The central idea in my next book, “The Furniture of Necessity,” is that there is a type of furniture that escaped the whims of fashion and has remained unchanged through the centuries because it is useful, simple, sturdy and (in a way) beautiful.
This is the furniture of the typical North American family that could never afford a highboy, a secretary or a carved bedstead. It is plain because ornamentation is expensive. It is sturdy because disposable furniture is a recent idea. And it is beautiful because we have always tried to shape our surroundings to please us.
You can call it “vernacular” furniture, but I’ve never liked that word because it’s a 10-dollar word used to describe a 2-dollar idea.
The furniture is fascinating to me because I see it as fundamentally different from high forms where the design is paramount, the materials are shaped to that design, and the techniques require a large kit of tools and significant skill.
What you see with the “furniture of necessity” is that the design is driven more by the materials than by a sketch or pattern book. The depth of a chest is dictated by the widest board on hand. Ripping a board down or gluing a panel up is a waste of time and effort. And in fact the entire chest’s design flows from that beginning width.
The techniques employed will focus on the fewest cuts, the fewest tools and the joints that will give the piece the strength it requires for hard, daily use.
And, most interestingly, I am finding these pieces are dictated by an inner brilliance and efficiency that can be decoded only by constructing the piece.
That’s why I’m writing this blog entry.
As I have built these different forms during the last couple years, I have stumbled on small flashes of insight into the minds of the original builders. For example, when building a six-board chest, here are some little things I’ve uncovered:
1. Why are the front and backs of these chests rabbeted? You can use shorter (cheaper) nails and assemble the chest by yourself.
2. Why are the nails through the lid and battens clinched into the moulding (it looks ugly at first)? It’s the only way to keep the lid flat.
3. Building these chests quickly is all about the order of operations. You can save time and material by cutting out your pieces in a very particular order.
4. A deep knowledge of the materials – pine, nails, paint – allows you to defeat many seasonal expansion and contraction problems.
But I know there is more stuff we can learn from these chests. And that’s why I am going to take an unusual step in the coming weeks and publish plans, procedures and text from my forthcoming book here on this blog so you can take it into your shop and use it. All I ask is that you build the piece. Don’t just think about it. Build it. And if you find a better way – either big or small – to build the piece that you drop me a line to tell me what you found.
If it’s a new bit of information, you’ll definitely get credit in the book, and the rest of the readers will end up getting a better book because of your efforts.
In the next week or so, I’ll publish my chapter on six-board chests here free for downloading. Until then, take a look at this SketchUp file that show my procedure, step by step. There’s more than enough information in this file to build the chest. The book chapter will simply tell you why I did certain things and not others.
— Christopher Schwarz