I come from near the Northumbrian coastal town of Blyth, which used to be part of the long lost shipbuilding industry. The industry was in terminal decline even in the 1950’s.
I have several connections to the place. My grandfather used to take me for walks in my pushchair along the timber staithes (pronounced steethes up there), which had been built for the coal export trade. I can still remember the excitement of the place, walking out over the sea. Decades later my late cousin became Blyth harbour-master in an ill-fated attempt to come ashore from the Merchant Navy. My father was the woodwork teacher at Blyth Grammar School in the 1950’s.
One of the places we visited out of interest was a ship-breakers called Hughes Bolkow’s, where you could buy interesting items salvaged from ships and recycled timber. Many local people furnished their houses with cupboards from ships, which had the interesting feature that they were made to fit curved walls and sloping floors, making for some interesting installations. In those days there were large quantities of teak being salvaged and the yard used to provide it free to my father’s woodwork classes by the cart load. At one point he had several of the schools remaining air raid shelters packed with the stuff. At today’s prices they could have build a new school with the proceeds!
A side-line of the yard was making garden benches from the teak, which were marketed throughout the UK, accompanied by documents confirming the provenance of the vessel from which the timber had originated. This was recorded on a small metal plaque attached to each bench. The seats and tables on the terrace of the Houses of Parliament are one famous example of Bolko's activity.
One such bench ended up in the family of a friend in Derby where it performed its duties for many years. Unfortunately it appears to have been left under a leaking gutter or similar for a very long time which had caused severe rot in some of the sections. This in itself is very unusual as teak is incredibly rot resistant but it is, in the end, organic.
My friend’s father died and she asked me to restore the bench as an heirloom to the family, despite it’s poor condition and an awareness of the cost of replacement timber.
The provenance of the bench was detailed on a small metal plaque pinned to the back rail and from this it had been possible to trace the interesting history of the vessel, the Arlanza.
Note the miss spelling of Bolko's!
It is amazing to think that every piece of timber in this old bench has travelled the world many times, been captured by the Germans and carried thousand of passengers on their way. How many hands have held these rails? What stories could they tell?
The bench was in a sorry state with rot, general wear and tear and all joints were loose. The slats were nearly all split at the ends and the use of steel screws, possibly as a repair had split the seat rails which had to be replaced.
The first step was to assess the extent of the damage, disassemble up to a point and decide on the nature of the restoration. The tenons were all dowelled but these had been drilled at random and were not evenly spaced. (So much for faultless craftsmanship of old). The glue appeared to be white lead and had long since failed and so was carefully scraped off. I wanted to retain a degree of the patina of age and restricted myself to cleaning off the surface with planes and spokeshaves which quickly revealed sound timber beneath. Even in the badly rotted area sound timber was only a couple of mm below the surface, quite different to most other timbers so the teak had earned it’s reputation. I used a steel guide to drill out the dowels and the joints then knocked apart relatively easily. One prime cause of damage was the use of steel screws in previous repairs which had corroded and swollen, splitting the timber. This required that both seat rails needed replacing plus one of the front legs. The seat slats were all split at the ends but I felt this could be repaired and alternative fixings used for the rebuild.
There were some very odd reduced head brass screws, which looked original, holding the slats from below.
The dowels were drilled out using a steel guide to prevent wandering and worked well.
It was then quite easy to knock out the joints as the glue had long since vanished.
Many of the parts cleaned up readily with plane and spokeshave, revealing sound timber close to the original surface.
There was a bit of patching to do on local damaged areas. I used a PU adhesive throughout for outside use and to grip on the oily timber.
Some parts required intensive care over and above normal but were eventually returned to service.
I did require 2 lengths of 1500 x 100 x 50 teak to make those parts which were beyond repair and to my horror, but not surprise, these cost £200 for the pair!!!
As there were only a few mortices to cut I decided to do them by hand using the new Narex mortice chisels. These performed well and held a good edge.
Teak was beautiful to pare with the oil content and cleaned out like cheese.
Next came the slats with a clan out and glue up of the split ends. I was trying to retain the patina of 100 years so did not want to replace every bit of damaged timber. I was aiming for a usable bench which retained it's history.
After much thought I decided to drill out the damaged screw holes, which in any case were drilled at random, and turn some cross grain plugs to glue in place and re-drill for brass screws.
My Dad is a lathe fanatic and has spent most of the past 90 years either making them or dreaming up ever more advanced developments. This one is made of wood and metal with a saddle and compound slide, dividing head, spiral turning attachment, taper offset on the tailstock, collet chucks etc etc. It will turn both wood and light metal and is ideal for making batches of cross grain plugs (not the easiest of turning operations).
The glued up slats were drilled out for the plugs
Once all the components were cleaned up and repaired it was time to consider re-assembly. I would need some dowels so used the scrap timber to make some. I band-sawed the timber into squares then block planed off the corners before whacking them through a suitably sized hole drilled in the same 6mm steel bar.
Reassembly commenced with the back frame. As I said earlier the original dowels had been drilled at random and it was necessary to fill some redundant holes with dowel as well as the draw bore pins. PU foaming glue is really good at filling gaps in old joints and made a very rigid frame when dry.
Long sash cramps made from 50 x 25mm steel RHS work well.
One new leg pairs up with one old and new front and seat rails.
Where rails were too narrow from shrinkage or cleaning up I inserted side wedges to make the joints solid with a dab of glue on the wedges. These were then cleaned off with a sharp chisel and were almost invisible.
Final job was to re-fit the arms with their dowels leaving a fair bit of squeeze to clean off later.
Cleaned up and a coat of thin oil to be followed by Teak Oil when it is thoroughly dry. It will of course turn grey unless regularly oiled but the oil won't do any harm.
I've gained a lot of satisfaction from this project, which I have dedicated to the memory of the family members and friends who had a connection with the story.
Having left it for a few weeks I decided to change the tapered plugs for straight ones as the PU glue was giving a bit under the pressure of the screws. I drilled them out 18mm and inserted the new plugs with TB2 which stopped the creep. They look a bit odd drilled in a straight line when the original holes were random but it will blend in with time.
I let the Osmo thin go off really well as it is intended for internal user before giving few coats of Osmo teak oil which penetrated well and left a nice satin finish and colour.
The old and new are already starting to blend together
I replaced the nickel name tag and it is off to start it's new life skipping two generations of the same family. I am sure they will appreciate the memories.