Why Nutcrackers Deteriorate
Failure is the Most Likely Option

November 2021

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The images on this page are auction "before" pictures of some of the nutcrackers on this site.

In PiecesIn the late 1960s, when I was in the 7th-grade, my shop teacher did a demonstration. At the beginning of class, he produced two roughly 12-inch-long boards of 1-inch pine finished lumber. He took a bottle of Polyvinyl Acetate, also called PVA and white glue, and ran a thin even amount along an edge of each board, with the grain. He clamped the boards together on two saw horses, then proceeded with class.

Near the end of class, he removed the clamps and positioned the boards with the joint between the two horses. He asked for a volunteer and handed him a hammer. He instructed the boy to strike the boards hard at the glue joint. The joined board broke somewhere adjacent to the joint. He repositioned the board and had another boy strike it on the joint. Again, the board broke at a point other than the joint. The process was repeated until a strip of wood, just a few inches wide, was left with the glue joint still intact in the middle.

Loose Joints

PVA or white glue, most usually marketed as Elmer's Glue-All, had made hide glue seem obsolete by the 1960s. Hide glue was the standard previously but required extra effort and had to be applied hot to be used. White glue was something anybody could use and it worked great, at least for a period of time. It tended to "creep" over time with cycles of dryness and humidity. It would also re-liquify if you got it wet.

Flake OffThese days, most woodworkers use Aliphatic Resin Glue, ARG for short, a yellow-colored glue. ARG is marketed as Elmer's Carpenters Glue and Titebond original. These are somewhat water soluable when dry. Titebond II and III are much less so.

To get back to the subject, most vintage nutcrackers used white glue to assemble the various parts. In a factory situation, the bodies and other parts of nutcrackers were painted with lacquer prior to assembly. White glue is intended to get into the pores of wood. If the surface is painted, it can't do that. Failure is the most likely option. This is why vintage nutcrackers usually have at least a few loose joints.

My 7th-grade shop teacher glued those boards with the grain. If white glue or any other glue was used on end grain or combinations of different grain directions, the demonstration would not have gone as well.

With changes in humidity, wood expands and contracts across the grain but not much with the grain. Parts assembled with different grain orientation don't expand and contract in the same directions. This is also why joints fail on vintage nutcrackers. If the dowels that hold them together align with the grain of the wood they join, it's purely accidental.

Missing Paint

In a factory environment, speed of assembly is the key to profit. Lacquer dries quickly. If you add extra driers, it dries even faster. Unfortunately, if the paint dries too quickly, it can't soak into the wood and sits on the surface. In a few years, with changes in humidity, the wood expands and contracts. The paint doesn't move with the wood and it starts to flake off. If you glue parts to an insecurely painted surface, which glue won't adhere to anyway, well, the results are preordained.

No FeetNutcrackers brought out for Christmas, have often been stored in damp basements or hot dry attics. The change to the living area and back again over the course of a few years, means paint loss.

Missing Feet

The wood feet of most nutcrackers are painted on all surfaces before being glued to the painted base. When the leg joints at the base fail, the legs can be rocked forward. This neatly pops the feet off and they are often lost. "I wonder what that rattling sound in the vacuum cleaner hose was".

Missing Eyes

Eye B GoneThe use of punched sheet steel to simulate eyes on many nutcrackers, introduces a new problem. Often, these small painted steel disks are simply pressed into wet paint. Paint is a poor glue. Steel expands with heat and contracts with cold. Painted wood does not but will move with changes in humidity. This is why many vintage nutcrackers are missing an eye or two.

What You Can do to Make it Last

If nutcrackers were manufactured to withstand the ravages of time, I'd likely have one less hobby. However, given the hefty price of a new German nutcracker, you would be justified to expect greater longevity.

The best way to keep your nutcracker in like-new condition, is to keep it away from extremes. Ideally, the humidity should be near the 50% range and the temperature in the area of upper 60° F to mid 70° F. Granted, this is difficult to arrange for most folks but you can keep your nutcracker out of direct sunlight, away from sources of heat and cold and it should last for many seasons.

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