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- All About Antiques
- Old wood shrinkage
- Old wood shrinkage is an inevitable fact
- By Peter Green
- It's inevitable: Old wood will shrink.
Shrinkage is a factor to be reckoned with in all wood construction.
In simple terms, hrinkage is the contraction of wood as a result
of a loss of moisture.
- When a tree is freshly cut, it has a high moisture content
which is evident by its sappy nature and extreme weight.
- Presuming that wood is dried to a point where it is stable
prior to its use (and that's not always a safe presumption),
should additional problems be expected?
- The answer is yes. Wood can be brought to a point of relative
stability, but the environment in which it is placed is not stable.
- Inevitably wood will continue to lose moisture from years
of being indoors. What is more significant is that wood will
continue to change with seasons.
- Wood will gain or lose moisture according to the moisture
content of the air. Summer provides high moisture, while winter
means low moisture and contraction.
A piece of furniture purchased in a high-moisture area such as
London, England and brought to a drier environment such as New
York or Toronto often will start to fall apart through contraction.
- The degree of shrinkage varies with the age of the piece
(how much it has pre-shrunk already), the type of wood, and how
it was constructed. There is no mystery to some pieces falling
apart. The move to lower humidity (often centrally heated houses)
results in shrinkage. Stress to all the glue lines causes the
piece to sometimes come unglued.
- The first rule of shrinkage is that all woods shrink across
The second rule is that all wood will continue to shrink to some
degree after being employed in furniture construction.
- The third rule is that all wood will continue to expand and
contract with changes in humidity no matter what you do to it
(except maybe shrinkwrapping it in an air-tight plastic wrapper!)
- The last rule, to complicate matters, is that un-even absorption
of moisture (one surface
absorbing more than the other surface) will result in warpage.
- This last point is all too frequently illustrated with tabletops.
A craftsman will finish the top surface of a table, for example,
but rarely the underside. The finish on the top surface inhibits
the absorption of moisture (the primary reason for using a finish)
greater absorption from the bottom. The consequence is a warped
top leaf. This effect is known as 'cupping.'
- Understanding and observing shrinkage is at the basis of
authenticating antique furniture. Without shrinkage, a piece
simply cannot be antique. A piece exhibiting shrinkage might
not be unique but it must be old.
- In some cases, a combination of very well-seasoned wood and
a stable climate will result in a minimum of shrinkage to a table
and no splitting. But you are likely to encounter more split
tops than not.
- Over the years when I have found harvest tables in barns,
deserted houses, and old sheds, I have invariably had problems
with shrinkage and splitting when the items are refinished and
moved into a heated home or cottage.
- Tables on pedestal bases are less likely to split because
the manner in which they are attached allows greater latitude
for the movement of the wood.
- There are numerous examples of shrinkage. In an old schoolmaster's
desk the cross member shrinks and leaves a shrinkage ridge where
it is mortised into the leg post.
With ladderback chairs the slat will shrink leaving a portion
of the empty mortise showing. In addition, the glue holding the
chair together will dry and crumble with temperature and moisture
change. Everyone has experienced a chair coming apart. The important
thing with shrinkage is the simple principal that it shrinks
across the grain.
- In the case of a nailed blanket box, it will not change because
all sides are continuous and they will shrink at the same rate.
After a hundred years or so each will have shrunk to approximately
the same width. The key to shrinkage in this case will be the
bottom of the box. Considering the bottom board is fixed at several
points, it will either have
cracked or pulled away at one side.
- So, the next time your newly purchased antique shrinks in
the winter, don't blame the dealer - check your heat.
Peter Green, founder of Asheford
Institute of Antiques, an antique and appraisal home-study-school,
and owner of South Meadow Farm Antiques in Muskoka, ON, is a
syndicated antique columnist.
- Other columns: Issue
80 - Issue 79 - Issue 78 - Issue
76 - Issue 75