The Making of a Cabinetmaker – Part I



I took kindly to woodworking. In fact, I was brought up in the woods until I was seven years of age. During these first seven years of my life I saw my father only occasionally, for he was a cabinetmaker by trade and worked in a smart little town about sixty miles distant from our forest farm and came home after intervals of about six weeks to remain with us but a day or two. When I was about seven years old my mother died and the remainder of the family father took with him to the town where he worked.

I went to school, but had a chance to run in and out of the shop as I pleased, and just about as the child learns to speak his mother’s language by sights and sounds long before it is sent to school, so I learned a great deal about cabinetmaking long before I took any tools in my hand to actually learn the trade.

My father also told me many interesting stories about his apprenticeship, the “scrapes” he got into when he was a boy, and although he told these same stories over many times they were always new. When he learned his trade he was legally “bound out” and hired at his “master’s” home. This was in the state of Connecticut.

No machinery was used in his day and he told me how tired he got as a growing boy sawing up the material by hand for a dozen cherry kitchen tables and what hard work it was to dress up the cherry boards with a jack-plane. He said he would work so hard all day planing by hand that some nights he could barely sleep, and in the morning he would find his sleeves rolled up clear to his shoulders in such tight rolls that he could not easily get them down. He did it in his sleep.

He would proudly show me a set of planes that he used when he was an apprentice. The jack-plane in particular was worn down a great deal. Where his left hand grasped the sides of the plane were hollows plainly seen in the hard beech where his fingers during the long years of hard toil had actually worn the wood away.

The cabinet shop was the important factory of the village. As I think of that factory, with no machinery but a turning lathe, and that run by foot power, and of the factories in which I have worked where it was about all machine work, I wonder how workmen got along at all then. But they usually were better mechanics than they are today. The cabinetmaker’s trade was much more comprehensive, and the journeyman had to carry a great number of tools.

My father could make any kind of household furniture from an expensive sideboard of mahogany or rosewood to a basswood towel rack. He also made organs, melodeons and pianos. But in this particular shop, owned by a Mr. Knight, he made mostly veneered furniture. That is to say he made bureaus with ogee drawers and other styles of soft wood and veneered them with rosewood, mahogany or black walnut. Coffins also were made in this factory, and while the furniture was made in the basement, a gloomy place, the wareroom was in the same building in the room above.

I used to watch my father with interest lay the veneers. Sometimes he would have me heat the “culls” and bring them to him when he had everything ready. And when he had a lot of bureau frames all mortised, the tenons fitted and ready to glue up he would let me help him handle the clamps while he drew them together. As we piled them up in one corner of the room I thought what a lot of work in so short a time. These were some of my first lessons when but a small boy with my nose scarcely reaching to the top of the bench. I expect I bothered about as much as I helped, maybe more, but I was learning all the time.

My father enjoyed a joke and was much given to fun. He was quite ingenious, and I was greatly amused by a good joke he played on a fellow who worked in the varnish room. The latter would come down stairs, take a seat on the end of father’s bench and ask all manner of questions about his tools, always handling everything about the bench—a regular Paul Pry.

I saw father making at odd spells a neat little box with such a nice cover, all out of rosewood. He had a little brass fastener to the cover, also brass hinges. He then skinned a large rat and put a coil of spring wire into the skin, and so crowded it into the box and held it down by the cover that on touching the fastener to the cover the rat would, unless you were prepared for it, jump right into your face.

When he got it all finished and in working order he left it carelessly on the back of his bench. After a while this “nosey” chap came down, and taking a seat on the bench, with his legs dangling lazily down, espied the box. “Hello,” said he, “what you got here?” and proceeded to investigate it. He soon had his thumb on the fastener. Instantly the cover flew up, and the rat, leaping out like a thing of life, struck him square on the end of the nose. Flinging the whole thing from him he rolled off the bench into a pile of shavings.

As my father’s work was all day work he occasionally was called to “tend” the wareroom; that is, to sell furniture to customers. There was a certain man in town who was notorious for “haggling” over the price of everything which he wished to buy. One day while my father was in the wareroom this fellow came in to buy a bed.

Father put the price a dollar and a half higher than the bedsteads sold for. The other began to beat down the price. Father “haggled” over it in a way that tickled me exceedingly, but coming down all the time. Finally when he was yet a half dollar above the regular price he slapped the customer on the back and generously exclaimed: “I will throw off 50 cents more if you won’t tell everybody in town about it.” So he took the bed at the regular price and went off happy with the promise that he would tell no one.

