Furniture Detective: Wood blocks make some furniture repairs possible

Sometimes one of your regular treasures may need some repair help or the piece you just acquired for sale, trade or keep needs some TLC for the loose arms, open joints or sloppy drawer sides.

George Grotz in his book The Furniture Doctor makes a couple of very valid points about repairs. In essence, he says that glue doesn’t stick to glue — which is true — and that gluing without clamping is the same as not gluing, which is also true.

Cleaning glue out of joints is an important subject for another time and for right now we must assume it has been done so that we can talk about clamping. If your repair area is like mine, you have some nice shiny, tinny tools that some family member who doesn’t know a power strip from a horsepower gave you, some esoteric stuff that you really aren’t sure how to use or even what it’s for and then the batch of homely, dirty, common favorites that help you accomplish 90 percent of all your successful work. Included in this last category in my shop is a large collection of humble wooden blocks. I have boxes of them since I never throw away a piece of wood and sooner or later I find a use for just about all of them.

The main use for wood blocks is as a cushion between a clamp face and a prepped or finished surface so as not to leave “smiley face” clamp marks on everything. Of course you must be sure the face of the block is smooth or it too will leave a mark on the surface; but a wooden block is more easily refaced than finished work. The blocks used around and across joints with wet glue must be surfaced with waxed paper to keep from gluing them to the work. Blocks cut from plywood stock work well for clamp blocks because they will give a little before they mar the work, but they tend to have a relatively short life span. Blocks cut from poplar are probably the best blocks but that can get expensive so you just make do with what you’ve got. How you use the blocks is more important than what they are made of.

There is another, much more creative use of wood blocks at your disposal. Parallel surfaces on the work piece are just about a must or your clamps slide around and won’t tighten or the joint you are working on opens up on one side or otherwise comes out of alignment. But parallel work surfaces on furniture are not always so conveniently located and clamping can become a nightmare unless you use blocks to make your own parallel surfaces. The accompanying illustrations show some of the ways this can work.

Illustration 1 shows the inconveniently curved back portion of a Victorian balloon-back chair for example. Closing an open joint in this back can be a real problem. By using blocks as clamping surfaces themselves you can overcome the problem. Clamp blocks with surfaces that match the contour of the curve on either side of the joint and then run a clamp across the joint onto the faces of the blocks, pulling the joint tightly together. Of course you can’t put any more pressure on the cross clamp than you have on the face clamps but you shouldn’t need to.

A slightly different variation can be used on the curved chair back shown in Illustration 2. Assuming that the arm is loose and needs to be clamped to the back, a bar clamp or pipe clamp run from the front of the arm to the curving back will either slide right off or bite deeply into the back. By clamping blocks tightly below the arm and using a roughly triangular shaped block above them, you create a surface parallel to the front face of the arm on which to place a clamp. The lower blocks then prevent the triangular block and the clamp from sliding down the curved back surface. If the front edge of the arm is curved, use a block with one concave face there to stabilize the clamp.

Blocks can also provide a solution when you don’t have a clamp long enough to reach the entire length of a piece or it is inconvenient to use one of that size. Illustration 3 shows how to use shorter clamps to repair a loose drawer side rather than having to run a clamp the length of the drawer face.

These three illustrations are just the beginning in the use of blocks in repair situations. I use grooved blocks, rounded blocks, triangular blocks, blocks with holes in them, blocks with screws in them, hard blocks, soft blocks — the list goes on and on. The key is to be creative.

Of course you must be very careful about the condition of the surface of the blocks when you are using them to clamp like this. A rough block or block with a drop of hardened glue on it will create more problems than it solves.

Practice first and be careful. ?

Photo courtesy Fred Taylor

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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