In Chris Schwarz Blog, Joinery

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Though Charleston is the most ethnically diverse and open Southern city I’ve ever visited, its taste in furniture has long been English.

And because I am working on a book (which should be out this fall) on English furniture construction circa 1839, I took an afternoon during my visit to prowl one of the largest antique stores on King Street.

I’ve been visiting this store every year since 1991 and have watched the owners try to introduce various styles to the Charlestonians. In the early 1990s, they brought in some Arts & Crafts pieces. Then they tried some Frenchier stuff. A few years ago there were even some Danish modern pieces in the back. But it seems they always carry lots and lots of English stuff.

During this visit I focused on five-drawer chests from the early 19th century. All of the 10 or so chests I examined from this period were obviously works of a cabinet maker. They were all veneered (usually with mahogany) and featured stringing or banding and nicely formed plinths.

After that, the similarities ended. The drawers showed a diverse range of dovetailing skills. On the best-looking chest in the store, every dang dovetail was overcut, patched with shims, oddly sloped , just a rotten mess. And these were the half-blind dovetails at the front of the chest. My theory: DWI (Dovetailing While Intoxicated). Or a ham-handed apprentice. Or both.

But the chest’s proportions were perfect. The veneer matching was an A+. And, as my dad pointed out, the drawers were still together.

On another chest, which was fairly nice, the dovetails were what some call “London pattern.” The space between the tails was just a saw kerf. And the slopes were bold and consistent.

It was also hard to make any generalizations about the quality of the chests based on other factors. Some chests had 3/8″-thick quartersawn oak sides, nice drawer slips and sides that finished in a nice rounded corner at the rear. Others had sides that were 1/2″ thick (or thicker) in pine with bottoms that had split because the grain was running front to back. The craftsmanship did not seem to match the fineness of the exterior.

The backs of the chests were all over the place. Only one was a frame-and-panel job. The others were shiplapped or simply butt-jointed boards (you could see through them). Sometimes the grain ran horizontal. Sometimes vertical. And the boards all looked rough enough to be shingle material.

And the Earlier Stuff
I also couldn’t help but notice two pieces in the store that were advertised as English oak pieces from the Jacobean period in the early 17th century. Those of you who have been following the work of Peter Follansbee will recognize the overall look of these pieces.

To be honest, I wasn’t impressed by these two examples. The chest looked like it had been refinished by an English tool dealer. All the surfaces throughout were too perfect, like they had been stripped, power-sanded, stained and finished.

But perhaps I’m just cynical.

The other piece was a tall cupboard, what an antique dealer might call a Welsh dresser. The top was shallow and was for displaying plates. The bottom section had two drawers. I liked some of the carving on this piece, though the drawers puzzled me.

The drawers were finely dovetailed with thin sides. Typical Jacobean drawers would be thick, side-hung and nailed together, no? Perhaps the piece’s earlier drawers were a victim of their original construction or some fashion change. Or perhaps I’m just cynical.

In the end, the visit made me glad I’ll probably never need to purchase an antique. Once you start looking at them closely and with a woodworker’s eye, the more wary and paralyzed you become. The owners of this store have always been upfront about everything they know about a piece , flaws and uncertainties are listed on the card describing the piece , and they even get the wood identified by a scientist to authenticate special pieces. But even with all that caution and openess, I’ll stick to making my own antiques.

– Christopher Schwarz


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Showing 9 comments
  • Jeremy

    I just got back from a visit to my local ‘Historical Village’. And after reading this post, I looked much closer at the drawers and backs of the pieces. And I must say, I was not impressed.

    Although I am sure these pieces were built to make a living, and time is money. I was still shocked at how sloppy the joinery was, especially the dovetails. I think we have all seen the two videos of dovetails being cut in less that 4 min, if it can take less than 4 min to cut a decent looking dovetail, how much time did they save cutting sub par tails? Still makes you think, back then your father was a carpenter, you were a carpenter, and maybe the unseen parts (including dovetails) were the things that the kids and green workers did.

    Having said that, I still dream about being transported into the past and living there as a carpenter.

  • Shannon

    Chris,

    Did you happen to notice if the saw kerfs for the half blind dovetails continued down the inside front of the drawers past the scribe line for the tail board? Just came from a class with Chuck Bender and he insists that all English cabinetmakers did it this way. I imagine this would make Frank Klausz very unhappy.

  • Don

    I inherited a few stunning pieces from my grandfather that I was shocked to find were less than perfect behind the facade; including ship lap backing. It is a constant reminder to me when making a useful piece that it really does only need to stay together and I now have more time to perfect my display pieces. It’s also a good place to use up those scraps of wood I hate to throw out.

  • Bill

    Are you sure those Jacobean chests were not modern, Pacific-rim reproductions? I’ve seen those in many "anteek" stores these days. When you look closely enough, you sometimes find they are made of some tropical wood and colored with a deep reddish-brown stain of some sort. Or they actually are made of mahogany or maybe some sort of rosewood, and the carving looks good from a distance, but when you get up close, you see too many tool marks and irregularities in the carvings. One must be wary indeed.

  • J Nelson

    The old cabinet makers probably never imagined, or cared, that their chests etc. would one day become objects of interest to a bunch of fellow woodworkers armed with calipers and rulers.

    The monetary concern was probably most important to them. Despite the fact that Chippendale’s furniture is now ultra expensive I’ve read that Chippendale’s estate was valued at about 28 pounds when he died.

  • Hank Knight

    Chris,

    Your observations seem to apply to most antiques. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of hands-on inspection of some of the fine pieces at Winterthur; and I was amazed at the rough work once, you get past the beautiful "show" exteriors. I had the same thought as your father: It may be rough, but it’s still together. It seems the old masters put all their effort into the finished look of the piece and took a utilitarian approach to everything that didn’t show. I’ll bet it saved them a lot of time. Afterall, they weren’t doing it for a hobby.

    Hank Knight

  • Rick Yochim

    Chris,

    You have provided a classic example of why my wife goes alone when she wants to look at antique furniture. She lost all patience with me years ago.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    The prices on English antiques are far lower than American ones. The 19th c English chests ranged from $2,800 to $5,000. The Jacobean pieces where both about $3,000 to $4,000.

    Chris

  • J Nelson

    Did you note the prices on the pieces? High or low?

    Some of the appraisals I’ve seen on the "Antiques Roadshow" cause instant sticker shock.

    Tea table – 18th century – $60,000 to $80,000 (with a replaced top; $200,000 to $400,000 if the top had been original).
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/200605A02.html

    Spice box – 18th century – $25,000 to $30,000
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/200605A15.html

    Charles Rohlfs chair – 20th century – $80,000 to $120,000
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/200605A29.html

    Lowboy – 18th century – $70,000 to $80,000
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/200502A49.html

    Those were just in the last month. Your right, make your own "antiques".

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