21 August 2017

Refactoring a Chinese table part 2

Despite my worry that I might not be able to reassemble a new table leg with the crossed tenons, I found that if I compressed the ends of the tenons with a channel lock pliers with padded jaws, I gained just enough leeway to be able to drive the tenons in.
First testfit
Testfit revealing uneven gap across the miter

I testfit both sides in turn before attempting to assemble the whole base. My best guess is that the tenons were originally left long and cut flush only prior to finish application. There was what appeared to be interference with the miter joint on the upper register, compelling me to trim it a bit although this seemed to do little with tightening the joint but the gap was consistent. With so many connecting points in this piece and difficult to recover reference points, I resigned myself to accepting that just getting the table back in order was my goal, not creating tightly fitting joints, which might not ever have been consistently tight. A point worth mentioning is that the leg bottoms were not chamfered, exactly where chamfers serve an important function to prevent splitting. I have no explanation for this detail, but I followed its precedent in the new leg.
new leg in veeblocks

I then set up the new leg on the bench in joiner's saddles to chamfer the inner corners that correspond to the chamfers of the skirts. The outside arris received only a slight roundover. The inside arris has the edge minimally softened.
A hipster version of Mr. Clean
The next task was to clean up the surfaces of accumulated crud and schmutz. I don't have any access to conservation grade supplies so I chose to use a cleaning product that I found in a local supermarket. I tested it first on the broken leg. It didn't cause any staining so I attacked the main table with it and some new abrasive sponge pads.
Going over the finished surface made me examine the table as  whole more closely. I started to see just how of poor quality the original stock was for this piece. While it's true that many of the defects were oriented to the inside, that wasn't always the case. Additionally three of the four original legs have boxed heart centers. Resultant checking and holes from the pith were evident.
Knots on broken leg

Checking and pith loss in boxed heart stock

I know that every workman must balance his inputs (labor and materials) with what he can expect in terms of price for a finished product. This piece, however, seems to have incorporated every marginal stick of lumber on hand. There is not a single piece of lumber in the base that does not display evidence of insect damage, wane, checking, or other defects. While tabletop outer frame is made of by far the best selected pieces (the boards in the center of the tabletop show pith loss), these four boards are also the most crucial of the whole assembly.
Loss in verticals

Pith loss

Powder beetle damage

Rough sawn marks left unplaned on exterior surface

A lesson from this restoration is to understand just how rickety and shaky such a base is without a tabletop to lock it all tight. The strength and mass of the tabletop holds 24 tenons together in its perimeter. I don't think that I've encountered such a complex piece that relies so much on four sticks of wood not failing in function to hold together all the joinery of the whole. It's a mystery why craftsmen of this genre never chose to use pegs to stiffen the joinery. It would certainly be applicable to do so where the upper register intersects the legs. It would also reduce the strain on the leg tenons intersecting and closing the butt miters of the tabletop frame. It's evident from this adhoc repair that the craftsmen were aware of the application of pegs.
Original pegged repair to control split in open mortise
Wedged throughtenon in cross member
 The cleaned table surfaces reminded me that the choice of finish is often more about unifying many different wood species than it is about creating a protective cover. I cannot do any testing, but from experience, I would describe the original finish as a colophony based varnish with added darkening tint.  The dark varnish serves a dual function. Besides unifying the varied wood species used for this low end piece, it fools the eye into thinking that the table is made from a high value tropical hardwood traditionally used in HongMu furniture (ebony, rosewood, etc.). And more cynically, the finish also helped to obscure the many flaws in construction and selected stock.

Pith loss and color contrast once obscured by tinted finish

Cigarette scorches formerly obscured by tinted varnish
It's especially difficult to generalize from this one experience. I have seen other Chinese make efforts to restore and conserve traditional furniture forms, but it's not common. In fact, this is the second simian ping table in the woodshop now. The first one caught my eye until I notice that it had been riddled with finishing nails by a previous conservator. Finding such a piece just a few doors from the woodshop could be attributed to amazing luck or it might be an indication of just how disposable these traditional pieces are thought of by contemporary mainland Chinese. It might be due to a lack of skills generally that can explain why these pieces get tossed to the curb without much fuss. I also accept that these pieces, while amazing examples of workmanship, were, at best, midlevel items for utilitarian purposes. They are not made of the high value tropical hardwoods, which are often the main factor in determining their intrinsic value by Chinese consumers. Lastly, there is a general thought among most mainland Chinese that old things are bad and new things are good.
New wood integrated into old

Refactored table
I've learned now to better understand why so many student projects follow such a narrow range of characteristics. In the mind's eye of mainland Chinese, the simian ping table form is how they think of a high quality table. Here are a few examples of tables made by woodworking students.
Traditional overhanglessness

Qing style coffeetable in black walnut

They employ more simplified joinery, (often biscuit joinery), and modern adhesives but they still carry with them long established features of a simian ping, three way flush surfaces and as little tabletop overhang as possible. And yes, in their focus on this form, their pieces display compromises in joinery and a failure to consider wood movement, pushing similar problems into the future.

Disappearing legacy
A time back, I came across this piece also put to the curb for public removal.  At the moment, I had no place to move it into and no ready means for transporting it. I was able to look it over after taking this single photo as rain was imminent. One of the rear legs was broken, but it was a repair that could have been managed without much difficulty.  More importantly was the function of this piece. I don't know the Chinese name but I call it a foodsafe, an invaluable household item in days before the availability of electric refrigeration.  I could see that it was a handmade item, intended to be a centerpiece of a living space, but I doubt it was as old as the table because it contained low quality particle board. Although one section featured a sliding glass door, the rest of it was enclosed with window screen that had rusted. Despite these parallel compromises in handicraft, I regret not rescuing this piece because I think it represents a more valuable example of material culture and one that will never be preserved in a Chinese museum.
In the USA and doubtless in other countries, the equivalent of this piece, a generic piesafe can be still found in many homes either as family heirlooms or bought from an antique dealer. It's even possible to buy new pieces that evoke this form.Nobody, I doubt, would use them as their intended function, but form and nostalgia keep them from being turned into firewood or landfill.       


Gabe D. said...

This is a truly thought provoking look at a furniture piece considering the ideals I've built up in my mind around Ming era Chinese furniture and the general high esteem the better pieces documented in books produce in Western woodworkers. I'm not sure if I should be jealous of you or not, either way thanks for showing your work!

Potomacker said...

"Thought provoking" is indeed high praise. I want to push back on the notion that it is woodworkers who have produced books that have created a sense of awe of Ming furniture. I think that so many treatises have been written by nonwoodworkers, notably museum conservators, who have an incentive to talk up the value of items in their collections and their career specialized field of study. For several years now I have been reading so many analyses of historic pieces by woodworkers who are able to apply a workmanly critique to pieces that consider the tools, methods, and business practices, weighing elements that have been overlooked as irrelevant to market and academic considerations.
You have nothing to envy with me, sir. Gounian kuaile!