In all shops and among all trades there will occur disagreements between workmen. Sometimes the trouble arises over the work, but more frequently over outside matters. I have worked in shops where it seemed as if half of the men employed, about half of the time, would not speak to the other half because—well, I think at such times they were all half fools.

My father got “out” with another cabinetmaker by the name of Bell. I do not know what began it. Both, no doubt, were to blame as is usually the case. Father was fond of pets of every kind and my older brother had brought from our wilderness farm a pair of red squirrels. They became so tame that they were let out of their cage and given the freedom of the shop.

There was no machinery and they chased one another about the place, running over the half finished furniture, stealing the beeswax and other things, greatly to father’s amusement but manifestly to the displeasure of Mr. Bell. One morning father found them dead. He believed that Bell had poisoned them the day before.

The men got into a wordy war and as they warmed up they drew nearer until Bell, who was the heavier man, goaded by cutting language, strode over to where father was working. As Bell leaned forward father stuck his nose bang up against Bell’s nose in such an impudent way that I thought he would be killed on the spot. I have seen all kinds of mix-ups in my day, but that was the queerest termination of a rattling hot air fight I ever saw. It did end right there. Bell backed up with not another word to say. Whether he was disgusted or terrified I don’t know, but he went back to work.

There was another cabinetmaker who was of much interest to me. Father held him up to me as a “horrible example” more than once. It appears that he was an educated man and an expert accountant. He could add up three rows of figures, “but drink was his downfall, and there he was toiling away in that basement cabinet shop, mostly making coffins at a small salary because he was so unsteady and given to drink, when he might, if he had lived a temperate life, have been an ornament to society and a power for good in the world.” Thus father lectured me and it did me good.

I used to watch the old fellow make coffins, the old-fashioned kind with angles in the sides for the dead man’s elbows. I watched him so much that I learned that trade by observation. Another thing I learned was to patch a pair of pants, using glue instead of thread. “Old Stanley” would do this. After he had mended the seat he would put on the pants and sit down on the mended part until it dried.

He was pretty good to me and boys generally. One day while sitting on the wareroom steps, just comfortably drunk and talking wisely to himself, because, as he said once, he “liked to talk to a sensible man and liked to hear a sensible man talk,” an acquaintance came along who was running for some office, and learning that Stanley had not as yet voted urged him to cast his ballot for him. Mr. Stanley looked up with his bloodshot eyes while he steadied himself by the veranda post, and with a wave of his hand he disavowed the other’s party and said: “Excuse me, friend, hic, I am no politician, but, hic, I can’t deny the symptoms.”

“Old Stanley” has been dead these many years, but my father, although very old, is living still, because he has always been a temperate man so far as abstaining from strong drink makes a temperate life. But in the broader definition of the word temperate I must confess that in the excessive use of tongue and temper he has been quite at fault and sometimes in danger of sudden death from the hands of a goaded and revengeful fellow-workman, as in the case of the cabinetmaker Bell.

It was while my father worked in this factory, where my first lessons in learning the trade were merely object lessons, that I witnessed the change from making furniture entirely by hand to that of using machinery, which later on I became so familiar with by constant use.

I have described several characters that commanded my attention in those early days, but I haven’t described the boss, Charles Knight. He was a large man, erect and well proportioned, wearing ever a silk hat, a man of few words and well dressed. When he paid off there was no envelope, no check or anything of that kind. He would come into the shop a few minutes before the hour of closing on each Saturday night, with a roll of bills in his vest pocket, and he would just stick his fingers in his pocket, haul out the roll, pay the workmen and so pass on from bench to bench.

He always had a roll in that pocket, and if a man wanted some money during the week, all he had to do was to ask for it and the boss would yank out the roll and say, “How much do you want?” and hand it over. That was the way he treated father. I don’t know but he might have had some different way with other workmen, especially “Old Stanley.”

He was a wealthy man, and furniture-making was a sort of a hobby with him, but I calculate he made it pay all the same. He had another hobby—that of keeping around the shop an old, toothless, rheumatic cat. I do not know whether the death of the old cat had anything to do with his putting in some machinery with power or not, but the machinery was put in and constituted quite as much of a pet to the boss as did the cat.

This improvement did not meet with opposition from the cabinetmakers, although machinery has, in the years that have passed, displaced hundreds of thousands of workmen. The growth of the country and the demand for furniture supplies have no doubt made machinery necessary, but right or wrong the boiler and engine were placed, and the machinery also, which consisted of a small jointer, a thickness planer, jig-saw, rip- and cross-cut saws.

