Take Down - Some Disassembly Required
Once you have made the decision to refinish an older or antique piece of furniture, naturally the next thought is the schedule of events that happen between now and the final coat of finish. That schedule is normally presented in the following order, with some minor variations on occasion: 1-Strip 2-Repair 3-Iron and Sand 4-Stain 5-Fill if required 6-Sand Fill 7-Restain and finally, 8-Apply Finish. That's a pretty reasonable list except that it leaves out two very important steps which should be the first and last steps, respectively i.e. disassembly and reassembly.
Disassembling a complicated piece can be a daunting proposition but proper disassembly makes for easy reassembly and taking it apart is really not that bad and is an absolute must for clean, professional looking results. You just can't strip, sand and finish well around hardware left on and around glass panels still in place so with that motivation take a good look at your intended project. Often, at first glance, the reaction is "It doesn't come apart" but the response to that is "It didn't grow there. Someone put it there and if they put it there it will come apart". Let's demonstrate the process by disassembling a Colonial Revival, 1930's bookcase secretary with glass doors and a slanted drop front.
The most important tools in this process are pencil, paper and masking tape. Time spent here is worth three times the time in reassembly. Start by removing the large drawers under the drop front. As you remove each drawer number it and inspect it, making note of any repairs that may be required later such as loose or missing veneer, worn or missing slides and anomalies in the hardware and locks. Next remove the hardware from the drawers and if there are variations in size or pattern in the hardware note which piece goes where on what drawer. Put the screws for the hardware in the hardware. Remove the locks if there are any and don't forget to number the locks on the back with a piece of masking tape with their corresponding drawer number. Tape the screws in the holes of the lock.
Next remove the glass doors. As you remove screws from the hinges place them in order nearby so they can be taped in place in the hinge when it is removed. Start by removing screws in the case first so the door comes away from the case with hinges still attached. As you remove each hinge from the loose door use an awl or sharp screwdriver to scratch some ID on the back of the hinge so that it can be replaced in its original position later. Something like "LTC" on a hinge leaf means this leaf belongs on the "Left Top Case" and the other hinge from that door is labeled "LBC" or "Left Bottom Case". After hinges, locks and pulls or hardware are removed, then remove the glass and label it with tape so you know which door it goes to and which side is up and which faces in. Then remove and label the muntinís, the "grill work" on the outside of the glass.
Now remove the shelves. They should just lift out and expose the shelf supports which are also removed. If they do not lift out but appear to fit in grooves they can be tapped out the back after the back panels are removed. Usually a secretary like this has two back panels, upper and lower and both must be removed carefully by pulling the nails from the back side, not by pounding the panels from the front. They will splinter. After the panels are removed the back of the inside cubby hole structure is revealed. Usually the cubby holes are nailed into the top deck from the rear and inside the cubby slots. Locate the nails and carefully pry the cubby down and remove it out the back of the cabinet. Also remove the small drawers in the cubby and disassemble the small interior door just as you did the glass doors.
Now remove the drop front. This one is sometimes not so obvious in its removal. Lower the drop to its full horizontal position. There are two sets of hardware associated with a drop front, the hinges that allow the drop to move up and down and the support structure that operates the drop front supports that extend from the case for the drop to rest on. First, locate and remove the screws from the support operator and move it out of the way if necessary. Then release the hinges, labeling as above and taping screws in place. Remove the drop front to a table and remove locks and hardware as before. Remove the drop front supports out the back of the piece after releasing the operator arms. The piece should now be fully disassembled except for removal of the finial. Check to see if the finial is loose or if it is nailed, glued or screwed in. If at all possible remove it.
You now have one big task left - the "body count", a list of pieces. You should end up with a list that looks something like the following: 1 Case, 2 Back panels, 2 Glass doors, 2 Muntinís, 2 Shelves, 1 Cubby Hole, 1 Small interior door, 3 Small interior drawers, 2 Document Drawers, 1 Drop Front, 3 Large Drawers, 2 Drop Front Supports and 1 Finial plus a large can of appropriately labeled hinges, pulls and locks. As you proceed through each step of the finish schedule, refer to the body count often. Nothing is worse than being done only to find the last small piece you forgot about. Good luck.
