McLoughlin House: Rosewood/Birds-eye Maple Veneered Wardrobe

MPF Conservation conserved several objects for the McLoughlin House in Oregon City, Oregon (which is part of the Fort Vancouver NM); this page documents the Rosewood and Birds-eye Maple Veneered Wardrobe, Ca. 1833. The wardrobe was not associated with the house originally, but with John and Marguerite McLoughlin’s granddaughter.

When we first assessed the wardrobe, it appeared as it does top right. The tall wardrobe consists of the following parts:

  1. The pediment and finial, which was previously disassembled, and is missing in the image right;
  2. The cornice, which includes the central decorative;
  3. The body or torso of the wardrobe, which includes the birds-eye maple interior pieces, porcelain and brass hooks, and shelves;
  4. The base, which supports the body and also contains two drawers, and wheels.

However, the entire cabinet disassembles for moving, and when apart is a series of panels. The outside is beautiful rosewood veneer, and the inside is a golden birds-eye maple veneer.

Note: Throughout this online synopsis you will hear that “funding was denied.” This is not personal, but rather, reflects the NPS and other institutions handle budget constraints.

Several elements after assessment showed themselves to be structurally damaged, including the following: the cracked cornice (in the image above with a finger pointing to it); the finial and pediment, which was split, shown above, and previously repaired, above.

Right, Damaged base. Note the degraded varnish with craquelure, the missing trim, and the large chunks of missing wood. Recreating the missing trim was not approved for this corner, as we were charged only with cleaning and preserving the finish, but no woodworking.

The Wardrobe was disassembled for the move to our studio. Large original brass anchor pins, shown left, held the many component parts together.

The wardrobe remained in pieces while in our studio during treatment, partly because we could not assemble the wardrobe as our ceilings were too low.

Our first step was reparation.

Note the images of the cornice laid out, top, and the image above.

We recommended the decorative cracked cornice be repaired using butterfly keylocks to stabilize, but funding was denied (see note above).

MPFC glued the cracks using hot hide glue to help stabilize, and placed the cornice under clamps. Cracks were also sealed along the grain lines so that it would reduce the ongoing contraction of the boards forming the panel and minimize further opening of the board along those lines.

The wardrobe key was broken, above. Our blacksmith, Stephen Gossett, repaired the key using lead solder (as it was used originally) with a propane torch providing the heat. After flux residue was removed, the key was completed.

However the lock still did not work. Mitchell removed the locking mechanism and cleaned metal shavings and dirt sitting in the mortise. Upon inspection we also realized that a prior repair was performed in past. A hammer was used presumably to try to force the key mechanism cowling flat. Mitchell made certain all parts were straightened properly. Ultimately it was the key ward which was bent which prevented the mechanism from working. This was the winning repair, and the lock now works. However, the lead key should be used gently if at all, because of the nature of the repair and the strength of the material along a critical structural line.

During assessment we determined the large historic dowel mounting tenon which penetrated the turning broke. When the turnings mortise requiring extraction and repair. This event, including past poor attempts to repair, caused additional damage of its own. Sloughing of parts of the turnings orbits and splintering of substrate threatening to shattering the turning.

In recent history someone tried to preserve the finial by attaching a metal “L” piece to hold the entire pediment together, image one above. It did not work well, but thankfully we had all the critical original pieces with which to reconstruct the finial properly.

The finial was thoroughly cleaned of old glues, and a new structural base (which sits out of sight) was created to hold the parts in place. A small wedge was created that filled the one larger missing void, and museum approved ®Araldite, a carvable compound with similar density and crushing strength to the original wood was installed into the gap, image three above. For added structural integrity, hardwood picks were installed into the void, acting like rebar in a building construct. Funding was denied for this repair (see note above), but MPFC could not return the pieces without repairing it and so donated the few additional hours to the NPS.

In addition, there were hairline radial cracks which we repaired using hot hide glue and clamping while the cracks cured.

The bird’s eye maple base was cracked across the entire base, above left; however, it appeared stable and no funding was offered to repair in any manner.

Several porcelain and brass wardrobe hooks were bent, above right, and MPFC straightened them at no charge.

Once repaired, we cleaned all the parts. At this stage it appeared as if we were cleaning large rosewood and bird’s eye panels setting all over the studio, as the base was made of panels. Cleaning revealed the extent of the craquelure, shown below.

The historic finish was compromised, and we were charged with preservation of the historic varnish. In addition we discovered during treatment that someone had sloppily applied an overcoating of an early 20th Century version of a commercial shellac which was infused with bulky rosin resin varnish onto certain areas, and there were drips, shown in the base below.

The NPS requested we amalgamate the deeply crazed surfaces, however, amalgamation is a restorative, non-reversible process which can cause the loss of the entire historic varnish if the process goes awry. Instead we opted for a polishing process that melds the crazed surfaces, while still allowing the historic varnish to remain intact. When finished, craquelure is still present but without the additional threat of disintegration.

Where necessary, we infilled areas of bare wood with a bit of shellac, such as the left-facing base where was missing a chunk of wood, before treatment above, in order to protect it from further degradation or pest infestation.

Above, a sample drawer showing stages of varnishing:

  • The distressed varnish on a drawer in the base, image one;
  • The treatment halfway through finish reparation, second image;
  • And the completed drawer, third image above.

MPFC met our goal on the finish: some craquelure is still visible, and after polishing, infill and wax, the drawer is vibrant.

The pediment and finial, after reparation, finish treatment, and wax, reassembled, above. The wood looks warm and vibrant, but not shiny new, and up close, craquelure is present.

Note the bird’s eye maple continues inside the wardrobe all the way to the underside of the arched cornice.

Delivery was a tense affair with Mitchell and Adam Todd of Portland’s Best Movers, always reliable in dealing with fragile antiques.

This move was fraught with issues primarily because of the very tight egress into the upstairs, shown right, and the the sheer size of the components. 30-inch wide stairs and a hairpin turn!

Once all parts were in the bedroom, the assembly began, and above, the moment when the cornice was safely placed atop the wardrobe was a celebration moment!

Above and below, after installation, the wardrobe in place and the bedroom returned to order.

Items MPFC treated as of this date from the McLoughlin home are:

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