Questions and Common Sense Answers

Q My husband and I love antiques and we find some really good deals at our local auction houses. Our newest find is baffling us. Enclosed are pictures of what the auction house called a “gentleman’s wardrobe.” It was painted black and my husband cleaned it up. As you can see by the pictures it appears to be very beautiful tiger oak. The pictures do not show it but the large drawers do slide out. The piece is in perfect condition – no nicks, gouges or scratches. The claw feet do appear to have “hair”.

Exactly what is this piece called and can you give me the age and history of this type furniture? We paid $200 for it at an auction earlier this year.

A It looks like you have some fine auctions where you live. However, I would disagree with the term “wardrobe” for this piece. A wardrobe is usually a tall case that has a place to actually hang clothes, either on a rod or on a hook. This piece is all doors and drawers. The form is more closely identified with what was called a “chifforette” in the Depression era. The chifforette featured both exterior drawers and doors with interior drawers behind the doors, very similar to your piece.

But I think your piece predates the Depression era term by several years. It appears to be from around the turn of the 20th century to about World War I. It is a factory made piece that shows some of the straight line severity of the early 20th century Mission movement with a nod to the traditional through the use of the paw feet. I would call your piece a linen press, likely have been used to store a family’s linens and blankets in the wide deep lower drawers which comprise more than half the volume of the chest.

The casters are probably original to the piece. The primary wood is quarter sawn oak in both solid and veneer form. The door panels are probably three-layer oak plywood, consistent with manufacturing techniques of the early 20th century.

The drawer fronts, with the possible exception perhaps of the two smaller center drawers, appear to be quarter sawn beech, a close grain hardwood used as a secondary wood in drawers throughout much of the first half of the 20th century.

The black finish you refer to was almost certainly the original oxidized shellac finish since it cleaned up so well without having to strip paint. You certainly did no harm to the piece and probably added to its value significantly by your restoration work.

Q I am unclear about the purpose of using sanding sealer. What is it supposed to seal that lacquer or shellac or urethane won’t seal?

A The key word to sanding sealer is SANDING, not SEALER. No matter how fine you sand a bare piece of wood, there are still fibers that are just lying down flat waiting to spring up as soon as they get wet with finish and cause your first top coat to be prickly. Sanding sealer acts as the first coat, freezing those fibers in their raised position so they can smoothed with sandpaper. Sealer is loaded with stearates, an ingredient often found in soap, to make it slick and smooth and make the sanding process go faster and cleaner. After sanding a sealer coat with 220 or 320 grit paper, the surface is almost slippery to the touch and provides a beautiful base for top coat lacquer.

A word of caution however. Since sanding sealer is thicker than lacquer some finishers try to shortcut the process of building up a finish by using several coats of sealer to get a thicker finish film and to fill open grain. This results in a slightly less clear final finish and a much softer one since sealer is meant to be sanded away and is much too soft to substitute for top coat material. Sanding sealer is the finisher’s friend but the end user’s enemy and as a compromise, must be used with caution and discretion.

Visit Fred’s website at Fred Taylor’s book How to be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $2 S&H. Send check or money order for $20.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

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