In Chris Schwarz Blog, Joinery

My next project is a close copy of a walnut side table from the White Water Shaker community. We’ll be publishing the plans in an upcoming issue and donating the finished project to the nonprofit group of volunteers who are restoring the amazingly intact Shaker buildings.

I spent a summer afternoon measuring the project and just staring at it. The more I looked at it, the more it puzzled me.

Mystery No. 1: The top of the original might not be original to the piece. The base of the table is quartersawn walnut and the craftsmanship is top shelf (except for the drawer — more on that in a second). The top just doesn’t look like it belongs to the base. The walnut is plainsawn and the way the top is assembled just doesn’t live up to the craftsmanship of the base.

Mystery No. 2: The drawer is all kinds of wacky. I am certain it is original because it was sawn from the front apron. Each corner of the drawer has one big dovetail. There are nails everywhere (which might not be original). The drawer groove is exposed on the ends of the front. The half-blind dovetail on the front is but a hair’s breadth from showing through the drawer front.

I have some theories about this drawer, but I’ll keep them to myself until I get deeper into the project.

So as I gathered my materials this week for the project I was torn about what to do. While at the Woodworking in America conference at Valley Forge, Pa., last fall, Roy Underhill said something that is lodged in my noggin.

“We had a saying at Colonial Williamsburg. It was: ‘Stop trying to improve the 18th century.'”

So I have St. Roy standing on one of my shoulders, sporting angel wings, of course. On my other shoulder is Frank Klausz, with devil horns and a pitchfork. Here’s what Frank says:

“Whatever it is you do, always do your best.”

Today I sided with Frank Klausz. I made the top using quartersawn walnut and carefully matched the edges to make the seams disappear as much as possible.

We’ll see who wins the next battle.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 15 comments
  • Nate

    Hi Chris –

    Question, is the wood used for the drawer sides (i.e. 1 large dovetail) the same as used for the runner and side-supports for the drawer inside the table? My thinking here is that it would make sense for the same secondary wood to be used inside a piece, as well as on the drawer sides. Or am I off my rocker here? This may give an indication as to whether the drawer is original to the table.

    Looking forward to seeing more blog entries on the construction of this piece.

    -Nate

  • Frank Vucolo

    Chris,

    No, I didn’t mean interesting as in "dumb as dirt." Heck, I wouldn’t insult dirt like that!

    I’m kidding.

    I meant interesting in a respectful way, of course. You spent the better part of an afternoon in close observation of this piece. You then considered it thoroughly for months and weighed in the advice of Underhill and Klausz. When you made your decision you started with that most controversial part, the top, and cemented your decision to move forward. It’s like you glued up your decision when you glued up that top. I think that’s cool! Or interesting.

    Frank

  • Bob Rozaieski

    I agree with Mike Holden. If you were commissioned to make an exact reproduction, then I think you are obliged to make it as close in appearance to the original as you can, including the "shoddy" parts, if that’s what the customer expects. However, it sounds like this is not the case and you are just making something in the correct style, in which case I think you should do your best work, in the correct style.

    As for the drawer and the top, my [uneducated] guess is that the piece was probably built by more than one craftsman. Since the Shakers were communal, it is unlikely that there was only one cabinetmaker in the commune, which makes it more likely that it was built by more than one person. Whoever was building the base could have simply sawn the drawer front from the apron, gave it to another person and said, "Here, build a drawer with this". Maybe that person was a younger brother just learning, or just not as careful. Since outward appearance wasn’t that important (vanity was/is a sin), simple function won out and this is what resulted.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Frank,

    My best guess is that the drawer is original, but that the top is not. The reveals around the drawer are actually fairly tight and the work is acceptably neat for the piece. I don’t know if you are seeing a weird shadow or something on that web-resolution photo. The runners are nailed in place, but they are well-made.

    As to beginning construction with the top, is there something wrong with that? Here in the Midwest when they say something is “interesting,” they usually mean “as dumb as dirt.”

    Chris

  • Al Navas

    "…one more little drawer…"

    It *is* a good way to look at it. It can go either way, but I do prefer do-the-best-you-can, while maintaining that "…hey, THAT is the best I could do – and it does have mistakes!…" Learning to live with them (the mistakes) is the hard part.

    I wonder how much use the table and the drawer saw in the last 200 years. Regardless, I love Shaker!

