Making a Reading Table – Part One

I have a longstanding soft spot for metamorphic furniture. The intriguing and often sophisticated library steps that extend out of the bowels of tables and apparent chests of drawers etc. just shout out to be put through their motions, but some of the simpler forms are equally tantalising. I really admire the stark simplicity of this library seat (after a design in Thomas Chippendale’s 1750’s Modern Fashion), which, when up-ended, metamorphoses into library steps.

George II mahogany library seat/steps, c.1755.

I don’t have need of library steps (more is the pity), but as I become more sedentary, I find I do have the need of a piece of bibliographic furniture to support the heavy quarto and folio reference books I frequently peruse. I don’t want anything as large or convoluted as an architect’s table, nor do I want a table-top book stand, however, a tripod (or pillar and claw, to give it its imaginative eighteenth-century name)[1] metamorphic reading table would suit me very nicely thank you.

I have sold/restored various Georgian reading tables, book stands and architect’s tables over the years and have keenly observed the differences in design and construction and noted, what, in my opinion, makes one configuration better than another.

Book stops

Sheraton published a design for a four-legged ‘reading and writing table’ in The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book which illustrates a detachable book stop. The book stop was presumably intended to be stored in the table’s drawer when not required, but so often they have been lost. A reading table without a book stop is… just a table.

‘A Reading and Writing Table’, Thomas Sheraton, c1793.

Reading tables with mechanical or cantilevered book stops are all very well and clever, but the obtrusive hinge knuckles can mark books and other valuables when the table is in the closed position and the knuckles are a downright liability when drinking glasses containing wine or spirits frequent the table!

Sheraton’s design for a ‘Kidney Table’ incorporating a reading slope with automatic book stop.

Mahogany reading slope with flip-up book stop.

Permanently attached book stops may initially appear conspicuous and inconvenient, but as they’re inevitably located on, or near, one edge of the table top, they don’t normally restrict the table’s usage in non-book-supporting mode. I haven’t lived with a table that possesses a fixed book stop, but I imagine it wouldn’t become an issue and what’s more, when the table is turned – so-to-speak – it could also prevent fugitive items, such as pens, from throwing themselves off that side of the table like lemmings.

Attractively moulded and permanently attached book stop.

Another option is the tray-top table where, when the top is inclined for reading purposes, the tray rim along the hinged side becomes the book stop.

George II telescopic reading table with tray top, c.1750. (Christie’s)

Drawers and accessories

A plain and dedicated reading table is a blatantly self-indulgent piece of furniture, nicer examples being the delicate ones made for ladies to read by a bed chamber window or in some other quiet retreat.

Ethereal mahogany reading table, c1790.

The ingenious Georgians produced reading tables in an assortment of styles and with all manner of accoutrements. The inclusion of a single or pair of pull-out wooden candle boards or swing-out brass candle holders was prevalent. Box carcasses containing one or more drawers were popular; the right hand drawer often being fitted-out with a pen tray and compartments for an ink well and pounce pot.

George III reading table with fitted drawer, c1770.

A point worth mentioning regarding tables with tray-tops, box carcasses and drawers etc. is that the additional materials involved raises the centre of gravity, necessitating a fairly substantial base by way of compensation to maintain stability. As a result, these versatile tables can be quite incommodious, rather defeating the purpose of a peripatetic table in the first instance.

Good lighting is essential when reading to avoid damaging the eyes (reputedly, carrots can improve one’s vision, though I can only imagine the pain of inserting them) and between dusk and dawn, the main source of light in the eighteenth-century was from candles. Candle and taper sticks necessarily have large bases to prevent them from toppling, but dimensions being economic with most furniture contrived for reading and writing, cabinetmakers devised slides which could be withdrawn to provide suitable resting places for candles or tapers. Slides are sturdy and normally operate without issue.

Reading tables provided unique circumstances for swing-out candle holders which were fashioned from either wood or brass. Their weakness though lies in their attachment points. The pivots (merely a brass or steel screw in most cases) and pivot holes wear, allowing the candle holders to droop or even fall off! Candle holders are also easily abused by people carelessly setting heavier articles on them than was intended.

Wooden swing-out candle boards, c.1750.

Rising mechanisms

Pillar and claw reading tables were often height-adjustable, doubling as transposable lecterns (presumably for the patriarch to stand at after a hearty dinner and read to his assembled family from Gulliver’s Travels or to enlighten them of the latest innovations of the 1st Earl of Leicester’s revolutionary animal husbandry).

A design for an (apparently two-legged!) adjustable ‘Reading or Music Desk’ from the Universal System of Household Furniture by William Ince and John Mayhew, London, 1762.

Early rising tables involved a telescoping internal column whose height was secured either by the cramping pressure exerted by a turned and threaded wooden (usually box, Lignum Vitae or rosewood) locking screw which was mated to a female thread in the top of the pillar, or by the tip of the screw engaging in one of a series of holes in the telescopic column.

George II telescopic reading table with wooden locking screw, c.1750.

Plain telescopic column and box locking screw, c.1740.

