Furniture Repair: Freeing a stuck tambour requires patience and perseverance

Q I have a table which I am curious about. The bottom of it is like a lazy susan — it rotates to give access to all four compartments. The sections that look like drawers are just blanks and do not open. Any comments? Thanks.
— E.A., via e-mail

Drum Table

The drum table was introduced in 1800 by Thomas Sheraton. This one is from the 1940s.

A Your drum table is from the 1940s. Tables like this are called drum tables because of their resemblance to drums with their deep skirt and traditionally smaller top. Tables of this design were introduced by English cabinetmaker Thomas Sheraton around 1800. The design went out of style by the mid-19th century but was revived by American manufacturers in the 1930s as part of the Colonial Revival.

Your table combines elements of other style tables. One of these is the “rent” table used in 18th century England which had separate compartments around the skirt, one for each day of the week for renters to deposit their payments. Another component is the mobile mechanism that reflects the elements of fold over game tables that revolved on their base to provide support for the open top. Your table probably was used as a card or game table with game pieces, cards, chips and tally sheets stored in the revolving compartments.

Your table is mahogany veneer over lumber core plywood. The Duncan Phyfe-style legs and the interior surfaces are made of gum. The top is leather but it is covered in a thin layer of gesso and painted and tooled. The finish on the “leather” is the same as the finish on the rest of the table.

A table virtually identical to your table is shown on page 126 of “Collector’s Encyclopedia of American Furniture, Volume 2” by Robert and Harriett Swedberg (Collector Books). The price guide in that book suggests a value of $150, but my copy of the book was published in 1992. A more recent publishing might reflect a different price.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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Q I decided to rehab the old roll top desk that has been in storage at my cousin’s place for 30 years, but I have encountered a problem. The roll up part of the desk doesn’t roll up or down. It’s stuck and will only budge a little each way. Since I read your columns, I know about silicone lubricant and tried that in the little channel where the boards are supposed to slide but it didn’t help any. I can’t see how the desk is put together to get to the roll top. Help. Thanks.
— A.H., Tampa, Fla.

A The problem is more serious than just lubricating the track. The roll up part is called the tambour and the “boards” are called the slats.

It sounds like one of several things may have happened. Something may have fallen into the well inside the desk where the tambour rolls to and could be blocking the action. Or it could be that the canvas that holds the slats together has split somewhere on the back of the tambour and has allowed a slat to jam against the rail. Or it could be something else. In any event you have to get to the tambour to make the furniture repair.

Turn of the century roll tops, at first glance, are like Oriental box puzzles. There just doesn’t seem to be any way in. But you have to remember that turn of the century furniture construction techniques, while often clever, were not extremely sophisticated. You also have to bear in mind that the tambour did not “grow” there — somebody put it there and left a way in and out. You just have to find it.

First, if you have enough room under the tambour in its stuck position, see if you can remove the “pigeonholes,” the fitted interior of the desk. This structure is usually either nailed or screwed to the deck and side panels. If you can remove this piece you may find the pencil that has dropped down behind and is binding the tambour.

If that doesn’t work go to the back of the top section. Usually the key lies in the top section of the desk. Most roll tops have a detachable top section that unscrews from the back side and has pegs that fit into holes along the sides and front of the main deck to keep the top in alignment. There may also be screws coming from underneath that are accessed by removing a top drawer. Locate and release the screws and the top should come loose. This rearrangement may be enough to free up the tambour or it may not. Try to lift the top section off the pedestal, pulling the tambour out of the well inside the modesty panel. If that doesn’t work, try to lift off the top leaving the tambour stuck in the pedestal well. You may have to unscrew the handle of the tambour, if it has one, for it to slide out the back of the top as you lift it.

Once you get the top off, one way or another, you will be able to see enough of the tambour, either stuck in the top or stuck in the well, to determine what its problem is.

After you fix the main problem, while you have the desk apart, carefully inspect the canvas of the tambour. Now is the time to fix it if it needs repair. If it is torn here and there and the occasional slat is loose, you can repair it by gluing some new canvas directly over the old canvas in the bad spots. Just make sure you have the loose slats properly aligned when you apply the new backing. If the whole thing looks iffy, install new canvas over the whole thing. It is not necessary to remove the old canvas. Just glue the new fabric directly onto the old backing using a flexible glue such as brush-on contact cement. (Don’t use a wood glue that will get brittle.) Be sure not to overlap the canvas on the ends of the slats, which should be bare wood where they ride in the guide channels.

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