Empire Dresser Veneer Repair

I’ve been working the past couple of weekends on an old empire dresser my wife bought at an auction a couple of months ago. After we got the dresser home, we noticed that the dresser had some old repairs on it. It also had a poor stain job that looked like it was sprayed on with a paint sprayer since it was covered in orange peel. So I stripped off all of the stain with Soy Gel paint stripper and wanted to fix some the repairs.

At the top of the dresser was this veneer repair. What the original guy who repaired the dresser was trying to accomplish I’m not sure, but I believe that what was underneath this veneer at one time was a lock mechanism to lock the top drawer. The lock was long gone and we had no intentions of adding the lock back in, so I decided to fix this area of the dresser with a new piece of veneer.

The original veneer on the dresser was made from a piece of crotch mahogany. I didn’t have any mahogany veneer on me so I decided to fill it with a small piece of sapele. Sapele is often considered a poor man’s mahogany being about half the cost. Plus I really didn’t feel like buying an expensive piece of mahogany to fix this little area. The good thing about this repair is that it was dead center of the case so any new repair would still be symmetrical on both sides even if it didn’t match perfectly with the rest of the dresser.

I used a card scraper and ran a utility knife down the scraper scoring the veneer. I then pared away the rest with a paring chisel. After all the wood was removed, I flattened out the rest of the area as best I could so the new piece of veneer would sit flat.

After measuring the area, I cut a new piece of sapele from a scrap board and dried fitted in place. I gently planed across the face to level it with the rest of the veneer making sure I didn’t cut into the old veneer. After everything fit, I glued and clamped it to the dresser.

The piece fit but I wanted to match the color of the original mahogany veneer. I took another scrap piece of sapele and experimented with a few colors of water soluble dyes to see how well I could match it up to the original veneer. After a few attempts, I decided to use a couple of coats of Early Brown American dye with a very light coat of Mahogany stain.

The color turned out well. Not a perfect match but well enough. Once I get the drawers done, my wife will apply a few coats of hemp oil to bring out the natural beauty of the wood. I’ll post a picture when the dresser is done.

Empire Dresser

My wife won this Empire style dresser this week at an online estate auction site for a mere $50.00. When we went to pick it up the guy who ran the auction was telling us it was probably built around the early 1800’s and was a cross between Empire and Federal styles. The dresser was beautiful with its carved columns, mahogany veneer and old brass hardware.

The dresser was in pretty good shape with the only major damage being the bottom drawer was broken off. Fixing the veneer and making it match with the rest of the piece would be a challenge so my wife and I are thinking of taking out all three bottom drawers and turning the dresser into a wine bar with storage for wine glasses and bottles.

While taking the drawers out I was looking for a makers mark just in case this is some rare piece made by famous cabinetmaker. The last thing I want to do is to retrofit some dresser that if left alone and restored could be worth $20,000. Unfortunately I found no makers mark but I did notice that the piece was made by hand.

The drawers were made with hand cut dovetails and the bottoms were chamfered into grooves in the drawers side. No plywood was used which gave me a clue that the dresser was pretty old. Plywood wasn’t being used in furniture until around the 1920’s.

I also noticed that not that much care was taken in cutting the drawer bottoms. One of the bottom’s edge was wavy and looked like it was cut with a bow saw. Why the cabinetmaker didn’t use a hand saw to rip down the bottom is baffling. Maybe he was in a hurry or didn’t have a hand saw around at the time but, it looks like crap and wouldn’t be considered top-notch craftsmanship by todays standards. However, it was perfectly acceptable back then. Maybe there wasn’t as much scrutiny about how things were built as there is today. If I did something like that, all my woodworking friends would call me a hack.

  

I also could see where the cabinetmaker reused boards that he first cut dovetails for as the drawers backs. The back and the sides are simply nailed together with some finish nails. It’s possible he was planing on dovetailing the back of the drawers but changed his mind for some reason. But nevertheless, apparently back then if the part was not being shown and was hidden from the customers view, then nobody cared what it looked like inside.

The back of the piece gave me another clue as to its age. There were two pockets drilled to accept screws to hold down the top. As I unscrewed one of them, I saw that the screw had a point at the tip. Due to increased machinery technology, manufacturers didn’t start making screws with points until the 1840’s. Before that they were simply blunt and craftsmen would have to pre-drill the hole.

So my guess is this piece was probably built between 1840-1920 by a local cabinet shop who didn’t bother signing their pieces. With no makers mark, there is no way for me to determine who actually built it. I searched the internet for “Empire dresser” in Images to see if a similar dresser appeared with no luck. So in the end, with its major damage to the bottom drawer, I think it’s safe to retrofit this into something new.