Some of these tables have not stood up well to the passage of time: Original locking screws are frequently missing or have been replaced with crude substitutes. In some instances the tops of the pillars have split due to the pressure of screws being over-tightened against plain columns like that above. The telescopic columns can warp or twist, causing them to seize, or at the least, requiring considerable effort to raise them. Conversely, columns can shrink, causing the raised table to develop an annoying wobble.

A later innovation consisted of a perforated brass strip, let into the telescopic column, into which a brass locking screw or spring catch located. This provided improved engagement and avoided the tip of the screw from chewing up the wooden column. Brass locking screws with a superior thread were an improvement over the easily damaged wooden locking screws. Brass collars and even cast brass capitals were on occasions incorporated into the tops of late eighteenth-century table pillars which effectively prevented them from splitting.

George II telescopic reading table with sheet-brass collar and locking catch (and replaced detachable book stop), c.1755.

George II telescopic reading table with cast brass capital, c.1755. (Sotheby’s)

A simple ratcheting mechanism was another popular method employed to raise tables swiftly and securely. Carved into one face of the column were a series of ramps (as found in all ratchet or horse mechanisms), which were arranged in such a manner that the table could simply be pulled up and when released, a wedge-shaped pawl on a spring engaged the ratchet, locking the table in the desired position. To lower the table, a knob or drop handle at the top of the pillar was pulled, releasing the ratchet.

This system was used extensively by a great proponent of metamorphic furniture, Thomas Potter, whose trade card (c.1735) in the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrates all manner of ingenious types of dual purpose tables and other small items of furniture.

Yet another method of raising tables employed a substantial wooden screw as the rising element. In 1770 Lord Mansfield of Kenwood House purchased ‘a large Mahogany Reading Stand on a Stout Pillar and Claw, with a screw nutt, work’d very true, capable of screwing to rise 10 ins if required’ from William France (fl. 1768-1786) for the sum of £6 14s. [2]

From this description, it sounds as if the screw on France’s table was the column itself that screwed in and out of a wooden (or possibly brass) ‘nut’ attached to the top of the pillar. A wooden nut would have necessarily been made from a separate piece of wood with its grain running perpendicular to that of the pillar. The reason being that threads cut into the pillar’s end grain would be exceedingly weak and likely to break away; therefore, the female thread would have been cut into a thick piece of wood, at right angles to the grain, and subsequently worked into a suitable shape for attachment to the top of the pillar. Adjusting the height of the table would have been achieved by simply rotating the table top.

Alternatively, one could interpret France’s description of his ‘nutt’ as a more conventional nut capable of spinning freely on the threaded column. In this circumstance (an example of which I have encountered), the column is threaded, but of rectangular section, telescoping in a matched rectangular hole in the pillar. Raising the height of this type of table is achieved by manually raising the table top (as one would with a plain column and locking screw) and running the nut down the column against the top of the pillar, or, if friction permitted, by simply rotating the nut against the pillar top.

Many years ago, a customer brought in a reading table in unrestored and very desirable, ‘country house’ condition. The table had a rising top and retained its original wooden locking screw, however, when the screw was slackened-off, the table top developed a curious sponginess. Further exploration revealed the pillar and claw made an uncharacteristic clunking sound, so I withdrew the table top and column and peered inside the pillar. The source of the clunking wasn’t obvious, but when I up-ended the pillar, something rattled out of its interior.

Anticipating some centuries-old jewels secreted away in piece of silk tied up with ribbon, I was somewhat disheartened when out dropped two tatty coil springs – or to be more accurate, two pieces of the same tatty coil spring. I initially imagined some estate handyman had cut a segment of motorcycle fork spring and inserted it into the pillar – inspiration possibly gained following a stint in hospital having used one of the spring-assisted over-the-bed tables that are used in such institutions. It was not the case: The spring wasn’t coiled from modern uniform round wire, rather it looked uniquely handmade – possibly hand drawn by a blacksmith, and it had undeniable age to it.

The spring also had a hand-formed plate attached to each end with integral staples. The edges of the plates were neatly filed which appeared to precisely mimic the filed edges of the steel triangle[3] that reinforced the three legs beneath the pillar. Following close examination of the triangle and its retaining nails, I concluded the triangle and spring were commensurate with the date of the table’s manufacture.

I hadn’t previously (nor have I subsequently) encountered anything akin to this from the first half of the eighteenth-century. Steel springs were nothing new in the early eighteenth-century; coiled (that is, flat and spirally wound in one plane) springs had been one form of clock motivation since the fifteenth-century. English physicist, Robert Hooke (1635-1703), discovered the Law of Elasticity (Hooke’s Law) in 1676, but – and please feel free to set me straight – I am of the understanding that helically wound coil springs didn’t appear until the second half of the eighteenth-century[4].

At any rate, I had a local spring works make up a replacement spring using the same diameter of wire and number of coils so its force would match that of the original. The tabletop rose and fell admirably.

Castors

In the first half of the eighteenth-century, bare wooden floors predominated in the better classes of houses. Hand-knotted carpets were an expensive commodity and where afforded, were normally used to make a statement in the centre of a great room, or, in smaller dimensions, could be found before a fireplace in a drawing room.

