with. All other results, including glass removal, are secondary. In other words, use your head and be careful. One of the most important tools used in glass handling is attitude. If you are very tired or very pushed for time or very tense or very almost anything else, wait until some other time to deal with old, irreplaceable glass. Also make sure that those around you understand your need for concentration at this point and can leave you alone for a while.
REMOVAL: The first step in glass removal is to remove whatever is holding the glass in place. In some cabinets this may be only a piece of braided rope nailed into the cabinet. In other cases molding strips of various woods may be present. Study the piece before attacking and make sure you understand where the real structure is. In some cases only the side molding is used with no top and bottom pieces. In others only one piece of molding is used; the glass may slide into a slot on one side of the cabinet and fit flush on the other side, held by the molding. Molding is on the inside of the cabinet 95 percent of the time but there are cases where the glass is installed and secured from the outside, making removal and reinstallation a lot simpler and safer. Speaking of simpler and safer, if you are dealing with a door or other such removable panel, by all means remove it from the cabinet first and do all the work with the piece flat on a padded surface.
Using a 1-inch-wide putty knife and a table knife, carefully remove whatever molding is in place. It’s usually easier to start in the middle of a long piece rather than on an end because the molding is more flexible in the middle. Carefully work under the molding, trying to lift it a little without breaking it. Work your way toward one end carefully. You don’t have to completely remove the strip as you go; just loosen it. Then work your way from the middle to the other end. Once the entire strip is loose, work on removing it intact. As soon as a piece is removed, label it with a piece of masking tape, indicating which side of the cabinet it came from, which side of the glass it belongs on and which way is up. (You’ll thank yourself later when it’s time to reassemble.)
After the last piece of molding is removed, leave the glass in place and check to make sure that all the nails in the molding strips came out with the strips. One nail sticking out can break a piece of old glass as you remove it. Don’t trust your eyes here. While holding a vertical piece of glass in place with one hand, trace the outline of the glass with the other, searching for “invisible” nails or even broken pieces of nails that might snag the glass. Carefully remove any found nails using pliers, wire cutters, etc. and a block of wood as a cushion to reduce scarring of the case. Once all obstacles are cleared, remove the glass to a safe place after labeling it the same as you labeled its molding strips (especially the part about which way is up). The safest way to store the glass is standing on a blanket or towel leaning against a wall in roughly the same position it was in the piece.
INSTALLATION: After the refinishing (or whatever) is done, installation is almost the reverse of removal. Have a clean, padded, uncluttered work surface available to lay out the glass panels and clean them BEFORE installation. Yes, you are going to get fingerprints on them during installation but that’s minor. Use a new, single-edged razor blade to scrape old finish and paint from the edges of the glass before using any commercial glass cleaner. Next, lay out the molding associated with the glass panel and check it for protruding nails. All nails should be hammered back to their starting point. Any missing nails should be replaced with a comparable new nail, usually 1/2-inch or 5/8-inch by 18- or 19-gauge wire brads. Start new nails through the molding so they barely protrude. Fit the glass into its bed following your label marks and fit the molding the same way so that the nails will fit back into their original holes and new nails will line up. The objective here is to minimize the number of hammer blows in the area of the old glass. This eliminates a lot of stress on the glass and on you. If the old nails do not provide enough “grip,” extract them and replace with the next size up in the original hole.
To reduce the chance of mishap during installation, visit your local picture frame shop first and pick up scraps of mat board from the cutting room floor. As you hammer nails through the molding strips, hold a piece of mat board against the glass. That way you can actually hit the glass without breaking it. Mat board is tough stuff. When installation is complete, clean the glass again and use a crayon to fill up the nail holes.
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Fred Taylor writes a syndicated series of monthly articles under the bylines “Common Sense Antiques” and “Questions and Common Sense Answers” for antiques and collectibles publications in the U.S. and Canada. He covers major antiques auctions all over the country and is a contributor to the semi-annual publication Antiques and Art Around Florida.