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'Dumbwaiter' handy aid for proper hostess

In his latest column, Furniture Detective Fred Taylor provides an enlightening explanation of the dumbwaiter and its role in proper service of guests.

By Fred Taylor

Delving into Dumbwaiter Details


The dumbwaiter form originated in England in the early 18th century. This one is part of the American Colonial Revival. (Submitted photo)

Q I’ve been curious for a long time about a table I received from my aunt. I would like to know the period it was made as well as value. It’s a beautiful piece and I’m anxious to hear what you have to say. Anything you can tell me will be appreciated.
— D.G., Bowie, Md.

A Your table is known as a “dumbwaiter.” The form originated in England in the early 18th century. It was designed to be placed near the hostess’ seat. It contained extra plates, silverware, dessert, liquor, etc.

The most popular style of the dumbwaiter form evolved in the mid to late 18th century both in England and America in the Chippendale style. Yours is an example of Chippendale in the Colonial Revival style, made sometime during or just after the American Depression. The book “Furniture of the Depression Era” by Swedberg illustrates several similar tables but none is of the quality of yours.

Surface and Woodwork Indicators of Quality

The surfaces of your dumbwaiter are made of mahogany veneer while the central column, legs and feet appear to be made of solid mahogany – an indication of a high quality piece. The bold acanthus carvings on the knees, the deeply incised bulbs and the well formed feet carry out the theme of high quality.

Regal examples such as this were made by companies such as Baker and Imperial, among others, during the Depression. Your dumbwaiter appears to have been made in the 1930s or 1940s. It appears to be in original finish and in very good condition. A table such as yours would reasonably expect to sell at auction in the range of $200 to $300.

It should be cleaned with mineral spirits to remove old wax and oil and rewaxed with a good paste wax such as Howard’s or Briwax once a year. No oil or other polish should ever be applied to the dumbwaiter.

Before Stripping (Furniture) Best to Understand Types of Alcohol

Q I read one of your articles about saving the old finish and not stripping a piece. One of the things

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you talked about was the use of alcohol, but since grain alcohol is outlawed in New York State I was wondering if you could suggest a substitute for use in furniture restoration. I have a finish that I would like to redo without removing the old finish or stripping. Any help would be appreciated.
— P.S., New York

A Perhaps some clarification is in order. Basically there are three common types of alcohol: 1) methanol, a poisonous and very dangerous compound also called methyl alcohol, wood alcohol or methyl hydrate; 2) isopropanol or isopropyl, commonly known as rubbing alcohol; and 3) ethanol, called ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, so-called because it is produced from corn. Ethanol is the form found in alcoholic beverages and is the only relatively safe consumable form of alcohol. The purchase of undiluted grain alcohol may be outlawed in New York, but grain alcohol, per se, certainly is not.

Identifying Proper Solvent for Shellac Finish

For our purposes, we are looking for a solvent for old shellac finishes and as such all forms of alcohol will work, even isopropyl. Any alcohol will dissolve shellac. But isopropyl contains about 30% water so it doesn’t work as well as other types of alcohol. Ethanol is the safest and best solvent, for our purposes, in the alcohol family.

However, since ethanol can be used for pleasurable purposes of course it is heavily regulated and taxed by the government, making it too expensive as a commercial solvent. That’s why there are four variations of ethanol. In addition to the kind found in liquor there is “specially denatured alcohol” (SDA), a valuable commercial blend used in mouthwash, cosmetics and topical medicines. SDA will make you ill if ingested and can even cause death. SDA is heavily regulated and is not available on the consumer market.

Before Applying Alcohol Confirm Shellac Finish

Another variation is industrial alcohol used to make lacquer. It too is poisonous but is essentially unregulated and untaxed. The last formula, and the most important for our use is known as “completely denatured alcohol”, CDA, but commonly referred to simply as “denatured alcohol”. This is because the chemicals added to it have changed the “nature” of the original ethanol content, making it undrinkable and therefore untaxed and lightly regulated.

Like almost everything we use in the furniture industry, denatured alcohol carries some risks with its use. For example, the vapor is heavier than air thus it tends to accumulate on the floor, a useful piece of knowledge in devising a ventilation plan for your work area.

Having said all of that, back to your original question: What can be used besides alcohol? Actually, alcohol only works if you are dealing with a shellac finish. It will have little or no effect on a varnish or lacquer finish. Unless you are absolutely sure you have a shellac finish you are better off using one of the “refinisher” products on the market which are a blend of solvents and will work on almost any finish, including shellac but not urethane. That’s a separate subject for another day. 

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