Poor Technique or Tough Environment?

A dovetailed draw from 1904.
A dovetailed drawer from 1904. Click on the photo to see a larger version.

When I look at old pieces of furniture I try to put myself in the shoes of the guy who built the piece. I often chuckle at the notion that maybe things would have been done differently if the guy knew that in 100 or 200 years someone would come along scrutinizing every detail and speculating why certain things were done in certain ways. When I build, I try to make sure that what I build will survive well beyond my short time on planet Earth, but the builder can only do so much; the material itself is a large part of the equation as is the environment any old piece of furniture may find itself in. What we build today will someday be old and we have to keep in mind that a lot of things happen to furniture as it falls out of and back into fashion.

If you’re into absolutes and think in terms of black and white, you probably shouldn’t build furniture out of solid wood. The people who made things in previous centuries didn’t spend a lot of time theorizing about best practices, calculating wood movement or worrying about which joint was the strongest. They certainly did the best they could, but standards and expectations change. Dovetails today are seen as credentials for the woodworking elite; if they are perfectly proportioned and perfectly executed the guy who made them must know what he’s doing. If we were to propose such a notion to the man who built this drawer, I believe he’d be surprised. In his day, the dovetail was a good way to hold a drawer together, and one of several joints a competent cabinetmaker was expected to execute in a reasonable amount of time.  In today’s world, just about anybody can make perfect hand-cut dovetails if given enough time. In the real world, everything is a compromise; driven by the old adage that time is money.

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Foot detail of the same case piece, note the water damage before you judge the cabinetmaker.

When you first look at the foot of this same case piece, the immediate reaction is that the cabinetmaker blew it. The evidence for that is the open miter joints. This isn’t a common way to make this detail, but it is an elegant solution to the drawbacks of the usually seen single piece. The grain flows nicely around the corner between the leg and the horizontal rails. I bet it looked really good when it was new.

So is this leg detail one we should avoid because it is obviously doomed to failure? I don’t think so. I think the real culprit is the person that decided to move this piece down to a damp basement and let it sit directly on the floor. You can see where water has soaked into the bottoms of the legs. The guy who made it never imagined that someone would do that. A lot of old furniture sees extreme conditions; “We shouldn’t toss that out, let’s take it down to the basement, up to the attic, or out to the barn.” The fact that pieces survive those things at all says a lot about the integrity of the construction as well as the skill and judgment of the builder. I used to stay away from techniques that I had seen fail in antiques, but that attitude closes a lot of doors that lead to interesting and attractive furniture. Now I take my chances, and hope for a pleasant environment after I’m gone.

–Bob Lang

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4 thoughts on “Poor Technique or Tough Environment?

  1. This is such a delicious can of worms that you’ve opened with this topic. All creators must work within various constraints yet I think, in this analysis, you have left out two salient factors. This first is the false belief that every creation comes from a single author. Without knowing anything more of the provenance, I think it’s highly probable that the craftsman who cut the drawer dovetail was a different one than who shaped the feet. Both could have held similar doubts of the decisions of the other, just as you have expressed. Additionally, it might have been a different designer who only knew miters from blueprints, who dictated the construction details.
    The other element that is often forgotten is the consumers t who would have evaluated this piece based on its quality in relationship to price. If consumers are not informed nor aware of what makes for good furniture, then there is little hope to see much of these concerns comes into consideration. I submit that this piece in question exhibits as much about the qualities and thinking of the craftsmen who made as the priorities of the contemporary consumers.

    1. If you ever get to Boston, visit the MFA and look at the Goddard & Townsend furniture there. Look closely. You’ll see an incredible variety of what we would today call mistakes and bad design. Some years ago Brock Jobe led a walking class through the gallery, discussing the realities of the furniture in context of the social and economic climate of the day. These were and are some of the finest examples of furniture ever made… made to the requirements of the consumer and of the workshop of the maker for that time period. Try and sell one of these today, as a modern reproduction but with all the same details of construction, and you’ll get a stream of critiques on wood selection, joinery, mismatched measurements, etc. Fine furniture is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. Totally agree.
    I just got done with a big dresser, and I tried to make it as strong as possible in hopes that it’ll be around for 100 years or so.
    Hope the great grand kids don’t toss it in to a dungeony basement.
    Great post Bob.

  3. There Bob goes again, advocating against measuring to a thousand of an inch, suggesting that a chest that lasted longer then I’ve been alive could have been better if dovetail jig was used and generally politicking for craftsmanship over expediency.

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