This is an excerpt from “The Anarchist’s Design Book” by Christopher Schwarz.
There is a three-step process for how people – woodworkers or not – approach a typical table.
- They run their hands over the top to feel how smooth the finish is.
They run their fingers on the underside of the tabletop, right at the front, to see if it is also smooth.
If there is a drawer, they pull it out to see if it opens smoothly, and to look for dovetails – the mark of quality mid-priced factory furniture.
What annoys me about this ritual – and I’ve witnessed it 100 times – is not the people who look for dovetails. Heck, I want dovetails, too. Instead, what bugs the bejebus out of me is how people are looking for plastic textures and plastic drawer motion in a piece of handmade wooden furniture.
We have been ruined by plastic and its inhumane smoothness. I’ve watched people on a train rub their smartphones like they were rosary beads or worry stones. I’ve seen people pull drawers out of a dresser and feel the underside.
The message is that “smooth” equals “quality.”
That is so wrong.
I refuse to equate quality with smoothness in a universal manner. The “show surfaces” of a piece should be smooth, though they don’t have to feel like a piece of melamine or Corian. Subtle ripples left by a smoothing plane are far more interesting than robotic flatness.
Secondary surfaces that can be touched – think the underside of a tabletop, the insides of drawers or the underside of shelves – can have a different and entirely wonderful texture.
When I dress these surfaces, I flatten them by traversing them with my jack plane, which has a significantly curved iron (an 8″ to 10″ radius, if you must know). This iron leaves scallops – what were called “dawks” in the 17th century – that are as interesting as a honeycomb and as delightful to touch as handmade paper.
That is what old furniture – real handmade furniture – feels like. I refuse to call it “sloppy” or “indifferent.” It’s correct and it adds to the experience of the curious observer.
But what about the surfaces that will almost never be touched? Historically, these surfaces were left with an even rougher texture than dawks left by a builder’s handplane. I’ve seen cabinet backs that had ugly reciprocating-saw marks left from the mill – even bark. To be honest, parts with saw marks and bark look to me more like firewood than furniture.
What should we do with these surfaces?
Here’s my approach: When these parts come out of a modern machine, they are covered in marks left from the jointer and the thickness planer. The boards are usually free of tear-out, bark and the nastiness you’ll see on the backs of historical pieces.
Should I rough these up with an adze and hatchet to imitate the look of the old pieces? Or perhaps just leave the machine marks?
Personally, I find machine marks ugly in all cases. I don’t ever want to see them. So I remove them with my jack plane or a coarsely set jointer plane. The result is that all the surfaces are touched with a plane of some sort – jack, jointer or smooth.
Those, I have decided, are the three textures I want to leave behind.
And none feel like my iPhone.