Learning the craft of furniture restoration

A blog based on a conversation with Simon Macintyre, a specialist tutor in furniture restoration who runs his own restoration business in Sussex in England. Simon Macintyre is one of visiting tutors at the Chippendale International School of Furniture. Anselm Fraser Furniture operates alongside the highly regarded furniture school which runs intensive one year furniture design and restoration courses.

“Learning about furniture restoration allows the students to relive the experience of furniture making over the last 400 years”, Simon says. “The furniture students learn the principles of good furniture construction and are shown how, unfortunately, style can sometimes triumph over function.

“I love teaching the students here. We all worked on restoring a large library table from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh: this involved various veneer and carcass repairs and laying a large leather top. It’s a steep learning curve but most students rise spectacularly to the challenges and grow demonstrably during the furniture restoration course.

“We’ve also restored chests of drawers, card tables, long case clocks, bureaux and dining room chairs (which tend to take a lot of daily punishment!). The students can be quite reserved initially but they really get into it by the end of the furniture restoration course.”

Simon thinks that the “Furniture School works very well. The furniture course has an extremely well structured programme. The students know what to expect each week, and the pastoral care is also good; the students get help with finding accommodation, and Izzy helps them integrate with the local community, encouraging them to go to ceilidhs and other events.”

Simon trained with Anselm Fraser, the furniture school Principal, in 1981-82. His workshop is in the Norfolk Estate’s village joiner’s shop in Arundel. The Duke of Norfolk leads one of England’s best known Catholic dynasties with a lineage going all the way back to 1066 and the Norman Conquest.

Simon works on private furniture restoration commissions as well as for the antique trade. His famous clients have included: rock musician Brian Ferry; the sculptor Philip Jackson, well known for creating seven big bronze bomber crew statues for St James’s Park in London; the Benson family, founders of Kleinwort Benson fame; and the Bonham Carters, who number Hollywood star Helen Bonham Carter.

The furniture restorer’s projects are mostly 17th, 18th and 19th century English furniture, including Chippendale Furniture, although they have also spanned rare Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture. He particularly likes Queen Anne furniture and the simplicity of early Georgian pieces, which he describes as “quintessential English furniture”.

Simon says that “the quality of the materials used for making furniture has fallen steadily over the centuries. Wood which is currently commercially available, might still have the same name, as with ‘mahogany’ for example, but that’s where the similarity ends. I have to source 30 different species of tropical hard woods and veneers, many of which are now protected and commercially unavailable, so have to be continually on the look out for rare hardwoods; I recently managed to track down a trunk of 100 year old rosewood in a garage in the Channel Islands.

“The furniture restoration techniques I use have to be a lot less mechanised than at the school. Most of the restoration work has to be done with high quality hand tools made of decent steel with sharp edges. Modern tools are often sub-standard.

“I work with the original style of the piece and try to get inside the craftsman’s head. Projects often involve repairing damaged veneers and renewing old polish finishes.

“I once restored a case for a bracket clock made by England’s foremost clockmaker, Thomas Tompian, worth a quarter of a million pounds. Another interesting piece was a Guernsey tea table which had been wrecked by occupying German troops during the Second World War.”

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