    — Al Navas

  • Frank Vucolo

    Chris,

    When talking about the drawer, you said, "I am certain it is original because it was sawn from the front apron."

    Can you be certain the original table had a drawer?

    I’m wondering if the person who replaced the top got to thinking "maybe this sucker needs a drawer" and decided to saw an opening and use what was an original hunk of the apron for the drawer front.

    The drawer doesn’t work, aesthetically or functionally. I mean one could make it look better in size and proportion or could make it use more of the potential storage space in the case. It looks like an afterthought. It looks like a too small, too lonely little drawer.

    It also looks like the drawer front was cut carelessly from the apron – I believe I can see in the photo that the right vertical cut is way long. So, if the maker did a good job of things elsewhere, as you say, would he have made so sloppy a cut to extract the drawer front from the opening?

    So, if the drawer was done after the fact, by a second craftsman, it would explain why the craftsmanship differs so greatly.

    I wonder if a close study of the runners guides and kickers would lend a clue?

    Interesting that you chose to start with the top.

    Frank Vucolo

  • Mike Siemsen

    Chris,
    Shakers were known to repurpose furniture and built ins. That could be the case here. The entire table could be Shaker made, just different Shakers at different times.
    Mike

  • david brown

    The groove at the bottom of the drawer kinda makes sense. The Shakers were a git-er-done bunch. Making a stopped groove takes about four times as long as making a through groove and doesn’t add anything when the drawer is closed — which it is 95% of the time.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    The curators of White Water suspect it is early 19th century.

    I don’t really recall seeing a glue line that is evidence of veneer. I’ll check the high-resolution photos again in the morning. I have five or six of the drawer from different angles.

    I might make two drawers. One that looks like the present one. And a second drawer that looks like I would do it.

    What’s one more little drawer?

    Chris

  • Mike Holden

    I think that is comes down to this: Are you making a reproduction, with all the warts and flaws, indistinguishable from the original. Or, are you making a piece in that style (design) for yourself (or a client)?

    Only the craftsman can make that decision.
    BTW, I think that it would be far harder to copy all the flaws than to simply make the piece to the design, building it as best you can.

    Mike

  • Peter Follansbee

    well, it could be both ways – one could be doing their best at not improving on "period" craftsmanship…
    I often collect photographs of period work with discrepencies, mistakes, oddities, etc…to form a sort of catalog of what you can get away with. Then I figure I’m going to make my own mistakes, and try to find a justification for them. it hasn’t failed me yet.

    that groove for the drawer bottom doesn’t bother me in the least. I don’t see why that might be considered poor craftsmanship. How old is the table? Seems to still be there…

  • Rob Porcaro

    Hi Chris,

    I’m guessing there was an original drawer that got beat up and was rebuilt. Perhaps someone made a new drawer by resawing a thin layer from the original front and laminating that onto the new drawer with the cheesy joinery. I think I see a glue line behind the front. Such a method seems unlike the Shakers, going by my meager knowledge of them.

    So a possible solution to both mysteries is that this same person replaced the top.

    Regarding the angel-devil issue: Sure, if one is trying to produce historical accuracy, then reproducing period detail makes sense. However, apart from that, why not do one’s best, improve, and innovate?

    One more thing, going out on a limb: Fully respecting Roy’s tremendous contribution to woodworking, I’m a bit tired of constantly reading the widespread reference to him as "Saint", despite its obvious playfulness. Of course, everyone is entitled to his viewpoint, but I see Roy as a superb craftsman, teacher, and unique talent from whom we can learn much. No saints or gurus here, just students at different points on the path.

    Rob

  • Ryan Prochaska

    Recreating pieces for the NPS, one might very well be obliged to recreate details despite their apparent short-comings. If everyone replaced all the originals with 7:1 ratio dovetails, plywood tops, and poly finishes, we wouldn’t be doing a very good job of preserving history.

  • Reed Robinson

    Personally, I think you’ve got you’re archtypes mixed up! In your scenario, I would label the one who’s telling me to do my best as the angel, and the one who’s recommending you adhere to (in this case) shoddier levels of craftsmanship because they are period-correct would be the devil;)

  • Good for you Chris! I’ve been torn my self about how much to match details of period pieces. I’ve decided that I come down on the side of Frank. I’d like to make the piece the best that it can be without changing the character and proportions of the original. But things like that groove showing on the drawer front? That’s not a "period detail" that’s just poor craftsmanship. There’s a difference.

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