Loving the (Now) Unloved
by Terry Wieland
In 1997, I had my first encounter with something about which, previously, I had only read: The gun room of an English shooting estate.
The gun room is, as the name suggests, a room devoted to the storing and cleaning of guns and, since many were built in the 1700s and 1800s, in homes of the wealthy, they display solid wood paneling and beautiful carpentry, leather-bound furniture, walls of bookshelves, long gun racks and, usually near the center of the room, a table devoted solely to the cleaning and maintenance of firearms.
This table is very heavy, made of solid oak or walnut, and about the size of a modern dining table, with the top covered in leather. This provides a soft surface on which to work, laying parts down without worrying about scratches and dents. As you might imagine, such a table being in use for a century, spanning the era of black powder and whale oil, the leather acquires a texture, patina—and, yes, an aroma—unlike any other.
The one I saw in use at Knarsdale was large enough for several loaders to work on at one time, cleaning half a dozen guns simultaneously; the rack lining the wall held at least three dozen guns, accommodating the estate’s owner as well as any guests who might be invited to shoot driven grouse. When a shoot was not in progress, however, the gun room provided a haven where the lord could smoke his pipe, read the memoirs of Col. Hawker, and listen to the rain beating against the windows.
Gun racks can be improvised and comfortable chairs are not in short supply, but to have a table like that—large, heavy, solid, of dark wood and tactile leather—ah, that is hard to come by. Most of us don’t have a room large enough, even if we could afford the table which, these days, would have to be custom built. The lumber alone would cost a fortune.
But, there are ways.
Last fall, I moved to a house in the country with more than enough space in a finished basement to accommodate everything my heart (if not my bank account) might desire, including room for a gun-cleaning table. In the want ads, I found a “library” table for sale from a guy who makes a living cleaning out houses and offices, and selling the furnishings. The table had been in a doctor’s office, and he wanted $300 for it. Cash.
Figuring this would do the trick, I bought it and got it home in the back of my SUV, wrestled it down the stairs, and after a good dusting and treatment of lemon oil, found myself in possession of a table just too nice to confine to the loading room. Two weeks later, I came across another: A little newer, a different style, but still solid, carved wood. It could be had for $75. Sold!
I have now become, all unintentionally, a collector of library tables, because the second one fit nicely into a space in the office as well. It’s strong enough to hold Tom Rowe’s three-volume, 25-pound history of Stevens-Pope, and Miss Ellie, the kitten, has seized upon it with both paws.
For those unfamiliar (as I was), a library table is typically five feet by two and a half, and stands about 30 inches tall. They are made for sitting at and reading a book, taking notes, that kind of thing. Some are intended to stand against a wall, others for the center of a room. They have been made for as long as there have been books, libraries, and craftsmen to build them, so you find styles from Victorian to Art Deco. A key feature, however, is stability: They are often lovely, but always heavy and durable, which possibly accounts for their longevity.
A friend of mine, who has been buying and selling antiques for 40 years, tells me prices have plummeted.
“Young people today,” he told me, “Just don’t want the stuff. They want smaller, lighter, newer, cheaper.” In other words, disposable—like fast food and cell phones. As a result, library tables—which take up space modern apartments just don’t have, even if their occupants had the necessary good taste—are changing hands at “just get it out of here” prices.
My two were probably made in the 1930s, the last hurrah of genuine solid wood furniture, and as such don’t have much in the way of antique value even had tastes not changed so drastically.
My initial plan was to get a table with a battered and beat-up top, then have it covered with leather. These two are too nice for that, but as a stop-gap I bought a buttery half-cowhide from a tannery in New York (www.tannerynyc.com) that I can spread out on any horizontal surface when I want to work on something. It protects both the guns and the table top, and nothing serves that purpose like leather. It just gets better with use.
Now, all I have to do is find a third (!) library table—one that is not too nice, and with a battered or nondescript top, to fill my original purpose. There’s a spot waiting for it in the loading room, and a full cowhide is on the way.
Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland insists on living in a world of real wood, real leather, and real books. We’ve tried to bring him into the 20th century, at least, if not the 21st, but…