Anybody who’s known me for any length of time (and for that you have my sincere condolences!), you’ll know that one of my pet passions in collecting and restoring antiques is the refurbishment of antique writing slopes.
Slopes and Me
I got into writing slopes, writing boxes, stationery-boxes, writing-cases…whatever the hell you wanna call them – analogue laptops…when I was very, very young. As a child, I lived very close to two antiques shops, and I used to go in there every weekend as a five, six, and seven-year-old boy and drool over the antiques, wishing that I had the money to own even a quarter of the amazing things they had for sale.
But of all the things I saw, one in particular, grabbed my attention. I would’ve been seven or eight years old when I first beheld a Victorian writing slope – complete with its gorgeous, tooled leather skiver, bright green in colour, with gold leaf inlaid into the edges. Oh how badly I wanted it! Ever since the age of six or seven, I’d had a mad passion for antique writing equipment – dip-pens, quills, inkwells, the list goes on…and to me, to own a writing slope was a dream come true, ever since that fateful day.
Unfortunately, writing slopes are extremely expensive, and as employment opportunities for prepubescent boys are limited, my dream remained a dream for twenty years, until I finally started buying, collecting, and restoring my own writing boxes, starting in about 2010. Ever since, I’d like to think I’ve become a bit of an expert on them. I genuinely feel that they are an underappreciated and forgotten antique, and too few people bother to save them or understand the historical significance they once held.
The Velvet Box
I purchased this particular box, the box on which this posting will be focusing, at my local auction-house. I’d never actually won one of these things before. I’d bought a few, and fixed them, but I’d never won any – mostly because the prices they go for – even in appalling condition – can be prohibitively expensive for a budding antiques dealer such as myself.
Anyway, this particular trip to the auction-house, I got lucky. Nobody wanted it, and I managed to catch it at a good price.
The box was essentially intact. It had no key and no inkwell…which is pretty common with these old boxes…and the writing slope was a bit wonky…and the security-catch didn’t work right. But I was convinced that I could repair it. I’d refurbished boxes in worse condition than this, after all, so I was sure it wouldn’t be an issue.
Cutting a Key for the Lock
How easy it is to cut a key for an antique lock, I think, largely depends on two or three different factors:
1). Complexity of the lock.
2). Accessibility to the lock.
3). Materials and equipment that you have available to you.
If the lock you’re dealing with is a simple, one-lever dealie, then finding, or making a key to fit the lock is pretty easy (although it may take a while). If the lock you’re dealing with is open (as in, you’re not trying to pick a lock that’s already locked and shut and tight!), then cutting or finding a new key for it will be much easier – especially if you can actually remove the lock, pull it apart and then put it back together again to see exactly what type of key it needs.
Lastly, comes the rather fiddly process of actually cutting the key – should this be necessary – for your lock. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a key that fits perfectly and you won’t need to cut it. But if for whatever reason, you need to (to fit the lock, to fit the wards, etc), then having the right stuff will determine how easy, or how difficult, this is going to be.
First, you won’t actually be ‘cutting’ anything. You’ll more likely be filing. Get yourself a set of small, fine-grained metal files. Find a standard, flat, rectangular one, and start there. Make sure the files are fine – if they’re coarse, you could scrape off too much metal on the key and be left with something useless.
Second, you need access to the lock. This is why it’s so much easier to work on a lock when whatever it’s locking, is open. That way you can see more easily how the lock works (or even better, remove the lock entirely). If you can’t, then cutting a new key will be much more difficult, probably even impossible. It can be done (I’ve done it!), but it will take a lot of trial and error.
Once you’ve successfully found, or cut a key for the lock, the next step is to lubricate the lock, just to be sure that everything works exactly as it should, and to prevent the lock from seizing up on you unexpectedly.
Repairing the Skiver
The trickiest part of restoring this box was repairing the skiver.
The skiver is that thin sheet glued over the writing-leaves which holds them together. They’re usually made of leather, but this one was made of velvet. Velvet skivers were a thing, and they certainly were popular, but as with anything that’s over a hundred years old, they wear out.
The skiver on this box was starting to come apart. The glue used to hold it down had deteriorated long ago. Fortunately not to any great extent, but it still put the future of the box in a precarious position. All it would take was one careless tug or rip, for the entire thing to come apart. Re-gluing the skiver and pressing it down to stop the rot, was the first restorative action which I took on this box. Everything else could take time and patience. This could not. It had to be tackled right away if keeping the box in one piece was going to be a reality.
Antique writing boxes were made in such a way that the writing-slope panels were held together not with nails, screws, rivets or hinges, but…glue. Glue, and fabric. And only glue and fabric. The two wooden panels that make up the writing-surface are held onto the box only by the velvet panel going across them, and the sheer grace of God.
And a bit of glue.
You can see the implications here. Once the fabric rips – the ENTIRE PIECE has to be replaced. And it’s a very fiddly, irritating, messy, long, drawn out process.
I should know. I’ve done it before. And it’s not a pleasant operation.
That was why, to save the skiver and glue down the loose fabric as fast and as effectively as possible, was the first thing I did. Once that was done, I re-enforced the hinge with some extra-strong adhesive tape from the inside, underneath the wooden panels, to ensure that the box’s writing-slope panels really could be opened and closed without incident. The skiver and its beautiful border-decorations had been saved.
Cutting a New Notch
The next step in restoring this box was to rebuild the notch in the lower writing-leaf.
All boxes of this kind had a notch chiseled or carved into the lower writing-leaf. This was to accept a little brass catch which held the leaf closed when you opened and shut the box. If you didn’t have it, then the lower writing leaf would drop open the moment you closed the box, spilling whatever was inside it, all over the place.
As is fairly common with these old boxes, the notch in question had worn away from decades of the little brass catch rubbing and rubbing and rubbing and rubbing on it, over and over again, from the countless times the lid was opened and shut. Because of this, it simply didn’t work anymore. The writing-leaf would pop open, or fall open or rattle around inside the box, and it’s probably how the skiver got damaged in the first place. With a spare piece of wood, a hammer, a chisel and some extremely strong glue, I was able to chisel out the old notch and replace the worn out wood with a fresh piece of wood large enough to catch the brass tab, without damaging the box.
How Old is this Box?
*clears throat…scratches head*
The truth is that dating antique writing boxes is very, very hard. They were manufactured for a very long time (approximately three hundred years), and once established designs had been formalised, they rarely altered. Unless the box is of a particular style, or from a particular maker, they can be extremely hard to date. Most boxes of this type were generic, and were made in their thousands. My roughest guess would be mid-Victorian, probably around the 1850s or 60s, and I’d just as likely be wrong as right. At any rate, it’s certainly been around the block a few times, although whoever did own it at one point certainly seemed to have taken good care of it, since it’s not in anywhere near as bad a condition as some boxes I’ve seen!
Anyway, that concludes this little foray into restoring yet another Victorian writing-box. This one was easier than most, but it was still a challenge to get everything right. That said, I am extremely pleased with the end results!