A William and Mary Simulated Tortoiseshell Chest of Drawers – Part Five

I had previously rubbed the drawer bottom boards together; then a couple of days ago, in relative respite from the high winds and searing heat that are presently wreaking havoc across the eastern seaboard of Australia, I cut the dovetails in the drawer stuff and knocked the drawers together.

I bored the holes in the bottom of the carcase to accept the bun feet’s spigots and then glued the feet in place.

A quick tidy up with a plane yesterday and the drawers all slid nicely in and out of the carcase. I rubbed drawer stops into the back of the carcase sides to keep the drawers sitting pretty and then the 3/8″ thick vertical backboards were fixed into the rebate in the carcase back with wrought nails.

wmftcod_chest_100113_01aFig. 1. The pine chest in-the-white.

The drawer construction is typical of the period with the drawer bottoms running front-to-back, nailed up to the drawer sides with the runners then rubbed beneath the bottoms. The procedure was covered in more depth in the similar walnut chest here and here, so I won’t repeat the entire process now other than to mention I ploughed a groove into the inner drawer faces to receive the drawer bottoms as opposed to the alternative (and earlier) practice of planing rebates in them.

wmftcod_chest_100113_02aFig. 2. Lap-dovetailed drawer.

My decision not to replicate the chinoiserie decoration on the simulated tortoiseshell chest of drawers I’m copying (figure 1) is not a cop out, simply, because it is, like so much oriental decoration, derivative. The pre-eminent early twentieth-century authority on English furniture, Robert Symonds wrote, “… it is no exaggeration to say that more than two thirds of the lacquer furniture sold as antique is fraudulent.”[1]
I’m not sure though if I would have used the word “fraudulent” as the vast majority of subsequent japanning was merely carried out to update furniture to prevailing tastes rather than with any intent to deceive.

William_&_Mary_chinoiserie_COD_c1695_01aFig. 3. William and Mary simulated tortoiseshell (and later japanned) chest of drawers, circa 1695. (Christie’s)

I actually have an affection for japanning and late seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century lacquer and chinoiserie decoration on the whole and can appreciate much of the furniture that was consequently decorated or redecorated (simulated tortoiseshell pieces – amongst others) in the name of fashion. Natheless, I am also rather partial to unadulterated simulated tortoiseshell furniture; especially as relatively few examples escaped the hands of the decorators.

Surface preparation

Before commencing painting the chest, the exterior surfaces of the carcase and drawers need to be made level and more importantly, perfectly smooth. The modern low-tech approach to painting is to brush on a primer/undercoat, sand the primer/undercoat (or not, in most instances. Seemingly.) and then apply one or more top coats, again, possibly sanded between coats. The result is usually somewhat less than mesmerising.

Chinese, Japanese and Indian ‘lacquer’ owes its lustrous finish to hours (and in many instances, months) of careful preparation involving laying down a hard, flat ground of plaster followed by copious coats of pigmented lacquer, precious metal powders and clear lacquer. The English imitation of oriental lacquer, ‘japanning’, also began with a layer of plaster: Gesso, a mixture of gypsum (calcium sulphate dihydrate) – or whiting (powdered chalk – calcium carbonate) – and animal glue, is built up in numerous thin coats and rubbed smooth.

Although gesso sticks reasonably well to wood of its own accord, priming the wood with a coat of size tempers the relatively soft pine and produces a superior surface when sanded. The gesso in turn adheres exceptionally well to the sized wood.

With the inherent risk of long term movement of such large expanses of wood, the gesso is susceptible to cracking (figure 4), so to make it more flexible and to accommodate any slight movement a small amount of linseed oil is added to the gesso.

18C_painted_tortoiseshell_mural_cupboard_01aFig. 4. Flaking of painted finish caused by wood movement. Early eighteenth-century simulated tortoiseshell mural corner cupboard. (Bonhams)

Making the Gesso

For gilding purposes, gesso is traditionally made with parchment- or rabbit-skin glue*, however, for this objective, normal cabinetmaker’s bovine/equine glue more than suffices. A quantity of dry glue is covered with an equal volume of water and after it’s been absorbed, the resultant jelly is heated in a glue pot in the normal manner and thinned in the order of about one part glue to ten of water. I then add a little linseed oil and sufficient whiting to the glue to make a substance akin to thin cream.
*Much so-called rabbit-skin glue these days is nothing more than powdered bovine/equine cabinetmaker’s glue.

I applied three light coats of gesso to the sized chest, sanding lightly between coats.

wmftcod_chest_110113_01aFig. 5. Building up the gesso.

After one or two more coats, the hard gesso will be flattened with fine abrasive paper, creating a silky smooth substrate on which to begin painting.

Jack Plane

[1] R.W. Symonds, Old English Walnut & Lacquer Furniture, Herbert Jenkins Ltd., London, 1923, p. 153.

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 Case Furniture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A William and Mary Simulated Tortoiseshell Chest of Drawers – Part Five

  1. Kevin L. Schroeder says:

    …..on another subject – have you ever discussed or referenced how to produce combed marbled paper?


    • Jack Plane says:

      You may have seen the yew caddy I made which was lined with marbled paper that I also made. I haven’t covered the making of marbled paper on this blog as I assume most people would have had a go at making some during their childhood.

      I may write about it at some point if there’s further interest in it.



  2. Robert R. Lindh says:

    Jack,Any chance your book on finishing will be finished this year?


  3. Charlie says:

    Jack, remind me what species of pine you’re using here.



  4. wesleytanner says:

    What is the sizing you used?


  5. Robert says:

    I have waited to ask, thinking someone else would. About the amount of gesso to prepare for the first coat. I am thinking only enough for one coat. In your case with this carcas, how much glue to start with?


    • Jack Plane says:

      I made up about 600ml (approximately one pint) of gesso which was sufficient for the five coats I applied.

      Don’t forget to throw out any leftover gesso and rinse out the glue pot or it will quickly stink in a warm environment (I forgot on this occasion).



I welcome your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s