Fabric and Finish

UPLS Chair Restored in Period Method

By Angus Kirk McClellan '05

UPLS Chair Hampden-Sydney CollegeMembers of the Union-Philanthropic Literary Society (UPLS) regularly meet in Winston Hall’s Patrick Henry Room, where three chairs used since the 19th century continue to serve the students of oratory, debate, and argument. The American Empire-style centerpiece chair, on which the society’s president sits atop the club’s much-older dais, was recently restored by Perry’s Pianos out of Concord, just west of Appomattox.

It may seem strange that a company specializing in pianos would restore a chair, but Perry and his craftsmen have mastered a skill particularly conducive to enhancing 19th-century wood. The French polish method, popularized during the Victorian era, employs secretions harvested from the Indian scale insect Kerria lacca. The thick, crimson discharge yielded from this beetle-like bug is purified through heat-treating or liquid extraction, producing a hard, flaky resin known as shellac. The flaky shellac is then dissolved in ethanol, and then applied to wood surfaces with an oil-coated, cotton rubbing-pad. Thin layers are repeatedly applied by hand—a lengthy process that can take weeks or months to complete. The result is a shine that “flows deep into the wood pores and finishes smooth at the level of the wood. ... This allows the wood grain to move in the light, show color variations, depth, character, and resilient glowing,” as Perry describes.

Indeed, the deep, robust shine is apparent, especially in the smooth, top portion of the inside back. The company also replaced the upholstery on the arms, back, and seat with a white fabric closely matching the original design. The final product is a complete restoration that will remain a fitting piece in UPLS debates for many years.