Learning about Furniture: History v. Archeology Part III

In my pursuit to learn about period furniture and furniture making, I employ a controversial approach called experimental archeology. Experimental Archeology involves the recreation of past events and relies on the assumption that if the conditions are correctly recreated, results of the experiment will be similar to past events.

In my woodworking, I typically attempt to set the back half of the equation equal, i.e., to reproduce a specific piece of furniture. On the input side of the equation are the tools and techniques I use. Typically, I’m trying to solve for the technique factor in the equation because this information is missing or ambiguous in the historical record and only implied in the archeology.

The reason Experimental Archeology is so controversial is that it is nearly impossible to accurately recreate the conditions, let alone the “soft” factors such as the values of the craftsmen, his understanding of the desires of his customer, etc. I’ve gotten as far as recreating the equipment used to sharpen tools (and gotten mixed results), and worked without electric light thinking such things would influence my results. Wearing period clothing (especially shoes) has influenced my sense of period technique as well.

My feeling is that a thorough understanding of period furniture isn’t possible without having had some hands-on experience. Separating features that were expedient from those that were intentional and labor intensive, help us understand the intentions of the builder, what he felt was important to his customer, and perhaps what may have been important (or unimportant) to the buying public. In my mind, understanding basic workshop practices enhances connoisseurship.

The double curve of the cockbeading on this piece is fairly difficult to produce. Much simpler would be a simple arch (or no cockbeading). So having done it (this is my copy of an original), I interpret this feature as something the builder (John Head) felt was worth the trouble. And I think I can see his point. I think it IS a little nicer than a single smooth arch would be.

Like history or archeology, experimental archeology has its place. But I wouldn’t bet that my findings are accurate. I’ve allowed my experiments (and some of yours) to guide me, lacking documented direction. And I’ve greatly enjoyed this aspect of my work. I’m also happy to recommend this approach to you. Only, I’d add the cautionary note not to be too convinced by your own results.

I believe that the tools and techniques I use influence the way my furniture looks. I’m not sure everyone agrees. But if you follow my logic, I would also say that our understanding of period furniture, being the product of our study of it, is influenced by the tools and techniques we used to learn about it. And that’s really what these 3 blogs have been about.

Adam

9 thoughts on “Learning about Furniture: History v. Archeology Part III

  1. My overview

    Hello!

    This article is great. I have some antiquieties laying around my house THAT I would certainly would like the history of. This inspired me to do some research!

    Anyway, i have a blog on my own, so if you would like to check it I would appreciate. Here’s an overview of a woodworking product I made. Woodworking projects .

    http://www.squidoo.com/woodworking-projects-easy

    If you could check it I’d appreciate it. Thank you!

  2. Tom

    Interesting example of the xcut saws at CW, but you are assuming that the craftsman at CW have made a conclusion. They may agree with your hypothesis about the use of xcut filings, but they simply stop at the border of historical evidence. Plus, the craftsmen at CW make some pretty beautiful furniture without xcut filed saws. One could argue that their EA experiences support their practice. EA is simply too subjective to support a conclusion and I go back to my point that EA is simply a wonderful approach at developing hypotheses. Purely a semantic argument and I find your articles very insightful.

  3. Adam Cherubini

    Funny you should mention about the planes!

    I modified 4 planes to look that way. I started with a clapped out jacks and try planes I bought really cheap on ebay. They were in terrible shape. I didn’t want to do this to otherwise decent planes.

    I made new wedges from one really bad try plane’s body. I made the totes from scrap beech I had on hand.

    The shapes were as near to Moxon as I could get. So funny you should ask. In this instance, I went with the historical data we had and could be sure of. Moxon modified Felibien, adding tools and changing tools. But he didn’t modify these planes. I interpretted that as these were planes that looked familiar to him.

    Larry Williams wrote me a nasty gram after these planes appeared in an article (unrelated to these planes). He said the form was fundamentally Continental and in no way was appropriate for an Anglo -american shop. Heis feeling was that English planes followed teh Dutch forms and would have looked more like the Jenion Trade Card plane (roughly what C&W makes now or used to). The Jenion Trade Card was from the 40′s but Larry had historical evidence that the shop was in existance in the 1720′s and therefore assumed the "sign of the 3 plains" remained unchanged from the trade card.

