How I Spent My Covid Vacation

Part 1: Furniture-type parquetry repairs lead me back to antique repair and building furniture

Parquetry floor repairs in the Secretary of War suites at the Eisenhower Building required similar tools to those necessary for any furniture repair

It was a pleasure to be part of saving the lovely 19th century aesthetics of the parquetry floors in several of the second floor suites of DC’s Eisenhower Building. Making repairs to these stiletto-damaged floors required wood identification and finding matching species.

Focusing on the unique uses of some of these species made me even begin looking at my firewood pile differently! This lead to some fun activities making live edge furniture again for the first time in decades, as well as some fun projects for the grandkids.

My work during the pandemic drew upon many of my experiences in apprenticeships 50 years earlier; first in an antique musical instrument shop in Annapolis, with antique furniture repair work at Launay and Arpad in DC, and my pattern-shop work at Baltimore’s Danko-Arlington. I was even able to visit and see my old bench in the patternshop which remained untouched since I was of the last generation to build the wooden forms for modeling from scratch in what is a now a completely digital fabrication facility occupying a fraction of what was once a city-block long factory.

Launay shop

I’ve kept a picture from my last day in Launay’s shop on the wall in my office for the last fifty years as a reminder to ensure my work – both new construction and restoration – considered long-term durability as much as aesthetics. This post reflects on my early career BECAUSE it bears on many of the problems plaguing the way we repair buildings today.

Washington Monument view from Eisenhower Building

In fact, it was the bombe chest in the left of this image which Raymond Launay had commissioned me to repair that brought me up short and set me on a very unique career path through multiple additional apprenticeships. This bombe chest sat for 6 months with me unable to figure out where to start, even as I rapidly moved other repairs through the shop. But on this one I kept wondering where to start. I knew I didn’t know enough to repair it until I understood construction better, so I would go on to apprentice in boat building and other fabrication shops, ending up with pattern-making which requires working to extreme tolerances and with the metals to be cast in mind, as they all have different shrinkage rates.

This bombe chest had experienced so many previous repairs that all ignored the inherent flaws of the original construction. Why did it need so much repair? Some had happened within its first decades of existence. The veneers were holding on for dear life and had been repaired routinely with every type of adhesive. Veneered pieces suffer a great deal where they extend across the grain of substrates that are in regular movement. Of course most of these historic furniture pieces were not designed to be in centrally heated houses either.

After these earlier experiences I worked for Theodore Potthast at Potthast Brothers in Baltimore building replicas by hand of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Queen Anne furniture. An amazing place to work under the lot of that family business. And great for a young guy to work in a 19th century shop under the loving gaze of pinup posters from the 19th century on varnished to the walls.

In the end, I’ve come to believe coating the unsealed interior surfaces of these pieces with thinned shellac is the best way to significantly slow the seasonal expansion and contraction shocks.

What is a Shrink Rule? Cast iron shrinks 1/8″ per foot, aluminum 1/4″, red bronze 3/16″. There were rulers for each.

It never occurred to me other people didn’t know about shrink rules until an employee in my cabinetmaking shop years later couldn’t fit the pieces together he had been working on. Only then did I realize he had grabbed a shrink rule from my toolbox. Danko was an amazing place where we often did not know what we were building. Only sometimes later, such as when I met my old boss Willie Steinebrunner on the street and he excitedly asked if I had recognized our role with the Glomar Explorer manganese module collecting capsule showing up in the press at the time after the US pulled up the Soviet sub.

The same Where do I start?! sense filled me when presented with the floors in three of the four wings of the Eisenhower Building. They had been largely taken up and reinstalled during a modernization just a few years before and while nobody expected the explosion in stiletto wearing, the original construction methods had been overridden which introduced flaws that now complicated repairs.

The crews that had taken them up and reset them were truly skilled. But they had been authorized to remove all the splines that once kept the floor in alignment and instead glued them to a plywood subfloor with construction adhesive … and then leveled them with drum sanders. There was one area of oak tiles right in front of a main doorway to the 17th Street elevation suite that had been sanded so thin that it was completely shattered and several tiles had to be replaced. The indifference in wood selection both during the modernization and during intervening stop-gap repairs all necessitated both replacement again or interventions like coloration in areas like with the stars which did not visually make any sense until the walnut was harmoniously stained. These rooms are proud examples of the use of domestic woods and even very Americana themes such as the Alfred Mullet-designed floor which mimics Amish quilting patterns.

