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.
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.