Farmhouse Style

One of the kitchens among those in the book I’m writing for Lost Art Press is in a newly built house on a hilltop in a spectacular rural location. When the clients first contacted me about their kitchen, they described the architectural character of the house as “farmhouse style.” But their architect’s drawings – beautiful artifacts in their own right – launched me into a mini-rant on this widespread misnomer.

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The story behind this simple, affordable cabinetry for my clients’ kitchen will be in the book.

Google “farmhouse style” and you’ll find thousands of links to furnishings, blog posts and print publications based on misinformation. On the one hand, you’ll find vapid marketing-speak such as the following, in a post billing itself as “The Ultimate Guide to Farmhouse Style”: Farmhouse style is “unpretentious” and “all-American,” according to the author. “Nodding to its homegrown roots, farmhouse style homes have a collected-over-time look, complete with old-school prints, distressed furnishings, and vintage finishes.”[1] The kitchens and other rooms provided in this post by way of illustration are indistinguishable from those of suburban condos across the land, although you may find a throw pillow or dish towel made to evoke associations with old flour sacks, or an old saw with a barn painted on it hanging over a door.

On the more substantive end of the misinformation spectrum you’ll find images of dining rooms with wide-plank floors, exposed beams (whether real or made of high-density polyurethane such as the brand-name product Fypon), vaulted ceilings clad with reclaimed wood and interior walls of exposed brick or stone (again, whether structural or simply a decorative product applied to the surface, which some traditional masons derisively call “lick ‘n’ stick”) as illustrations of farmhouse style. Here, some effort has at least been made to relate to an aesthetic traditionally found on farms. The problem is one of misidentification: The aesthetic is drawn not from the farmhouse, but from the barn.

Historically, farmhouses have simply been houses on farms. They were (and still are) built in the prevailing architectural style of their time and location – a simple 1890s Gothic Revival here, a charming 1920s story-and-a-half bungalow there, a 1915 I-house or a 1950s ranch. These real farmhouses are visible in rural areas across the country. Not having yet had a chance to photograph a few for the book, I’m illustrating this post with examples from a favorite alternative source, a building almanac for farmers published by the United States Gypsum Company in 1946 – clearly in an effort to sell the company’s building products in addition to providing a variety of practical advice. Several years ago, my friend Kim Fisher (my version of Lost Art Press’s Saucy Indexer) came across this gem and sent it to me.

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“Mrs. M.” recommends adding a screened porch. Remodeling advice for farm homes in the 1946 “Business of FARMING Building Almanac: 748 Ideas for Building-Remodeling-Decorating.” (United States Gypsum Co.) Notice the radical change to the architectural style of the house from the “before” to the Colonialized “after.”

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“Use color for a common denominator,” advises the 1946 “Business of FARMING Building Almanac: 748 Ideas for Building-Remodeling-Decorating.” (United States Gypsum Co.)

Historically speaking, there is no such thing as “farmhouse style”; it’s a mish-mash of superficial farm-evoking tropes, albeit one that tens of thousands now refer to by that name. In reality, the association of “farmhouse style” with exposed structural elements and a stripped-down, whitewashed aesthetic derives from the culture of barns.

— Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

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“The Business of FARMING Building Almanac: 748 Ideas for Building-Remodeling-Decorating.” (United States Gypsum Co.)

[1] https://www.wayfair.com/ideas-and-advice/decorate-with-farmhouse-style-S6007.html

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Boarded Tool Chest After 50 Months of Abuse

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As I revise and expand “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” I’m also examining the pieces I built for it five years ago to see if I can learn anything to improve them.

The Boarded Tool Chest in Chapter 15 is one design I was worried about. When I make a tool chest, I dovetail the ever-loving snot out of it. The boarded tool chest, however, is all rabbets, nails and glue – like a cheap kitchen drawer.

But I built it on a leap of faith. In February 2015 I saw Jonathan Fisher’s tool chest at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. It had survived 200 years and was in good shape – no major repairs or loose joints. Plus, I had come to really appreciate the holding power of cut nails and Roman nails. After making some test joints, I tried to take them apart and ended up destroying the wood before the fastener would give up.

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The Fisher tool chest at the Farnsworth Art Museum in 2015.

The chest shown here is one of about five or six boarded tool chests I made. I kept this one to use as a site box as we remodeled the storefront in Covington. For the first three years of its life, it held carpentry tools and was battered endlessly as I dragged it around the first floor and machine room. (Eventually I added nice casters that I’d scavenged from another chest.)

