Restoration of Hamilton Printer's Cabinet

Finished Hamilton Printer's Cabinet
The Finished Cabinet

I have, for some time, been looking for some kind of display cabinet with shallow drawer to better store the odds and ends I have, in particular various rocks and fossils I have found over the years that I wanted to keep in a more suitable way.

I was ideally looking for an antique piece, but none of the cabinets I found seemed to fit the bill, especially due to their price. I had looked a bit at printers cabinets, but unfortunately most of these are fairly large.

After some searching, and a chance find on the web, I ended up buying a Hamilton Printer’s cabinet from an antique dealer in Lincolnshire. The cabinet looked fundamentally sound and complete in the photos, although very dirty and somewhat bashed about, so I took a risk and bought it unseen. Thankfully when it arrived it was pretty much as I expected.

Hamilton Cabinet as Delivered  Top of Cabinet  Side View
The Cabinet as it arrived

The Hamilton Manufacturing Company were a massive supplier of printer’s cabinets, wooden type and medical cabinets and are still in existence under another name. A full history can be found in the links below. The cabinet doesn’t appear to have any date marks on it, but Hamilton started producing these items around 1890 and finished manufacturing in timber in 1917 so it will fall in that era. The carcass and drawer fronts appear are almost certainly oak, and the drawer runners saplewood. I believe it to be a paper, card or form storage cabinet.

The first physical job after doing some research was to start by removing all the drawers. The majority of these turned out to be sound, with just two needing some repair. The carcass could then be seen to be in a similar condition- 2 damaged runners and two opened up joints that would need repair. I want this cabinet to be a practical, usable piece of furniture in my house, and so it wasn’t really possible to leave the finish as was. As the cabinet was made around 100 years ago, there was a very high probability that it had been finished in a shellac varnish. This meant that stripping could be done with methylated spirits, rather than harsher paint & varnish strippers. In turn this means less need to use abrasives, and retention of some of the colour and patina of the base oak. The main carcass was stripped in a few evenings work, although I found the carcass front and drawer fronts had been re-varnished at some time in its life, so took significantly more time and effort to remove. This included having to use paint stripper on the drawer fronts to remove modern varnish, followed by meths to remove the shellac remnants.

Cleaning in Progress
Cleaning in Progress

The next main job was to make repairs to the cabinet. For this I used liquid hide glue so that it could easily be removed in the future if necessary. The main tasks here were to re-secure two mortise and tenon joints at the cabinet base and to turn over two of the drawer runners so that a fresh running edge was exposed. There was other damage to mouldings but i decided to not repair these to keep the character if the cabinet, just sanding back to smooth splintery edges where necessary.

Clamping up the cabinet

I stripped the drawer handles back to bare metal by soaking in meths and using fine scotch-brite and dental probes to remove the varnish, followed by a coat of clear lacquer to protect from rust.

Two drawers needed repair, both due to excessive wear and splintering on the drawer runners. One was too bad to be repaired, but I was able to salvage usable wood from this runner by dismantling it that could then be cut to s strip to build up the runner on the other drawer. This left me with one new runner to make from scratch. For this I used a length of beech salvaged from an old settee. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to find a suitable piece of wood of the same type as used on the existing drawer- I believed this to be saplewood. The beech was however a similar colour, and well seasoned.

I sawed and planed the plank down to the right size, routed a slot for the drawer base and drilled new dowel holes before glueing the new side on with hide glue, and tacking in place.

Damaged Drawer  Drawer repairs underway
Drawer repairs in progress

Finishing was carried out by applying two coats of French polish to all parts, ‘de-nibbed’ (very lightly sanded) between coats followed by a polish with a good quality beeswax.

The final thing to do is now to line the drawers, but to date I haven’t decided what paper or fabric to use- this will be decided soon.

In all I have ended up with a sound cabinet, fulfilling the needs I have, and have learnt a fair amount about restoring furniture. The main thing I’ve learnt is to not underestimate the time needed in cleaning or how much kitchen roll is needed!

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(c) M. Pantrey 2012