If Chippendale had power tools... - Popular Woodworking Magazine

If Chippendale had power tools…

 In Arts & Mysteries Blog, Woodworking Blogs

“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.


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  • Kevin

    Wow, outstanding responces, yet I too believe Chippendale would have purchased power tools. If we go back in time and look at the makeup of a traditional shop it was filled with young men, starting at the age of 12, apprenticing under a master cabnitmaker learning the specifice aspects of the trades. One may have been a joiner, carver, turner, fitter etc… With the industrial revolution we adopted the use of tools to speed up processes and yes history has proved that this comes with a price. In the case of woodworking, we loose all the specific aspects of the job. Tools replace people. With that being said, a wood shop once filled with 6 to 12 members we now have one maybee two. We must not forget that tools made it possible to work quicker without the loss of accuracy and in the face of growing markets, more product means more money, this is where we loose detail. The furniture of the 18 century, at least for me is the pinicle of designe, form and functinality. I reproduce 18th century furniture, it takes a while but I get it done. Powertools alow me to reproduce the furniture on my own with relative speed. The detail in the carvings, joinery, finish, I think you get the point, comes from the craftsman, not the tools. Think of a planner and a carving chissle in the same thought, one opperated by power and the other by hand. Both opperated by a human with an ambition to creat. I guess what I want to say is that we can debate all day on how the industrial revolution changed the world and not only with respect to furniture, but in the end, the beautifull designes of the 18th century are only lost if we let it go.


  • Chainsaw Dealer

    Interesting article on Chippendale and wow, what a crew of readers you have here leaving comments. I will have to come back to this site more as it seems very active and full of information!

  • Adam Cherubini


    Yeah, I agree. The rising standard of living may have been most responsible for the change in furniture as well as an after effect of it. In the early 20th c, Henry Ford hired unskilled laborers to work in his factories and paid them well enough to be Ford customers. No reason to believe that didn’t happen earlier as well.


  • Justin Green

    I, too, am glad that Chippendale didn’t have power tools, not because I dislike power tools, but because it shows us what is possible without them.

  • Alan

    There was a big change in furniture when power tools came into use, but there was a big change in pretty much everything at that time. How much of the change in emphasis from furniture designed for royalty to simpler furniture was due to cash being more widely distributed — itself due partly to those and other machines.

    I don’t know how all the times fit together, but it seems to me too narrow a view to think that furniture style changes are due solely to the way the furniture was made, rather than to all the other technological and social factors. Demands on an artist from a patron are different from those of various markets.

  • James Watriss

    Daniel, I think you have a good general idea of what we’re talking about in terms of what the market will bear. And when you walk around Ikea, (I went, once… ugh) there are signs everywhere explaining that they sit their engineers down with a price in mind BEFORE the piece even gets designed. Little wonder then that everything is rectilinear and made of MDF. Ick.

    But here’s the thing to bear in mind. I don’t think Chippendale was trying to compete in the market at large. There’s a reason that many of the really big names… like Goddard, Chippendale, Seymour, Townsend… all appear on the east coast like they do. Their kind of work could really only be marketed in seaport towns, and hubs of commerce where so much money was being made by the very few that it was absolutely incredible… and they wanted to buy the biggest, most artfully done, expensive and intimidating piece they could afford.

    (It’s also not surprising that some elements like the ball and claw foot show up in these towns… Ball and claw and pad feet came from the orient. So, naturally they’d pop up in towns that saw a lot of sea trade.)

    But nowadays, it’s hard to find work like that being done. I’d honestly go past Adam and point to some of the wildly outrageous work that used to be done in Italy and France… huge secretaries that were covered in marquetry and complex curves, intricate metalwork, and everything else. Of course, they were all for royalty and the like, but still. They were mind bogglingly intricate, and amazingly well detailed.

    The basic structure is only the beginning. Framing a piece out with the M/T joints and dovetails was just the start. That’s just the rough form, then you add countless hours of hand work, carving, inlaying, adding marquetry… No, the market doesn’t normally bear that kind of ostentatious detailing. True. But there are times when the price is not the object… it’s the art of the thing.

