Expert Advice From An Old Box Restorer

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Types Of Boxes

Boxes have existed  it seems for ever .Even today its good advice to keep the box in case you need to return or resell an item Boxes have always been used to store specific items,A caddy to keep the tea in and keep it dry.A sewing box for needles, thread, buttons etc. A writing slope to write on, and incidentally it has recently been rediscovered that a slope is a huge benefit for better handwriting, its also a place to keep pens ,ink, paper ,rulers and letters.Many scientific instruments needed specialised boxes .One of the most curious boxes must be the glove box, simply for gloves and always lockable.

Most of the boxes are no longer used for their original purpose.Many have been slightly adapted for modern use. For keeping TV remote controls locked away until homework is finished.For holding mobile or cell phones and their charging devices.Mementos.keepsakes,photos of loved ones all need somewhere special,somewhere you can be sure is safe.In the dreadful instance of fire the contents of a box usually survive.

Types of finishes

Most boxes consist of a carcass with a veneered finish.The benefits are that they are inevitably stronger than a solid wooden box and the veneer can be spectacular.Solid wooden boxes are usually older dating from the Georgian period 1760 to 1800. Mahogany is the most popular due to its ability not to shrink or crack but country pieces can be made of elm ,or oak or any number of woods that appealed to the craftsman.Many Georgian boxes have a fine holly lipping around the uprights and lid. Holly when first used is a creamy white contrasting with the rich red of mahogany.

Veneered boxes used all manner of finishes .Rosewood was highly thought of and is so called because when cut it smells or roses.It also polishes to an almost mirror finish and highly figured rosewood was always expensive and invariably used in top quality boxes.Ageing rosewood is helped by the fact that its almost black when first sanded and only becomed lighter to an almost walnut colour with age.Its one way of quite accurately dating a box.Another way is weight.As wood gets older it gets heavier.Dealers in antique furniture would be seen to lift a chair to judge its weight and to be sure is really was an antique.

In England walnut is highly thought of, lighter in colour than mahogany ,and often having a delightful figuring or graining and usually the better the figuring the better the box.Good veneer ended up on top quality boxes.

Oak was never a popular veneer and tended to be used as a solid  wood.Out of interest old clock makers used oak a lot but never the tiger skin oak with the wide rays.They thought this was a common wood and instead used the very fine grain almost like a partridge wood with tiny little flecks of grain.Ebony ,a very hard wood, was used in Georgian period for edging quite sensibly really.Most expensive is corommandel or calamander.It was only available from a small region in India.It is rare, difficult to work, polished even shinnier than rosewood. It is liable to form hairlane cracks but live with this small defect.This wood is darker than rosewood being almost black and does not get lighter with age.The grain is chocolate which almost shimmers.Due to its rarety it was primarily used on lids and fronts with the slighty cheaper and more available ebony on the back and sides.

Many other woods were used.Rosewood coupled with birds eye maple in intricate patterns was always popular.Another finish was penwork.Rich young ladies would buy a plain box of sycamore, which is almost white,with the lock already in place.Then they would draw using waterproof indian ink all manner of patterns and pictures.Many of these were of a poor standard, being rich did not make you automatically talented in the arts but some survive and are quite lovely.The good ones are very highly thought of .

Inlay Work

In an attempt to enhance a plain box,even if it had wonderful veneer work, and to get a better price ,many were inlaid.The very best has alway been Tunbridge Ware. Craftsmen from Tunbridge Wells in Kent in England created wonderful pieces always using self coloured wood ,never any that were dyed.The wood was cut into strips of about an eigth of an inch or say a millimetre in diameter then stuck together in bundles to create a patern or picture .Time consuming , expensive and fabulous.

Tunbridge bands or parquetry bands was the more affordable because it used larger sections of wood.Not so subtle as Tunbridge Ware  and definately easier to mass produce and because of this many survive in very good condition..Mother of pearl is a sea shell and Indian craftsment excelled at creating wonderful shapes and brilliant designs nearly alway on rosewood.Abalone is another shell with a blue and grey finish ,more expensive than mother of pearl and usually used in conjunction. with mother of peal to form a contrast. Marquetry , that is pictures in veneer ,was rarely used.Great works of carving on sandelwood come form Indian craftsmen and wonderful patterns from the middle east.Sadly they are out of vogue and if they appeal to you buy now  they will never be cheaper.Then we have brass inlay. Indian craftsmen hammered small pieces of brass or fine rope style wire into the wood .English writing slopes had brass bands and corners for protection. These are known as campaign boxes or slopes.They were used by Officers on campaigns at the front of perhaps the Crimea or India or a dozen other places we were at war with.

Points of interest.

Locks.As a rule a box without a lock is not Victorian or Gorgian.The Victorian locked up everything.The thought of the box being stolen never occured to them ,only the contents would be pilfered.A box contained something of value and it simply had to be locked to prevent the servants slealing.Most period boxes are sold with a lock,a few with a key, and fewer still with a working lock,hasp and key.Cutting a key for an old box lock is time consuming but it qualifies as commendable restoration. A lock that is old is a delicate thing,treat it with care do not force it and a little oil occasionally goes a long way.Watch out for the delightful French double lock.The hasp is usually round ,turn the key twice to lock and twice to unlock.The theory was that a thief would turn the key once and thinking it was faulty would give up.Look out for writing slope locks.These are no longer produced.On a box the prongs or hasp goes into the lock on a slope the prongs are part of the lock ,this is to prevent sleeves catching as you write or paint.

Robin Edwardes March 14th 2009

To Be Continued

 

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