Cabinet Work


We know of no reason whatever that should prevent a good joiner from working hardwood as skillfully and as speedily as a trained cabinetmaker. As a rule, a good joiner can make superior cabinet work—Work that will stand more wear and tear than that usually turned out by furniture men; but the trouble lies in the fact that good joiners are very scarce.

The cabinetmaker must possess a certain amount of skill in the use of tools and finishing, or he will prove very unprofitable to his employer, a state of things not permissible nowadays; this skill may not be much; but much or little, it must be there.

On the other hand, there is certain rough work that can be done, about a building by any one having brains enough to dig a post-hole, and the rougher the work and coarser the operative, the more profitable to the employer.

Again, the wages paid the more skillful joiner is so little above the amount paid the coarser workman that it is scarcely worth striving for, more particularly so, when we take into consideration the fact that the higher the class of work the more expensive are the tools required to do it.

Cabinet Work that has come down to us from the 15th, 16th and early part of the 17th centuries was made by the carpenters and joiners employed on the construction of the building for which the cabinet work was designed. The cabinetmaker, as such, was unknown until about the first quarter of the 17th century.

The making of furniture was the province of the man who made the sashes, planted the door frames and carved the corbels—that is, the better-class workmen that were employed on the woodwork of a new building were generally retained after the building was finished to make most of the furniture required to furnish the house.

Many times, too, these workmen were left to their own resources for the design of the work they executed. Sometimes, perhaps, they were assisted in working out an artistic problem by the fair “ladye” of the “manor,” but it more often fell to themselves to both design and execute.

It must not be thought, however, that all workmen were good, even in those days, for it is on record that many men were dismissed and fined for executing inferior work, and thereby spoiling stuff.

It seems to have been a rule, particularly towards the latter part of the 16th century, to imprison a workman if he had engaged as a first-class workman of a certain standard, and then failed, when tried, to come up to that standard. He was also obliged to pay for all materials spoiled. How many botch carpenters would be breaking stones in jail to-day if such a rule obtained now?

On the whole, however, we prefer our present way of doing business, for, after all, it does not take long for a good sharp foreman or “boss” to discover the man who “knows all” but never accomplishes anything.

Men, nowadays, soon find their level in the workshop, and if the accomplished workman receives no other benefit for his superior skill and assiduity than the appreciation of his employers and the respect of his fellow-workmen, he has gained something worth striving for.

The Builder and Wood-Worker – November, 1881

—Jeff Burks

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5 Responses to Cabinet Work

  1. hey jeff,
    what is the origin and vintage of the engraving?


    • Jeff Burks says:

      It is one part of a set of four prints made by the Dutch printmaker Jan Saenredam c.1595 after Hendrik Goltzius.
      The set is often referred to as “Four times of day by Hendrik Goltzius”, with plates named Morning, Evening, Midday, and Night.

      This image is plate 3 – Midday. The others do not depict woodworking.

      Opportuna dies operi, duroque labori est,
      Tunc desudando passim se quisque fatigat

      Suitable is the day for work, and for hard labor,
      Then in exerting himself here and there each man exhausts himself


  2. Mathieu says:

    “to imprison a workman if he had engaged as a first-class workman of a certain standard, and then failed..”
    Oh sweet nostalgia, where are the days?

    Another beautiful engraving, thank you for sharing this!


  3. daltxguy says:

    Some days I am the cabinetmaker, some days I am the joiner, but most days I spend in prison, breaking rocks with otherwise honest friends by my side.


  4. In the notes in “The Joiners Apprentice” It talks about men getting fired when they had to start wearing glasses. After the industrial revolution the employer wanted men with size 15 shoe and number 2 hat.


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