De Minimis Commercial Appeal

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One of the quirks of writing for a woodworking magazine comes when you build a reproduction of a famous piece of furniture, such as Stickley’s #334 Morris chair. One of the typical lines in the story will discuss the original’s cash value. Something like, “Pieces such as this have fetched $5,000 at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.”

It’s a subtle way to equate monetary value with beauty. I’m guilty of teeing up that unfair equation myself. And I’m the first to tell you it’s bull-pucky.

Today as I was making the six legs for the staked table above I said out loud: “Who would pay for this thing?” I shook my head and finished shaping the tenon.

The answer to the question is actually a key point about this sort of furniture: Nobody has to buy it because I think anyone – anyone – can make it. It’s basically worthless. Or, to twist the meaning of a second word, priceless.

Though the “Furniture of Necessity” will explore lost forms of furniture, its other important job is to explain techniques of making furniture you might not have considered before.

These methods are ridiculously simple (can you sharpen a pencil?), fast and require fewer tools than you suspect. The photo above is after only four hours of shop time with a band saw, jointer plane, drawknife and tapered tenon cutter. Another four hours, and the table will be finished, easy.

Then it will be ready to roll into the forest for a banana fight.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to De Minimis Commercial Appeal

  1. Sean Hughto says:

    When people ask about the cost of woodworking pieces I’ve done, I always tell them “my work is priceless, I only give it away.” I’m only half joking. I often make stuff that no one trying to make a living from his work could possible afford to do – or that is, no customer would pay enough to make it profitable. And more importantly, some things should not be about money.

  2. toolnut says:

    “Who would pay for this thing?”
    “…anyone can make it.”
    “It’s basically worthless.”

    Early IKEA?

  3. tsstahl says:

    “explain techniques of making furniture you might not have considered before.”

    You and Adam Cherubini (SP?) introduced me to ‘boarded furniture’ — good stuff held together with nails.

    It was a missing step in my progresssion from butt joints and nail gun to dovetails and M & T joints.

    The above reason alone is enough to want to read the FON book for overlooked yet sound contruction methods. It really sucks when you don’t know what you don’t know.

    ON re-reading I see I made an unintentional (groan) funny; Chris S. is going to make money writing a ‘fon’ book.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Just thinking, I often sharpen pencils with a knife, could one do without the tapered tenon cutter and whittle the taper to shape? How critical is the taper fit?

  5. mctoons555 says:

    Hi Chris,
    I’ve been reading a book on Thomas Molesworth and Cowboy Furniture. The first couple chapters were on the history of the kind of rustic furniture made by cowboys and settlers in the west that influenced Molesworth and his contemporaries. The furniture those people built was, by definition, furniture of necessity. There are still a few examples of those early pieces around today so even though they were mostly made of western softwood species like lodge pole pine and Douglas fir they were well made. I was wondering if any of that kind of furniture will make it into your upcoming book? Thanks.

    Jim McCoy

    • Jim,

      You might not like my opinion on Molesworth. Read on if you like…

      It’s a copy of an interpretation of a romanticized past. By the time Molesworth was designing furniture, the Cowboy past was definitely in the distant past. His designs are more about invoking the spirit of the West than actually examining the furniture of the period.

      I don’t dislike it at all – who can deny the allure of leather, lodgepole and antlers? – but it’s fairly highbrow stuff with a lot of upholstery. Not something you could make on the frontier.

      Sorry to disappoint.

      • mctoons555 says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that Molesworth made furniture of necessity, just that the furniture that inspired him, that was made by cowboys and settlers in the early to mid 1800’s for bunkhouses and sod houses out of the materials they had at hand was generally very rustic but well made. Some of it has even survived to the present. No argument that Molesworth was designing and building furniture to appeal to ultra rich “dudes” who had romantic longings to “rough it”, but without the rough, in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sorry if I wasn’t clear what I was asking.

        Jim McCoy

        • Jim,

          Ah. Now I see. The real frontier stuff is indeed part of this genre. You’ll find staked and boarded pieces galore. And most of it was built by the users. Off hand, I can’t think of any pieces that are unique to the American West. If you know of any, please post a link or information.

          A couple of the pieces in the book are inspired by American examples I’ve seen. But like I’ve said before, this stuff is everywhere and is from every time.

      • mctoons555 says:

        In a quick search I didn’t find anything specific on their web sites but I have personally seen a few western examples of mid 19th century furniture at a few places in Wyoming and Montana. The best and most well preserved were in Charlie Russell’s log studio at the Charles Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana where he lived and worked, and in an exhibition at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (now called the Center of the West) in Cody, Wyoming. There were stools, chairs, and tables either made by
        Russell or friends of his in his studio. Also at the Russell Museum in the building with all his art work there were quite a few sketches he drew along with several paintings of bunkhouse life that depicted cowboys playing cards or sleeping or mending their gear while sitting on three and four legged stools and sitting at or working at low tables and benches. I doubt these examples are unique enough to warrant special attention but I think they are good representations of American examples of the furniture you are talking about. I am really looking forward to your book.

  6. Bob Jones says:

    We “need” a new breakfast table and chairs. I see this and some stick chairs in my future. Thanks!

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