This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
OF all the rooms in a modern house, that which is used as a library or study is the one least like to offend a fastidious taste by its appointments. Here at least the furniture - usually of oak - is strong and solid. The silly knicknacks which too frequently crowd a drawing-room table, cheffonier, or mantelpiece, are banished from this retreat. The ormolu and compo-gilt decoration which prevails upstairs is voted, even by upholsterers, out of place on the ground-floor; and those stern arbiteic of taste even go so far as to recommend a Turkey carpet or a sober-pattern 'Brussels' instead of the tangled maze of flowers and ribbons which we have to tread on elsewhere. Yet, with all these advantages, our library, especially in a moderate-sized London house, is dull and uninteresting. The bookshelves, cupboards, writing-table, and other articles of furniture which it contains are of a uniform and stereotyped appearance, and never rise beyond the level of intense respectability. This is due to various causes, but among others to the foolish practice of varnishing new oak before it has acquired the rich and varied tint which time and use alone can give it. Wood treated in this way keeps clean, it is true, but never exhibits that full beauty of grain which adds so much to its picturesqueness. The best plan is to rub the natural surface of the wood well over with a little oil, and so leave it. This will reveal its vein without varnish, and allow it in due course to become deeper in colour. The construction of the bookshelves themselves would appear to be simple and straightforward, and yet it is astonishing how many practical mistakes are blindly perpetuated by cabinetmakers of the present day, who have widely departed from the principles of old joinery. Of course it would be inexpedient in a familiar work like the present to point out such mistakes as are of a purely technical nature. But there are some so opposed to common sense that I cannot refrain from alluding to them.
For instance, mouldings were originally employed to decorate surfaces of wood or stone, which sloped either vertically or horizontally from one plane to another. Thus, the mouldings of a door represent the bevelled or chamfered edge of the stout framework which holds the slighter panels. It is obvious, therefore, that these mouldings ought to be worked in the solid wood, and form part of the framework referred to. Instead of this, in modern cabinet work they are detached slips of wood, glued into their places after the door has been actually put together. To such an absurdity is the system carried, that these applied mouldings are often allowed to project beyond the surface of the door-frame, and not un-frequently are repeated in the centre of the panel itself. The same fault may be found with the cornice which crowns the bookcase. It pretends to be solid framing, whereas in nine cases out of ten it could be pulled to pieces by a child's hand. The hinges, too, of cabinet doors are lamentably weak, and the reason of this is, that such hinges are reduced to a minimum in size, and kept out of sight. The old hinges were not cramped for room, but boldly stretched across the door-frame, which they thus well supported. Moreover, their form was usually ornamental, and in brass or iron they contrasted well with the colour of the wood to which they were fixed. Luckily, there are metal-workers now of whom such hinges may be bought, together with lock escutcheons, keys, 'closing rings,' and all the proper fittings for a cabinet door. They are, however, expensive, and far more expensive than they need be if such objects were more in demand.
It is usual for the lower shelves alone to be enclosed by doors, the upper ones being left open for easy access to books. There are several ways of fixing these shelves. They may either rest upon ledges, which are supported in their turn by upright slips of wood notched at regular intervals, or they may slide into grooves sunk in the frames which hold them, or they may be sustained by little brass brackets or 'shelf-rings,' so arranged as to leave no projection which can interfere with books at the corner. The last is a modern invention, more remarkable for its ingenuity than for much practical advantage. When grooves are sunk, care should be taken to increase the thickness of the side-pieces, which otherwise become dangerously weak. The shelves themselves should never be less than an inch in thickness for a span of four feet. A little leather valance should always be nailed against their outer edges. This not only protects the books from dust, but when the leather is scalloped and stamped in gilt patterns, it adds considerably to the general effect.
For material, oak is by far the best wood to use both for appearance and durability. Unpolished mahogany acquires a good colour with age. It also looks very well stained black and covered with a thin varnish. The hinges, escutcheons, etc. should then be of white metal. Stained deal, as a cheap substitute for oak, may answer in places where it is not liable to be rubbed or handled; but for library wear it cannot be recommended, since it shows ev scratch on its surface, and soon becomes shabby with use. When for economy's sake deal is employed, it is better to paint it in flatted colour, because this can be renewed from time to time, whereas wood once stained and varnished must remain as it is. Indian red and slate grey are perhaps the best general tints for wood when used for ordinary domestic fittings, but these may be effectively relieved by patterns and borders of white or yellow. Sometimes a mere line introduced here and there to define the construction, with an angle ornament (which may be stencilled) at the corners, will be sufficient. In all chromatic decoration, I need scarcely say that bright and violent hues en masse should be avoided.
Library Book Case, executed from a Design by Charles L. East lake.