Mid-century Furniture: When the Problem is Also the Solution


I don’t often write about current events – Wait! Wait – this isn’t about the election. I swear on a stack of Roubos that I will never write about that. This blog is a safe place.

What I’m writing about is a recent story in The New York Times about furniture styles headlined: “Why Won’t Midcentury Design Die?” Here’s a link to original story (no guarantee that they will let you read it, I’m afraid).

The story begins:

In 1998, The New York Times noted a new design trend. Cool creative types were tossing aside their thrift store décor in favor of midcentury modern. Out went the funky votive candles and wrought-iron beds, and in came the clean-lined furniture of Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Florence Knoll. The look’s adherents were labeled “Generation Wallpaper,” after the magazine.

For some reason, time stopped.

Nearly two decades later, midcentury modern remains the rage. If anything, it’s even more popular. Flip through a shelter magazine, scroll on 1stdibs.com or shop at a mass retailer like CB2 or West Elm, and it’s all variations on a spiky-legged-chair-and-Tulip-table theme.

Art Nouveau, 1920s Spanish and shabby chic were all looks that the cognoscenti embraced at one time or another, but never for this long. It’s as if the mechanism that refreshes cultural trends every few years has developed a glitch.

The writer then interviews editors of shelter magazines, sellers of furniture, gallery owners and interior designers about why this has happened and what they think of it. Two typical comments:

DAVID ALHADEFF, owner, the Future Perfect: “I’m completely over it. I roll my eyes. Placing another Womb chair in the corner of the bedroom is easy and a real cop-out, frankly. Designers and architects should know better at this point. Oh, my gosh. Enough!”

MICHAEL BOODRO: “Your eye does get bored. Twenty years ago, when midcentury was first being discovered, you could do a straight interior, and that was exciting. People want to go beyond the expected. You don’t have to show the Florence Knoll sofa in nubby beige like she did.”

I read the whole piece, of course. And I was both nauseated and thrilled. Not by the photos of midcentury pieces or the comments of the interior designers. I was instead deeply affected by the word that rarely gets discussed when talking about interior design. And that’s “waste.”

Interior designers thrive on change because it gives them work. Someone wealthy wants to redo their brownstone. They call an interior designer, who then gets to go shopping (and, perhaps, employ some makers), guts the rooms and installs the new stuff. And the scene repeats itself every so often.

This cycle of destruction and redecorating used to be reserved only for the rich. But with IKEA and other contemporary manufacturers, we can all act this way, throw our old stuff to the curb and redecorate with new stuff, which will last five or six years at most. (Rinse and repeat.)

But what happens where a particular style, such as midcentury, gets stuck in the public consciousness? What if people don’t want to throw out their Eames fiberglass chairs or their tulip tables? What if they become illogically attached to their Hans Wegner chairs. Or Mid Century Mobler?

If you have read “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” then you know what I hope will happen. Furniture will become like craft beer, cave-aged cheese or artisanal no-kill lederhosen. And there will be one more giant purge of our termite-barf furniture.

I’m too jaded to think this could really happen. But you have to have hope.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in The Anarchist's Design Book, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

A Video Tour of the Holy Roman Workbench


Megan Fitzpatrick at Popular Woodworking Magazine has posted a video tour of the 1505 Holy Roman Workbench that was filmed at Woodworking in America last month. Roy Underhill has also shot an episode of “The Woodwright’s Shop” about both of the Roman workbenches I built this summer. I’m not sure when that will air during season 36. When I get news, I’ll post it here.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Roman Workbenches, Uncategorized, Workbenches | 5 Comments

Mary May’s Carving Book is In-house

Awhile ago we told you about Mary May, one of our favorite classical woodcarvers, and her forthcoming book: “The Acanthus Leaf: A Rite of Passage for the Classical Carver.” It’s now in-house. And it’s tremendous.

This week I flowed all the text into InDesign, and checked out the images and illustrations. And here’s what struck me: The exhaustive amount of attention and detail Mary put into teaching.

Artists, by nature, often do their best work while in the zone. In her book Mary talks about her first real carving job, which she completed in her modest second-floor apartment in a small Victorian-era house in Minneapolis. (Each chapter begins with short stories like these, allowing us to be privy to her woodcarving life thus far, and they’re a joy to read.) Her workbench was in her bedroom. Her work was to carve a pastoral African scene in an oval-shaped umbrella stand made of butternut. “On most days, I was so engrossed in my work that I became completely lost in the carving world,” she writes. “There were times when I discovered that it was 3 a.m. and I was still pounding away with my mallet and making chips fly across the room.”

