Restoring a 19th Century Walnut Armoire

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Blog entry by summerfi posted 09-06-2014 03:35 PM 5706 reads 0 times favorited 29 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I’ve enjoyed rust hunting at yard sales and flea markets this summer. It’s an activity both my wife and I can participate in. I look for old tools, and she looks for things that interest her. The danger in that, though, is that she sometimes finds “projects” that require a lot of work on my part. The most recent example is an old walnut burl armoire. It may be late 19th century or it may be early 20th century, I don’t really know. I do know it’s old and it’s big. It was assembled at the yard sale where we found it, and I should have taken a picture of it then. I just didn’t think of it though. Fortunately it comes apart into pieces that make it easier to transport. While it’s not in too bad of shape overall, it is going to take some restoration. I thought I may as well document the restoration in my blog. I’ll update the blog as progress is made. I’ve done quite a bit of antique furniture restoration over the years, and I believe this piece is going to be beautiful when it is done.

This is how the armoir arrived at my house in the back of my pickup.

Here it is unloaded in my shop

This shows the walnut burl veneer on one of the doors.

And this shows some of the detail on the top section and the drawer front.

I hope you’ll follow this blog along as I document progress on the restoration.

Update #1 (10/8/14) – Making Repairs
The armoire comes apart into 9 pieces: a base section, a drawer, 2 side sections, 2 back panels, a top section, and 2 doors. That doesn’t count shelves, which in this case is a can of worms that I’ll describe in a later update. Each of the 9 sections required repairs ranging from minor to major.

When I picked up the top section, it literally fell apart in my hands. The old hide glue has given out on much of this piece.

The first order of business was giving the poplar panels that form the top a good scrubbing. The top was filthy from over 100 years of dirt and dust settling on it (Note, the picture above was after the cleaning). This was no time for a gentle touch. I resorted to a bucket of water, cleanser, and a scrub brush. Once it was dry, the different was amazing.

Here I’m replacing a missing corner block in the top. The top section is a complex unit formed from many separate pieces. Several other support pieces required replacing as well.

A piece of the ornate walnut applique was missing on one side of the top. Here I’m fitting a new piece that I carved as a replacement. Though it is walnut, it appears light colored in this picture. It will be stained before the finish is applied.

The base section wasn’t as bad as the top, but it still required a good deal of regluing.

A few missing pieces of the base, like this corner block, had to be replaced.

The drawer sides had some splits. Here I’ve spread open a split with an awl, getting ready to apply glue.

And here the clamps are in place on the drawer.

One of the stiles on a back panel was so twisted that it was unusable.

This picture shows the new stile I made as a replacement, along side the old one.

Here the new stile has been installed on the back panel.

That’s a good sampling of the repairs I’ve made on this piece. To show them all would have made this too long. The piece is now solid again and ready for installation of shelves. That will come in the next update.

Update #2 (10/12/14) – The Shelves
The armoire came with 2 poplar shelves and a center divider. When I got to looking at them though, they didn’t seem to fit. There was another armoire for sale when we bought this one, and I’m thinking these shelves went with that one. Here is what I started with.

There was nothing to do but make these fit. I cut a strip off one of the shelves and glued it to the other to make it wider. I then made the center divider slightly narrower and a few inches shorter. And I moved the two shelf supports that came on it and added two more so that the location of the supports matches those on the side panel. Incidentally, the two original shelf supports were attached with square nails, giving some idea of the age of this piece. I then used what was left of the remaining shelf plus some box elder I had on hand (since I didn’t have enough poplar) to make four short shelves for one side of the armoire. I don’t know how the shelves were originally organized in this thing, so I just used my imagination and did what I thought looked good. Here are the pieces after they were cut to size and ready to install.

And here are the shelves installed in the unit.

I’m guessing I’m the only person in Montana with an octagonal black locust closet rod.

Next up will be applying the finish to this beast.

Update #3 (10/14/14) – Applying the Finish
The varnish on this old armoire was crystallized from age and had turned nearly black over time. It was missing in many areas, being replaced by a buildup of oily furniture polish that had accumulated over the years. Even through the aged varnish I could see there was some beautiful walnut grain underneath; it just wasn’t showing to its potential under that dark finish.

