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Find the best tool for dissolving wood glue in the kitchen

In this Furniture Detective column Fred Taylor tackles three reader inquiries about dissolving wood glue, examining repair details to assess age, and modern history of Hitchcock chair design.

Q I am trying to repair a factory made (not an antique) dining chair that has a couple of broken stretchers. I can’t seem to get them out of the holes in the legs. I seem to recall that you can use vinegar to loosen old glue. Is there a particular type or brand of vinegar the works best – or at least better than another? Are there any other chemicals or mixtures that will work better or faster? How long does the vinegar take?

— G.T.

Turn to Kitchen For Help Dealing with Wood Glue

Unglued "Sunday school" chair

Some of the boards came unglued in this little “Sunday school” chair, and someone used rough-cut cleats to repair the joints. (Submitted photo)

A The best vinegar to use is the cheapest white vinegar you can find, no need to get “gourmet” for this project. Vinegar is a dilute solution of acetic acid. Acetic acid is a great dissolver of organic compounds including aliphatic resin glues, common yellow wood glue.

How long it takes to work depends on a combination of factors including ambient temperature, the amount of glue and how accessible the glue actually is. When using vinegar to remove old caning in seats the glue is right there on top and is softened in a matter of 10 to 30 minutes. In a case like yours, where the glue is concealed in the holes for the stretchers (they are called mortises), it can take quite a bit longer for the vinegar to actually reach the glue. You can speed that process up by drilling a 5/64 or 3/32 inch diameter hole, the size of a 16 gauge veterinary syringe needle, and inject the vinegar directly into the joint.

Time Aids in Treating Wood Glue

Warming the vinegar slightly will improve the action but it still may take several hours or in some cases overnight to loosen the joint enough to remove the broken stretcher piece. You don’t want to heat the vinegar too much because that will harm the finish in surrounding areas. That’s why I don’t recommend using extremely hot water, which will also weaken yellow glue. After you remove the broken piece allow the site to air dry a couple of days before you reassemble the chair. You don’t want lingering vinegar to weaken the new joint.

Q These are pictures of a chair that I purchased at auction. It reminded me of the chairs from my Sunday School class when I was little. My question is this: What are the small pieces of wood on the bottom of the seat? I have never seen this type of woodworking, and it has me curious. Also could you tell me what value I should place on this for insurance? (Or is it not worth doing that?)
— D.K.

Examine Repair and Refinish of Chair's Cleats

A Your little chair is a Windsor chair from the early 20th century. Chairs from this period have seats made from several boards rather than the single board seat found in most 19th century chairs, especially earlier ones. Your chair appears to have been repaired and refinished at some point and the small pieces of wood are repairs. They are called “cleats” and are used to secure the joint between two pieces of wood. Butterfly shaped cleats are sometimes seen in older furniture to hold down shrinkage.

This repair was not part of the original chair. Obviously the seat split down the middle at some point and this how some “craftsman” repaired it. The chair is a 20th century factory made piece and has very little collector’s value. It would not be worth your while to insure it separately from your homeowner’s policy.

Reinvention of Hitchcock Chair Production

Q I have a table made by John T. Kenney. It is all pegged together with stencils on the corners and

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I’m sure it is made of hard maple. Do you know if he is still in business in Connecticut, and, if not, when did he quit? Did he peg all of his furniture? I have tried to get information through the Connecticut Historical Society but they don’t even have anything on the Hitchcock chairs. Can you help?
— D.H.

A John Tarrant Kenney is the man who discovered the remnants of the Hitchcock chair factory in Connecticut over a century after Lambert Hitchcock quit the business in 1840 or so. Kenney reinvented the company. He started producing Hitchcock style reproduction chairs using original designs and stencils in 1946. Before it closed in 2006, the company was a major force in American furniture making chairs, tables and a variety of other furniture products.

I did not know Kenney made any furniture other than the Hitchcock repros. He owned a series of shoe stores in Connecticut before WWII and joined the Marines in 1943 but fell ill and never served. He discovered the old factory on a vacation/fishing trip in 1946. Here is the website for the modern Hitchcock Chair Co.:

Check "Hitchcock Chair" Reference for Help

Kenney also wrote the definitive book on Hitchcock and his furniture titled “The Hitchcock Chair” published by Potter, copyright 1971. The book is out of print but old copies are available online if you look.

I think you will find, if you dig deep enough, that the “pegs” in your table are actually caps covering the screws used to assemble the table. John T. Kenney was not a great craftsman, just a good organizer and businessman. Thanks for writing. 

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