Milk of Human Purblindness

Over the weekend I received a flurry of emails from readers wishing to know the brand and colour of milk paint I used on a pair of forest chairs I made last year. I suppose it had to happen one day.

I know, I know, proper milk paint (milk, slaked lime and pigment) has been identified in a number of ancient Egyptian tombs, but it doesn’t follow that it was ever used on seventeenth-, eighteenth- or nineteenth-century furniture. It simply wasn’t! It was far too fugacious.

Seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century house painters applied distemper to the walls of buildings, (which at least employed animal glue as a fixative), but even with its usual top coat of varnish, it too was not sufficiently hardwearing to be considered of any use on furniture.  Imagine the slimy, sticky mess that would result from a distemper-painted forest chair becoming wet.

Of course, the most suitable paint for indoor and outdoor furniture that was both hardwearing and water resistant, was oil-based. North American paint Analyst, Susan Buck, scrutinised many items of Shaker furniture and concluded:

The physical evidence makes plain that the Shakers generally used traditional oil-based paints to paint wooden objects and architectural elements, and recipes containing milk are primarily lime-based whitewashes or exterior paints, not furniture or interior paints.[1]

(Confusingly, Australia’s Porter’s Original Paints states, “Porter’s Milk Paint is a traditional finish, first used in the 18th and 19th centuries on Shaker furniture.”)

British forest chairs were likewise painted with oil paint. The Gillows archives mention sending green paint abroad with a sea captain for the purpose of painting their cargo of chairs upon arrival at their destination in Antigua. By the duration of such a sea voyage, one can confidently conclude the paint was not milk paint!

If you are quite determined to paint woodwork with milk, at least add it in conjunction with oil in a traditional style emulsion paint. Emulsion paint is still far from ideal, but is what the majority of (now faded and flaky) wooden farm implements and machinery was painted with.

Henry Baird published the good oil on ‘milk’ (lime/milk/oil emulsion) paint for architectural work:

In consequence of the injury which has often resulted to sick and weakly persons from the smell of common [oil-based] paint, the following method of painting with milk has been adopted by some workmen, which, for the interior of buildings, besides being as free as distemper from any offensive odour, is said to be nearly equal to oil-painting in body and durability.

Take half a gallon of skimmed milk, six ounces of lime newly slaked,* four ounces of poppy, linseed, or nut-oil, and three pounds of Spanish white. Put the lime into an earthen vessel or clean bucket, and having poured on it a sufficient quantity of milk to make it about the thickness of cream, add the oil in small quantities at a time, stirring the mixture with a wooden spatula. Then put in the rest of the milk, and afterwards the Spanish white.

It is, in general, indifferent which of the oils above-mentioned you use; but, for a pure white [paint], oil of poppy is the best.

The oil in this composition, being dissolved by the lime, wholly disappears; and, uniting with the whole of the other ingredients, forms a kind of calcareous soap.

In putting in the Spanish white, you must be careful that it is finely powdered and strewed gently over the surface of the mixture. It then, by degrees, imbibes the liquid and sinks to the bottom.

Milk skimmed in summer is often found to be curdled; but this is of no consequence in the present preparation, as its combining with the lime soon restores it to its fluid state. But it must on no account be sour; because, in that case, it would, by uniting with the lime, form an earthy salt, which could not resist any degree of dampness in the air.

Milk paint may likewise be used for out-door objects by adding to the ingredients before-mentioned two ounces each more of oil and slaked lime, and two ounces of Burgundy pitch. The pitch should be put into the oil that is to be added to the milk and lime, and dissolved by a gentle heat. In cold weather, the milk and lime must be warmed, to prevent the pitch from cooling too suddenly, and to enable it to unite more readily with the milk and lime.

Time only can prove how far this mode of painting is to be compared, for durability, with that in oil; for the shrinking to which coatings of paint are subject depends, in great measure, upon the nature and seasoning of the wood.

The milk paint used for in-door work dries in about an hour; and the oil which is employed in preparing it entirely loses its smell in the soapy state to which it is reduced by its union with the lime. One coating will be sufficient for places that are already covered with any colour, unless the latter penetrate through it and produce spots. One coat will likewise suffice, in general, for ceilings and staircases; two will be necessary for new wood.

