Handcrafted 18th Century American Furniture

Creating Eldred Wheeler

It is hard to believe that more than 27 years have passed since Bill and I met in my kitchen to discuss creating Eldred Wheeler. After sorting out a few organizational details, we spent the better part of an afternoon enthusiastically plotting how we would build our company. From the start, we knew we wanted to create 18th century country high style furniture which, even though new, would elicit the same reaction as corresponding antique pieces. We strongly believed that accomplishing this objective would ensure our business success. After reaffirming our philosophical agreement, we spent the rest of the afternoon sorting out tactical details and creating individual to-do lists. My assignments focused on product selection and production, while Bill’s tasks related to sales, administration, and workshop location. Two priorities quickly became apparent: producing a catalog and finding a workshop. We agreed to picture only a few representative items in our first catalog. This approach would allow us the flexibility to take on custom assignments while we sorted out a full product line. As for a workspace, my home workshop would have to do, at least for the time being. Having agreed on our immediate priorities, I retreated to my basement to build our first prototypes to picture in our catalog, while Bill set off to find a suitable site for our workshop.
Selection of the initial prototypes was pretty much left to me. We wanted to shoot the photographs for our catalog in about a month, and I decided that I could complete three or four pieces in that time. By treating each piece as an individual insert in the catalog, we could add new items later, as we built them. To make things easier, I decided to use one of my earlier projects, a dish-top tea table, as one of the prototypes. That left me three new pieces to build. The selection was easy, since there were several antique pieces I had coveted over the past few years, and this was an opportunity to try my hand at building them. I selected a scalloped-top nightstand, a Queen Anne lowboy, and a candlestand.
I looked forward to building these pieces, but before starting any cabinetry I decided to develop a suitable finish for new wood. It soon became apparent that this would be more challenging than I thought. I had used wood from antique wrecks for my earlier woodworking projects. As mentioned earlier, the wood usually had good color and did not need staining. I now discovered that making new wood mimic the patina acquired through age was by no means easy. My experiments with different commercial stains and dyes were all unsuccessful. With photography deadlines looming, I elected to make the prototypes from old wood. I figured we could develop an acceptable finish later.
What I lacked in woodworking equipment and experience, I made up for in enthusiasm. Still enrolled in the high school’s adult education class, and impassioned by my new mission, I took the use of the school’s equipment to a whole new level. Before each session, I would create cutting lists and then carefully lay out patterns and dimensions on rough stock. My classmates must have thought I was a madman. I would enter the classroom, make a beeline for whatever equipment I needed, and begin frantically processing parts. Everyone was supposedly working on a single project, and I often wondered what in the world they thought I was building with my potpourri of parts: cabriole and straight legs, turned shafts, snake feet, large and small drawer parts, molded tops, scalloped skirts. Fortunately, the instructor pretty much let everyone do what he or she wanted, and never questioned me about my project.
At home, I would ready each component for assembly, carefully prepping all surfaces with a cabinet scraper and then cutting them to finaldimensions with a handsaw. I went to great lengths to remove any and all machine marks, even from areas that would be hidden when the piece was completed. Since I had not received any formal training, or even coaching for that matter, I was apprehensive as I moved on to joinery. My fears were soon quelled. Dovetailing went pretty well, since I had previously developed a way of using the same pattern for both pins and tails. The mortise-and-tenon attachment of the legs, while labor intensive, went pretty smoothly as well. Carving the Connecticut Queen Anne lowboy fan was much more challenging. My only experience was carving a concave shell for an earlier Newport lowboy, and the only carving tools I owned were three flat chisels and a razor knife. Needless to say, the carving went slowly, but in the end it came out OK. With adrenalin high, I found it hard to rest until the prototypes were completed, so night after night I barricaded myself in our basement. Many times my wife flashed the basement light to signal that it was after midnight and I should seriously consider coming upstairs. Much to her relief, I completed the last piece the day before the end of the month.

 

Meanwhile, Bill had great success with a key part of his assignment, having located and negotiated a contract for our first workshop, in Hanson, Massachusetts.