Furniture Construction Drawings, 1760-1800


When you research how early furniture was built, one of the laments is the lack of construction drawings in the written record.

Did they draw their plans on scrap wood that was later burned? Did they just communicate plans for furniture forms differently than we do today? Were furniture plans a “trade secret,” like the “arts and mysteries” that were noted in the contract between apprentice and master?

Or were the plans just lost?

I vote for the last statement, sort of. There are plans out there, but they don’t look like the plans we are accustomed to seeing in books and magazines. While researching English campaign furniture several years ago I accidentally stumbled on the book “Gillow Furniture Designs 1760-1800” by Lindsay Boynton (The Bloomfield Press, 1995).

The firm Gillows of Lancaster and London is one of the somewhat-unheralded firms of the 18th and 19th centuries, perhaps because the company never issued a pattern book. Instead of developing and publishing designs, Gillows craftsmen simply made them.

Luckily, there is an incredible archive of Gillows – everything from construction drawings to a daily record of the company’s accounting. It really is a largely untapped source of historical information on woodworking, design and the lumber trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.

(Side note: I hope to enlist Suzanne Ellison, a contributing editor to Lost Art Press, to plumb the depths of the Gillows archive in Westminster for a future book.)

Back to the point, “Gillow Furniture Designs 1760-1800” blew my mind. It is simply a record of some of the drawings in the company’s archive. Some of the drawings were intended for the craftsmen with dimensions and notes. Some were intended for customers and are colored.

Naturally, I am drawn to the construction drawings. They did not need much to make some pretty incredible stuff – just a few dimensions and a sketch of the overall form. When I first saw this approach, I gave myself permission to back away from developing sheets and sheets of drawings before cutting wood. It was liberating – worth the cost of the book.

I don’t expect you to see the same thing that I do when looking at these drawings. Perhaps you’ll see something else. Even if you don’t care for the furniture itself, there is a lot to be learned from these sketches.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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8 Responses to Furniture Construction Drawings, 1760-1800

  1. John Preber says:

    Huzzah! This is the way I’ve planned projects my whole life. I start with this kind of sketch then let the wood design the rest of it. It usually turns out similar to the original sketch…though not always.

  2. Marilyn says:

    So when I was given my good friend’s great grandfather’s (Ernest) tools, I also got to see some of paperwork associated with a conference table he made for the Florida Capital building. Here’s link to the drawing that he submitted to the comptroller in 1946:

  3. abtuser says:

    For the household storage cabinets I’m working on, I simply made a ‘story’ page out of the packing paper everyone sends their books and tools in as it can come in fairly long pieces. All I felt I needed was the drawer and drawer spacing dimensions for one vertical side. I only mention it because it looks like the bottom half left side of the drawing above. Carcass dimensions are simply written down as mine is much simpler.

  4. woodworkerme says:

    I don’t think I have ever used plans, other than a pic and the over all size. as furniture makers we know the joints to use and were. also the golden ratio to make it look right.
    but as I wright this out I see it’s the same thing as you were saying. a quick drawing with height and width and then I start cut wood.
    you can see some on my projects at facebook (the country woodwright).

  5. Speaking as an engineer who designs things (machines) for a living – I rarely need CAD or full drawings to develop an idea. I only need them to communicate with others.

    If I’m both designing and making it, rough sketches get the idea onto paper. Maybe a few careful, scale sketches help me develop form and proportion (sometimes watercolored or colored with pencils). If so, then those are a bit finer than these examples. Other sketches, much rougher, show some dimensions, often on just a partial isometric view (half view or whatnot). That’s enough. Cut chips. Not really far off these examples.

    And very simple projects don’t even get that much sketching. A few numbers written onto the hidden workpiece surfaces, that’s all I need.

    One thing I do do is carefully plan which surface is my datum, and then I mark it as such and work off it.


  6. I find it interesting the most even lack proportional scales.

  7. Not sure if it’s the same book (probably is) but Mack Headley did an article for American Furniture (Chipstone) some time back and referenced Gillows a bit. The book has some prices in addition to the drawings, which also makes it valuable for working out approximately how long it took to build some of this stuff. Since cabinet maker’s wages were somewhat standardized, working backwards from the price can provide clues to actual man-hours required to build the piece. It can be kind of disheartening to do so though. Their times were staggeringly fast.

    Here’s something I wrote about Mack’s article and the Gillow book a few years ago.

    • There are several books on Gillows, including the crazy-nice two-volume set by Susan E. Stuart. But they are more for identifying Gillows pieces and appreciating the style. Someone (ahem, Suzanne) needs to dive into the vast mechanical side of the business as all the company’s records are just sitting there….

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