Reproducing the Past Terry West's Furniture Honors the Craftsmanship of Days Gone By

By Donovan, Deborah | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

Reproducing the Past Terry West's Furniture Honors the Craftsmanship of Days Gone By


Donovan, Deborah, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Deborah Donovan Daily Herald Homes Writer

Terry West offers visitors to his St. Charles workshop more than just a peek at how old-fashioned furniture is crafted: He provides a history lesson as well.

He talks about how craftsmen worked, how ornamentation reflected a growing demand for finery, how color preferences shifted throughout history. And he knows from research why there are so few antique chairs, even for those willing to pay for them.

"According to the U.S. Census, in 1790 in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania the average home had one chair," he said. "That was for dad. Kids stood while eating, and the lady of the house served. The household might have had a bench with no back to it."

West learned about the past for a reason. He painstakingly creates reproductions of American antiques dating back to the 18th century.

Though a family practice doctor by profession, West devotes much of his spare time to his furniture. Several of his pieces will be for sale next weekend at the Country Folk Art Festival in St. Charles.

One piece sure to attract attention is a copy of a card table made by John Seymour in 1794. Featuring a delicate design of bellflowers and ribbon crafted in maple and inlayed in mahogany veneer, the table will be priced at $1,500.

"Inlaying developed as a replacement for carving," he explained. "Carving is more expensive, and in the late 18th century the desire for ornamentation became more and more as income rose. They always used the same tool to cut the design and insert it in the veneer."

The bellflower was an important American decoration over a few centuries, and lilies of the valley also showed up on furniture, West said. Roses were hard to execute in wood, but do appear on a few select pieces.

West designs his own furniture in addition to copying pieces from the past. His favorites seem to be 18th century pieces, the simple work of Shakers and several designs of Windsor chairs.

Actually he prefers anything that gives him a challenge, such as the inlaying in the Seymour table.

After cutting flower petals from the wood with a hand tool, West dips them in hot sand to toast them to a rich, brown color.

West, who considers woodworking and construction part of his heritage because he grew up around them, made his first chair when he was in college more than 30 years ago.

He tries to work as the old-time craftsman did, at least when it makes sense to do so.

For example, one technique learned from the masters is aging mahogany with potassium dichromate, which works only on that wood. Orange shellac and a mixture of linseed and tongue oils and turpentine are other finishes he favors.

When West paints reproduction furniture, it's with milk paint. This paint gets a flat, aged look by oxidizing over the centuries. To hurry the process, he coats the chair in shellac and sets it on fire - not something most woodworkers would want to try at home. …

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