Assuming that the refinish job has been completed, it is now time to reassemble this project and admire the final product.
Reassembly is not necessarily just a rerun in reverse of the take down process. Some things may have changed with the piece during the refinishing especially if you did extensive repair work and certain "sensitivities" must be taken into account such as the aversion glass panels seem to have to hammer strokes in their vicinity. A good place to start is with the "body count" you created upon disassembly. Go over the list and make sure you have all the pieces within easy reach and that each piece has in fact been refinished and accounted for. Then review your notes from the disassembly process concerning missing, mismatched or broken screws, unusual hardware arrangements and/or other similar quirks of the individual components of the piece. Finally, before actually putting it all together again, visualize the piece fully assembled to get a mental picture of your final destination.
The general rule of thumb is to first assemble all the component pieces and then assemble the piece.
Assuming that you have cleaned and sealed all your hardware, including hinges, pulls and locks start with the main drawers by attaching the appropriate hardware and locks and test fit them in the case. A little silicone spray lubricant is in order here even if they work well. Now set them aside and move on to the cubbyhole drawers and door. Fit the drawers to the cubbyhole case, lube them as above and set them aside. Attach the hinges of the door to the door itself first as opposed to attaching the hinges to the case first. Be sure to observe your original marking pattern. You want to be sure that each hinge is in it's original position on the door. They are much happier that way. Now attach the hinges to the case. Set the cubbyhole assembly with doors and drawers aside.
Turning your attention to the drop front, attach any relevant hardware at this point, such as escutcheons, key surrounds, locks, pulls and hinges and, you guessed it, set it aside. Next are the glass paneled doors. The rule here is to install the glass last. Attach pulls, handles, locks, elbow catches, escutcheons and other miscellaneous hardware first. Then attach the hinges in their proper places. Only after all the hard stuff is in place do you bring out the glass for cleaning before installation. After cleaning set the glass aside and install the muntin in the door first. Muntinís are traditionally mounted outside the glass to give the appearance of separate panes of glass in the door. However, if the muntinís are in poor condition, warped or cracked, they can be installed on the inside of the glass to preserve them while still somewhat maintaining the appearance of individual glass panels. It's better than leaving them out altogether. After positioning the muntinís and glass, carefully install the molding strips that secure the glass. Use heavy cardboard or mat board to protect the glass from your hammer as you tap in the small nails. After both doors are assembled, set them aside. They will be the last items used in the final assembly.
Using a very small amount of water based craft glue such as "Tacky Glue" install pieces of felt on the top sides of the drop front supports wherever they touch the drop itself. Then slide the supports into their slots from the back of the cabinet making sure the operator arms move freely in their space and making sure the added felt does not make the supports bind in their positions. If they do tend to bind, plane a very small amount from the bottom of each support. With the supports fully extended, place the drop front in position and install the screws in the hinges. Then install the screws in the support operator arms. Now the drop front should open and close perfectly and the supports extend when the drop is open. Adjust as required to achieve smooth operation and use silicone spray on the supports from INSIDE the cabinet.
Slide the cubby hole assembly into place from the rear of the cabinet and nail it from the inside rear to the top deck, making sure that it is level across the top and does not sag in the middle. Next, install the large lower drawers and check their fit again. Now is the time to install stop blocks in the rear of the cabinet if the drawers slide in too far. When everything works properly, drop front, cubby door and drawers and large lower drawers, it is time to install the lower back panel using small nails.
With the lower case assembly now completed, slide the upper case shelves in place from the rear if they fit in a rabbetted slot and nail on the upper back panel. Hang the doors by installing the screws in the hinges and you are now done, unless the doors don't work. If they bind or rub on the top or bottom of the case, try leveling the piece using coins under various feet until the doors swing freely. Remember that very few floors are perfectly level and every time this piece is moved it will require re-leveling. If you managed to reassemble this project without breaking something or scratching your new finish job you have done some good work. Congratulations.
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