    In the retelling it sounds like Larry didn’t have a leg to stand on and I can still see that point. That said, I suspect he is correct. Just don’t tell him I said so. My guess is the open tote of mid 18th english planes was probbaly present in some related form in 1700 (the time of inteprepetation at Pennsbury Manor where that picture was taken).

    But here we can see a great example of the tension between the use of historical sources and the sense of skilled people. To really analyze this issue, I would want to look at other tools- hand saws for example and see what how their totes evolved. As I recall, I mentioned that to Larry and he said the Western style hand was was a revolution where the hand plane was evolution.

    Adam

  4. Adam Cherubini

    The problem with ignoring EA is that it can lead you to conclusions that can be just as problematic. The Hay shop, for example, has found no historical or archeological evidence of x-cut filed saws, so they’ve stopped using them. That you can’t proove something doesn’t mean the opposite is therefore true. Otherwise (I hasten to add) I think they do a great job in CW.

    Adam

  5. gdblake

    Another good post. I have always been impressed by the skills of past craftsmen, not only in execution, but also in design. If I may, I wish to ask about the plane in the forground. I recognize the European style, did you make it or acquire it?

  6. Tom

    From a research perspective, what you call experimental archeology is really just a means to develop an hypothesis which can then be tested using archeological/historical methods. "Experimental archeology" would only be controversial if you are trying to make a definitive conclusion from that work. As long as it is employed to simply form hypotheses, then I would assume it is a valid approach. Interesting series.

  7. Chuck Nickerson

    Experimental archeology won’t be accepted by those demanding the highest forms of proof, but it can offer great insight for the rest of us. We just need to remember why we know what we know. I think a great recent example of EA is Chris’ work with double-screw bench clamps (or whatever he’s calling them). He combined an odd drawing from Moxon, the shadowed background from another engraving, and a few hours of shop time to find something new to me, and I assume others. The Hayes Cabinet Shop won’t move on that evidence, but the rest of us can.

  8. Adam Cherubini

    Bob,

    You may find something of use in the article I did on chair legs. That specific subject has had a lot written about it, and to my knowledge few of the authors have had archeological approaches to the subject. The folks I leaned on for the article were all folks attached to museums who had seen and made many of these.

    In my opinion, this specific item is iconic and the reproductions have almost eclipsed the originals. People are copying reproductions that in some cases really don’t resemble the originals.

    Beyond that, I’m always thrilled to hear about your experiences and I’m encouraged by your dedication to your work.

    Adam

  9. Bob Rozaieski

    I have to agree with you Adam. While it’s not the be-all-end-all solution to sleuthing the past, I think there is a lot of value in experimenting, at least to the woodworker. Plus, IMO, it’s more fun than just pouring over old texts and museum pieces. I’m not equipped to experiment as accurately as I’d sometimes like (my tools are mostly new or mid-late 19th century vintage, I have to use artificial light, and I don’t own a puffy shirt :). But one thing that I have found with my "mini" experiments is that they often don’t answer the question(s) I was hoping they would. Instead, they may create more questions, or alternatively, they sometimes solve a problem I didn’t know I had.

    A good example I’ve experienced is making cabriole legs without power tools. I’ve made several sets and have yet to find a fast and easily repeatable way of doing it without a lot of redrawing of guide lines and tedious shaping. For roughing the shape of the legs, a modern bandsaw makes short work of it, but without the band saw, it’s not so fast or easy. There always seems to be a lot of waste to remove and a lot of redrawing pattern lines that have been cut away. I’ve tried turning saws, large rip saws, draw knives, rasps, shaves, etc., but my only conclusion so far has been that they take a long time to make well; at least they do for me. I haven’t been able to find a relatively fast way of roughing in the shape and still maintain consistency. I’m still convinced that there was a faster way to do it, I just haven’t stumbled on the technique yet.

    However, I did discover in-cannel paring gouges as a result of my experimenting on cabrioles, and found that they are super fast, clean and effecient for a lot of other tasks. So I use my rasps and files much less on inside curves now because the gouge is so much better. These tools are often attributed to patternmakers and it’s commonly said that they are not of much use in furniture work, but I have to disagree. I have to believe from using them that joiners and cabinetmakers likely used them as well because they’re just so darn effecient. No other method can match the speed and surface finish left by these tools on an inside curve.

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