The floors were originally designed to accommodate movement in a particular way. All of the border parquetry pieces were individually splined. The foot square oak tiles in the central floor were created from 2″x12′ strips glued together. Then the tiles were also splined at their perimeter. This is a common older construction method. Where we now think of tongue and groove as the way flooring locks together, think of all the elements of this floor as being grooved around the full perimeter instead of grooved on one side and with a tongue on the opposing edge.

To align the pieces, wooden splines were slid between individual pieces to span and fill the grooves. This type of construction completely locks the floor together while allowing considerable seasonal movement. The floor is only tacked in place through the splines in a few places.

In some future post we can discuss the methods used to repair these floors, and more specifically to effectively support the floor where splines did not exist and thus where voids below threatened further failures in the future. This process avoided having to take the floors up and effectively bought time.

Before moving on, I must reiterate that the one thing that is most important in my opinion toward saving these and other historic floors going forward is to not apply coatings that age badly and cannot be repaired. Having to sand historic floors when the finishes degrade is unnecessary and destructive. Some of the floors in these rooms still had shellac, others had polyurethane that was already yellowing. In both cases, dewaxed shellac is a good protectorant that allows quick removal of scratches, reintroduction of a high sheen, and excellent water resistance, while being completely removable with a bit of alcohol if needed. It also provides some UV protection and does not yellow.

Cohen Auditorium with Philip Guston mural

Finally, I would comment that several of the rooms at Eisenhower suffered water damage during periods of low occupancy with the pandemic closures.

The same situation also happened in this auditorium where I helped with refinishing of the paneling. A pipe leak in the ceiling above led to the entire space growing mold because nobody was there for months. Luckily the mold clearing made way for some much needed repairs to the paneling too.

Obviously the pandemic era caused a unique scenario where people did not occupy buildings as normal, but especially given the inexpensive nature of leak alarms available now, they really need to be used more widely in historic buildings.

The leaks at Eisenhower caused sections of the border parquetry to be buckled and stained, adding another element to the challenges of how to repair rather than replace sections of damaged floor.

And finally in one of the rooms of the Eisenhower suites a weird white stain was radiating out from behind a single wainscot panel. This turned out to be the result of a steam leak from the basement that had shot up through an open chase in the masonry behind while the building was largely empty. When people returned it was tough to correlate that event to blushes on the highly polished woodwork

Luckily during the modernization these particular rooms had been addressed carefully by Mark Adams to allow removal of sections of the wainscot for repair and they were reattached in a manner that allowed the individual panels over chases to be easily dismounted. This allowed us to take the panels down and clear all the biological growth from the back and the chase behind, all without damaging any finished woodwork. We sealed the reverse faces with shellac to protect them from moisture they might face against the exterior wall (or future bursts from the steam heat plant).

Once the wood varieties for the Eisenhower rooms were identified, with mahogany, figured maples, sweet cherry and lots of quartered and rift white oak among them, repair material was sourced at Herne Hardwoods. Wood remnants from repairing these rooms went on to make amazing coasters of the various wood species that I enjoy using at home to this day. Dewaxed shellac works even for this use despite regular contact with sweating glassware.

Repairing antiques and especially working on musical instruments, does not allow you to get away with slipshod workmanship and indifferent alterations in ways all too common on historic buildings.

Anyway, we will move on for now. As people heard about the parquetry floor repairs, I began getting asked to do some furniture restoration. I had spent so much of the last few decades on masonry and metal work, that people often forget I started with antiques even before starting with buildings. It is always interesting to me how work seems to come in waves.

Some of the furniture repairs brought to me now consisted of veneer repair. I had to recreate missing banding of holly and mahogany for one. Since lack of replacement banding is what usually causes repairs to be postponed, I always add extra repair stock in the drawer for future use.

Another piece was so impractically designed originally that I spent more time trying to figure out how to counter the design flaws in the legs than the actual repair required. Each leg had between 3 and 6 previous breaks that had been glued with a variety of adhesives. The breaks were not always in alignment so that the table sat askew. I had to remove each earlier leg repair and start over in order to get the alignment right awhile adding unobtrusive additional support to counter tension on the legs.

