Tuesday, May 28, 2013

RE: Finished

A few months ago, we bought a vintage dresser from one of our favorite shops in town, the English Building Market. (We shouldn't ever go in there--we always see something wonderful that fits our taste to a T! And usually, our purchases begin with a dimly-lit photo-text with the message "what do you think of this!?) It was in pretty good shape and would have done fine as-is with little cleanup, but I have been wanting to try get started refinishing some of the pieces we have gathered over the years (many from the English Building Market!), and so this seemed like a good start.

The piece is stamped "Vega in Walnut by Morris" in one of the drawers. It seems like a pretty well-built piece, but I am not sure the actual vintage. Some brief online sleuthing only suggests that the Morris company was making furniture from about WWI until the late 1980s. If I had to guess, I would think this piece is somewhere from the 1960s or 1970s.

I started out working on the drawers by sanding the inside and outside of the drawer body. I then focused my time on the walnut veneer face, using 100 grit sandpaper at first to get the old finish off. I then moved up to 220, and then 400 grit sandpaper, and finally steel wool. The wood is finished simply by wiping on teak oil with a cloth. It was an amazing transformation, which is quite evident in the before and after shot of the drawers. The grain, hidden beneath dirty and old, yellowed finish, now practically glows.

The drawers had some beautiful details. The center drawers have drawer pulls, wooden knobs with little brass hardware. I worked hard to polish up the brass until it glowed using steel wool. I think the color of the brass against the walnut is really beautiful.

The side drawers have integrated pulls. It seems almost strange, but the back of the pulls are laminate meant to look like wood. It is odd in concept, but in actuality, it was probably a smart move. In other period pieces we have with integrated drawer pulls, the wood is chewed up from many years of fingernails opening and closing the drawers. The color of the laminate is a bit off from the overall color of the piece, but it has helped keep the rest of the wood looking great.

The drawers sat finished for a few days before finally getting started on the chest, which in the end only took two days of on-and-off work to finish.

The chest itself needed a bit of work on the left side prior to finishing, where one whole edge of veneer was delaminating. Using a palette knife and two extra hands (thanks to my lovely assistant, Kim!), we inserted glue behind the veneer and then used a plywood board and a strap clamp around the whole chest to flatten out as many bubbles as possible.

Truth be told, there are still a few warped portions of veneer, but it is in much better condition than before. And we were fortunate that there were very few places where veneer had been completely lost.

Using the same technique as the drawer fronts (100, 220, 400, steel wool, teak oil), I finished the chest. Except for the top, which had some extra layers of old finish and needed a sander, the entire piece was sanded by hand in order to protect the delicate veneer. The surface now glows with beautiful book-matched veneer!

And the hardwood legs and brackets also cleaned up quite nicely.

The (re)finished piece now sits proudly in our bedroom, awaiting clothes and a long second life! It will also (hopefully this summer?) feature prominently in the new master bedroom renovation we have been planning!

(And, yes, that is the requisite Alvar Aalto vase sitting on top. It is a staple in staging photos of Modern furniture!)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Behind the Scenes of the Newberry Memorial Organ

I had the great privilege yesterday of taking a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the largest organs in the world: the Newberry Memorial Organ in Woolsey Hall at Yale University. A couple of people from my department were guided through the organ by organ curator Joe Dzeda while Tom Murray, University Organist, played.
The Newberry Memorial Organ in Woolsey Hall was built in 1903 by the Hutchings-Votey Organ Company, improved mechanically and almost doubled in size in 1915 by the J. W. Steere & Sons Organ Company, and rebuilt and enlarged in 1928 by the Skinner Organ Company of Boston. University Organist Harry Benjamin Jepson (1871-1952) was responsible for the design of the instrument, executed by Ernest M. Skinner and G. Donald Harrison of the Skinner firm. Consisting of 12,617 pipes arranged in 197 ranks and 167 speaking stops, it is one of the largest and most outstanding instruments of its period. The Newberry Organ has been kept tonally and technologically intact since its 1928/29 reconstruction, and is used throughout the academic year for teaching, concerts and gala events. It is maintained by the Associate Curators of Organs, Joseph F. Dzeda and Nicholas Thompson-Allen.
It was amazing to be among the pipes and works of such a great instrument as the sound, quite literally and forcefully, resonated within our very being!

A view from the rear of Woolsey Hall looking toward the stage. The organ console sits front and center with the facade pipes (unvoiced) hiding the great city of organ pipes beyond.

A diagram of the pipes hidden behind the facade. There are six major sections: Solo Organ, Great Organ, Swell Organ, String Organ, Orchestral Organ, and Choir Organ.

A closer look at the facade of decorative pipes.

The console comprises four manuals and 167 stops.

Another view of the manuals and stops.

A first look into the great cavity of organ pipes. Ductwork carries air from large blowers in the basement up through the works.

A dedication plaque for the Newberry Memorial Organ is located on the wall of the concert hall behind the organ pipes.

Some views of the outside of the Swell Organ, which sits behind giant louvered doors, allowing the organist to decrease (by closing) or increase (by opening) the volume of sound, causing the sound to "swell."

So that the seasonal expansion and contraction of the wood supporting structured does not tear apart the more delicate parts of the organ, wood dowels serve as wheels or bearings on which portions of the organ can slide.

These boxes serve as regulators for the air by using springs to equalize the air pressure as air blows in and is then forced out. There are many of these contraptions through the organ and they help supply a constant volume of air to different pipes.

A view of some of the smaller pipes, which this architect couldn't help imagining as little cities of skyscrapers! The little coiled caps on the wooden pipes allow tuning (metal pipes also have little coils on the sides near the top for the same purpose). It can take two people six hours to fully tune the instrument, which happens surprisingly often during the year, including "touch ups" of problem areas before events or concerts.

A view of the base of some of the largest pipes in the organ. The air coming out of these is quite a strong gust of wind.

I was excited to get a unique view of Woolsey Hall from above and behind the organ facade!

There are even more pipes in the basement, where century-old "surround sound" technology fills the concert hall through vents.

Tight spaces in the basement mean that some of the longer pipes are doubled over (some are folded even more than this). We were assured that "the pipe doesn't care" and the sound quality is not compromised.

A view of some of the wooden pipes in the basement.

There are also four practice organs in the basement, including several similar to the photos above. The manuals and pipe casework were works of art in themselves.

A more modern arrangement for one of the practice organs.

These are some views of the brains of the organ, i.e. a century-old computer. It turns electrical impulses from the console into pneumatic control of each individual organ pipe. Though the system has been digitized as well, this is one of the oldest (the oldest?) surviving, fully-functional systems.

Two huge blower turbines sit deep in the basement and supply all the air for the many organ pipes. Each blower can fully supply the organ, and redundancy allows the motors to be changed over at the flip of a switch, even mid-concert, without missing a beat!

Stepping into the organ curators' workshop is like stepping back in time.

In the workshop, there are photos of famous churches, organs, organists, and organ conservators.

And as a parting shot, a close-up view of the stage wall. I have loved this decorative pattern since the first time I stepped into Woolsey Hall.