If you’ve ever watched Antiques Roadshow on TV, you probably know that antique appraisers cringe at the thought of refinishing old wooden objects. What once may have been a $100,000 antique would more likely be worth $10,000 under a shiny new coat of varnish. I was faced with the dilemma of whether to keep the old finish on this armoire or replace it. I didn’t pay anything like the above sums for this piece. When my heirs one day sell this at their own yard sale, who cares if they only get $100 versus the $225 I paid. I will be looking at this piece of furniture for the rest of my life. The last thing I want to look at is some dull old black varnish that hides the beautiful walnut grain beneath. The decision to refinish the armoire was an easy one for me.

Before a new finish could be applied, the old one had to be removed. A scraper proved to be an efficient way of taking off the brittle old varnish. In areas that were not flat, such as the carvings at the top, a sharp knife was used as a detail scraper.

After the varnish was scraped away, the piece was washed down with lacquer thinner. This melts any remaining varnish residue and leaves a very thin varnish layer as a base for applying the new finish. The piece was then sanded lightly, but by using these techniques, very little sanding was needed.

For the final finish, I wanted something that looks nice while retaining the old appearance of the piece. I didn’t want a new plastic-like glossy look. Consequently, I sanded only lightly, leaving the little nicks, scratches, and dents that are inherent in an old piece of furniture. I selected Minwax satin polyurethane as the finish, using a spray can for the less visible areas such as the back panels and drawer bottom, and the wipe-on version for areas that are fully visible.

The drawer front was the first section I finished, and I buffed it lightly with fine steel wool and applied a coat of paste wax. This made the drawer way too shiny for my liking, so I washed the wax off with mineral spirits and left it and the other sections with only the bare poly finish.

The next update will be the final assembly of the piece and conclusion of the project. There may be a little surprise at the end, so stay tuned!

Update #4 (10/16/14) – Final Assembly
This piece fits together ingeniously. Dowels on the top and bottom of the side panels fit loosely in holes in the top and bottom sections. Likewise, dowels in the center divider fit in the bottom section and top shelf. The back panels then screw into rabbets in the bottom, side, and top sections to hold the whole piece together. It comes apart easily for moving, which is a nice feature in such a large piece.

Here is the armoire assembled and completed.

In this open door picture, a 6 foot rule is included for scale. The armoire is 85 inches tall, 56 inches wide, and 22 inches deep.

Here are a few detail pictures.

The repaired carving is hardly noticeable.

That completes this project. I enjoyed restoring this old timer and putting it back to use as an attractive piece of furniture in my home. I hope you’ve enjoyed coming along on the journey.

I’ve always liked old things. Not only are they often of better quality than what you can buy today, but they have a history and a story to tell. Unless they’re passed down through the family, we often can’t discover that story. Still, whenever I restore an old tool, a piece of antique furniture, or anything else old, I like to try to learn as much about it as possible.

As I was restoring this armoire, I noticed these words scrawled in 4” high cursive writing on the back: Geo. Braun, Chicago, Ill. Was this the maker of this piece of furniture? Or perhaps was it made some place like Pennsylvania, and George Braun was its owner?

Photo: Difficult to see, the words Geo. Braun, Chicago, Ill are written on the back of the armoire.

Curious to know, I googled George Braun, Chicago. What I discovered was that there have been a lot of Brauns in Chicago over the years. Some of these had ties to Pennsylvania, where the Brauns were among the earliest German immigrants in that region. One Braun who currently lives in Chicago is George Braun III. Could this be the great grandson of the man who once owned my armoire? Quite possibly it could.

I found another George Braun in an 1887 Chicago city directory. He, along with his brother Daniel, were owners of the company George Braun and Bro. I wasn’t able to discover what type of company it was, but the date seems about right for my armoire. Remarkably, in that same directory, was another George Braun. This one, George P. Braun, was part owner of the company Braun & Fitts. They produced a product known as butterine, a type of oleomargarine. George filed several patents for his product and even wrote a book about it.

