If you’re fortunate enough to own an original Rosenstengel piece but consider it in need of some restoration then my advice, as with any antique or period item, is to proceed cautiously. Well intentioned but overzealous restoration can do irreversible damage and negatively affect the items market value. If you own what you believe to be a rare or special piece that needs repair then get some professional advice. You should do the minimum amount of work possible to return it to functional use or acceptable cosmetic appearance. Below are some tips that may assist you in caring for any pieces in your possession.
Clean and Wax:
If you’re lucky the piece will need nothing more than a good clean to remove years of dirt and grime followed by the application of a good quality paste wax. The most effective way to wash the piece is with warm (not hot) water with common dishwashing liquid. Remember that Ed Rosenstengel pieces were all polished by hand with Shellac (French polish), and water is the enemy of shellac polish. So go steady and dry the piece off as you go. At no time should you have free water sitting on the surface of the piece. Do a small area at a time and make sure your rag is damp rather than dripping wet. Good wax polishes can be purchased at restoration suppliers, antique stores or the bigger hardware chains. Try to buy a dark coloured wax as this serves the dual purpose of applying the protective wax coating and also colouring up any bumps or minor scratches that may have removed the original polish or stain. Reapplying the wax annually is good practice and will help keep your piece in top condition. I strongly recommend you don’t apply the common furniture cleaning and polishing products available from grocery chains as these often contain silicon and oils which can affect the finish. Silicon based products will make it extremely difficult to refinish the piece should repairs ever need to be done as nothing will effectively stick to silicon and it is almost impossible to remove.
My advice here is very simple; DON’T DO IT. I know many people have a strong dislike for the dark ebonised finish Rosenstengel applied to some of his Jacobean pieces and as I said earlier, I too sometimes find it unfortunate that such finishes mask the natural beauty of the timber beneath. However, the dark stain is a critical component of the design integrity of the piece. To strip it and/or lighten these pieces is akin to taking saw and chisel and modifying the design. There have been hundreds of pieces destroyed by stripping the original polish and stain (and usually any form of identification as well). I can understand if you don’t like the black finish of a Jacobean styled Rosenstengel piece but if this is the case, sell it to someone who appreciates it and buy something more in keeping with your taste rather than destroy it through misguided intervention.
Of course, if you have a piece that has been so mistreated during its lifetime that it needs to be stripped and repolished then some form of stripping may be excusable. I have restored a number of antique pieces and several Rosenstengel items but I have always managed to avoid the use of strippers and strongly recommend you do the same.
If repair is required then you need to think carefully about your capabilities and whether it is cost effective. Paying someone to repair furniture can be prohibitively expensive so unless you have some significant emotional attachment to the piece it may not be financially viable. That said, because Rosenstengel dominantly used solid timber in the construction of his pieces even the most hideous of damage will be shown to be repairable (although the item illustrated might be considered slightly beyond repair). The original glue that Rosenstengel used was hide or animal glue. Unlike modern synthetic glues, the benefit of hide glue is that it is 100% reversible. Therefore joints can be taken apart, cleaned or repaired and reglued. Unfortunately amateur restorers (and 95% or professional restorers as well) take the easy way out these days and repair damaged joints or timbers with modern PVA or synthetic glues. Again, if you have a very valuable piece then get good advice and consider mandating the use of hide glue for repairs. I use hide glue for joint repairs that I perform but then again I don’t pay for my own time. If there is damage to veneer then I suggest you absolutely mandate the use of hide glue. If you think this is a load of rubbish and want to go ahead and use PVA then my only advice is to make sure you remove all the remnant hide glue from the parent material first. You see, PVA will never adhere to hide glue, whereas hide glue bonds to itself perfectly well, even in items that are centuries old. If you need to add new timber to an old piece then be sure to take the time to source material that is consistent with the original. All of the timbers that Rosenstengel used are still available from specialist suppliers but the variance in colour is likely to be significant, particularly with Silkwood (Queensland maple) which is now dominantly sourced from plantation trees that don’t have the same colour or density. If someone tries to sell you pacific maple as a substitute for Queensland Maple then my advice is to not touch it. It is a low quality timber with very open grain that you will need to fill with polish or grain filler to look anything like the real thing. Southern silky oak is a perfectly acceptable substitute for Northern Silky Oak as once stained the two timbers are virtually identical.
Staining and Polishing:
Staining and repolishing to match the original finish is a real skill that takes years to master. The vast majority of Rosenstengel’s pieces were stained and some of the stains required more than a single application. The Silkwood pieces in particular usually received a base stain over which a dark glazing stain was applied to antique the appearance of the finished article. Of course, the natural ageing process adds to this antique appearance and you will need to replicate this to ensure your repair blends with the original. I personally have the greatest success with the traditional solvent based dye stains from Wattyl. Dye stains don’t muddy the grain like some of the newer pigment based wood stains which are really only suitable in my opinion for applying to low quality plantation softwoods where muddying the grain is actually an advantage to overcome the blotchiness so prevalent in these timbers. Pigment based stains however are ideal for glazing, or antiquing. The glazing is done after the completion of polishing with shellac. Because pigment based stains derive their colouring from small pigments (particles) floating in the solvent, wiping the stain on over a polished surface and then wiping it off again with a clean cloth leaves pigment behind in corners and mouldings to resemble the natural build up of dirt and wax through years of use. As for polishing material, I would use nothing but shellac. A good quality buttonlac polish will serve most purposes and also add some depth of colour to the finish. Blonde shellac was the finish of choice for silver ash and blonde coloured woods as it did not add yellow colouration to the timber as did the unpurified shellacs like standard orange shellac. Shellac can be applied by brush but best you learn how to apply it with a pad or rubber. This isn’t difficult and you’ll find that shellac is a very forgiving finish to work with unlike some of the polyurethane goop on the market today. Any good reference book on polishing or restoring will provide good advice on how to apply shellac by hand.
At the risk of stating the obvious don’t start your restoration career on a masterpiece the likes of which Rosenstengel produced for his own home. If you own a special piece then get some advice. If you’re stuck then shoot me an email and I will do my best to point you in the right direction in the interest of preserving the integrity of a quality piece.