Inspiration

In my latest article, I discussed the construction of the guts of my standing desk and attempted to relate those innards to formal desks from mid (18th) century Philadelphia. Fortunately, I had access to a piece to look at.

The desk above is undeniably a masterpiece, very expensive in its day, and clearly one of the finest pieces of its time. I was inspired by the arched valances over the cubby holes and the serpentine drawer fronts (but notice that the dividers in the cubbies are not scrolled). Seen from behind the ropes in a museum’s gallery, or depicted in glossy coffee table book, this piece has the “flawless” look to it that we have come to expect of 18th c Philadelphia furniture.

But a closer, inside the ropes examination reveals the real work of 18th c masters. Notice the flats on the drawer fronts; none are uniform, and no two are alike. I had the same problem. If you look closely at your latest PW magazine, you’ll see nearly identical flaws in my piece. These features are done with a gouge and smooth trumps uniform. Note also the divider on the right. It varies noticeably in thickness, causing the double arched scratch stock to go awry toward the bottom. Again, I had similar problems and found myself twisting the scratch stock longitudinally to keep the center quirk in the middle of the stock regardless of its thickness.

I was inspired by the mastery of the artwork of this piece but also the acceptance of less than aerospace perfection of the woodwork. Other woodworkers have speculated that this piece was second rate, or a misidentified “country” piece. Though I am not at liberty to identify this piece of furniture, I can assure you this is not the case. One could argue that this is an unflattering view of this piece. But herein lies a little discussed truth; how much of our exposure to 18th c furniture comes from people with a financial interest in NOT showing you the unflattering bits? Were you the owner of this piece, would this be the picture you’d include in the Sotheby’s catalog? Here we see 18th craftsmanship for what it really was; artistry first and foremost. Interested in period furniture making? Skip the exacta fence TM upgrade and take an art class instead.

– Adam Cherubini

20 thoughts on “Inspiration

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  2. Kevin Riley

    I know I come late to this discussion but would like to chime in with my experiences.
    My wife is a trained historian and I’m just a rank amateur. She is a fiber artist and I’m an amateur 18th century furniture maker.
    We have visited museums in the mid Atlantic area as well as New England. She gets to go behind the scenes in there clothing and textiles departments and if I’m real lucking and beg just right I get to look at the furniture up close and personal (2 so far).
    I can personally attest to what Adam has pointed out in his post. You see the subtle (and some not so subtle) variances from draw to draw, knob to knob, leg to leg, etc….
    It’s what I call “the hand of man”.
    Every piece I build shows the hand of man regardless of how much was done by machine.
    I get quite amused at the “search for the perfect dovetail”. When you look at the dovetails, finger joints, dados and rabbets of these antique pieces the hand of man is all over them. I LOVE it. Makes me feel better.
    I plan one day to make my living at building furniture. Searching for the perfect dovetail would put me in the poor house.

  3. Adam Cherubini

    Dear Ron. I believe they did indded have a special tool for this called a chisel. It was a sharpened piece of metal with a wooden handles…

    I apologize for that smart a response.

    I’ve never done it Ron. I watched teh guys in Wmsburg do it. They plowed as much of a groove as they could, then simply chiseled the rest. Ditto for the panel. I don’t believe anything with a fence on it can do that job. They marked everything out and then got a wide chisel and just carved out that panel. A few minutes later it was done.

  4. Ron

    Adam,
    I’m going to start on a project that has a tombstone door. I plan on using hand tools for this and was wondering how they cut the panel grove in the arched section. I’ve just finished an 18th century style plow plane and would like to make a historic tool to cut the grove in the arch. Do you have any insite?

    Ron

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    Adam

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  7. Karl

    Thanks, Adam. I didn’t think Londonderry was slammed so much as I was left thinking there might be more to your comment about fiddling than the 2 paragraphs the article and accompanying picture gave us.

    Thanks again for the articles and the blog.

  8. Adam

    I’m reading your comments, and I’ll get back to you with specific answers soon.

