Chris Schwarz's Blog

An Expensive Chinese Copy

In the tool world there is an ugly (and erroneous) slur. When one company copies the tool of another company, they call it a “cheap Chinese copy.” Never mind that the copy was almost certainly commissioned by aggressive Westerners.

Anyway, I have no dog in this fight.

The real point was that today while I was pondering an odd mortise-and-tenon assembly I looked up at Senior Editor Robert W. Lang and said: “We just have to make an Ohio copy of this thing.”

In an interesting turn of events, we are building a copy of a fascinating, elegant and well-made stool that is supposed to be from China and is at least 100 years old. We’ll leave the provenance to the experts (or the Internet uber-skeptics), but this stool is definitely made using only hand tools and has seen a lot of real use. How do I know?

We have two stools, and we tore one of them apart.

I didn’t actually get to help take the antique stool apart (I have a reputation now after that handplane vs. hammer video). But once the sucker was apart I was permitted to go all Jack Klugman on it.

It’s an interesting piece of work. The entire stool is covered in witness marks from the craftsman who made it. There are mortise-gauge lines on every part. There is blow-out on some of the mortise rims. The shoulders of most of the tenons are undercut. And the tenons cheeks are definitely sawn by hand by a saw that wasn’t too aggressive.

After taking one stool apart and studying it carefully, I began making our cheap Ohio copies this morning. Of course, calling it a “cheap Ohio copy” is fairly hilarious. The staff has devoted at least 20 expensive hours to studying this tool and its joinery. Lang and I have both been sussing out the intricacies of its joinery.

(In an odd turn of events, both of us woke up in the middle of the night trying to reconcile the grain direction of the seat and the wedges driven into the tenons.)

This stool (and its copies) will be featured in the Fall 2009 issue of Woodworking Magazine. And though my name is likely to be on the article, I want you to know it was a group effort all around, from Lang’s design work, Megan Fitzpatrick’s nagging for us to get to the lumber store, Steve Shanesy’s offer to turn the seat and Glen just shaking his head as he watched Lang and I argue over whether the legs were angled at 13.5Ã?° or 14.5Ã?°. By the way, Bob was right.

- Christopher Schwarz

12 thoughts on “An Expensive Chinese Copy

  1. AAAndrew

    I suspect about 10 million of these stools are made each year, aged professionally, and sold as "over 100-years-old" in high-tone shops. I first saw them when I lived in Taiwan back in 1990 and then a year to two later I began seeing them in the states.

    I’ve seen pictures of them in Chinese paintings going way back. The three-part, angled center supports is a very old and very common structure. I’ve seen delicate versions used in repeating patterns in screens. Could you imagine making several hundred small versions and then mounting them in hexagons and connecting the hexagons to make a large wooden screen? These things make traditional Japanese shoji seem like a piece of cake.

    I would love to see a really good write up on traditional Chinese woodworking and/or furniture design. Almost everything I’ve seen about Chinese furniture tends to be about high-end, elite or "scholar" furniture. It’s interesting, but to me stools like this are kind of like cottage or rural furniture in the European/American traditions. I’ve seen very little that looks at this kind of stuff. We have a wonderful old Chinese wide, four-legged stool we use as a narrow side table to our couch and we love it. The through-tenons and half-round stretchers are common elements I see in a lot of this kind of furniture and make for a great little piece.

    Thanks for expanding your design vocabulary to other parts of the world that don’t get as much coverage, but also have rich woodworking traditions that we can mine for new inspirations.

    AAAndrew

  2. Ron Boe

    In the spirit of "Just Make It!", measure – roughly – how far off the floor you want your bum, get a napkin and sketch the proportions to suit and make dust.

    Bob: I’d much rather read your article (and Chris’ too) and view the wonderful artwork and photography (I really really like the photography; kudo’s there) than simply see the pictures with "just make it" under it.

    I could that. If I was a better photographer.

    You would have more room for ads though. :^)

    Ron

  3. James Watriss

    Actually I lied. We need three measurements.

    -distance from center to leg-seat intersection
    -distance from the vertical center axis to the point where the leg meets the floor
    -distance from the floor to the stretchers.

  4. Samson

    Would you be willing to post the diameter of the seat and the height? I’d love to make one before Fall and then have the fun of reading your learned takes on the details as compared to what I might dope out.

    -Thanks

    Sean

  5. Bob Rozaieski

    Aw, why not Bob? That could be the magazine’s new slogan. It’d be just like a Nike commercial. You could even print up some really expensive synthetic cheap Chinese made t-shirts.

    "Woodworking Magazine…..Just Make It!"

  6. Bob Lang

    Just to set the record straight about the leg angle. I wasn’t exactly right, I was merely less wrong than Chris. What’s interesting about this project is the wacky joinery, you have to set aside a lot of your thinking if you’re used to right angles and assembling joints one at a time. But there has to be a reference point at the beginning for everything else to work, and the article does need an illustration. I don’t think it would be a good move for us to start printing articles that only said "Just Make It".

    -Bob Lang

  7. Christopher Schwarz

    Ron,

    You are right. Making the stool is absolutely the easiest part of this project. Drawing it in CAD and describing it to an audience unfamiliar with cutting compound tenons by hand is what all the fuss is about.

    Sorry I wasn’t more clear.

    Chris

  8. Charles Davis

    Ironically I received both the original and the Chinese copy of this post in my RSS Reader.

    Looking forward to reading the story in the next issue as I’d like to take a shot a making one…. or even just a cheap Ohio copy if nothing else.

    And congrats on creating history with this post… I searched the internets and you’re the first person to go "all Jack Klugman on it" (the sole google hit for that phrase)… It seems long overdue that someone has finally gone Jack Klugman on something. At least me and Jack Klugman think so.
    -Charles

  9. Ron Boe

    The Chinese woodworker would probably scratch his head and say "just make it!. What’s all the fuss*?"

    *Not sure if fuss is used in China. :^)

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