Furniture Detective: Tap top drawer for trademark details

Q I have a few short questions for you, please. I still own, and use, my mother’s 51-inch long by 34-inch high mahogany dresser from my childhood home of some 65-70 years ago. It has two top drawers about 6 inches tall across the top and two full-length drawers below them. In one of the top drawers is a label which reads “Widdicomb Furniture, Grand Rapids, Mich.” Do you have any information on that particular company?

The handles are oval, and in the Hepplewhite style. As to its age, my late parents were married late in life, in 1924, and more than likely got their furniture at that time. I no longer have the taller dresser that matched, and there was a mirrored dressing table,

A sample of a trademark label found on Widdicomb furniture

A sample of a trademark label found on Widdicomb furniture

too, and of course, a bed, but we don’t have any of those anymore, I’m sorry to say! Our dresser also had a large, oval/framed mirror that used to be attached to it but it, too, was taken off and is long gone.

— Name Withheld

A There were several variations of furniture companies in Grand Rapids that used the Widdicomb name. The first was Widdicomb Brothers & Richards, operating from 1869 to 1873. In 1873, the company was reincorporated as Widdicomb Furniture Company. It made a variety of products and was listed as the largest maker of bedroom furniture in the world in 1891. Most of the furniture it made was in the Colonial Revival genre such as your dresser. The “cursive” style label in the top drawer was the trademark used by the company from 1903 to 1937. Yours appears to fit right in with the marriage date of your parents, the mid-1920s. Too bad you don’t still have the other pieces, especially the mirrored dressing table or the framed mirror.

Like all American 20th century plate mirrors incorporated into furniture, the mirrors would have the original date of manufacture on the reverse of the glass. (This is explained further and illustrated in my book “How to be a Furniture Detective.”) By 1938, Widdicomb had stopped making revival furniture altogether and concentrated solely on “Modern” and “Art Moderne,” as Art Deco was called in that period. The company merged with Mueller Furniture Co. in 1950 but “unmerged” in 1960. In 1970, the name was sold to John Widdicomb Co., which was a completely separate entity.

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Q On the recommendation of several excellent woodworker friends of mine, I have recently acquired a Porter-Cable #330 Speedblock orbital sander. It is doing a great job so far, but I am getting frustrated having to stop and tear sandpaper into quarter sheets. Half the time I rip the paper and ruin an entire sheet of expensive stuff.

Also my fingers are getting worn out creasing the paper to tear it. I tried cutting it with scissors but that takes way too long, plus the abrasive ruined my scissors. My friends have the same problem and say it is just part of the price of using a quarter-sheet sander. Any suggestions?

— B.R.

Jig for tearing sandpaper

Fred provides instructions for creating a jig like this to tear perfect quarter sheets of sandpaper every time. Photo courtesy Fred Taylor

A Congratulations on acquiring an excellent piece of machinery. I own a half dozen copies of the same sander and have always been happy with them. I struggled for years with the same sandpaper problem as you. The clips that hold the paper in the sander have very little room for error when you tear the sheets. If they are not torn perfectly, you will have a difficult time getting more than two sheets at a time in the holder by using the thumb handles on the clips. That’s why there is a slot on the front and rear face of the paper holder. Use a paint can opener or a screwdriver in that slot to hold the clips wider to get more paper in them. They should easily hold four layers of properly torn paper so that you can just rip off the bottom, worn-out sheet as you work without having to stop to reload.

The real trick is tearing the paper. I made a jig especially for this procedure. It is made of a piece of 3/4-inch plywood that is 12 1/2 inches tall by 10 inches wide. A 12-inch, 32-tooth hacksaw blade is screwed to the board longways with the sharp side of the blade exactly 5 1/2 inches from the side. When you slide a sheet of sandpaper crosswise under the blade and line it up with the side facing the sharp edge of the blade, the middle of the sheet is at the edge of the blade. Just tear it up and against the blade and you have a perfect half sheet of sandpaper. Then stack the half sheets on top of each other and slide them under the blade again, this time lining them up with the opposite side of the board and lift and tear again. Since sandpaper sheets are 9 inches by 11 inches, the second tear parts the half sheets into perfect quarter sheets measuring 4 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches.

You can tear multiple sheets at one time if they have “A” weight backing, the thinner flexible paper found on most good quality paper in 120 grit and above. Coarser grits like 80, 60 and 40 have much heavier backings, “C” weight or sometimes even “D” weight. These sheets have to be torn one at a time. While you are there, tear up a number of sheets so you don’t have to stop again for awhile. Load up your sander and you are ready to really get to work.


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