The popular English portrait artist, Arthur Devis (1712–1787), painted a number of acutely observed pictures of fashionable people in their equally up-to-the-minute Georgian interiors, revealing to us, contemporary furnishings, fittings, and, importantly in this context – flooring.

“I wish I’d bought the walnut reading table to place my book on instead of buying that tea table for Mary. She doesn’t even drink the stuff!”
(‘Mr. and Mrs. Richard Bull’ by Arthur Devis, c.1750.)

“If that book slides off the bloody desk one more time, I’m off to the pub”.
(‘Sir Roger Newdigate in the Library at Arbury’ by Arthur Devis.)

“I don’t want to be an architect! I just wanted a nice little reading table for my birthday”.
(‘A Young Gentleman at a Drawing Table’ by Arthur Devis, c.1761.)

To enable the tables to roll smoothly and silently across these customary wooden floors without scoring or abrading the boards, low castors with composite leather wheels were tucked away beneath the bulbous claw feet.

The trouble with diminutive castors is that they are fairly short-lived when used on carpets. Wool fibres become entangled around the axles, effectively seizing the wheels and causing them to develop flat spots from being repeatedly dragged. Of course, once a leather wheel has ‘flat-spotted’, no amount of untangling or fettling will ever result in it rolling again – though it will at least glide on wooden floors. On the other hand, once the rim of a seized brass wheel has worn through, it’s every bit as effective at gouging a wooden floor as any carving tool.

A castor, hidden from sight beneath the foot of a table leg, usually goes unattended until it ceases to function. The proximity of the castors to damp floors often lead to the iron wheel axles and castor pins rusting. Once the castor pins would corrode, the brass forks would ultimately seize too. By then it’s usually too late to remedy the fault and when a seized fork obscures one of the castor’s attachment screws; it’s the Devil’s own job to remove the castor for repair or replacement.

Most small tables manage better on carpet without castors as the wheels settle into the carpet, making it difficult to reinitiate motion. A plain-footed pillar and claw, on the other hand, will glide quite adequately on carpet when required to.

Conclusions

I’m careful and respectful of furniture and I can’t imagine I would misplace a detachable book stop, however, I anticipate this table will be around for a generation or two at least and I can envisage, perhaps, a great grandson or great granddaughter, having lost the book stop, attempting to persuade someone, probably the local handyman, to make a replacement. So I will make do with a permanently attached book stop and trust my progeny don’t curse me for it and endeavour to pry it off with one of my good chisels which they also acceded to.

One must be circumspect when matching the proportions of the claw to the table top to avoid creating a monstrosity. There is a rule of thumb concerning the proportional relationship between top and claw with these small pillar and claw tables: An imaginary line drawn between the tips of two feet should be equal in length to, and lie parallel with, the long axis of rectangular table tops, and with regard to circular tables, the tips of the feet should describe a circle at least equal to the diameter of the top.

My family don’t sit still long enough to be read to, nor do I lecture them, all the same, I think I would like a reading table with a rising top. I could use it at its lowest position as a side table for setting a glass on, I could raise it a little and comfortably eat a meal at it and I could of course raise it even further to read at.

I no longer have well-equipped metalworking facilities, so casting and milling a handsome brass capital for the top of the column is out of the question. Forging a spring catch may be a possibility if I can arrange a hearth and some coal, but failing that, turning an attractive locking screw from box, fruitwood, Lignum Vitae or rosewood and cutting a matching female thread in the pillar is well within my current capabilities.

The floors in our home are carpeted and likely to remain that way, so castors would only prove an encumbrance; therefore I see no current benefit in fitting the table with castors.

Now, to material choice; mahogany or Virginia Walnut…


[1] The London Society of Cabinet-makers, The Cabinet-makers London Book of Prices, 1788, pp. 99.

[2] Ralph Edwards, The Shorter Dictionary of English Furniture, 1983, p. 514.

[3] The London Society of Cabinet-makers, The Cabinet-makers London Book of Prices, 1788, p.103.

[4] Richard Tredwell, spring-maker, of Rotherham, York, was successful in his application for a patent pertaining to a coil spring on the 29th of July, 1763.

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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.
This entry was posted in Tables. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Making a Reading Table – Part One

  1. Tico Vogt says:

    An excellent post, my good man. Look forward to the next adventure.

    Like

  2. Devin says:

    Good gracious! This is a fine illustrated survey of reading tables.

    I’m still curious about the broken spring, though. Was it something used to increase the friction of the column in the pillar, or was it intended as a shock absorber in case the user dropped the table while adjusting its height? I suppose it would reduce the forces on the legs by spreading the impact over a few inches of travel rather than a sudden blow at the bottom. Is that the “sponginess” you describe?

    Splendid!

    Like

    • Jack Plane says:

      The spring’s purpose (as far as I could determine) was solely to counter the effort required to raise the table – much in the same manner as the spring assisted rising compartments in harlequin tables (although they employed a series of flat springs).

      Like

  3. Pingback: Making a Reading Table – Redux | Pegs and 'Tails

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