And yet, with this book, Mary steps out of that zone again and again and again to write detailed steps, draw detailed illustrations and take detailed pictures. She makes a most impressive art suddenly seem accessible.

With each new leaf (from basic to Roman to Scandinavian to Greek), she teaches you how to draw the leaf, and then carve, with thoughtful illustrations and photographs. Take, for example, the basic acanthus leaf. She walks you through a simple 12-step drawing process. Here’s the illustration for Step 10:


Then she walks you through the carving process, with carefully written instruction, including proper tool selection, illustrations and photographs.


The book also includes a fair amount of history and photographs of the acanthus leaf as seen on antiques and in architecture around the world.

Now begins the editing and design process, which we’re all looking forward to. To get updates on Mary’s book, consider subscribing to her email newsletter here. We don’t have a release date yet for the book, but when we do we’ll be sure to let you know.

— Kara Gebhart Uhl

Posted in Carve the Acanthus with Mary May, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

How We Make Dividers


I’ve just posted a short video on the machine and hand processes that go into making a pair of Crucible dividers. You can check it out here if you like.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Crucible Tool, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Clinching Nails


When your nails are driven home, you’ll have a small forest of nail tips awaiting you on the inside of your bottom assembly. You’ll be turning these over and back into the bottom boards using the power of clinching.

This is an excerpt from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” by Anon, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz. 

Clinching (sometimes spelled “clenching”) is when you drive a nail that passes through both thicknesses of wood you are fastening. The tip of this nail sticks out about 1/4″ and is bent over and driven into the wood.

Clinching adds remarkable strength to a joint. A 1948 study by the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory concluded that clinching can increase the holding power of a nail between 45 percent and 464 percent – depending on a variety of factors, including the species of wood and its moisture content.

Also interesting: The study concluded that bending the tip across the grain increased the holding power by 20 percent compared to a nail clinched along the grain.

But how do you best clinch a nail? There are several methods.

Four Ways and a Trick

Here’s how automated clinching machines do it: They fire a nail in at an angle, and there’s a steel plate waiting for the nail’s tip when it emerges. When the nail hits the steel it bends over into the wood – essentially it ricochets like a bullet or pool ball.

I’ve never tried this with a pneumatic nail gun, but it sounds like fun on a Friday afternoon.

For the hand clinchers, there are at least two common techniques. The first one is to first drive the nail through the work. Rest a steel plate, anvil or a second heavy hammerhead on the nail’s head. Then tap the tip of the nail with your hammer. It will curl over. Then you can drive the drooping tip back into the wood.

The second technique is similar to the machine process. You drive the nail through the work and against a waiting “bucking iron,” which curls the tip and forces it back into the wood.


If you don’t have clinching confidence, try bending the tip a bit with needlenose pliers – then drive the nail home.

There’s one more technique I’ll sometimes use when I’m being really, ahem, retentive. I’ll drive the nail through. Then I’ll use needlenose pliers to bend the tip to the angle I want. Then I’ll drive it into the work. This results in a tidy appearance. I admit it’s a bit much.

When I have a lot of clinching to do, I’ve found that a cast iron table saw wing can be your best friend when clinching at work – doors, lids and the like. Lay the cast wing on your bench and you have a nice big area to support your work as you merrily clinch away. And no, the clinching does not really mar, crack or otherwise defile the cast iron wing.

Meghan Bates

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Palm, the Ban Qi and “The Young Mechanic”

Several commenters to yesterday’s post about the origin of the  Chinese planning stop, known as the palm, offered some additional information and a Western version.

In the wheelwright’s shop shown in the 12th-century scroll “Qingming shanhe tu” we see a palm at the end of the bench. It is made of two pieces of wood nailed to the bench.

The palm was later known as the Lu Ban qi, or Lu Ban’s wife, because the palm was the brilliant idea of Lu Ban’s wife. (Not to mention she no longer had to act as the planing stop or sustain injury when Lu Ban got a little crazy with the planing). Ban Qi is still used as a term for a planing stop. A modern version of the V-shaped palm is below and is adjustable.

A Western planning stop with similarities to the palm comes from “The Young Mechanic” by James Lukin published in 1872:

Another version using two pieces of wood and wedges to secure the work piece:

My thanks to our readers for joining the discussion and offering more ideas!

-Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Asian Woodworking, Workbenches | 3 Comments

Origin Stories: The “Palm” or Planing Stop

Tool vendor on the Rainbow Bridge in the “Qingming shanhe tu” 12th c. scroll. Image from Yale University.