The placing of the boiler and engine was a great event of the town, and when the machinery was put into operation there were a great many visitors to the factory. The boss was as near omnipresent as a mortal could be. He learned to run the engine and tried every machine. I think the noise of the machinery and its responsibility, together with the novelty of it all, helped him to forget his sorrow for the old cat.

But the output of the factory was greatly increased, and the men, my father in particular, enjoyed “ripping” their lumber on the saw and watching it move through the planer. This was far better than doing it by hand. Being a boy, I was not allowed to go within gunshot of any of the machines. But, boy-like, I could ask questions. I worked at this overtime and learned just what each machine could do.

The one year and a half which I spent around the cabinet shop, which included the transition from furniture made strictly by hand to that which was partly made by machinery, constituted my first lessons in cabinetmaking. Of course I had seen some furniture before this time. I understood I was born in a bed, but this experience about the factory where furniture was made was a decided help to me when a few years later I started in regularly to learn the trade.

I believe I was fitted by nature to become a woodworker, and had my father been a wagonmaker or millwright, a carpenter or cooper, I would have been taught by my father the trade that he knew. He saw that I would whittle something, for when I was even smaller and lived in the woods I would ask for his knife whenever he came home. He always demurred, saying, “You will cut your fingers,” for a woodworker’s knife is always sharp.

I would tease until he would hand it out with the remark, “Now you will cut yourself.” I invariably did, and it was generally the fore finger of my left hand. That finger is just covered with small scars of every possible shape. I was bound to whittle something. Father knew it, so he calculated to give me a trade where I could whittle away and bring in a little money thereby.

I have ever been interested in all kinds of woodworking occupations, and I think there should be a more fraternal feeling existing between these craftsmen. I am glad to know that there is a magazine published which is devoted to wood craft. While much of patternmaking is intricate and new to cabinetmakers, yet there is much after all which is common to us all —the use of glue or varnish, the importance of seasoned lumber, the knowledge of machinery, the care of tools, the training of apprentices, the conduct of workmen one toward another and toward the foreman and proprietors—this knowledge and these relations seem to require a trade journal as a medium through which expert testimony from among the best representatives of the various woodworking trades may be given to the world.

It appears sometimes to those who have no trade that the men who work in the shop have a humdrum, monotonous life. This is not true, for among those who toil the hardest there is amusement even while they toil. I have never worked in a shop yet where we did not have a little sport. There is always the fellow who is the butt of all good-natured fun, the joker, and the clown. If I had written down all the original witty remarks and funny sayings, and comical capers that I have heard and witnessed, I would have a book which if published would surpass all the sayings of Mark Twain, Bill Nye, Josh Billings, or any other combination of wits that ever existed.

I worked beside one fat Irishman for seven years who for original, witty remarks alone would make any humorist that I ever heard of look like “thirty cents.” Most of these witty remarks and humorous sayings which I have referred to as having originated in the shop at the bench pertain largely to wood craft. They are a part of our trade. Some of these witticisms have already appeared in the columns of Wood Craft. May we see more of them, for “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.”

Chris Weeks

Wood Craft – December 1905

—Jeff Burks

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9 Responses to The Making of a Cabinetmaker – Part I

  1. I love these old stories. Does this Wood Craft have any relation to the current retail stores?


  2. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    “I believe I was fitted by nature to become a woodworker, and had my father been a wagonmaker or millwright, a carpenter or cooper, I would have been taught by my father the trade that he knew. He saw that I would whittle something, for when I was even smaller and lived in the woods I would ask for his knife whenever he came home. He always demurred, saying, “You will cut your fingers,” for a woodworker’s knife is always sharp.

    I would tease until he would hand it out with the remark, “Now you will cut yourself.” I invariably did, and it was generally the fore finger of my left hand. That finger is just covered with small scars of every possible shape. I was bound to whittle something. Father knew it, so he calculated to give me a trade where I could whittle away and bring in a little money thereby.”
    Chris Weeks
    Wood Craft – December 1905


  3. stevevoigt says:

    Jeff, great post. When/where is the picture of the try plane from, please?


  4. I really enjoyed this. Thank you very much for posting it.


  5. Thank you Jeff. I had the same question about Wood Craft, so thanks for answering. This was a great read, as usual.


  6. Brian Clites says:

    Hi Jeff. This is one of my favorite LAP posts of all time. Its also the one that I had trouble finding the attribution for — i.e. Chris Weeks, Dec 1905 — when viewing on smaller computers. If you could start posting the historical info at the top of these posts, I would really appreciate it. Thanks again!


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