I’m pretty selective about what I take in for repairs (read: if it wasn’t worth buying when it was new, or isn’t a unique piece, it’s probably not worth repairing…can I build you a new piece?). Recently, I took in a very interesting piece to repair:
The client purchased this secretary at an antiques auction in the 70’s, in upstate NY, and had recently moved it from their home in PA to Massachusetts (that’s where I come in). The only information about provenance the client had was that it was a French-Canadian piece, unknown age (mid 19th century, based on the features discussed below). It looks to be mahogany and pine, maybe bits of other woods in inconspicuous places. Three features of this made it interesting to me: 1. the upper case attaches to the lower with dovetailed ways effectively locking it in. 2. The writing surface also pulls out from the top of the lower case in dovetailed ways. 3. The moldings.
The last feature is the topic I’ll discuss here, since I spent the last couple of weeks researching it in anticipation of working on this piece.
The Ripple Molding.
Here are some images of the three different styles on the secretary (use arrows to navigate):
It seems the first appearance of wavy, rippled molding, was around 1600, and the machine for producing it, called a ‘waving engine’ shows up in Joseph Moxon in the mid-late 17th century. The style became known as Dutch ripple used on ebony or ebonized wood picture frames, often seen on frames for the Dutch Masters, though the origins seem to trace back to Germany in the late Renaissance. Accounts of similar waving engines occur periodically in other sources including in Roubo, and others of the era. (3)
Though accounts vary, the machinery and methods for producing this seem to have disappeared in this country when the JC Brown Clock factory and the machine itself burned in 1853, after starting to produce clocks with this feature in 1848. The ripple molding made these clocks popular in the mid 19th century and even more so due to the scarcity of these in the collector’s market. It was used by other clock makers, and in mirrors and frames in the same era, though the source of these moldings aren’t clear. In this century, a clock maker, Irv Rosen, who reproduced many of the Brown clocks also reproduced the machinery for making the moulding, and wrote about it in FWW #58. I found this example of an original Brown clock on the Skinner, Inc site:
The basic mechanics of the machine involve either repeatedly moving a scraper blade along a molding, while moving the blade along the waved profiles, or guides (vertical, lateral, or both), cutting very slightly deeper with each pass, for hundreds of passes, OR moving the molding itself under the blade, moving the molding along the waved profile to form the waves (lateral wave profile, below) or ripples (vertical wave profile, like in the images above, clocks and case moldings).
Here is an image excerpted from (3), of the Moxon waving engine as drawn by its author:
The latest iteration of such a machine was made near London, by Yannick Chastang and his team of conservators, as documented in Furniture and Cabinetmaking, #187, where he recreates the Roubo plate version of the engine. (2) (for this construction we use miter saw).
I have to think there is someone out there using a CNC scraper to digitally run the profiles in a modern way, but I couldn’t find anyone online making or selling ripple moldings in the US (though I only searched for a couple days). This may be a result of a lack of demand for this type of molding except for conservators and restorers, like Chastang, who ultimately make their own tools to make these. I did find Jakob Schiffer, a maker in Austria, who makes these by hand and can make custom profiles, if you need some and don’t want to make the machine yourself.
Want to read more? Joel at Tools for Working Wood wrote a nice blog last year on this as well, see it here, and though I read it at the time, I promptly forgot about it until just now, since I couldn’t imagine when i’d run into it. It turns out, 6 months later.
So, will I be making my own engine? It turns out, all of the moldings on the secretary are accounted for, though some detached. So I only need to repair some chipped ends, and can do it by carving. However, the engineer inside me really wants to try and reproduce this 17th century woodworking machine (supposedly, the second woodworking machine to be invented, after the lathe). Who knows, maybe 2012 will bring the revival of the waveform in furniture design.
- FWW #58, p62-64.
- Furniture and Cabinet Maker Magazine, featuring the work of Yannick Chastang (#187, pages 17-22?)
- The History and Technology of Waveform Moldings: Reproducing and Using Moxon’s “Waving Engine”, Thornton, Jonathan.
If you have photos of furniture (rather than clocks or picture frames) which feature waveform moldings, please comment with a link!