Lu Ban, born some time between 770 and the 5th century BC, is the divine protector of Chinese carpenters and artisans. He is credited with inventing the basic tool kit of the carpenter and the rules, measurements and rituals associated with building construction. He and his wife* are featured in many Chinese folktales. One story, as told by the Bai ethic minority of Yunnan Province involves how the palm, or planing stop, was invented.

The Origin of the “Palm”**

When Lu Ban needed to plane a piece of wood he would call his wife to come and hold one end of the wood with both hands. She would use all her strength to hold the wood steady. But this was not a good way to evenly plane the entire piece of wood. Too light a hand and the wood would not be smooth and too heavy a hand and the plane would run into his wife. Once, Lu Ban’s strength on the planer was too heavy and the head of the plane hit his wife in the chest, the blade cut her hands and she was pushed to the ground. Lu Ban dropped the plane and rushed to help his wife.

Lu Ban’s wife sat dazed on the ground gazing at her bloodied hands while Lu Ban fretted and did know know what to do. His wife suddenly smiled and realized what she should do. She got up, grabbed a saw and  cut two pieces of wood in the shape of a palm. Next, she nailed the pieces on the bench top. She had Lu Ban place the wood to be planed between the two pieces to hold it steady and there was no longer any need for a person to hold the wood while the carpenter used the plane.

Lu Ban admired this idea of his wife and he called the two pieces a “palm.” Later, carpenters changed from wood to iron but still called this invention a “palm.”

Finding the “Palm”

I asked Chris if he could visualize the palm and he suggested placing your hand palm-up (that was the bench surface) and bend four fingers pointing towards the ceiling (the stop). But that configuration didn’t help me see a “palm.” Many images of the low Chinese workbench are hand-drawn and do not show a huge amount of detail. So, the next step was to check through the images I already had and also look for new ones.

The Arrowmaker, 19th c.

The Arrowmaker, 19th century.

The Arrowmaker has a planing stop, but it doesn’t look as though it would be termed a “palm.”

17th c. Chinese wallpaper on silk at Saltram. Carpenters making tea chests. National Trust photo.

17th c. Chinese wallpaper on silk at Saltram. Carpenters making tea chests. National Trust photo.

Four benches but no “palms” here.

Lu Ban's wife nailing a planing stop to a bench.

Lu Ban’s wife nailing a planing stop to a bench.

In this 20th century Chinese comic strip Lu Ban’s wife nails what looks like a doe’s foot to the bench. The doe’s foot, a work holding appliance, is featured in Plate 14 of the forthcoming “Roubo on Furniture” and you can read a blog post Chris did about using one here.

Doe's foot and workman using an planing stop, 18th c. From Plate 14 by A.-J. Roubo.

Doe’s foot (top) and workman using a planing stop, 18th century, from Plate 14 by A.-J. Roubo.

The notch in the doe’s foot seemed to be closer to what the “palm” might look like. The answer came from “Qingming shanhe tu,” a scroll done with ink and brush by Zhang Zeduan during the Song Dynasty in the first quarter of the 12th century. The scroll is 25.5 cm high, 5.25 meters long and is in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing. The scroll shows the gatherings for the Qingming celebration in a vibrant riverfront city. The image at the top of this post is one of two where a woodworker’s bench can be seen.

In a short passage in a book about 15th-century Chinese carpentry there was mention of a wheelwright’s shop in the scroll and whether the workman at the bench is using a drawknife or spokeshave.

Center: the wheelwright's shop on the "Qingming shanhe tu" scroll.

Center: the wheelwright’s shop on the “Qingming shanhe tu” scroll.

Find the large tree just off center in the scene above. The wheelwright’s shop is just to the left of the tree and partially under an overhanging roof.

Wheelwright working at his bench in the "Qingming shanhe tu" scroll.

Wheelwright in the “Qingming shanhe tu” scroll. Image from Yale University.

Given the large size of the scroll the scene is too small to discern which tool is in use but what can be seen is the workman is pushing the tool as evidenced by the V-shaped wooden ‘bench stop’ nailed to the end of the bench. This ‘bench stop’ is called a “Lu Ban qi” which translates as Lu Ban’s wife. As Lu Ban’s wife knelt at one end of the bench she held her hands on either edge of the wood. Placed together her hands would form a V. This is the “palm.”

*In the folktales of the Bai Lu Ban’s wife is not given a name, but in other stories she is called Yun.

**This story is based on a Bai folktale translated by Jessica Marinaccio for her thesis for a BA with honors in Chinese at Williams College in 2006. 

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Asian Woodworking, Historical Images, Workbenches | 21 Comments