Restoring a Historic Berkey and Gay Furniture Collection

The Berkey and Gay collection was conserved by MPF Conservation 2012-2013. It was part of the original collection bought by Henry Hahn for the Henry Hahn House.

Berkey and Gay (or Berkey & Gay) was founded by brothers William and Julius Berkey, and George Gay in Grand Rapids, MI, long considered to be a center for furniture production. Cabinet maker John Frohberg is credited with many of the carving designs. The scalloped design shown on these pieces was a trademark of their company.

It is important to emphasize that MPFC was not tasked with refinishing the Berkey and Gay pieces, but preserving the original finish. On all pieces, the finish was treated using our own in-house shellac mixed with no additives. As infill it matched the historic finish; after it was waxed and rubbed to a warm patina.

Note: The China Cabinet, right, was in the best condition and
served as a model for how the original finish might have appeared.

Above, the credenza before treatment and after.

Berkey & Gay Credenza

The credenza was badly stained from decades of use: rings, deposits and losses were apparent on the serving surface, shown below. Heat impressions, standing water deposits and occasional caustic or staining liquids left their marks. The overall finish was extremely dry, and appeared hazy to grayed.

The finish deepened beautifully after cleaning, infill as necessary, and waxing, shown below.

Before treatment, left, and after, right.

Before treatment, left, and after, right.

Before treatment, left, and after, right.

Berkey and Gay Dining Table with Leaves

The table top configured as a modest oval approximately 5×7-feet without leaves. When fully deployed with its ten original leaves installed it opened to an impressive 16-feet.

The wooden telescoping loafer mechanism mounted beneath the oval table’s underside opened and closed effortlessly. When the central decorative column was unlocked and the table pulled apart, sliding on its heavy recessed casters, it revealed another stout column which remained in place as a center supporting leg preventing sag in the leaves in any configuration.

The table was badly stained, displaying heat damage which looked like chemical burns, including moisture rings which gave way to areas with complete loss of varnish, below. These losses often had ring edges where pigments and grain fillers pooled and concentrated at the edges after migrating.

Above, example of removing one of the burns in the table.

The leaves finish was also compromised, shown right. Disparate surface tones and colors (presumably from use or lack thereof) exhibited bleached and faded areas. The leaves also had rings and white spots.

The table proper as well as the leaves had been overcoated with a nitrocellulose lacquer, likely in the 1950’s. This material, especially around damaged areas, was peeling and flaking much like brittle film negatives.

The entire table and leaves were treated, seeking a consistency of tone, one compound to the next, while maintaining its intended historic patinated appearance. The nitrocellulose lacquer was removed using a heat gun and careful scraping with neoprene spatulas, without compromising the aged patina beneath, image two above. Selective infill was performed. Finally, the entire top was lightly sanded to raise the grain, and brush coated with multiple applications of our in-house shellac.

After the varnish cured, the top was rubbed-out with powdered abrasives, then treated with a hard, unpigmented carnauba wax, above

Side-by-side comparison of a chair before and after treatment.

Berkey and Gay Caned Chairs

The caning was ripped in several chairs; the chairs were re-caned, colored then varnished to match the original caning. Carved decorative elements of the various chairs were missing. These parts were recreated, applied, colored and varnished to match.

Above, before and after shown on one of the arms chairs.
Below, after images of the chairs around the table.

Before treatment, left, and after, right.

Berkey & Gay Sideboard

The sideboard top was splitting and lifting, shown above. This piece had the worst stains, mostly from food and hot plates, and the overall finish was extremely damaged.

The warpage and delaminating historic top, above, was repaired from beneath through the introduction of internal butterfly keylocks coupled with hardwood splines which bisected breaks and screwed into the superstructure. The top was clamped and remained in stasis for several weeks, and came back into alignment, above right.

The original finish was cleaned, and deep stains were lifted using various methods. The top was infilled, topped with shellac, and waxed.

Before and after images throughout.

Before treatment, left, and after, right.

Entry table and mirror before and after treatment, above.

Berkey and Gay Entry Table with Mirror

The table was physically damaged, missing a carved panel along the side and a small part at the base of the mirror. The table was splitting on the sides. Overall the finish was in decent condition.

MPF Conservation created parts, repaired parts, reapplied them to the side table and infilled the parts. Splits were repaired using warm hide glue. The table and mirror were waxed.

Before treatment, left, and after, right.

Moving Day

Moving day was nerve racking. The items had to go up steep steps; one slip and it would be the end of the beautiful pieces. Adam Todd (left image) owns Portland’s Best, and is excellent; we entrust him with all our moves. All pieces were installed again. For an informal account, go to our blog post: Pins and Needles.

A Final Note

A cautionary tale: the Henry Hahn House was sold by the clients who financed the treatment of the Berkey and Gay collection, to new occupants who did not care for the furniture. Unfortunately, the new owners moved the Berkey and Gay collection into the garage, which of course had no climate control. This would have been a disaster for the collection, however, we were told of this misfortune.

Thankfully they were amenable to having the collection taken away after a good deal of discussion. The entire collection was saved, and is now part of the Oregon Historical Society.

Return to the Henry Hahn House.

If you are interested in other wooden objects, see below:

More wooden objects may be located in our Mid-Century Modern pages, such as the Ant Table and Chairs by Arne Jacobsen.