When I found this armoire, it was at an estate sale at a tiny little house in Missoula, MT. Presumably the owners had passed away. The house was filled with old stuff of every sort and description, and I suspect the old couple who lived there had owned this armoire for a very long time. How it came from Chicago to Montana is a mystery. It would be a story worth learning, if only I could.

-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Rocky Mountain Saw Works

29 comments so far

View BigRedKnothead's profile


8542 posts in 2159 days

#1 posted 09-06-2014 04:03 PM

Ohh….I’ll be watching this one. I have a hard time getting into restoring old furniture, but I would’ve had a hard time leaving that one behind too.

-- "At the end of the day, try and make it beautiful....because the world is full of ugly." Konrad Sauer

View luv2learn's profile


2868 posts in 2480 days

#2 posted 09-06-2014 04:14 PM

I can already see that it is a beautiful piece. I will follow your restoration with great interest.

-- Lee - Northern idaho~"If the women don't find you handsome, at least they ought to find you handy"~ Red Green

View theoldfart's profile


10116 posts in 2628 days

#3 posted 09-06-2014 05:12 PM

Bob, looking forward to this restore. The burl looks like it will really pop when your’e done.

-- "With every tool obtained, there is another that is needed" DonW ( Kevin )

View Brit's profile


7523 posts in 3020 days

#4 posted 09-06-2014 10:12 PM

That is a fantastic find Bob. I’ll be watching with interest. Definitely a lot work there.

-- - Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View Matt in Franklin's profile

Matt in Franklin

294 posts in 1790 days

#5 posted 09-06-2014 10:48 PM

Cant wait! Even though I can imagine how much work it would be to restore that piece, I could not have passed on such beautiful walnut!

-- Follow me on instagram and facebook @mwawoodworks ,,

View Don W's profile

Don W

18990 posts in 2745 days

#6 posted 09-09-2014 01:46 PM

a nice piece Bob. Good luck with the restoration.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View helluvawreck's profile


32087 posts in 3044 days

#7 posted 09-09-2014 02:12 PM

It will be interesting to follow along as you restore this wonderful piece.

helluvawreck aka Charles

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View lysdexic's profile


5256 posts in 2800 days

#8 posted 09-29-2014 02:27 AM

I’ll be following along as well.

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View summerfi's profile


4025 posts in 1864 days

#9 posted 10-09-2014 01:36 AM

Making progress. See Update #1 above.

-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Rocky Mountain Saw Works

View theoldfart's profile


10116 posts in 2628 days

#10 posted 10-09-2014 01:39 AM

Oh Yea, gonna be good. Nice work so far Bob.

-- "With every tool obtained, there is another that is needed" DonW ( Kevin )

View Brit's profile


7523 posts in 3020 days

#11 posted 10-09-2014 10:10 AM

Looking good Bob.

-- - Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15659 posts in 2795 days

#12 posted 10-09-2014 12:15 PM

Those are called ‘knock-down wardrobes’ in this area. Great pieces from yesteryear, when built-in closets were unknown. Love the work you’re doing, Bob. Great blog, thanks for sharing!

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View summerfi's profile


4025 posts in 1864 days

#13 posted 10-09-2014 02:46 PM

Smitty, when I was very young, I recall a couple of these wardrobes in my grandma’s house in West Virginia. Her house was old, had no closets, no bathroom or running water. Her wardrobes were a much cheaper version though, and may have even been made of a heavy cardboard type material. Things have sure changed in the past 100 years.

-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Rocky Mountain Saw Works

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15659 posts in 2795 days

#14 posted 10-09-2014 03:27 PM

Her wardrobes were a much cheaper version though, and may have even been made of a heavy cardboard type material.

- summerfi

My grandma had a couple of those cardboard-ish types as well, many years ago.

I once purchased a very tall oak K-D wardrobe and had it inside the back entrance of our house, in kind of an entry way / foyer space. Fit great there. My other grandma came in for a visit, saw the cabinet that I was pretty proud to finally own, and said “Why would you want one of those things? Couldn’t wait to have real closets and put those things on the curb. Might have burned them, too, I can’t recall.”

That’s evolution. :-)

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View summerfi's profile


4025 posts in 1864 days

#15 posted 10-13-2014 12:55 AM

Progress continues. See update #2 above.

-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Rocky Mountain Saw Works

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