The History of Wood, Part 56


Image | Posted on by | Tagged | 2 Comments

About Those Nubs of Yours


A fair number of tables from the Middle Ages and later appear to have a couple of extra pieces attached below the tabletop to thicken up the area where the leg tenons intersect the top. I call these “nubs” for lack of a better word, and they raise several questions.

These nubs are similar – very similar – to the battens in early stools and chairs found in Germanic cultures (I’ve also seen some in the Netherlands). Typically, these battens were attached to the seat using a sliding dovetail, they thickened the area for the joinery and they strengthened the thin seat. They strengthened the seat because the grain of the battens was 90° to the seat.

This grain arrangement is typically a Bozo No-No when it comes to wood movement, and a fair number of seats I’ve seen in Germany and American Moravian colonies have split. It’s also fair, however, to say that many have not split and even those that have split still work fine.

So are these Middle Age nubs attached with sliding dovetails? I can’t see any sliding dovetails in the paintings. Did they skip drawing the joinery? Many artists would draw in the wedged through-tenon joinery. But not the dovetails? Were they too small? Are the nubs parallel to or 90° to the grain? Again, many artists from the Middle Ages didn’t draw in the grain, so I don’t think we can answer this from paintings.

How were the nubs attached – if not by sliding dovetails? Were they simply captured between the shoulder of the leg’s tenon and the back-wedged joint above? My guess is this could work. Glue maybe? Nails? I’ve never seen any nails through the top in the paintings – though that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They could have been driven in from the bottom – through the nubs.

Aw crap; now I’m going to dream of nubs.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Furniture of Necessity | 20 Comments

Makeshift Machinists


I really believe that a machinist who likes to see things, can find more solid enjoyment in some of the rough-and-tumble jobbing shops located in the woods, than he can in some high-toned manufacturing establishments, gotten up without regard to cost. The workmen turned out by such concerns are invariably of more value than those raised in nice shops.

* * * * A new man comes along and says he worked ten years in Hotchkiss’ shop. Now, Hotchkiss has the reputation of selling the nicest shafting known to the market. You want a man to turn shafting, and, of course, you ask this new comer if he worked any on shafting in Hotchkiss’ shop. He answers truly that he never did much else. You consider yourself lucky, and set the man to work.
Continue reading

Posted in Historical Images | 4 Comments

American and British Workmen and Machinery


During a recent visit to Great Britain I gave considerable attention to men and machines, and the following are some of my observations and impressions. Not desiring to criticize any special locality, I will simply use the word “Britain;” and in comparing with the United States will use the word “American.”

My first attention to mechanics was given to locomotive building, as I wished to solve some puzzling matters, such as the general claim that a given number of men in America will build over twice as many locomotives per year as the same number would in Britain—that American builders can compete against the British for foreign orders and yet pay their men about twice as much per hour. This is rather a big question, but I satisfied myself that I found enough to account for differences as great as the above, partly as follows:
Continue reading

Posted in Historical Images | 7 Comments

Where His Gunpowder was Only Snuff


“Writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

— E.L. Doctorow

I was pissfarting around with my combination square today when Megan Fitzpatrick stopped by the shop to pick up a manuscript to edit (it’s the Hayward Project, by the way). She looked curiously at the panel clamped in my face vise.

“That’s a huge sliding dovetail in this…uh, what is this thing?” she asked.

I gave her the simple answer: a table. But the real answer is something more like: The sum total of a thousand ideas about contemporary furniture design that are finally taking shape – thanks to a manuscript from the 15th century.


Let’s back up. The last six months of work have been incredibly unprofitable for me. I’ve delayed several upcoming commissions (apologies; you know who you are) and I haven’t completed a single piece of furniture to sell since December. Part of this is because I devoted big chunks of time to “Chairmaker’s Notebook” and “Virtuoso.” But I also stumbled on a bright string in the forest that has led me to design, prototype and build pieces that explore new territory for me. So commerce can wait.

The images with this entry are part of the story, but certainly not anything worth commenting on. If you think the legs are chunky, I suspect you don’t even know what you’re looking at just yet.

I hope to have this “table” prototype complete this week. Then I’ll post some finished photos and explain the piece a bit more.

— Christopher Schwarz


Posted in Furniture of Necessity | 20 Comments

English Dislike of Innovation


One great cause of the decrease in English exports is the conservatism among English manufacturers and their extreme dislike of innovations. They are inclined to stick to old processes and old styles, refusing to study the tastes of their customers.

They seek to impose their own notions and ideas upon the world. Hence, foreign buyers seek in America, in Germany, and in France, goods better suited to their taste and needs. French manufacturers are particularly ready and quick to suit their work to the tastes of their customers. They are especially apt in devising new styles and patterns, such as shall most readily meet the varying tastes of buyers.

They realize that variety is pleasing and fashion capricious, and never hesitate to change a machine, or a pattern, when the old one fails to suit; while the Englishman looks well at the cost, and prefers to continue “in the good old way,” with the hope that some day the fashion may come round again.
Continue reading

Posted in Historical Images | 9 Comments

Do Not Be Discouraged

word_to_apprenticesDo not let artisans discourage you from learning this or that trade because they have not made a success of it. They may tell you that a certain trade is overcrowded. Investigate a little and you will find that only the botch workman and chronic kickers are out of work. The cheerful, enthusiastic workman is idle only when misfortune overtakes the whole country.

We have here hundreds of mechanics who have no real heart in their work, and no sort of interest in the welfare of their employers. To be discharged is considered no disgrace, and to be in debt is no cause for worry. They work while the eye of a boss is upon them, and kill time when it is not. They growl at the workingman’s condition, but are solely responsible that they are not better off.

You will find them in one shop this week and in another the next, and their sad tales of being oppressed by bosses will make you shed tears—if you are green enough. It is a certain and undeniable fact that the poorest workman is the one who does the most complaining.
Continue reading

Posted in Historical Images | 3 Comments