Meet The Furniture Restorer: Old Wooden Chests And Trunks

Bill working on an antique wooden chest
Bill working on an antique wooden chest

Scaramanga specialise in authentic vintage and antique furniture and interiors. Ranging from cupboards and cabinets to chairs to chests and trunks. Bill Bowie has been working with wood for over 70 years and helps us restore and repair our vintage and antique wooden chests and trunks. He uses traditional carpentry techniques and skills and many of his tools are over 50 years old. We thought we would ask him a few questions about his life and share his top woodworking tip.

1. What’s your name and where do you live? My name is Bill Bowie, and I live in Freuchie, Fife, in Scotland.

2. How long have you been making furniture and working with wood? I started in 1944 at the age of fourteen, so 70 years.

3. What were your official job titles, and what were the main duties involved in your jobs? I started as a shop boy, spending my days cleaning and sweeping up after the joiners, which I did until I became an apprentice joiner at the age of sixteen. At the end of the war there was a great need for shops and businesses to be revived and updated, and our work was in great demand. We fitted dozens of new shop counters, displays and cabinets.
At twenty-two, I joined the Prison Service and worked my way up to become Chief Works Officer at several Scottish Prisons. I was responsible for small scale building work and the utilities for the prisons, until retiring in 1987. Since then I’ve continued to make and restore furniture, as well as learning other trades such as plumbing, plastering and electrics.

4. How did you come to be a furniture maker and restorer? It happened by chance really. I was still at school and working in the local Co-Operative butcher’s shop in Gourock, just outside Glasgow on the river Clyde. One day, the manager of the Co-Operative joinery came in as asked me what job I wanted to do. When I told him I wasn’t sure, he suggested joinery, and I couldn’t think of anything better, so I left school to start work with him. I was too young to join as an apprentice so worked as a shop boy until I turned sixteen, when I started a 5-year apprenticeship. I learnt a lot from the two 70-year old joiners, who had returned from retirement to help with the war effort – I was being taught by craftsmen who would have been working at the end of 1890! But I must say that I’ve learned just as much since retiring twenty years ago – I have more time to experiment and try out new techniques that I wouldn’t have been able to do when I was working as a carpenter or in the civil service.

5. How long have you been working with Scaramanga? I started working with Scaramanga in 2009, when they started to sell old wooden furniture. They usually have something for me to work on every week.

6. What are your favourite pieces to work on? Scaramanga specialise in trunks and chests, so most of the work I do for them tends to be antique teak chests. Aside from that, I love working on British vintage furniture made from oak and elm.

7. Do you have a favourite era when it comes to design? Ercol and G-Plan are classic designers from the 1950s. Typically this is furniture from pioneering designers from 1950s and 60s, which were smaller pieces with simpler lines than their chunky pre-war and wartime counterparts. Most mass produced furniture today is poorly made without strong joints and not built to last.

8. Talk us through one of the techniques you use to restore a piece of furniture to its former glory. Scaramanga specialise in antique wooden chests and trunks, which have all been well used so some of them do need to be fixed and repaired. A reoccurring problem is the splitting of part of the back panel, caused by the screws used to secure the hinges to the lid, which results in the top part of the back being substantially weakened. It’s better to remove the weakened and damaged wood, and replace it with block of reclaimed wood before securing the hinges to the newer wood with extra long screws. Pre-drilling is absolutely essential to prevent the wood splitting. Fitting a tapered or hexagon shaped block with a similar grain pattern will help to make it blend in with the wood from the rest of the chest.

9. What is your favourite part of the job? I get great pleasure from working with wood, and enjoy the challenge of fixing Scaramanga’s antique chests. All the pieces I work on are unique, so no two jobs are ever the same.

10. What is your favourite British wood and why? Oak and elm. I like the wild nature of their grain and of course they are locally grown.

11. What is your favourite tropical hardwood and why? Teak of course. I have had hundreds of antique teak chests from Scaramanga to restore and repair!

An antique teak wedding chest
An antique teak wedding chest
Bill uses five clamps to repair the corner and edge of the chest's lid / top
Bill uses five clamps to repair the corner and edge of the chest's lid / top

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A selection of Bill's wood
A selection of Bill's wood
Bill's workshop, which is the size of a garage
Bill's workshop, which is the size of a garage

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2 Responses

  1. Andrew

    Wow! What a wonderful dedicated craftsman. I can’t believe he has been working for the last 70 years! What an accumulation of knowledge. He must have some amazing stories and tales to tell!

  2. A true master craftsman. I am absolutely blown away by the thought that your restorer gained his apprenticeship and was trained by woodworkers and carpenters from Victorian times!

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