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Now the chest holds tools for students and still sees some bumps and bruises. It also serves as a sawbench, a stool and a way for short people to reach things in high places.

Honestly, I have no problems with how the chest has worked. The corner rabbets are as tight as the day I made them with hide glue and rosehead nails. The tills – also nailed – still move smoothly and nothing has come loose. The pine top has remained flat thanks to the oak battens on the underside.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love a dovetailed tool chest. But for home woodworkers who might not have the time for such a complex project, building it with roseheads, rabbets and glue is a sound alternative. Just make sure your joints are tight, you use the right nail, your pilot holes aren’t too big or too deep, and you size the end grain of the joint before assembly.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Posted in The Anarchist's Design Book, The Anarchist's Tool Chest, Uncategorized | 33 Comments

And You Will Pass Through Chairmaking

civic arch of chairs High Wycombe

High Wycombe itself has reacted to civic events with real enthusiasm over the years, and when any Royal event or visit has been arranged, pride of place among the bunting and crowns and other decorations has been the traditional arch of chairs which spans the road by the Guildhall. Rising over 30 feet, it consisted of a solid mass of six or seven hundred chairs surmounted by a row of the large more opulent armchairs on the top.”

— “The English Country Chair” by Ivan G. Sparkes (Spurbooks Ltd., 1973)

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Dimensions for the Nicholson Campaign Chest

Nicholson Campaign Chest~

Several people have asked for drawings of the three-tiered Nicholson campaign chest I’m finishing up this month.

The bad news: I don’t have detailed drawings.

Good news: You don’t need them.

The chest is built using the same techniques shown in “Campaign Furniture.” The only differences are the drawer graduations and the fact that there are three cases instead of two. I suppose that the feet are a bit different, but I just made those up and you can do that, too.

The hardware is stuff you can buy at Horton Brasses.

Below is a zipped SketchUp file of my working drawing. It is just a box with some dimensions on it – nothing to get excited about (there’s a reason they have “sketch” in the name of the program). If you don’t own SketchUp, you can open the file in the free SketchUp viewer.

Nicholson Campaign Chest~.skp

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Campaign Furniture, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Back in the Mule’s Saddle

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After the busiest Spring on record, I’ve managed to turn down the volume a bit in the workshop and return my focus to the new projects for “The Anarchist’s Design Book.” One of the projects I’m most excited about is a so-called Mule Chest.

I’ve always liked the format. It’s a chest with a couple drawers and it is incredibly easy to build with nails and rabbets. (Much easier than a traditional chest of drawers.) Mule chests look great in pine or an inexpensive hardwood. And they go together as quickly as a six-board chest.

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In designing my version for “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” I wanted to retain its historical simplicity but bring the form into the present day. That meant reducing the ornamentation and adding some asymmetry.

It looks good on paper. And the mule’s skeleton is looking promising as well.

The good news is that if the design looks like crap, it will be easy to bang out another one with different proportions.

— Christopher Schwarz

 

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Begin at the Bottom (or Back)

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Even on my final project – pre-worm-food – I’m sure I’ll remind myself to “begin at the bottom or the back.”

What does that mean? Basically, whenever I perform an operation that will be repeated, I start by working the least-visible area. In a blanket chest, that means dovetailing the least-visible back corner first. When fitting drawers, I begin with the bottom drawer (which is the hardest to see when you are standing before the finished item). When installing hardware, I begin with the hinge, plate or pull that is hardest to see.

This should be obvious to everyone all the time. But when I teach classes and observe other woodworkers, almost all of them begin instead with the most visible joint, drawer, hinge etc.

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Today I started installing all the strapwork and corner guards on this Nicholson three-tiered campaign chest. And I remembered to begin by first chopping out the mortises that will eventually face the wall. That allowed me to warm up and work out any details of my chopping and fitting process.

As luck would have it, these mortises (which no one else will see) also happened to be my most-perfect ones.

So drat. But still, always begin work at the bottom or back.

— Christopher Schwarz

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‘Frog Backs to Turkey Legs’

William Buttre trade label, 1813-1814. From the Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur.

High-backs, low-backs, ball-backs, sack-backs, crown backs. The terms used by chairmakers to describe the details of a chair are various and often confusing. The 1996 issue of American Furniture included a meaty article by Nancy Goyne Evans (author of many books and article on chairs) titled ‘Frog Backs to Turkey Legs: The Nomenclature of Vernacular Furniture 1740-1850.’

You can read the full article here.

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Furniture Styles, Historical Images | 3 Comments