Sometimes mixing it up yields a perfect pairing.
I usually try to wiggle my way out of it. Repairing furniture that is. Seems everyone has a wobbly chair or a drawer that sticks on a dresser, and most of it isn’t worth fixing, especially if it’s some modern particle board disaster. That was my thought when the neighbor lady asked me to look at a child’s chair in need of some work. To my surprise it was nice example of an early Ohio country chair that had been handed down for many generations. In spite of hard use it was in remarkably good shape except the arm rests on each side were loose and one would pull right off without effort.
Back in my shop I placed it up on my bench for closer inspection. It was covered with several coats of old darkened finish and more than its share of grime. A few gentle taps with a mallet separated both pieces and I took a look at the raw wood on the interior surfaces. To my utter surprise the right armrest was good old American Black Walnut while the left armrest was a replacement and actually made of Cherry. Shazaam! Oddly enough when you held both parts right next to each other you could see that they were significantly different. Yet when they were separated on either side of the chair they somehow managed to escape notice. There were several factors that allowed it to keep this secret for so long.
Foremost is that given enough age, both walnut and cherry take on a warm chocolate tone. Secondly they were spaced two hand spans apart. Our eye is quick to notice differences in things right next to another but not as keen when spread apart. Finally they were both sculpted parts with some contours. The eye naturally focuses more on the shape than on minor differences in color tone.
There’s a lesson there about mixing and matching when designing and building a piece of furniture. We often desire and look for symmetry or a good match in a design. Sometimes it’s critical that we achieve a perfect pairing. Other times we can mix polar opposites and achieve good results, and sometimes like in the case of those armrests, we can wear different colored socks and no one will notice. All three of these mix and match scenarios can guide our designs.
The Perfect Match
Gluing up boards to create a wide panel begs for a perfect match. That’s one of the reasons mass produced furniture often relies on the generous use of stains to even out colors and mask boards with different wood tones. As furniture builders we have the luxury of matching boards to achieve a seamless marriage. Whenever I can glue up panels, the ideal option is to use pieces cut from the same board to achieve the best match. I’m careful not to mix sapwood and heartwood and pay attention to the grain to make sure it flows the same way.
I even take it a step further and finish plane the show surfaces and wet them with mineral spirits to get a good sense for how light will reflect off the surface. I orient them so the light reflects the same on both boards. On many hardwoods and especially figured maple, the light will pop the grain shining from one direction and go dead from the other. I make sure both planks reflect with the same intensity. Ignore this and you can end up with a two tone panel.
The Perfect Mix
Sometimes the perfect pairing is not to match at all, but to mix. If you want to highlight the texture and contours in a carving, place it next to a plain smooth surface. If you want to draw attention to some stunning figured grain, frame it with straight grained stock. Traditional artisans selected straight grained material for the rails and stiles on frame and panel construction for multiple reasons. It’s true that straight grain is less prone to tear out when using moulding planes to shape profiles. Yet I’m convinced they understood that the plain frame enhanced the beauty of the panel, just as a picture frame enhances a painting. You might also think about using a contrasting painted apron and legs on a table to show off the beauty in the tabletop.
The key to make this work is we aren’t just utilizing contrast. By that I mean we aren’t pairing up contrasting parts that both shout and compete for attention. Our contrasting element always plays a quieter more subdued supporting role of drawing attention to the part we want to emphasize. Done right and we don’t even realize the door frame has straight grain or the table undercarriage has black legs. Our eyes are drawn to the focus of attention. This is a classic example of how less can be more.
The Perfect Mismatch
This is a practical lesson I’ve learned from working on vintage furniture and reproducing period pieces. Like our child’s chair example, parts that are supposed to match, can be different and still work. I once reproduced a small chest of drawers that had turned feet. (below) I documented a foot from the original and made a drawing of it. Days later I went to double check my drawing and was surprised that it was off. Then it dawned on me that all four turned feet were a bit different, one quite dramatically. Yet, no walking by would pick up on it without someone pointing it out. Why is this important?
We don’t always have perfectly matched boards from the same tree to build our project. Understanding that a bit of space can make a pair out of distant cousins can make your design work. In reality, one of the charms of handmade work is that everything need not match perfectly. The contours and quirks left by the artisan’s hands and natures whims are the best matchmaker of all.
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