Milk-painting may be coloured, like every other in distemper, by means of the different colouring substances employed in common painting. The quantity I have given in the receipt will be sufficient for one coat to a surface of about twenty-five square yards.

* Lime is slaked by dipping it into water, then taking the pieces out immediately and allowing them to slake in the open air. [2]

I’ll let second-generation paint specialist and historic paint consultant, Patrick Baty, have the final say:

To believe that [true] milk paint might in any way be more efficient than the more noxious conventional lead paint of the past is fantasy.[3]

Jack Plane

[1] Patrick Baty, The Anatomy of Colour – The story of Heritage Paints and Pigments, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2017, p. 41.

[2] Henry C. Baird, The Painter, Gilder, and Varnisher’s Companion, Philadelphia, 1850, p. 97.

[3] Patrick Baty, The Anatomy of Colour – The story of Heritage Paints and Pigments, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2017, p. 41.

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Picture This CXXIII

An old friend in Bury St Edmunds was interested in purchasing this bureau (figure 1) which came up for auction (twice in the past two weeks), in nearby Colchester in Essex. I wasn’t able to reply to him before the lot came up, so he didn’t bid on it.

Amidst the provincial auctioneer’s flowery babble, the bureau was described as being eighteenth-century walnut and with original brasses.

The bureau was bought for £100 by a dealer in neighbouring Suffolk who is now offering it for £3,400 and sadly, has benightedly perpetuated the auctioneer’s unlettered description in its entirety.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 2.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 5.

Fig. 6.

Fig. 7.

Fig. 8.

Fig. 9.

Anyone care to suggest a date and offer an accurate description?

Jack Plane

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Inferior Imports from the Far East

Cheaply made commodities from China, India and Taiwan etc. are not a twentieth-century phenomenon.

Early trade with the East during the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries introduced Britain and Europe to hitherto unimaginable treasures: Brass, porcelain and silk, for example, were formerly unknown in the West.

The East India Company and other shippers quickly realised trade with the East could be a two-way street.  Their ships, of course, required ballast of some form or other on the outward journey and on occasion, British goods were taken aboard for low-cost replication out East.

This activity naturally drew the ire of various English Guilds and Companies, seeking to protect their own. In the early eighteenth-century, the London Joyners Company petitioned the government against the importation of cabinetwork from the East.

The London Joyners Company’s petition, circa 1710. (Lewis Walpole Library)

Jack Plane

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Picture This CXXII

This described by a dealer this week: “… drawers with original brass escutcheon plates and swan-neck bail handles.”

Posted, not to name and shame, but to train the eye.

Jack Plane

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Old Hardware Catalogues

Poole Waite & Co Ltd. has a number of old hardware catalogues and journals for sale on their web site. The majority of the catalogues appear to be for furniture brasses etc.

These late catalogues can make handy reference material for furniture restorers and makers.

Jack Plane

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The Rake’s Progress

The country round here is now officially in drought: It’s been the driest April on record and we’ve had only a third of the average rainfall so far this year. There’s been no grass of any worth in the paddocks for many months, so I’ve been hard-feeding the horses and putting out hay for them too.

Hay can get messy once out of the roll or bale and constantly requires tidying up. Nobody (on this continent, at least) appears to sell a quality hay rake. The most common offerings I’ve come across are plastic-headed things with aluminium stails and any I’ve seen in use around the place are missing a few tines.

Back home in Ireland (and England, where I also lived for a while), every farm and smallholding possessed at least one traditional handmade wooden hay rake (figure 1).

Fig. 1. Old wooden hay rake. (Wikipedia)

Rake-making was (and still is) a cottage industry, usually based in the locality of an ash coppice. Ash was used for every part of the rake and every part was ingeniously and expediently fashioned by hand.

The method of attaching and bracing the head to the stail varied from one region to another, but in most cases, the stail was wedged into the head, or more commonly, the head was nailed to the stail . The tines were simply a tight interference fit in the head so if one did break off, the stub could be drifted out and a replacement hammered in.

