Revisiting Old Furniture Patterns

… or… an Event of Unhealthy Patterns

When I retired in 2002, my son inherited my hand tools and I sold off all the machinery, timber and veneers etc. The only things I retained were my furniture patterns. I have hundreds of patterns which represent an enormous investment in time. Each pattern part was either traced directly off an extant piece of furniture (such as chair back splats, legs etc.), or painstakingly measured with rulers, squares, callipers and laths and then transcribed onto either card or hardboard.

Some patterns were made for purely nostalgic reasons – the patterns (and in some instances, a few accompanying photos) were the only tangible records I had of some superb pieces of British furniture that had either been restored and returned to their owners, or sold through the shop. Others were made for the purpose of constructing copies of such popular items as wing chairs, sofas, dining tables and tripod wine tables. The demand for good quality examples always out-stripped supply and, in the case of fully upholstered seating; many customers were quite content with accurate copies rather than shelling out for more expensive antique examples which would invariably require reupholstering to their tastes at any rate.

Hardboard obviously makes for more robust patterns than card, but with components such as pierced back splats, requires greater effort because island shapes can’t be cut out with a scalpel or scissors as is the case with card. A number of the patterns were made for the one-use restoration of a singular piece of furniture and therefore didn’t ostensibly warrant being made of anything more substantial than card. However, the majority of the patterns were taken from some of the most pristine examples of fine furniture I encountered as a restorer and later, as an antiques dealer and rather short-sightedly, I also made many of the latter category from card!

Not knowing what was to become of all the patterns that hung around the walls of my workshop, they were taken down at the time of my retirement and carefully packed away in wooden cases. There they remained until this week when I dragged one of the cases out and unscrewed the lid. The mothballs had done their job for the most part, but some insect attack was evident. The damp though had buckled a number of the patterns.

A weary looking collection of patterns.

In my retired state, I probably won’t use many of the patterns, if any, to make furniture from again, but they are as much an historic record of fine antique British and Irish furniture as any book written on the subject. It would be a shame to lose the collection of patterns to silverfish and the damp. I decided therefore to spend some time reviewing the patterns and transcribing those made from card onto MDF and hardboard. When completed, I will seal the patterns with shellac to further protect them.

Of the many chair patterns in the box, I selected that of a c.1725 George I walnut side chair of possible interest as a candidate for making shortly.

The George I side chair pattern.

A single chair is a feasible job in my small garden shed and I just happen to have some English oak and a stack of rather nice English walnut from which to make it. The original chair was of solid walnut except for the vasiform splat which typically, was quartersawn oak, faced with a substantial walnut veneer.

The back of the slightly bevelled oak splat.

Photos of the original chair show additional details.

The front left cabriole leg and applied ear.

Apart from its obvious charm, this particular chair interests me because of its atypical rear feet. Chairs of this ilk normally exhibit plain square, plain chamfered, or square-round-square, back-swept lower rear legs, however, this chair’s rear legs are chamfered from the seat rail down, sweeping backwards, but then re-sweep, terminating vertically at the floor.

The chamfered, re-swept rear legs.

I bought a quantity of 3mm (1/8″) thick sheets of MDF and nested the card patterns as best I could on each sheet and carefully stuck them down with low-tack masking tape. I then began the copying process, transcribing any notes and other details.

Notes written on the pattern pieces provide all dimensions and construction details.

The carefully cut-out and fettled pattern pieces.

I suppose the logical course of action would be to digitize the collection.

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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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12 Responses to Revisiting Old Furniture Patterns

  1. Chuck Nickerson says:

    I just discovered your blog because you cross-posted on George Walker’s blog. What’s the current status of your pattern-preservation work? This just seems like information that should be preserved and available in some form.

    Chuck

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Chuck,

      My recent investigation of the sealed case of patterns was really just to establish the condition of the more fragile card patterns. The deterioration is noticeable, but not critical. The case was standing on a damp floor in a garden shed, but is now better protected.

      As I found out, transcribing even one pattern onto a stouter medium took some time and still isn’t the best solution for posterity. I believe the way forward is to have the patterns digitally scanned and the resulting images manipulated in a CAD program to literally iron out any minor deviations resulting from creases and other blemishes in the patterns.
      Needless to say, I don’t possess a scanner large enough to carry out this scale of work, but I’m sure a suitable commercial printing house is just a Google search away.

      I will need help with this project as I don’t drive any more and the sheer scale of the work is somewhat beyond me at present. The patterns are safe for the moment though and I will look into the possibility of digitising the patterns and then maybe sharing some of them in one form or another.

      Thank you for your interest.

      JP

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Christian Groves says:

    Dear Jack,

    Like Chuck I came across your blog on George Walker’s blog. Your blog has been enjoyable informative reading. It was also good to read that you’re in Melbourne (I’m in Newport) as most quality woodworking/furniture websites are based overseas.

    I think it is certainly a worthwhile process to document as these patterns. It would be a pity to loose this life’s work to time.

    I took the liberty of contacting a local company that does large format scanning. Apparently the widest generally available scanner is 1000mm (1050mm at a pinch). Length is not an issue as scanning is continuous. So this should be a consideration when grouping/outlining the templates. In terms of cost its ~$5 per lineal metre plus the cost of the CD ~$10 for a black and white scan. A greyscale scan costs more and has more issues with storage. So if you can keep the contrast high and avoid shading it would help keep the cost down.

    I’d be happy to assist you with the imaging side of things or transport (it would give me an opportunity to check out the corner cabinet in real life rather than in photos).

    If I can assist please let me know.

    Regards, Christian

    PS: I hope your son’s name isn’t “block” and that you have a “rabbet” and a “frog” as pets :-)

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Christian,

      Thanks for the response and very kind offer. The patterns are safe for the moment and when my wife and I can coordinate a mutual block of free time, we will follow up on your generous groundwork and have some of the patterns scanned.

      JP

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  3. Chris says:

    I just happened to scan through your blog. Woodworking surfing at its best. But my degree in school was in history. It might be worth contacting a local historical archive. In the states we have them at many different levels. The reason I bring all of this up is that at my state archives there is a team who specializes in restoring damaged documents of all types. The other issue is putting the items on CD is that they break down overtime. Most archival groups will put the information onto microfilm to help preserve it longer. Two things destroy microfilm, the first I cannot remember, but the other one interestingly enough is Dr Pepper. Questions that some people don’t want to answer in the state. There may be a historical society that will do the work for you and keep the information around for a very long time. Just a thought.
    Chris

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jack Plane says:

      Thanks Chris, that’s something that hadn’t even crossed my mind! I’m not immediately sure if any such bodies exist here in Australia, but I will make a point of chasing up any I can find, or at least, contacting Museum Victoria (our state museum) for directions.

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  4. Tim Busteed says:

    Jack,
    If these patterns were made into a book, I think it would be a good seller. I would want it. You do the most beautiful work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Alex A. says:

    Jack,
    Did you ever end up getting these patterns scanned or copied?

    Alex

    Like

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