Friday, June 17, 2011

George Nelson Bench Project - an Introduction.

So recently I scored a few classic pieces of Mid-Century Modern furniture - all in rather decrepit condition but salvageable. I thought I would start new posts describing the process of restoration. Yeah I know, another project (one of many) started but when will it be completed? In this case, all I've done is brush off the dust and spiderwebs, removed some staples and brought into the shop (my shop is really, really crowded right now - more on that in another post).

So this first pieces is the rather iconic George Nelson Slatted Bench, originally designed for Herman Miller in 1946 - I believe this was the first of George's furniture designs carried by Herman Miller (George became the Director of Design for Herman Miller around 1945 when HM moved into modernism and produced the very successful Herman Miller Catalog that we all so love today). I was told that my example was a 50's era bench - I'm not quite sure what distinguishes that era from others, but I'll do my best to describe what I've got.

Height: 14"
Depth: 18.5"
Length: 48"
Materials: Birch slats on ebonized legs
Joinery: Saddle lap-joints and plugs (hiding?) for the bench top. Miters with dowels in the leg frames.
Fasteners: Large Phillips head attaching the legs to slats from beneath

My particular bench has a few notables - the legs have been painted (rather sloppily) with black paint, and there are stress cracks in the center of one side (someone or something rather heavy was placed on the platform).

Sloppy black paint is evident here. Note the plugs at the joining pieces on the end.

The slats have either been sloppily stained, or inadvertently stained by spilt liquids. Note the plugs at the lap-joints.

Screw head detail

Stress Crack Details
So what to do? Before I address any of the problems in the materials themselves, I did a small test to see if the finish was salvageable (what's the point of fixing the problems then finding the finish so bad all the materials would be sanded away into oblivion?). So I took out some 220 and hit the top slats in one corner lightly, to see who deep the patination and staining went into the wood. Luckily, birch is very forgiving...

The photo above was of just a few swipes with sand paper. There is some discoloration from the staples, reacting to the tannins in the wood (first slat at the bottom), but I think some oxalic acid will remove it if judiciously applied. The bigger question is what to do about those pieces with the stress cracks? There are two problem pieces - the cross brace is cracked on the end and the outer-most slat has two cracks. Right now I'm thinking of removing the outer-most slat and replacing it with a new piece of birch. The cross brace would be epoxied and clamped to produce a closed, solid end. This all depends on what and how this thing is held together. It's possible that those plugs you see in the lap-joints are just the end of dowels that have been trimmed flush - that would be the best scenario as I may be able to heat the joint to loosen the glue (I'm thinking the furniture makers were still using hide glue instead of the modern glues) and knock the pieces apart.

I would like to get the finish back as close to the original as possible, so I'll strip off everything, ebonize the legs and apply a wash coat or two of shellac to tone everything back to a slightly-yellow "patina", then shoot the whole thing in varnish. That's the plan, anyway, which is always subject to change as the project comes to completion. Stay tuned - more coming both on this and the other furniture pieces....

-- John


Keep Your Fork, There's Pie said...

I've always admired this bench. Great find! I've never actually gotten the opportunity to see one in person, but all the photos seem to show the support as a isosceles trapezoids. In your one photo, they look square. What are the dimensions of the supports? Are they square?

Good luck with the restoration. I look forward to seeing the progress.

(sorry for the post/re-post)

John said...

If you look at the first couple of images the legs are indeed isosceles trapezoids. The images towards the end make them look rectangular due to perspective.

-- John

Dave said...

Hi John

Interesting article. I am just becoming interested in the whole question of restoring old wood pieces. I must say my first impression when reading this post was the level of investigation you go into (I am clearly going to have to improve on my planned 'sand it down and re-varnish it' approach).

Will you be following up on how you get on with this Herman Miller bench? I would be interested in hearing how it turns out.

Good Luck