Rummaging through our new 17th century barn, the desk looked pretty rough. It had started life, many years ago as a simple table, with straight, chamfered, oak legs, joined by some kind of pine skirt, and who knows what for a top. But at some point, somebody had sawn down the front skirt to less than an inch wide to add two drawers, one from an older piece, and a new one bodged up in spruce. The weight of the drawers had made the thin little strip of front skirt sag, the table had been relegated to the barn, and at some point the top had disappeared into the ether, after doing duty as a spray painting table. Though I couldn’t see the white spray paint incrusted all over the legs at first because they were covered in decades of black barn dreck.
Let’s see what’s there, I thought, and started scrubbing.
Maia, my 6-year-old, wandered out of the house, and came over to look at the desk. I had gotten one leg clean enough to reveal the encrusted paint. The entire leg was fairly evenly dappled with paint, but on this leg this was only half the problem it might have been because half the leg, including the half of the knee that included the mortise, was in fact a putty of worm-eaten sapwood, cured linseed oil, and wax with the spray paint crust holding it all together.
Maia sort of caressed the leg and then smiled at me and said it would make a beautiful desk, and that I could certainly fix it up.
Two hours later, I had the dreck off , and with an abrasive pad and card scraper had managed to get all the paint off, which luckily hadn’t stuck very well to the decades of blackened linseed oil, beeswax and barn dreck. Touching up a couple of rough patches left by the card scraper with sand paper revealed that there was still plenty of that much-sought-after old-timey patina left.
There were also at least 20 rusty nails that had been pounded into the thing over the years. These dinged up my scrapers, and took several hours to remove. Then the thing had to be taken apart so as to replace the front bit of drooping skirt, and splice in some wood to replace the worm-eaten sapwood in the one leg. The pegs drove out easily and if there was every any glue in the joints, it was long gone. Hide glue is like that I understand. Nice stuff, but if the moisture gets up, the bacteria gets to work on it, and literally eats the glue out of the joint. So the tenons slid out of the mortises easily.
I tried using my rabbet plane to cut away the damaged wood on the leg, but I couldn’t get it to track right in the mix of punky dust and heartwood.
I don’t like routers. Nasty, noisy, dusty and dangerous spinny things. But sometime it’s the best tool. Made a quick jig, clamped in the leg, and zupe-de-dupe, nice square rabbet the length of the leg. The worm damage had basically destroyed the knee, so I had to saw back the outside piece of the mortise and patch in a sort of dutchman to make up the thickness and give something for the pegs to hold onto. Found an old piece of wine barrel oak, planed it to size and glued it in.
The replacement front skirt was another issue. Ditch the drawers and replace the skirt? Or figure out a way to keep the drawers? Drawers it was according to the re-designer. Problem is you take a standard chair, standard adult legs, the width of the drawers, and the beef in the wood you need to hold the weight of the drawers, add it up, and it comes out higher than the table. I ended up cutting an arch in the replacement piece, and it works OK, even for me.
Then for the top. Which was gone. But up in the barn’s attic I had turned up most of what had been in its day quite a nice top for a chest. Since then it had seen duty as a cement form and then had had one end buried in the ground long enough to rot that end entirely away. But there was plenty of length left for the desk top. Out with a straight edge and the router and cut two rabbets, top and bottom across the width, cut it off, cut out three tenons to fit in mortices in a breadboard end.
There was another oak board that had started out as the rail in a frame and panel something or other, perhaps even the chest the old top had come from, and then someone had burned part of it. But there was enough good wood left to make the breadboard end, and even a couple of holes for pins. Rip it to width, cut it to length, out with the plow plane to cut the groove and a mortice chisel to cut the mortices.
Cutting the grove in a board to take the end of the planks in the top.
It all went together pretty nicely. Oak pins for the breadboard end, and I managed to salvage all but two of the original pins I tapped out to take the table to pieces.
The only thing that was not pretty straightforward was, remembering all the fun I had with the nails, I used copper boat nails in a couple of places, just to keep things in the spirit of the history of the piece. I guess that if someone else wants to have it apart in another 50 years, they will scratch their head and curse me. But the copper nails won’t rust out, and will not be a problem to pull. And I like the look, it gives the old, very dark brown wood some interest points, and there are only two in what was left of the old wood. The rest are in my front skirt.