In the late 1800’s, phonograph records proved useful (mainly to stenographers), but their potential as a medium for pleasurably listening to recorded music would still take several years to reach. The medium of choice for discerning music lovers was still the music box. As is the case with the antique unit pictured below, many popular models used interchangeable zinc or steel discs with holes punched in them to produce melodies via long rows of tuned metal strips. The process of punching the holes created a raised “curl” of metal which plucked the tuned, comb-like pins as the disc spun above. Today collectors prize them for their beauty, antique value, and still-exquisite musical quality.
Our customers brought in the disc storage cabinet to just such a music box, their newly acquired 1890’s model. As you can see from the photos, the cabinet needed considerable repair. Glue joints had dried and separated, scars and discoloration marred the top, and the veneer on the cabinet door was damaged and loose. We started with some chemical stripper on the cabinet door front to begin to loosen the original, applied wood carvings, and dug into the restoration…
Ode to “Oy!”: The Dirty Work Begins
Using a heat gun and putty knife, we carefully coaxed the damaged cabinet door veneer from its substrate, freeing the applied carving from the surface. Of course the brittle, spindly carvings snapped into several pieces! All were intact, however, and suitable for salvage. We temporarily taped the pieces back together for safe keeping until we were ready to reattach them onto a new veneer surface.
We ordered a piece of rift-sawn, oak veneer much like the original, and resurfaced the cabinet door. In order for the new surface to look like it belonged with the 120-year-old cabinet, however, some quick “aging” was in order. First we mixed stain to darken the wood to an approximate match of the old, stripped cabinet wood. Then we used oil-based artist paints to blacken the oak’s deep grain, much as time and oxidation had done with the original wood. Next we painstakingly reattached the applied carving, taking great care to set the pieces in proper place to avoid glue squeeze-out.
Now it was time to repair the loose glue joints on the remaining cabinet. The left side section had pulled away from the rest of the cabinet. After pulling the pieces apart and adding a lot of wood glue, we clamped the entire carcass back together.
When the glue was dry it was time for a thorough strip of the finish. Next came an extensive sanding job to clean up the cabinet surfaces and minimize discoloration and scarring on the top of the piece. At this point we coated, the cabinet, drawer front, and door with clear shellac to seal the raw wood.
A Finish Fit for a Maestro
Finalcame time to apply the final coats of surface finish. The original finish was shellac, so we blended amber and clear shellacs to achieve a classic, aged oak look with a deep gloss sheen.
The original keyhole escutcheon and locking mechanism for the door were missing. We sourced an identical mechanism and a solid brass escutcheon to replace the missing parts. By using an ammonia “vapor bath” we quickly added a hundred years to the look of the new brass escutcheon. Even the new skeleton key worked in the old drawer lock!
We tend to grow attached to many of the pieces we repair and refinish in our shop, and this was certainly no exception. The finished piece is just beautiful, and the long road to repair and restoration was, as always, well worth the trip. We see no reason why this beauty won’t last another 120 years!