Furniture Details: Get a Drop on Things

Modern plywood makes for stable patterns, which make (nearly) identical parts.
Modern plywood makes for stable patterns, which make (nearly) identical parts.

Workshop patterns are a modern convenience, and nothing more. In our inexhaustible quest for absolute perfection we have come to rely on masonite and plywood too much. If I learned one thing from the recent visit Glen and I made to the Peabody Essex Museum to see the “In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould” exhibit, it’s that period furniture makers relied on patterns far less than I would have thought.

Today we have ready access to dimensionally stable materials from which to make our patterns. I try to keep a small supply of masonite and/or thin plywood available in the shop specifically for making cabriole leg, scrollboard, foot and apron cutout patterns. The fact that I’m using a material that is less prone to expansion, contraction, twisting and warping means I get more than just time and effort savings when I make a pattern: I get repeatability. I can make a scalloped-table apron today and make the exact same apron years from now with little or no variation. But that may not have been the case for the period cabinetmaker.

In looking at the details of several pieces of Gould furniture in the exhibit, it was clear the same basic design was used for drops along the bottom of larger pieces. What was pointed out by Kemble Widmer (the historian who pieced together the Gould mystery) is that the drops all exhibit signs of being laid out individually. Compass pivot points are visible in some areas and there’s just enough variation between the examples to see they were not made from a single pattern, and there are some good reasons why this might be so.

Apron drop from a blockfront desk.
Apron drop from a blockfront desk.
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Apron drop from a bombé chest.
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Apron drop from a blockfront chest on chest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the 18th century cabinetmaker patterns had to be made from the same materials as their pieces – wood. They understood their medium and knew that it tended to expand, contract, warp and twist; all undesirable traits for a pattern. Patterns made of wood are certainly better than no patterns at all, or are they? Cabinetmakers in the 18th century (and quite a few today, including yours truly) were pretty protective of their patterns – and lumber sources, finishing regime and customer lists. To keep hard patterns in a shop left a master open to theft by a disgruntled journeyman who might take the patterns with him when he left to work for a competitor or himself. Forcing the layout to be done each time means less likelihood of someone walking off with your intellectual property – particularly if you were the one doing the layout for others to cut out and prepare.

This is all speculation on my part, but the fact that the drops are of the same design while being clearly made individually opens more mysteries about 18th century cabinetmakers than discovering Nathaniel Gould had solved. I plan on looking closer at drops, and other furniture details, when I visit museums and collections in the future. Who knows what revelations await?

— Chuck Bender

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