‘The Peasantry is Unimportant’

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One of the ideas that’s been crashing around in my head for years is that vernacular furniture – what I call the “furniture of necessity” – is divorced, separate and independent from the high styles of furniture that crowd the books in my office.

This idea is not commonly held.

The conventional wisdom is this: Chippenton Sheradale invents a style of furniture that is Neo-Classical Chinese. So he publishes a pattern book to illustrate his new pieces, and the style becomes all the rage. All of the rich people want pieces in Neo-Classical Chinese to replace all the pieces in their houses that were Neo-Chinese Classical.

So the local cabinetmakers oblige and (as a result) can all afford new chrome rims for their carriages.

Rich rural farmers see the pieces in the new style and return home with the crazy idea that they should also have pieces in the latest Neo-Classical Chinese style. So they get Festus, the local cabinetmaker, to build them a Neo-Classical Chinese chair. But Festus uses Redneck Maple (Holdimus beericus) because Festus can’t get New Money Mahogany (Stickusis inbutticus).

Oh, and Festus takes some liberties with the new furniture style to please his rural customers, who want a series of cupholders in the arms that can accommodate a Bigus Gulpus.

Then the poor farmers see the Redneck Maple Neo-Classical Chairs owned by the rich farmers and ask their local carpenters to make copies, who also make changes to the design (a gun rack on the back). And then the dirt farmers see that chair. And so on.

Meanwhile, back in the city, a furniture designer draws up a pattern book for Neo-Gothic Romanian furniture. The cycle begins again.

All this sounds plausible because it has been written down in almost every book of furniture history ever published. The rich make something fashionable, and the poor imitate it until the rich become annoyed or bored. So then the rich find a new style, which the poor imitate again.

The only problem with this theory of degenerate furniture forms is that the furniture record doesn’t always go along with the theory.

I think there’s furniture that is divorced from the gentry. Furniture that is divorced from architecture. Instead of beginning with a pattern book, it begins with these questions: What do I need? What materials do I have? What can I make that will take little time to build but will endure (so I don’t have to frickin’ build it again)?

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For several months now I have been plowing through “Welsh Furniture 1250-1950” (Saer Books) by Richard Bebb and have been thrilled to find someone who thinks the same way. Bebb has done the research on the matter when it comes to Welsh furniture. And he has convinced me that I’m not nuts.

In the first section of Vol. I, Bebb deftly eviscerates these ideas like a fishmonger filleting a brook trout. It’s an amazing thing to read. I’ll be writing more about Bebb’s research in future entries, but if you want to get right to the source, I recommend you snag your own copy of this impressive work.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in The Anarchist's Design Book, Uncategorized | 19 Comments

I Made This !

Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, England. National Trust.

In 1559 Richard Dale, a local carpenter, completed an addition to Little Moreton Hall that included a large bay window to light the new dining room. The estate owner was apparently very pleased with the job and allowed Dale to sign his work. Although a bit garish, his signature adds to the history and character of this fine old house.

In combination with construction methods, woods used, a signature and a date we can learn a lot about the maker and the communities in which he or she worked. For the owner, the signature of the maker extends a hand into the future and forms a connection.

Between 1510 and 1530 Robert Daye carved 79 bench ends in the Church of St. Nonna on Bodmin Moor in Altarnun, England.

I think he deserved to make one bench end to commemorate his efforts.

Phillip D. Zimmerman’s article, ‘Early American Furniture Maker’s Marks’ (Chipstone) provides many good examples of signatures and where they have been found (undersides of drawers, the top, etc).

Collection of Winterthur Museum.

On the back of this high chest both makers signed their work. Top: ‘Made by Josha Morss/Jany 1748/9.’ Bottom: ‘Made by Moses Bayley Newbury February AD 1748/9. Just to make sure they both put two signatures on the chest. They worked in what is now Newburyport, Massachusetts.

In another example the signature at the top of this chest was deciphered as ‘Walter Edge’ in the 1940s. Who was Walter Edge? No telling, because decades later Walter Edge turned out to be ‘Upper Edge’ a shipping mark!

Zimmerman also made note of signatures that provide other details about the maker. Although he didn’t provide a photo (and I couldn’t find one), somewhere out there is a Philadelphia-made table with the following written on the underside: ‘Made by Elias Reed in the year 1831 this table caused me to give Black Eye to a frenchman.’

Although he knew few people would see his work, a bell framer left his mark high up in the bell tower of St. Botolph’s Church in Slapton, Northamptonshire.

Photo by Christopher Dalton, Building Conservation.

The tower is too fragile to bear the weight of the two bells it previously held, but the bell frame and its plaque are still there. It reads, ‘Be it knowen unto all that see this same. That Thomas Cowper of Woodend made this frame. 1634.’

