“If Chippendale had power tools, he would have used them” is an addage I hear often. I guess folks need to defend their use of power tools and this makes them feel better about their decision. But when you think about it, it’s really a very silly thing to say.
Chippendale didn’t have power tools, or at least not the sorts of tools we have. But cabinetmakers after his time did and we know exactly what happened. They ditched their skilled craftsmen, got power tools, and hired unskilled workers to operate them. The result was a race to the bottom of furniture at which IKEA now reigns supreme. That’s our history.
I had the chance to observe (admire would be the wrong word) a Chippendale commode table in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Though not my style and probably not yours, one can’t help but admire the technical difficulty of such a piece. The curved elements complicated the joinery. The integration of the highly 3-dimensional carvings are enough to make Chris Storb nervous.
I have no doubt Chippendale would have done what his descendants did. He would have mortgaged his shop to buy the table saw, jointer and, thicknesser that nearly every woodworker in America has today. But would pieces like this commode table have been possible? They sure did disappear quickly when power tools turned up. Not related events you say? Perhaps not. But when I look at what was available before the dawn of power tools and after, I can’t help thinking we made the wrong choice. Yes, if Thomas Chippendale had power tools he would have used them. And thank goodness he didn’t.