Starting to Put It Together In My Mind

It wasn't really all that long ago, in historical terms, that average and mostly anonymous craftsman created many pieces of furniture that are cherished and venerated today. Their work commands a kings ransom at auction houses and is treasured in museums and the homes of collectors. It could be argued this reverence comes from the history and age associated with the pieces, but if thats the case why are the collections I've been able to visit most housed in art museums? Why do modern artisans and craftsmen struggle to recreate these pieces down to the millimeter of accuracy. Let's not even mention the piles of plans and measured drawings produced by the woodworking media to sell us the latest "newly discovered, never before published" version of a Newport Highboy or Shaker Cabinet. 

I've been thinking a lot about design and furniture styles and nearly everything encompassing those circles lately. The impetus for these rumblings comes from two sources. The first is our new house and the sad fact that we don't have enough good furniture to suit ourselves. I can build furniture and I can fix this problem, but I want to build furniture that will last us the rest of our lives, so building beautiful furniture that is designed right for our tastes and lifestyle is important. I want the pieces I build to work together with each other and with the house itself. Similar in experience to what I was talking about HERE after reading "Poems of Wood and Light."

The second is I have been reading my way through the new book from Lost Art Press by George Walker and Jim Tolpin called "By Hand and Eye." The book speaks to me from my own interest in history. I've spent good time and energy figuring out how woodworkers of the past created furniture from a technical point of view. Planing boards flat by hand and cutting dovetails with a backsaw. But the technical side is only half the picture. Knowing how to fold a crease into a piece of paper doesn't give you the ability to create origami and knowing how to make a mortise and tenon joint with a chisel and saw doesn't imply the ability to make beautiful furniture. 

"The Joiner and Cabinetmaker" is one of the better woodworking tomes put to print in the last decade or more. I'll give the caveat that it is a mostly a reprint of an older book accompanied by research. In general it is very well received and I can't remember ever reading a dissenting or belittling review of it. 

Fairly early on in the text of the actual book (Pg 56 - 58) there is a small passage that fascinated me when I read it, yet it seems to have garnered little notice. Reading "By Hand and Eye" brought this passage back to mind and I had to revisit it again. It tells about the care an apprentice must take if he is to go out to a customer's home and measure the space to fit a new cabinet. It goes on about how he must carefully check and double check the height, width, depth, and write these numbers legibly on a piece of paper, scratching them onto the back of a snuff box with a point of a nail is unacceptable. 

The book's point of view puts you in the shoes of the apprentice, but after re-reading the book a couple times I started to think of this passage from the journeyman's point of view. 

Picture it. 

You're working hard in the shop on a Wednesday morning, putting the finishing touches on a client's chest of drawers. Suddenly the Master stops at your bench and hands you a piece of paper with measurements the apprentice Thomas was sent to collect yesterday. On the paper is the numbers for height, width, and depth and maybe a few other notes in the Master's hand. The cabinet is to be made of oak and deal and have drawers underneath and doors on top. 

Now hop to it!!

I would argue that anyone could slap a box together to fit into those proscribed measurements, but you have to take into account the information and tradition reinforced in the rest of the book. The apprentice tradition described worked very hard to build on a foundation of good, careful, quality work. A tradition of doing things the right way the first time. It was of the utmost importance the client be happy with the finished piece and all the careful dovetailing in the world won't help a malformed, misshapen piece that belongs on the island of misfit toys. 

I wonder how I would fare if placed in that situation. Surely I could hit the measurements, but would my work have visual appeal? Would it be utilitarian enough to perform it's duties? Would it survive the test of time and someday be placed in a cozy,, climate controlled museum as a prime example of furniture from the period. 

I probably could do all these things if given enough time and enough chance at trial and error. Certainly if I sketched out a measured drawing or four then proceeded into several versions of mock-ups and prototypes until I had the details dialed in satisfactorily. But could I do all this and build the final cabinet in around a week's time? 

The end of this passage in the book talks about Bill Sharp. He was a good workman who was just a little sloppy and poor at taking and following measurements. He was dismissed from the shop because his cabinet wouldn't fit in the space measured. The book says it was a good cabinet though and it only took him a week to build it. 

Could you design and build a successful cabinet in a work week? 

Up until now I'm not sure I could either. But the book "By Hand and Eye" is opening my eyes on how an 18th century journeyman may have attacked the problem "at the point of the tool" and it has been quite a journey for me so far. I've not even finished my first tour through the pages and I'm already picking up so much. I should say I'm relearning a lot of the things I learned to years ago in Art and Humanities classes and have forgotten or misplaced over time.This is a good thing.  

I'm learning it's OK to trust my eye. Learning to break things down into shapes and proportions. Learning to size things to the body and the space it's to fit into. Other design books I've read have been profiles in particular styles or focused on measurements with some nods to perspective and other larger ideas. They just haven't been all that this book has been so far. 

Cutting dovetails is easy. Designing the right piece, with the right place, for those dovetails, that's much more challenging. With the furniture I have to build for this house and the work I want to accomplish in my writing pursuits I'm glad to have this book in my hands and now that the new shop is finally in order, I can start to put it to practice and build the pieces that fit us, fit our house, and fill our lives. 

Ratione et Passionis 


Popular Posts