Antique wheelchair is carefully restored


Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2002 at 9:48 p.m.
Q:I am writing concerning an antique wheelchair. Its history is detailed in the accompanying account, and I have also included photographs of the renovated chair.
This wheelchair is thought to date from the early 19th century. I purchased it during an overnight stay at the Silvermine Tavern in Norwalk, Conn., in 1952 or '53 while I was rummaging in the attic of the antique shop that was associated with the tavern.
The chair was in bad condition. The frame was broken, the seat was gone and one of the slats in the back was broken. The wheels and hardware, however, were intact.
The proprietor told me he thought the wood was cherry and that the chair had probably been constructed for a child or an invalid adult.
As constructed, the frame of the chair had been sturdy and could stand alone. It was mounted on an iron axle and suspended on a pair of wagon wheels with a pivoting wheel in the rear. Being a young medical student with a flair for woodworking, I found the chair irresistible.
Over the free time that I could spend I worked on the chair. It was in such poor condition that I practically had to disassemble it.
The wood was a dark red, not unlike mahogany but the grain was more consistent with cherry, a dark red cherry rather than the lighter colored cherry that one finds today. Being unable to find any red cherry, I chose mahogany to replace the broken slat and pieces of the frame, as this gave a better match for the color; however, the mahogany grain is recognizable in the restored chair.
A rush seat was made and installed. The reconstructed chair was finished with boiled linseed oil and turpentine. At that point it was a usable piece of furniture and with the demands of my medical career, work on restoring the chair ceased.
The wagon wheels had been disassembled, and they, the iron rims, pivot wheel and axle have traveled with me over the intervening half century until my recent retirement when I have found time to complete the renovation.
The most interesting part was the reassembling of the wagon wheels. Here I elicited the help of a blacksmith. When the spokes and the arc-like pieces of wood that made up the rim were assembled, the circumference of the wheel was greater than that of the iron rims that had encompassed the wheel. These rims had been forge-welded and once again the blacksmith reheated them on his forge, expanding them so that they could be fitted over the wheel, and as they cooled, they contracted and compressed the spokes and wooden arcs, thus restoring the integrity of the wheels.
As evidence that the chair was a unique and not a standardized production item, in reassembling it the threading on the ends of the axles was found to differ and the nuts must be fitted accordingly and are not interchangeable.
The natural color of the chair posed no problem in refinishing it, but the wheels were a source of much deliberation. Originally they were a bright orange, and one can still see traces of orange on the wheels, a color commonly used on wagon wheels in past years. However, the orange provided too sharp a contrast, and I have refinished the wheels with a red mahogany stain that blends with the finish of the chair.
The chair is again a functional wheel chair, though it has long since earned its retirement from active service.
Now that the chair has been restored, I am desirous of finding an appropriate home for it. One possibility would be to donate it to a museum of medical history or offer it for sale at auction, but I have no idea what its value would be. Accordingly, I am writing you with the hope that you might have suggestions as to how to proceed. Thank you for your interest.
W.R.F., Gainesville A:The wheelchair was certainly a labor of love. The story of the restoration is most interesting. I appreciate your taking the time to document the procedure. I am sure our readers will find your project a good read.
I think a donation to the appropriate institution will be far more rewarding than the dollar value it might produce if it were sold.
I suggest you contact Dr. C. Keith Wilbur, 397 Prospect St., Northampton, MA 01060. His phone number is (413) 584-1440. Dr. Wilbur produces a catalog of antique medical, dental and apothecary items for sale and has authored several books on the subject. Let us know what you discover.
John Sikorski, an Ocala antiques dealer, has been in the business for 20 years. He hosts a call-in radio show, "Sikorski's Attic," on WUFT-FM (89.1 FM). It can be heard each Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon. Send your questions to Sikorski's Attic, c/o The Gainesville Sun, P.O. Box 147147, Gainesville, FL 32614-7147.

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