Friday, November 27, 2015

M&T Honors Original Construction

This is Part Four of a seven day series leading up to the official December 1st opening of pre-orders for Mortise & Tenon Magazine Issue One. Each day I’m discussing one tenet of the Mortise & Tenon Manifesto.

4. M&T honors original construction. We believe reproducing original characteristics such as coarseness of secondary components, irregularity of dimensions, and occasional expeditious joining/fastening methods is appropriate and honoring to original artistic achievement.

It has always been surprising to me how disparaging some furniture makers can be about the perceived deficiency of “quality” in other’s work. Whenever I hear comments about the incompetence of another maker because of aesthetic or construction choices I feel a bit disheartened. This attitude of superiority leaves a bad taste in my mouth because I began working wood out of a curiosity and passion. I simply enjoyed the process and loved the satisfaction of completing a tangible project. I wasn’t trying to outdo or outsmart anyone. I just loved woodworking.

I would want those that criticize period work to put themselves in pre-industrial shoes: You are living in the year 1780 and you have a client who commissions you to make a chest of drawers “in the most fashionable taste” “as cheap as can be had anywhere else”. After finalizing the design with the client, you walk over to your modest lumber stack and begin digging for material. Your only lighting is natural window light, you are cold because there’s no central heating, and you’re likely coping with some sort of pain from the rigors of an agricultural life. (Oh yeah, you’re a farmer too, by the way.)

Now you’re only getting paid for a few days labor to produce this chest of drawers (because frugality is not a modern invention). How are you going to build this object in a way that satisfies the client’s conflicting demands? Because every client and every maker were different the answer varied, of course. What is consistent, however, is that not much time was spent beautifying the areas never seen. It’s the same reason people today slap plywood on the back: It’s easy and “no one’s ever going to be looking at it anyway”. Period work is workmanlike, not precious. Flexibility with the dimensions of stock, coarseness of undersides, “flat” only in the loosest sense of the word… all that stuff was par for the course. But I’ve covered this territory the other day in Tenet Two so refer to that discussion for further thoughts.

This drawer bottom is the most extreme example of restraining wide boards

But what does today’s maker do with fasteners or glue blocks originally restraining a wide board? We all know that the wider the board, the more the movement and the more likely the chance of splits at points of fastening. Most period furniture makers I know will alter the method of attachment (i.e. tabletop buttons) to allow for seasonal movement. I understand the concern and can appreciate a maker’s concession to avoid splitting. For my part, I prefer to go with what was original. The panel may crack a little but as they say here in Maine, “it won’t bother”. It’s normal to see modest splits on the sides of period casework and I cannot for the life of me think of any real issue with it. I always tell folks that if they’re seriously concerned about minor warpage, splits, or seasonal movement, they shouldn’t be using wood.

M&T appreciates historical precedent. There is so much published out there emphasizing modern concession that I wanted to hear (and experience firsthand) the other side of things. Working wood by hand alone demands a different mentality. You just can’t be concerned about leaving rough work on unseen surfaces. Tools marks testify to that value of efficiency. To say it in a more romantic way, the tool marks left behind highlight the honest interaction between man, steel, and wood. It’s the kind of interaction you don’t get in an office cubicle. It’s something real and earthy.


  1. It's also a testament to the honest interaction between the craftsman and the client :-)

  2. James / Stenhouse CustomNovember 27, 2015 at 11:09 AM

    As someone who delves into the medieval mind on a regular basis I can attest to the fact that it is a pragmatic exercise. Whether making clothing or joining, time and materials are at a premium. The finest materials on the outside where they can be seen and lesser items inside where they can serve to support. The need to keep costs down are just as important today as they were in the past. Not to mention that the very "Green" aspect of hand work, as evidenced by the unrefined interior, is also a selling point.

  3. This is fantastic for people of a like mind to through away the modern 21st century way of thinking of what happen in the making of period furniture.
    After spending nearly 4 year researching Cadwalader furniture we have to move away from the old school opinions or comparison to say if a piece is right or work out if it's American or English..
    Workshop were very mixed in influence as American furniture didn't become American until the mid18th Century as early piece were made by craftsmen who had apprenticed in England Scotland Ireland or Dutch, German and French.
    Most of the early design followed the English joiners then cabinetmakers who brought the design methods and hardware.
    So they would make the furniture in the way they were trained but difference comes down to the timber used.
    The size of the USA meant that local timber would have been the most cost effective method to produce furniture for the client plus there would be little time wasted waiting for new stock shipped by sea or land.
    Period furniture has a lot to tell us but we have to be open minded as history is liquid and not every piece of furniture was made to a book
    Look forward to reading more.

  4. Drawer bottom is spit due to an incident of very high moisture content, e.g., RH, followed at some point in the subsequent future (could even be years) by very low humidity. It is the result of Compression Set Shrinkage (CSS). (See: Wood and Moisture, Tarkow, in Wood: Structure and Properties, ed. Wangaard. Forest Products Lab.)