Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Shaker Failure

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I’ve had bad days wrestling with my sketchbook where it was impossible for me to draw anything but junk. Junk I didn’t want to build and junk that no one would ever buy.

Sometimes I leave those stepchild pages in my sketchbook as a reminder of how awful I am. Sometimes I crumple the pages up because someone might see the drawing if I die before destroying the evidence. And rarely, thank goodness, I actually build a prototype of the dumb design.

If the ugly thing does get built, which has happened a few times in the last 23 years, I am quick to dispose of it at the curb.

I was reminded of everything ugly I’d ever done in my life while touring the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Ky., on Sunday. The small Western Shaker village is one of my favorite places to visit. The buildings, furniture and landscape are all testaments to the Shaker design aesthetic.

But the Shakers were not perfect.

After visiting there regularly since 1993, I have spied several pieces in the collection that are just plain awkward or suggest that not all the Shakers practiced temperance. This Sunday I encountered a desk I’d never seen before that was tucked into a corner at the farm deacon’s house.

It was a secretary, but one so crippled by its design that I struggled at first to see if it was merely a stack of three separate pieces of furniture – a cupboard, fall-front desk and dresser. But no. It was indeed one piece with no evidence that it had been stitched together from separate pieces. The dark color on the drawer fronts made me think that something fishy was amiss, but everything looked like it had been together from the start.

The fall-front was a lighter color that the rest of the piece, but that likely was because the fall-front was probably kept in the open position to divert attention from the mess at the top of the secretary.

The drawers at the top. Really? Why would you not turn this design upside down? Drawers on the bottom, fall-front in the middle and cupboard at the top? I poked around the interior of the secretary for answers, but found none.

Suddenly my heart felt lighter as I recalled my mashup of Queen Anne and American Southwestern Desert design that was embodied in a blanket chest (rest its soul). Lesson learned: Don’t forget to tell your woodworking friends which pieces they should burn upon your demise.

— Christopher Schwarz

7 thoughts on “A Shaker Failure

  1. 8iowa

    While the usefulness of this item is in question, it obviously has had a lot of use thru the years. Their unique lifestyle, much of it now lost in history, none-the-less was reflected in their furniture designs.

  2. scottrparker

    I’ve worked in several old factory buildings that were riddled with purpose built and specialty furniture pieces that on first glance were perfectly bizarre. If one took the time to figure out what they were for the odd designs started to make sense. This could be something like that. I have seen Shaker built-ins with floor to ceiling drawers that required a ladder to reach, so they were accustomed to high drawers. Maybe he just used the drawers for storing papers and brought them down to the floor in use. I agree that it is ugly, though.

  3. Wtfisthat

    Alright, I’ll bite. The top part was originally designed and built to be shelves and the drawers were added later. This would also explain explain the color variation. Did you remove one of the drawers far enough to examine the interior of the case?

  4. Spoiler

    Not to throw my spouse under a bus but there have been more than one occasion that she has approached me with “Hey honey- could you build a cabinet that will fit in this awkward space and hold too much junk and maybe it could store my fishhook collection”? To which I always reply … “sure thing babe” As much as I try to influence the design I toil away building a tu*d that can not be polished. Maybe that particular Shaker had a good woman and knew how to keep the family happy.

  5. BLZeebub

    Perhaps the maker was dyslexic? Or just bored to tears from the regimented lifestyle of the Shakers. Sometimes you gotta just follow the Muse out the door and into the woods. LOL

  6. Sawtooth

    How tall is that piece of furniture? Whatever is in those drawers won’t be seen very often. You’ might need to keep a stepladder nearby.

    Separately, yesterday I read a different column of yours about fitting the base of a large work bench for drawbored pegs. I didn’t see a photo of the bench. When I built the roubo- style bench in the first edition of your work bench book, I set up all the legs and stretchers individually before gluing and pegging anything. I had to assemble the base to the top only once. (I did set the dry-fit-assembled base on the underside of the top, next to the mortices for the legs, to ensure the stretchers were sized correctly.). I work alone mostly and didn’t want to struggle with the heavy base.

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