Washstand / Commode

MPF Conservation specializes in antique furniture restoration, furniture repair, antique upholstered furniture, and traditional woodworking.  This page documents various types of washstands, both from ship captain’s washstands to Victorian commodes.

Above right, the washstand from the Steamship S.S.Beaver in the McLoughlin House.
Below left, a Bird’s Eye Maple Commode.

The word commode comes from the Latin adjective commodus, meaning “convenient”. A commode can be a washstand, with a drawer for cleaning necessities and a door to discretely hide a basin, jug, towel rail, and a chamber pot, shown top right, long before indoor plumbing was the norm. In Britain commodes were a bit more sophisticated, and were designed to appear as if a small sitting stool, shown left, but also housed an area to sit as shown in our first commode below.

In all cases below, we perform the following details using traditional techniques as needed:

  • Disassemble as necessary
  • Inspect parts for viability
  • Clean all parts as needed
  • Repair / re-glue / amend broken parts
  • Replicate missing parts
  • CHOOSE Finish Method below:
  • Historic varnish is amended with several coats of pure shellac and rubbed to patina OR
  • Historically accurate varnish coating with combinations of gums, tree resins, oils, waxes and natural earth pigments is applied  OR
  • Historic painted finish is repaired and amended as needed

British Bird’s Eye Maple Commode circa 1750

When our client’s brought us their commode, the bird’s eye maple veneer was intact but in poor condition, dull and lifeless, shown left. The leather top and foot rest were missing part of the yellow pine foundation for the leather due to rot. The mirror on the interior lid (see below in after images) was cracked. The mirror was a recent addition by an antique dealer to hide cracks in the lids substrate.

There is a catch bowl which set within the interior but is not shown in these images.

The finish is a blonde shellac French polish, and this too was damaged, likely by Windex, which is not a suitable cleaner for this application. Due to exposure to sunlight, the finish faded. Many brush coats were applied to the historic shellac finish; once cured a final French polish was performed.

We found a leather to compliment the true deep color of the veneer after treatment.

Before treatment, above, in pieces, and after below right.

British Governes Caribbean Mahogany Ship’s Washstand circa 1780

Our client brought the washstand to us from her private collection in pieces, shown above. The washstand was quite impressive for a British “Ship of the Line” (a naval battleship with 2-3 gun decks and 87 guns) captain’s quarters in the British Empire style.

Crafted from Caribbean mahogany solids and a sophisticated hopper top which included brass stanchions to hold the top open. The upper compartment has positions for holding various containers as well as the washbowl, not included in the restoration. The lower compartment contains ample storage as well as a large grey water port made of very hard lignum vitae wood, which allowed the user to “flush” dirty wash water and sewage out through the bottom and through the hull into the outer ships scupper.

Treatment included:

  • The repair of a cracked side wall lid, stanchion mortise, and the introduction of an interior inlayed mortise dovetail to prevent the solid mahogany side wall from splitting.
  • Restoration of door hinging connections and pull connections.
  • After cleaning, and encaustic wax treatment was applied before rubbing out the French polished surfaces.

After treatment, above. Labels found on the back of the washstand, below.

Note: MPFC surmises the label “Governes” to indicate the piece belonged to the Admiral and may also draw parallels to the order of the admiralty which includes the rules of British Maritime Law.

Before treatment, left, and after treatment right.

McLoughlin House has a ship’s washstand from the Steamship S.S.Beaver, shown above, which was the first steamship to operate in the Pacific Northwest. The Beaver was built in Blackwall, London, and sailed to Fort Vancouver in 1835. For more information and images, go to this page: Washstand from the Steamship S.S.Beaver. McLoughlin shown right.

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