    For Tom’s question about tools, there are 18th inventories like Plumley’s. I may be able to attach the excel file of Plumley here. It was on the Popwood servers for awhile. But these inventories don’t describe tools and often leave out the then valueless but never the less essential tools that deserve to be included in a master list of 18th c tools.

    Regarding Karl’s question about hardware, I want to write a bit more about that. I want you to know that I sometimes like my articles better in print. Believe it or not, I think the page layout clarifies the subject beyond whatever I was able to do. And the little paragraph titles really make my articles more fun to read (I love a sidebar, but then again I love foot notes too!). Maybe important to note, after 16 years of designing things I have no rights to, I don’t associate myself with my articles in any way. I read them dispassionately, enjoying some, bored by others. And often times, by the time I get the magazine, I’ve forgotten the article, forgotten its mysteries and double entendres.

    In this case, I felt the author in teh funny clothes (whatshisname) kinda slammed Londonderry hardware. What was written really didn’t express my deep feelings about the subject. I want to write more about my connection to the "stuff" because I’m guessing many of you will share my sentiments and then none of us will need to feel so very odd.

    Adam

  9. Tom Sneed

    Adam – Really enjoy your blog and following your work.
    Can you provide a list of hand tools recommended to outfit a shop or journeyman in the late 18th/19th century style?
    Thanks,
    Tom Sneed

  10. Gary Roberts

    Adam

    Great discussion of the delightful vagaries of working with hand tools v. the tyranny of the precision of the machine. In my book, modern machinery was begat by engineered materials that in turn have been designed for dimensional equilibrium. ‘Real’ wood expands and contracts. Despite the best efforts of modern craftsmen to make wood behave as if it was engineered, it won’t. So we talk about adding dimensional gaps to allow for wood movement while attempting to maintain a specific modern design (which is a guess as we don’t know what environmental factors the piece will be subject to). It’s a pity that we now focus on making woodwork look like it was designed by a design engineer in a furnitue manufacturing plant.

    Gary
    PS: Great recent piece on using hollows n rounds to make molding

  11. Karl

    Just received the new issue of Popular Woodworking. The desk came out great! You mentioned fiddling with the hardware to make it work: can you comment on what you had to do?

  12. Karl

    Great commentary, Adam. Even though the components aren’t precisely engineered, I think becomes more incredible that they fit so well to each other. Modern machinery makes it possible to be exact as long as we measure, but I can say from experience that it is much more difficult to make a piece fit precisely when the work is done by hand (and therefore not exactly the same.

    Thanks for keeping us thinking!

  13. Scott Hayes

    I love this blog and all the additional information that you put onto it that is not covered in the magazine. But I have noticed that this blog doesn’t keep the archives like the rest under Popular Woodworking magazine and woodworking magazine. Is it possible to put those out?

  14. Adam

    I hope I said in the article that they probably wouldn’t have used milk paint. They probably would have used oil based paint or perhaps tinted varnishes. Not many existing pieces with paint finishes intact. Those that do appear to be oil based paints.

    Adam

  15. Roderick Drumgoole

    Hey Adam,

    You mentioned in PopWood (Dec-07)that cabinetmakers would sometimes "paint" furniture (maple, poplar, pine, etc.) to look like more expensive wood, i.e. mahogany, walnut. Exactly, how would this be done with milk paint? Color combination? Other techniques?

    BTW, your articles get better with each issue; can’t wait to see what’s the next topic.

    Roderick

  16. Jeff S.

    Preach it, brother! Enough of the Enlightenment’s obsession with dead, scientific, micro-exactitude.

    But pray tell, when will we see some pictures of the desk here in the blog, where it all started?

  17. Dennis Reischl

    Adam:

    As usual, your observations and candor are both enlightening and encouraging to a relative newcomer to woodworking, and an enthusiastic, mostly self-taught (well, self-learning, sometimes with two steps forward, one back), hand-tool user.

    Keep up the great work. Dennis

Comments are closed.