In the absence of anything of quality to purchase, I resorted to making a wooden hay rake. Having only my memory to go on (which has been going off for years now), I made the stail 1-1/4″ diameter. In retrospect, 1-1/8″ would have been springier and thus better, but at least it shouldn’t break any time soon. The head is 28″ wide with sixteen tines (figures 2, 3 and 4).

Fig. 2. New ash hay rake.

Fig. 3. Rake head nailed to ash stail.

Fig. 4. Rear-leaning ash tines for optimal performance.

The new rake is lightweight, comfortable in the hand and performs (more or less) as anticipated – what else would one expect from a centuries-old design?

Jack Plane

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Picture This CXXI

A dealer described this item of furniture as a “narrow Georgian mahogany and oak hanging corner cabinet.”

What say you sleuths?

Fig. 1. Timeless combination of mahogany and oak.

Fig. 2. No weight, could it be a reformed alcoholic’s drinks cabinet?

This shouldn’t test many of you; however I’ll withhold any direct hits until those behind the International Date Line catch up.

Jack Plane

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The Campaign Trail I

My good friend, Simon Clarke, of Christopher Clarke Antiques, emailed me over the weekend with details of an interesting campaign table he has at the moment (figure 1).

Fig. 1. Mahogany and inlaid campaign table, circa 1790. (Christopher Clarke Antiques)

The table breaks down, utilising (bespoke?) iron hardware (figure 2).

Fig. 2. Unusual demounting hardware. (Christopher Clarke Antiques)

Jack Plane

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The Butler did it.

Wood has been used since time immemorial for making such things as rudimentary sticks for whacking animate and inanimate things with, to shelters and furniture etc. But wood really came into its own in the mid-nineteenth-century for creating the most unimaginable of things.

Mosquito bombers, built by the de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited as late as 1950 (many are still flying) were constructed from ash, balsa, birch, spruce and walnut.

Fig. 1. de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito.

In 1947 the entire fuselage and wings of the Hughes Aircraft Company’s Hercules flying boat was built from birch (and still boasts the widest wingspan of any aircraft ever flown).

Fig. 2. Hughes’ H-4 Hercules.

The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made the first successful flight on the 17th of December, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in a wood-and-wire, propeller-driven, self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft.

Clement Ader, a Frenchman and no doubt, a maître d’art, constructed his bat-like, steam-powered flying machine, the Éole in 1886, which realised an uncontrolled bounce of 160 feet at the dizzying height of about eight inches above the ground.

However, these aeronautical pioneers are comprehensively eclipsed by the achievements of one man, Godwin Swifte, an Irishman of immense stature in the world of powered flight, and without whose invention, none of their contraptions would ever have taken off.

Godwin Meade Pratt Swifte (also styled Viscount Carlingford) inhabited Swifts Heath in County Kilkenny (infamous also for its indoor toilet – the oldest in Ireland).

Fig. 3. Swifts Heath, County Kilkenny, built circa 1750, home of Godwin Swifte.

In 1854, Godwin Swifte patented what he called “an aerial screw” which, according to a local newspaper, ‘was the complete solution to the problem of aerial navigation, but such was the apathy or suspicious disposition of scientific folk that none seemed to appreciate the grandeur of the idea and the ingenuity of the mechanism.’ [1]

Swifte (a would-be engineer and mechanic of no practical experience whatsoever), ignored suggestions and scathing opinions of several respected carpenters and celebrated cabinetmakers, to construct the fuselage of his new flying machine from slender laths of flexible, lightweight larch (figure 4).

Fig. 4.  The patent sketch for Swifte’s flying machine.

Undeterred, Swifte designed and built his contraption described as “an aerial chariot (figure 5) or apparatus for navigating the airs”[2] from heavy spars of abundant local oak “for ultimate strength”, later naming the machine ‘Oakenswift’.

Fig. 5. Swifte’s patent.

