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A look inside The Conservation Center’s furniture studio

In anticipation of the Winter Antiques Show, starting later this week, a look inside the furniture conservation studio at The Conservation Center in Chicago. 

by Chai Lee, The Conservation Center in Chicago

Woodworking shops through the centuries—from ancient Egypt all the way until the Industrial Revolution, have been, for the most part, relatively unchanged. Despite variations in readily available materials or slight alterations in technique passed on from master to master, the art of furniture making and conservation essentially revolves around a number of basic, yet important hand tools.

Today, when the Antique and Fine Furniture Department at The Conservation Center in Chicago approaches repairs of dated objects, the conservators—Stephen Ryan, Michael Young, and Andrew Rigsby—strive to preserve the integrity of the original craftsmanship that has been passed down for generations.

“Having a studio properly set up with access to traditional tools is the best way to approach antique and fine furniture conservation,” said Stephen Ryan, Senior Conservator in the department. “In order for us to achieve the most realistic finish as possible, we investigate the history of each individual piece, and then mimic how a craftsman might be working during that time period.”

Drawing from their combined depth of knowledge and experience, Stephen and his colleagues are able to tackle a myriad of antique or furniture repair projects that passes through The Center’s laboratory. Whether that means aging a specific type of wood or hand carving ornamental designs, the conservators go above and beyond to make sure that each individual step of the process has their full attention to detail.

Since it’s not always easy to acquire a 250-year old hammer or a Viennese varnishing device, Stephen, Michael, and Andrew must create tailor-made artisan tools to help with difficult projects. “Many times, a specific job calls for a specific tool—and it’s just easier for us to use the materials we already have and invent something that you can’t readily buy at the Home Depot,” said Michael. “Some of the instruments regularly utilized in our workshop are truly one-of-a-kind. We prefer to use these to highlight the hand’s work, imperfections and all.”

In our slide-show above you’ll see a selection of tools that the furniture conservators at The Conservation Center have hand-crafted to align with historical furniture making practices.

The process of preserving furniture is based equally on methodology as much as it is on actual execution. Employing the entire working knowledge of the history of tools, the conservators at The Center lend an air of authenticity to their work, and keep their craft in relation to how the pieces were originally produced. “It’s not that we don’t embrace modern techniques, but in our shop, tradition rules,” says Stephen. “We’d rather stick with durable and easily reversible materials and handwork. We pour much heart and soul into every piece of antique and furniture that enter and leave our studio—and feel proud of the work we do.”

All images used with permission of The Conservation Center of Chicago.