A Tale of Three Old Screws.

Some months ago, a friend of mine advertised a bureau for sale. I didn’t really need another bureau, but went anyway, to “just take a look”. One of the boards that makes up the back was over two feet wide. I have a soft spot for quirky old furniture, especially quirky old furniture that is made of really wide boards, and was unable to resist. The seller could tell me the story of the chest, from his time of ownership all the way back to the families in East and West Bridgwater that owned the chest before 1900.

Did you know that I also have a soft spot for good stories?

I told Charlie I’d buy it.

I’d fix it up sometime……


It came home with me, and took up residence in my shop.

And sat there……….

A few weeks ago, one of my daughters called and asked if I had any bureaus around.

I showed her the old bureau, and she kind of liked it. I told her maybe she could have it. I wasn’t sure I could part with it.

But shortly afterwards, I realized that there was a blank spot next to her name on the Christmas list.

Bureau-fix-up-time elbowed its way to a priority spot on “the list”.

I started fixing up the old thing. At some time in the past, its wood had been infested with some sort of wood-boring worms, which left the top perforated, tracked and scored with little worm tunnels. I wasn’t sure if I could save the top piece, an ancient poplar board almost twenty inches wide. A previous repairer had filled in the tunnels and divots with tan wood putty, and stained the top to conceal the patches, but the job had become pretty obvious. Test stripping of the top proved that a fix would be very difficult.

In the past, I have been able to save furniture with badly damaged tops by removing them, turning them over, reattaching and refinishing the previous underside. It appeared that the top was just held on by screws, so I made the attempt. The fasteners were hard to reach. I couldn’t get enough leverage to turn them. I had to put the bureau top-down on the floor and climb inside, with screwdriver and some big water-pump pliers. It took fifteen or twenty minutes of focused effort to get three of four back row screws out. Despite being careful, the slot stripped. Screw number four was going nowhere. Drat.

I turned my attention to the front row screws.

There was a surprise when the first one came out.

The screw had no point. Neither did the other two front screws.

When I looked at them more closely, a second interesting thing became apparent.

The slots on the heads were not centered, as you might expect.

They had been hand-cut, with a hack saw or with a file.

You don’t see screws like this very often. These were some old screws.

I did some research and found in The July 2002, Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – A “System for Dating Country & Primitive Furniture, Part One”. Some of what I learned will be found in the captions underneath the two photographs below.

How old are these fasteners?

How about circa 1846?


No points! “The common wood screw underwent a major change in 1846 when T. J. Sloan of New York City invented the first machine to mass-produce this item. Sloan holds many patents for cutting threads, shaping points, and forming the heads of screws.Before 1846, all screws were handmade and the slot in the top of the screw was hand cut with a hacksaw. Seldom was the cut placed exactly in the center. Because the new machine made screw was inexpensive, it was readily accepted by cabinetmakers. Items made after 1846 are made using this new screw.”



Eccentric slots! “For the first ten years of production, machine made screws were made with no slot in their head. The slot still had to be cut by hand with a hacksaw. Country furniture made with these screws can easily be dated to the ten-year period 1846-1856.The Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania has samples of Sloan’s screws on display. The Mercer library contains materials on both machine made screws and methods of cutting screws by hand.”

The top is now back on, with defects fixed, stain applied, and four coats of a clear finish applied. It looks good. I’ll be signing and dating the job, and will write a history of the piece and glue it to the inside of the case. One way I “signed” the work was to replace the screws with stainless steel “tapping” screws. That will date my work as effectively as the pointless screws dated the original maker. I’ll tuck the pointless screws somewhere inside there, too.

It won’t fit underneath a Christmas Tree, but I can stick a red bow on it, and put it nearby.

The old bureau might even make it to a third century of use.






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