Swifte built the craft in the dining room of Swiftes Heath, but when complete, found it wouldn’t fit through the terrace doors so he had the doors knocked out and when this didn’t realise the desired result, he also had part of the wall demolished through which to extract it.[3]

It had a boat-shaped carriage with one wheel in front and two behind; the silk-covered wings were “a network of lengthened square shapes”, which the inventor claimed would replicate the aerodynamic properties of birds’ feathers and enable the chariot to float on the air for several miles, “perhaps 50 or 60”, he added optimistically. The altitude could be altered by raising and lowering the tail by means of a cord. The chariot was to be drawn forward by the aerial screw twisting through the air at 45°, similar to that of a bird’s wing. The screw was turned by a winch acting on three multiplying wheels.

He suggested that, as he had proved by experiment that an aerial screw of only five inches long can pull a 10-pound weight or more suspended on a cord and drawn through a pulley, it would only take a small force to maintain the flight. “What we look upon as fabulous may hereafter come to pass and that, like the chariot of Jupiter, we may yet behold two eagles trained to draw the aerial chariot.”[4]

Natheless, being the ‘belt-and-braces’ sort, Swifte settled on a team of three horses “arranged in arrowhead formation, to neatly comply with the shape of the hull” to provide the motive force. To convert the horses’ action to rotational effort, a canvas conveyor belt and rollers were commandeered from a reaping machine and connected via a leather belt to the multiplying wheels in the contraption.

Three Irish Draught horses were relieved of their farm duties for the occasion and towed the aerial chariot to nearby Jenkinstown whereupon they and Oakenswift were hoisted up onto the battlements of Foulksrath Castle, which, conveniently, Swifte also owned (figure 6).

Fig. 6. Foulksrath Castle, Jenkinstown, County Kilkenny.

On the day of the flight, Godwin’s brother, John, had organised a garden party in Rathfarnham, to the south of Dublin, where the highlight was to be the unprecedented entrance of Godwin, making a controlled and graceful descent from the heavens in his three-horsepower aerial chariot.

Come the moment however, Swifte glanced down at the ground from the battlements and, smitten by acrophobia, directed his butler to take the controls of Oakenswift. As the apprehensive manservant was hastily ushered into the pilot’s seat, he was heard to utter, “Ours not to question why…”[5]

Oakenswift was then unceremoniously shoved [catapulted, according to documents kept by the late Major Briggs Swifte[6]] off the fortifications.[7]

Not surprisingly, Oakenswift plummeted straight to earth (aided, unquestionably, by her excessive construction… and all those aboard her) and the long-suffering butler, finding himself situate between terra firma and several tons of descending horses, suffered numerous broken bones. According to an article in the Old Kilkenny Review by Swifte’s descendant, Geoffrey Marescaux, the unhappy individual received Danville House[8] and a lifetime gratuity[9] by way of a solatium.

The ribs and frames of Oakenswift’s fuselage and wings may have been constructed of oak, but Godwin Swifte was not a man completely devoid of taste and style and so, had the prominent screw “carved from mahogany and polished to perfection”. All that survives that ill-fated day is one of the craft’s wheels and Swifte’s lavish twin-blade screw which, according to Marescaux, tore itself free of the craft when the horses were ‘gunned’ and proceeded to slash a path through manicured beds of daffodils, narrowly missing several women and children who had gathered in the castle grounds to witness the spectacle. The propeller was later recovered from a large buddleia by the butler’s wife and currently resides in the museum at Rothe House, Parliament Street, Kilkenny (figure 7).

Fig. 7. Swifte’s mahogany screw.

Occasionally still referred to, by flyers of vintage aircraft, as a Swifte screw, the identifiable shape and laminated construction of Swifte’s wooden propeller has remained largely unaltered to this day.

Jack Plane

[1] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

[2] Swift’s Heath, Kilkenny People, June 20, 2012.

[3] ibid.

[4] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

[5] Misquote of Tennyson’s lines “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” from The Charge of the Light Brigade.

[6] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

[7] Swift’s Heath, Kilkenny People, June 20, 2012.

[8] ibid.

[9] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

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Quote of the Week

[…] Thomas Chippendale. His designs reached both sides of the Atlantic […][1]

Jack Plane

[1] Nichols House Museum, Boston.

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