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Heirloom Cradle

This was a conservation project for my wife's family of a circa 1903 walnut baby cradle. The cradle was built by my wife's great-grandfather for his first child, my wife's grandmother.  The family entrusted me with repairing 100-years of accumulated dirt and damage surprisingly I didn't find any teeth marks. Mostly the cradle suffered from the neglect of being stored in various unheated attics in Minnesota between generations.

Photos Before and After Conservation

Pulling the Pieces Out of the Box
The cradle was shipped to Texas in a "knocked down" state.  I laid everything out on the assembly table as it came out of the crate and then began piecing it back together.   As you can see, it was not in too bad a shape for 102. 

• Identifying  the Finish
Being constructed around 1903 by an amateur craftsman, the original finish was almost certainly oil or shellac.  There was definitely some type of film finish on the piece, so I first tested with alcohol and determined that the current finish was not shellac.  I then tested for lacquer with a bit of lacquer thinner on a swab no change.  I know that the cradle had been stored in an last attic for 15+ years, so I was confident it was not a water based finish, but just to be sure, I tried a bit of Xylene and got what I suspected - no reaction.  This left only one finish that I knew of -  varnish.   For those that know better than I, please correct me if I'm wrong. 

Assessing the Structural Issues
As for the damage, sections of the decorative figured veneer on both the headboard and footboard had been dislodged - apparently many years ago. One of the decorative crenulations (scalloped edge pieces) had also broken off many years ago. More recently, a couple of the dowels had been "punched through" creating holes in the face of the footboard.  Unfortunately, one of them was in a section of  the decorative hand carved grooving.    Also, all but one of the quartersawn white oak staves that once supported the baby mattress were gone.

Following the physicians, "do no harm" philosophy, I started out slow and easy.  I began cleaning with a mild solution of warm water and vinegar, applied with a maroon Scotch-Brite pad.  That once-over seemed to remove the wax  build-up and much of the surface dirt, but the grime with the most seniority refused to budge.  Since the finish was apparently varnish, I ratcheted up the ante and switched to a mixture of turpentine and mineral spirits.  This stronger solution took care of all the remaining dirt and grime and the finish cleaned up pretty well - if pretty dull.

  Making Repairs and Touching Up the Finish
Since the punched through dowel holes were going to require patches of similar grained walnut, I took the footboard up to Wood World here in Dallas (no joke) to search for suitable walnut boards.  I was in luck because they had a ton of walnut in that week, so I had plenty to choose from.  I located a close match for the patches that even had some figure that was a close match to the damaged decorative figured veneer. 

 Slight Modification
Since the original mattress and slats were not longer with us and I didn't anticipate that future generations would occupy the cradle for extended period - especially not with all the hoopla given to "child safety" today, I had opted to install a solid walnut bottom from glued-up 3/8" panels. With a new bottom in place, folded up quilts could be used as a baby mattress for short periods of time the cradle would serve its new roll better in the spare bedroom as a location to store the decorative bed pillows when the guest room bed was in use. 

  Method of Work
Since I as conserving and not refinishing,  I decided to make all my repairs using hide glue so that everything would be reversible. With that in mind I also decided not to repair the figured veneer sections, but to just leave them as testament to use and as "character marks."  I did repair the two more recent holes in the footboard with new walnut.  For the repair located in the decorative hand-grooving I took the liberty to use a 60 degree V-Tool from my Auriou wood carving set to match the pattern.   I worked up some custom stain and blended-in the finish on the repairs with Q-tips.  I mixed up some homemade wiping varnish by thinning out some Behlen Rockhard Table Top Varnish and applied a couple of coats to seal in my work.  The last thing that I did was apply two coats of Butcher's Bowling Alley Wax to give it that silky feel.  

The Completed Project
The cradle now commands center stage in the guest bedroom.  Since my wife is from a large family, and almost all of them stay with us at one time or another, the guest bedroom seems a fitting location since they all get to know their family heritage a bit better.  

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