Reclaiming the Oak

A Rescue Mission for orphaned oak furniture

The world is full of pieces of wonderful, lovingly made furniture in beautiful woods like English oak or elm, with their lovely grain patterns and rich textures.  All too often these rich grain patterns were hidden by layer on layer of dark stain and varnish, creating the uniform but much admired dark brown furniture that our parents and the generations before them treasured so much.

Tables, sideboards, bookcases, whatnots.. every one has a history. If only they could talk, what tales they would tell about the families that they have served faithfully for so long: The families they have seen come and go, passing from one generation to the next, the children growing up to have children of their own. 

Sadly, as is the way of all things, there comes a time when nobody wants the item any longer.  Children want newer, more fashionable furniture and Grandma’s old table is discarded without a thought for its rich heritage.  Left without a home, the unwanted furniture finds its inevitable way to a charity shop, a house clearance sale, or the council rubbish dump.Thus the old table becomes an 'orphan' and that's where I begin.....

Where do I get 'orphans' from?

I rescue many such unloved and forgotten pieces of oak furniture.  I track them down and carefully dismantle them into their component parts, salvaging as much of the original wood as I possibly can.

 

Peeling away all the dirt and debris of ages, and the layers of stain and varnish, I rediscover the glory of the beautiful grain patterns that has been hidden for so long.

 

Careful hand planing, scraping and sanding reveal the real heart of the oak, the patterns known as ‘figuring’.

  

Why would you cover that lovely figured oak with dark brown stain?

Once I have the wood back to its clean unvarnished state, I create new items of furniture, mostly in the medieval style, using patterns and carpentry techniques that would have been used at the time. I use mortice and tenon or dowelled joints, and use old screws or rosehead nails. Any screws are covered with a plug of the same wood, just as the original furniture craftsmen would have done.

All dovetails and mortice and tenon joints are hand cut, and the completed item is then smoothed and finished with cabinet scrapers before coating with hand-made beeswax and olive oil polish, made to a medieval recipe.

The polish-making process is described here

To keep these pieces of furniture looking their best, an occasional polish with a similar beeswax and oil product is all that is required.   If you should get a mark e.g. from spilling a hot liquid onto a table top, it can quickly be restored by giving the area a light rub with sandpaper, and re-coating with beeswax and oil polish.

Table and stool legs are turned on a traditional pole lathe:
 

Most of my tools are old, traditional hand tools, but I do use Japanese saws.  These are old and traditional too, just Japanese rather than English.   The Japanese saws cut on the 'pull' stroke rather than on the push like English saws do.  In particular, I like two saws made by "Z" saws, one is for Hardwood, and one especially designed for cutting oak.  You can get these and many other useful saws from woodworkprojects.co.uk

The Huntley Oak Saw - now with limited availability

And this is the H-250 Hardwood saw - it seems equally at home cutting through a tough elm tabletop, and on delicate dovetails.  I like these saws because they leave a very smooth edge that needs virtually no finishing.

Warts and all . . .

Because the wood is all reclaimed, it often still bears the scratches and scrapes, dings and dents that bear witness to the years of use. This lends a feeling of age and utility, while becoming a thing of beauty rather than a tired old relic.  

Some of my tables at reenactment events. 

Every so often, I have a big cleanup session and strip and plane as much wood as I can from orphans waiting to be used.  In this way I have a big pile of nice clean wood that I can sort through and pick out just the piece I want.  Here is a little pile I've just finished..

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