Again, I started in musical instrument and antique furniture restoration. Annapolis was a vibrant town back then. There were working docks full of oystermen (I later worked at Trumpy’s boatyard) and Eastport was a major manufacturing hub. But a place like ProMusica is hard for people today to imagine: a storefront full of working ancient musical instruments – including a player piano with original rolls cut by Gershwin and Rachmaniov – and everyone from military personnel to St. Johnies to local craftsman and hippies milling about and often playing music together.

ProMusica was an amazing place for a 17-year-old to start their working life on hurdy-gurdies, clavichords, harpsichords and virginals, 19th century square pianos, violins, and harps. ProMusica’s owner, Joe Hopwood, was an eccentric whose brilliant drafting work was fueled by tawny port and stretched at least the full 15 hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle each day. The fluidity between artisans and the straight-laced crowd then was remarkable. Through a phone line at the Naval Academy that connected to computers at Princeton we at ProMusica could get answers to questions like the modulus of elasticity in brass strings to guide our repairs. Harold Kaplan was the professor of mathematics at USNA who would communicate with Princeton to give us the rolls of paper readouts.

I made $1.60/hour back then and started at a drill press under an old coal chute in the middle of Maryland Ave that was covered with glass block. As I drilled holes for harpsichord keys to hold the lead counterweight, the shadows of pedestrians on the sidewalk above washed over me. If you don’t know anything about harpsichords, the lead counterweight brings the keys back to level. Whereas in a piano there is a felt hammer that strikes the strings, harpsichords pluck the strings with a shaped piece of crow quill pushed through a small piece of pear wood that is held in place with horse hair as the spring. It’s delicate yet resilient. Randomly changing materials or getting the tension wrong completely alters the function and the sound. You had to respect the original design and understand how it worked before you would even conceive of trying to repair one of these works of art.

When we built replica harpsichords, we sometimes used modern materials such as Delrin to replace the crow quill as the plectrum. But again, you needed to understand the tension in historic instruments to be able to replicate their original sound without over-tensioning and stressing these lightly constructed instruments.

From ProMusica I moved to Launay and Arpad in DC as discussed before. After leaving Launay’s, I spent some time working for Michael Thomas in London preparing pieces to be sold through Sotheby’s auction. I had begun corresponding with him back at ProMusica because he was unusual for the time in the types of antique musical instruments he also replicated. I had spent five years of my childhood in London, so it was a pleasure to return to Baker Street for that time with Michael Thomas, whom I had learned about from reading a book at ProMusica about the most famous contemporary harpsichord builders and struck up a correspondence.

Now back to my Covid vacation story….

I also built Pascha molds for multiple wings of the family based on an old family cheese pattern.

When I began splitting cherry from a dead tree on my property for firewood, I was now open to seeing the grain with renewed appreciation. One piece was so pretty that when one of my daughters asked for a side table for her new home, I turned the slices of cherry into a live edge skirt. I pinned the skirt with brass rod, since Covid had me rethinking the need to have copper handy at all times.

I have to mention the research on copper as a broad spectrum biocide. Despite our modern fascination with stainless steel, especially for kitchens, bacteria thrive on it for days. Almost nothing survives on copper past an hour. That’s why I wrapped my kitchen countertops in copper. It is also why I began the pandemic making copper jewelry for everyone I knew while the rest of the world was sewing cloth masks.

And finally, my grandchildren who have enjoyed watching the generations of bluebirds raised on my property asked for their own bluebird houses — but with Victorian styling. I made them with slices of cedar, a wood I doesn’t believe gets enough appreciation in architecture. I love all the faces one sees in the figure. Again de-waxed shellac makes it glow and gives good exterior protection. But every roof or skyward-facing architectural feature deserves a proper overhang and drip edge detail. Might as well be made a bit elegant for fun.

And of course the pandemic helped me focus more on gardening and getting fresh air and exercise while new generations of wildlife flourished at home. I, for one, am grateful for the reminder to get back in touch with nature.

Coming soon: Part 2 of How I Spent My Covid Vacation: masonry repairs & biofilm cleaning.