There are some men in London who have not travelled far, nor seen many workshops, whose ideas of the importance of the Metropolis and the excellence of everything done in it might be corrected by hearing the opinions of master craftsmen in the quiet towns of England and Scotland. There are men in the provinces who have a strong suspicion that furniture made in London has not been well made: it may be fashionable, they admit, but it is likely to be flimsy; it may be cheap, but it is not durable; for they know that good material cannot be procured at the price, and cabinet makers in the country do not work for nothing.
They smile when you tell them that large transactions can pay for the great rents charged for warehouses and workshops in the City, and ask you if living is cheap, and what percentage is given for commission. They put their hands in their pockets and say, We can buy wood in the same markets with your manufacturers, we employ no middle-men, our rents are not so high, our profits are not too great, and we cannot compete with you in cheapness.
They may be too polite to hint that London furniture is dear in the long run. They confess that they have a personal interest in the welfare of their friends; they dislike accidents, and nurse a strong prejudice against chairs that need repairing in twelve months and tables liable to paralysis in the legs. Their customers do not believe that everything excellent comes from the Metropolis; and as they desire solidity and durability, they are prepared to pay a fair price to cabinet makers in their own town. A good reputation is the best advertisement in the country; for friends tell their neighbours where they can have value for their money.
The subject of our sketch was a cabinet maker of the old school, trained in shops where a good price was paid by customers who could afford to wait for furniture until it was made to order. He served a long apprenticeship, and became a skilled workman in all branches of the trade. He could turn his hand to any kind of woodwork, from stair-railings to church ornaments, from kitchen chairs to elaborate chests of drawers. If need be, he could do fancy fret-work and delicate carving, sand-paper and polish. As an apprentice he had to do what he was told; and being anxious to learn his trade, he acquired skill and knowledge such as only cabinet makers of the old school possess.
The division of labour in London, which has made many things cheap, has not improved the social position of the cabinet maker. The workman who has been kept at one department during his lifetime is very helpless when he is expected to do new work. The power of adaptation has not been cultivated by a variety of labour, and he has acquired the mechanical habit of waiting until every machine in a large shop has supplied him with the prepared materials he requires.
The old cabinet makers had to use their brains, and learn to do what was needful, by employing the tools at their command. This activity of brain gave them greater mental power and more enjoyment in their labour. We are not prepared to advocate the old seven-years’ apprenticeship; but some regular training in a variety of work ought to be given to every young cabinet maker: for our trade needs more than machinery; we need men competent to do any kind of work.
The town of Kilmarnock is in the centre of Ayrshire. It had drawn to itself a large proportion of the trade of a wealthy agricultural and mining district, before the railways had made it an important station. Some of the farmhouses in Ayrshire are more substantial than many villas in London, and certainly as well furnished. But the wardrobe, sideboard, tables and chairs may have been in the possession of the same family for more than a generation. Where they have been well kept, they have a rich beauty of grain that makes up for the lack of spindle-work and fancy decoration.
It was this kind of trade which was cultivated by Robert Craig, whose portrait we give in this number. Like other apprentices, he had to save enough from his small wages to purchase wood to make his tool-chest; then he had to buy the various tools required by a journeyman, for that was the beginning of a stock-in-trade.
His friends were his first customers, and his customers became his friends as the circle of his acquaintances widened. He was not ashamed to go where his furniture had gone before him. The secret of his success was diligence with care. He took time and took pains with his work, and no cabinet maker can build up a reputation on any other principle. He was well known and highly respected in Kilmarnock, as one of the firm of Alexander and Craig.
The writer can recall their workshop, when they had no warehouse. Ascending a wide wooden stair, the visitor found himself in a shop of seven or eight benches. The frame of a wardrobe might block the view, or a sideboard might stand in the passage, but the apprentices and journeymen were under inspection; for there was a master workman at each end of the shop, who would see that nothing was omitted that ought to be done.
There was no notice like what we find on many doors—No admittance except on business. Those who entered were, as a rule, customers who had given their orders six months before the furniture was required, and who took an interest in seeing it made. The bench nearest the door was that of Robert Craig.
It was no uncommon thing to find a minister or a magistrate talking with him, without any thought of patronage or any feeling of condescension. He took a deep interest in politics and religion, and was a well-known Liberal. He was a man of rare natural sagacity and penetration of spirit, trusted by rich and poor, and by many his advice was sought, when some act of injustice needed to be exposed, or some petty tyranny needed to be counteracted. However, our duty is to refer to him, not as a Christian elder, a good citizen, and a kind father, but as a cabinet maker of the old school.
He had great pleasure in beautiful wood, and liked to work on a “thing of beauty.” He had a special fancy for bookcases. His chairs have stood the test of years. The housewife may be heard saying, when a rough lad has upset a chair, “Well, well, that chair would have been broken a dozen times if Robert Craig had not made it.” He had a keen delight in first-class work, and would pass his hand over it with a kind of affectionate admiration. Even if it came from London, he would not be slow to praise it if it was praiseworthy; but if it was a chair, he would very likely turn it up and examine the glue and the joints before he passed an opinion on its merits.
His work had a certain beauty of finish hard to define. He preferred simple lines, and objected to sharp corners. He had a dislike to angles that would cut any child falling on them; and so he rounded off nearly everything he made. When household effects come to be disposed of, you may yet notice in the advertisement of sales in the Kilmarnock papers, such and such articles of furniture were made by Alexander and Craig. Those who knew the men knew they were good workmen. They took an honest pride in their labour; and we wish that their example may be followed by young cabinet makers.
The Cabinet Maker – February 1st, 1881