There Was A Right Way To Do Things, And There Still Can Be.

Working my way through the rebuild, repair, and refinish of an antique dresser we own that had been loose in the joints for a while and finally failed completely as my wife tried to move it away from the wall. This type of project has always been a little intimidating to me, there is a slightly different way of thinking and skill set involved, and while there are similarities to your standard "build it from scratch" woodworking, there are enough differences to make it interesting.

If you missed where we started from, you can catch up HERE.
The first thing to do was to take apart the piece. Not all repairs require the piece to be taken apart here there was so much damage there was no other way I could think to do it. To repair everything along the front, It required that I get the top off the dresser.

I turned the work upside down on the bench to get a good look at what I had to work with. I found half a dozen glue blocks between the base and the top. At first I thought about just taking a beater chisel and tearing up the blocks. A very caveman like approach I agree, but it did cross my mind as a first answer and I pried a little with no good results.

I pondered my options. The rail parts I had been able to get off easily showed obvious evidence that the piece had been put together using hide glue. I thought about Stephen Shepherd and his great writing over at Full Chisel Blog. Stephen covers a great many subjects most directly related to 18th century woodworking and one of those subjects is his work repairing antique spinning wheels. Coincidentally while reading about these repairs he also taught me a good deal about hide glue.
One of the best properties and reasons to use hide glue in your woodworking is the fact that it is a repairable glue. What does that mean? It means you can undo it by dissolving it with denatured alcohol, and there by take the work apart to rebuild, and reglue it.

I took a quick trip down the street to the hardware store and picked up a can of denatured alcohol, what did I have to lose. You can see in the picture above how I flooded the area around a couple of glue blocks, I also used a small brush to make sure I flooded the nooks and crannies around the blocks. Of course the picture above shows the absence of glue blocks as well. The real experiment was finding out how long to wait for the process to work.

I'm sure individual milage may vary, but I only had to wait around five minutes for each soaked block to be loose enough to pry it free with a chisel.
Ok I lied about a half dozen glue blocks, now that I count the ones in the picture I come up with around 10. Math is hard.
Besides the glue blocks there were four cut nails connecting the top to the base. Here I am lifting the top front rail off it's nail attachments.
 I wish I could have stopped here, but the joints in the three remaining sides were all loose as well. Some more alcohol soak and a little light wooden mallet persuasion and I had the dresser looking more like a pile of kindling than anything.
 This was the most intimidating moment of the whole process. I snapped a pic of this with my phone and sent it to my wife and her response was a worried, "Can you get it back together?"
 I believe there are few things straight up black and white, wrong and right. I usually see lots of shade of grey in my world. But I do believe that there was a lot of "right" things our fore-bearers knew that we have managed to forget.

One of those things is hide glue. Without my predecessors use of hide glue the repair of this piece would have been incredibly more difficult how could I go any other route but to use hide glue to fit the piece back together.
 I reglued every joint in the carcass. It stands strong and rock solid again, ready for another century or so. There was one more big repair that I had to work at quite a bit, but more on that next time.

Ratione et Passionis


  1. Looks like its coming together nicely, Derek. What type of glue did you use?

  2. Looks like its coming together nicely, Derek. What type of glue did you use?

  3. You want to be careful with the alcohol if the piece is finished with shellac

  4. you are right Mike, the alcohol did dissolve some of the shellac, fortunately most of the finish on this piece was trashed and the plan was always to do a refinish on top of the rebuild so the hurt to the shellac didn't even phase me as something to mention.

    You are right though and I will have to keep that in mind for the future.

  5. I'm glad to see my thoughts on hide glue echoed here. I don't like the idea of just building for my lifetime, but for my great great grand children's lifetime too. Part of the reason some of the antiques we have managed to survive was because, like you said, hide glue is repairable. Make repairs easy, and they're far more likely to happen.

    I really wish more woodworkers today used it. I think our ancestors got that one right, like you said :)


Post a Comment

Popular Posts