A Satinwood Serpentine Table

This commission was, on the face of it, quite enjoyable, but my respiratory system has an aversion to satinwood and within twelve hours of cutting the first piece, respirator or no, I developed quite uncomfortable cold-like symptoms.

The brief was to make an eighteenth-century Adam style satinwood serpentine table with carved swags on the legs and a sunburst motif in the centre of the apron – in other words, an exact copy of the table in a picture the customer had clipped from an auction catalogue.

As was widespread practice during the eighteenth-century, these table frames were built up from ordinary pine – knots and all. The thick West Indies Satinwood veneer was extremely difficult to obtain, but I eventually persuaded an old London firm to sell me some of their last remaining stock. Luckily the layout for the table top didn’t require long or wide leaves of veneer as the stuff I had procured was diminutive to say the least. There was one piece of veneer which was just long enough for the front rail and wide enough to provide sufficient for the side rails too.

The Pine components of the table.

When it came to the legs and mouldings, I could lay my hands on plenty of solid East Indian Satinwood, but West Indies Satinwood in the solid dried up generations ago. I used Horse Chestnut as a substitute for West Indies Satinwood as certain cuts display remarkably similar grain and swirl characteristics and it was a much better match than the available East Indian Satinwood. The most important aspect of timber choice in copying furniture and furniture restoration is grain and figure; the colour can always be matched later if necessary. There are very few timbers that can’t be bleached and re-coloured. Incidentally, the Victorians often used birch as a substitute for satinwood.

The original table would have been a very bright and zany piece for a modern house of the 1790s, but time, light and the atmosphere had colluded to warm up the satinwood’s colour and cooled the bright colours of the inlay and cross-banding.

The original cross-banding would most likely have been tulipwood or kingwood (a bit difficult to differentiate when looking at a picture from a catalogue), so I opted for tulipwood as I had plenty of solid tulipwood from which to cut the banding.

The stringing appeared greyish in the picture which suggested harewood and because box or even satinwood stringing would have been indistinguishable with the original satinwood colour, that was all the evidence I required.

Harewood is simply sycamore dyed grey or green although even the green variety usually converts to a dull grey colour over time. If you’ve ever lifted any old harewood stringing, even though the outwardly visible surface may appear grey, the glued surfaces will often display the original vibrant green.

The main veneers on the top were laid initially and the stringing and cross-banding etc. were subsequently let in.

The top veneered and inlaid.

The carving on the fronts of the tapered legs is intaglio and the moulded block feet were added separately.

The finished table.

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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