Earlier this year a mahogany bow-front Charleston-made chest was aquired by the Charleston Museum. The chest is from the workshop of the well-known and prolific Robert Walker and is on display at the Joseph Manigault House.

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Prior to going to auction the previous owner thought the chest might be a Robert Walker Charleston piece. He disassembled the chest to inspect it and found written on the top support rail under the chest top the following: ‘Boston, October the 18th, 1805.’

Boston was once a slave and freed by 1790 or 1795. Even though the signature was hidden, some articles have termed the act of a 19th-century freed black craftsmen signing his name to something he made as ‘audaciously indiscreet.’  To me, it was a determined affirmation of, ‘I made this’ and also, ‘I exist.’

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Personal Favorites | 4 Comments

New & Better Studley Posters for Everyone

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We weren’t happy with the paper thickness of our H.O. Studley posters that went up for sale in May. So we found a new printer that would work with thicker paper. We reprinted the entire run and have sent replacements to everyone who ordered posters through the Lost Art Press website.

Almost everyone should have received their replacement posters by now. If you haven’t, give it until Monday’s mail arrives and then send a message to help@lostartpress.com and we’ll check your order. If you bought one of the posters at Handworks, please send a message to help@lostartpress.com, and we’ll send you a replacement immediately.

The Studley posters now in the store (click here) are printed on the new, thicker paper by a company a few blocks from our storefront in Covington, Ky. The posters are significantly heavier (they were a bit of a struggle to roll to get into tubes) and are still $20, which includes domestic shipping.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Why You Don’t Need a Half Set

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A half set. This pictured half set is nearly all that you will need to reproduce the various moulded edges of all period pieces, regardless of period. It’s also much more than many hobbyists will ever need.


This is an excerpt from “Mouldings in Practice” by Matthew Sheldon Bickford.  

When I first became aware of hollows and rounds I read about the heralded “half set.” A half set of hollows and rounds is 18 planes, nine pairs, that incrementally increase in radius from 1/8″ at the low end to 1-1/2″ at the high end. The half set of planes is generally the even numbered pairs in the previously referenced chart. (A full set is 36 planes, and also includes the odd numbers.)

A half set of hollows and rounds is an extraordinarily comprehensive grouping of planes that allows the owner to produce a range of moulding profiles that exist in the smallest spice box and largest secretary. Centuries ago, the half set was often acquired over time.

For many users, myself included, the half set covers an unnecessarily broad range of work, and represents an undue expense. Many woodworkers narrow their plane choice down to match the scale of work that catches their fancy. For example, if you work only with 4/4 stock, then sizes above No. 8 may go unused. Starting with just a  single pair of hollows and rounds – and an efficient method to accurately establish rabbets and chamfers – allows the production of dozens of different profiles.

The simplicity of combining only one convex and one concave arc might seem limiting. There are, however, scores of profiles you will be able to produce with just a single pair of hollows and rounds. These profiles will often contain minute differences – adding a vertical or horizontal fillet, or flat, adjusting the size of that fillet, increasing the curvature or changing the general angle of the profile. These small differences are important and are often glossed over or neglected on a router table.

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Small differences. The differences between these profiles can appear as slight. To many woodworkers, however, they are significant.

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Examples Continued

Adding a second pair of hollows and rounds to your tool chest, a step I always encourage, increases the number of possible profiles far more than two-fold. Not only will you be able to create the 41 profiles shown above in two different sizes, you will also be able to mix the concave with the convex to form various cove and ovolo combinations and ogees. Additionally, you can mix concave with the concave and convex with the convex to form elliptical shapes. It is at this stage that you will unlock the true versatility of these planes.

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Add a pair. A second pair of hollows and rounds will allow you to, when building a chest of drawers, make mouldings that complement each other. They will not be merely derivatives of the same circle.

Meghan Bates

Posted in Mouldings in Practice | 3 Comments

On Zest

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Ellis Miller, a mechanic by profession, began carving as a hobby after making his own set of Monopoly tokens – tea kettle, flat iron, locomotive, hat and shoe. That led to a carved duck, which led to carved birds. Miller consulted John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” as a guide. Washington D.C. June 25, 1937. Photo by: Harris & Ewing. Photo courtesy of: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Harris & Ewing Collection, LC-H22- D-1767 [P&P].

“To lack experience in a handicraft is to lack experience in one of life’s good things. There are so many qualities craftsmanship can bring into the open which otherwise might remain hidden for a lifetime. Unexpected talent, unexpected ingenuity are revealed only when we begin to draw upon them, and, liberated from their dim lurking places within ourselves, they begin to live and grow. It can give heart to a man just to see his work taking shape. Many of us in the modern world have to live within our minds; many others are able to see only one small contribution made by their hands and to have no unique personal responsibility for the finished product. But we all need a unique personal responsibility for the things we do if we are to feel fully satisfied. The claims made upon us by craftsmanship, the opportunity it gives, not only insist that we shall assume this kind of responsibility but help to develop and enlarge it. When we see what we can do, the earth begins to grow solid beneath our feet. The timid ghost that used to hover within us, never quite sure, is put to flight. Something good and creative has come positively into the open, and life is infinitely the richer, our experience infinitely broader and more rewarding because of it.”

— Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, March 1962

Posted in Honest Labour, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Stretchers on Your Workbench are Optional

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The video we’ve recently released, “Roubo Workbench: By Hand & Power Video,” is intended to be a brain dump from me and Will Myers on building slab workbenches. Not only do we show the techniques we’ve developed to make it doable for the home woodworker, we also seek to dispel a lot of the myths and misdirection encountered by the bench builder.

We take the following topics head-on:

  • You can use (very) wet wood for the benchtop.
  • The finish can be simple (or non-existent).
  • The species you use isn’t all that important.
  • Moving big slabs doesn’t require a forklift or Roman garrison.
  • You might not need a tail vise.
  • The lower stretchers are not very important.

This last detail always makes my bench-building students crazy. They go to great lengths to make the mortise-and-tenon joints between the stretchers and legs massive and tight. While I’ll never bad-mouth a good joint, the stretcher joints are not as important as the joints that join the benchtop and the legs.

Early workbenches didn’t use these stretchers (check out the Stent panel for one good example). In fact, I think the biggest job of the lower stretchers is to make it easier to install a shelf below the benchtop for your bench planes and appliances.

As a result, I don’t think the joints for the stretchers have to be massive. To prove the point we used a Domino XL to make one of the stretcher joints on our bench. I probably wouldn’t use a pocket screw or a biscuit for this joint, but loose tenons are an excellent choice, whether you use a router, drill or Domino.

In fact, some Roman boats were built using loose-tenon joinery, and those seemed to do OK.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Workbenches | 8 Comments

Nancy R. Hiller: Cold Hands & Difficult Handwork

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The glaring disparity between my skills and those of most of my fellow students in the vocational school’s furniture making classes just magnified my sense of incompetence. So I felt a certain schadenfreude when the bench room, normally quiet, rang with an unfortunate reproach at some unfortunate fellow: “Pirtle! What are you doing to that plane iron?” Or “Spratt! Stop! You’re about to cut off your finger!” At least I wasn’t completely alone.

It was only my determination to make my stepfather eat his words that got me through the year-long training. During the first week I spent two whole days trying over and over to cut a simple lap joint with a saw, chisel, and mallet. Overwhelmed by frustration, I felt my face flush as tears filled my eyes. I hid behind my workbench, pretending to look for a tool on the lower shelf. I was clearly not cut out for this kind of work; I belonged in the world of writing and books. I should forget about learning to make furniture. But as I squatted behind my bench contemplating my options, it occurred to me that the prospect of admitting defeat to Joe was even worse than that of persevering in my effort to cut a straight line. By the end of the day I had made my first well-fitted lap joint.

The City & Guilds curriculum of the time focused heavily on traditional handwork skills. Even before the lap joint, we had learned to use hand tools to transform a rough plank into a workable piece of lumber with two flat faces and edges that were straight, square, and parallel, the kind of board commonly identified as “S4S” (square on four sides) that you might find shrink-wrapped at an indoor lumberyard today.

The main room was laid out with 10 or so workbenches, each long enough to accommodate two benchmates. A pair of doors separated the bench room from a larger room filled with industrial machinery, most of it manufactured in Great Britain. Only after we had learned to flatten and square up a board by hand were we allowed to use the machines to perform the equivalent labor. When the machine room was in use it was deafeningly loud, with a daunting atmosphere of purposeful activity. I made a paint of visualizing my fingers running into the blade every time I prepared to press an on switch to remember to keep my hands away from those areas.

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Each weekday I rode my bike to and from the college. Between November and May there was no escape from the cold. I wore two pairs of socks covered by plastic bags inside my work boots, imagining the bags would provide insulation. Instead, I later learned, they hastened tissue damage by trapping moisture. Invariably, when I got to school my toes were throbbing, and my fingers shot with pain as the flesh revived in the warmth of the woodshop. Despite this daily revival, my toes turned purple and my fingers took on a reddish cast that lasted all year. I discovered that this precursor to frostbite had a name: chilblains. To this day, my fingertips tingle at the first hint of fall’s approach.

— Nancy R. Hiller, from “Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life

Nancy will read from her new book at the Lost Art Press storefront at 7 p.m. Saturday at 837 Willard St., Covington, KY 41011. We still have a few spots left; get your free tickets here.

Posted in Making Things Work, Uncategorized | 1 Comment