    This is pretty much the crux of my crankiness. Dovetails and Mortises and tenons are just the beginning of such a long road, not the end, and certainly not the pinnacle of anything. If you’re really into cutting joinery, look into the work the japanese do. But still… that’s just to hold the pieces together. Then you get into making curves pieces, and trying to keep everything working just so, and still looking good. And then there’s carving, and marquetry, and hidden compartments, and so on… Some of this stuff is just wild. "I’m going to make something that looks like a chest of drawers that got pregnant, and it’s all swollen out… but it’s going to be covered in rococo carving, so it’ll look like it got stuck in the bushes on its way back to wherever it was going to give birth…" And these guys did it, and these projects were well built, functional, and gorgeous.

    When I’m a doddering old codger, I want to be able to look back on projects like that. No holds barred workmanship where the basic joinery is just the tip of the iceberg. Are you kidding me? And people think the dovetail is the pinnacle of craftsmanship? You gotta be kidding me.

  • Mike

    Trust me (!) a cnc with proper programming can shape a saw handle down to the smallest of details. However, none of the several companies that wanted to sell us such a widget could beat our time. I would rather employ people than mortgage my house for a machine.

    As for Chippendale? Yeah, I think he would have used machinery *if* it were in place when he began. But then the conversation would be about those before him. Would they have used machines?

    I am uncertain had C. had machines he desired to use if it would have altered the end product in base ways. The backs and bottoms of things may have been smoother. But I think *if* C.’s work was driven by design and materials, he could not but use machinery for grunt work that freed up people for more skilled work.

    This has its own "dire" consequences. How then would apprentices have a foothold into cabinet making? There would be a lessened emphasis on hiring unskilled labor favoring skilled workers at their expense.

    All the above? Just a perhaps. I have no idea what would have been because it wasn’t what was.

    Take care, Mike

  • Adam Cherubini

    I look at this issue simply, Daniel. What we know is that when power tools came along, woodshops and their products changed. Apprenticeships changed or ended. And furniture, in my opinion, got generally uglier by degrees and less well made. And there are lots and lots of products in our world that have followed suit. Was this because the market demanded it?

    I don’t think the power tools alone are responsible for all the ills of society. But I think they were developed, not to improve the quality of woodwork, but to increase the bottomline of the businesses who employed them. And folks with that sort of mindset, learned to design their products to "fit on their machines" like every other industrial manufacturer does. I think that’s exactly what happened.

    I’m making saws at the moment (as well as other things). I saw the handles out with a 12" scroll saw (hand saw). Then I round over the edges with a rasp and a cabinet file. The radius of that round changes continuously all around the handle. The tangency (it’s actually not quite tangent) between the flat side of the handle and the rounded part is therefore not parallel to the scroll work. It’s another beautful curve, which changes and punctuates the handle design and conforms to the palm. It’s a thing of beauty really. The shape is so complex, no machine could duplicate it.

    There may come a day when I can’t make saw handles anymore and I can’t hire someone skilled enough to do it. At that point, I may buy a CNC router. I’ll program that router to closely approximate that handle design. And when that machine breaks after I die, my sons will redesign the handle to fit on their new machines. That one little area that requires a cutter change? They’ll skip that. I mean, what does it really do anyway. I think that’s how that kind of stuff works.


  • daniel sheehan

    Ok: this is my first foray into the blogosphere. First of all, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Secondly, I never let the facts get in the way of a good argument. Thirdly, if I’m a bad critic, be assured that I’m a much worse woodworker. That being said:

    I think that the marketplace rules. Chippendale made gorgeous curvy pieces because he could, and the market demanded them. A win/ win situation we admire to this day. It was the age of the Baroque in music, architecture, and furniture, with curved broken pediments, cabriole legs, volutes, concertos, etc… and so we have Mozart and Chippendale and (insert your Baroque master here). But tastes change as they always do. One fashion yields to another and often we lose some of the art itself in the process.

    Who knows how to build a pyramid these days? We’ve lost much knowledge throughout history, and people like Adam, Schwartz, et.al . are well occupied in recovering what can be regained for the contemporary craftsman. But I don’t think the craftsman dictated taste as much as the opposite: things were made more simply because that’s what paying customers wanted. And then some of us forgot how to build the pyramid and carve the cartouche.

    If that’s the demand side of the market, let’s look at the supply side. Every great craftsman has to compete in the marketplace. That is, he has to make a product of a certain quality efficiently enough to sell it at a price the market will bear and to be able to feed his family besides. Would Chippendale have used power tools? It depends upon whether the efficiency gained would compromise the quality of his product relative to the other elite cabinetmakers of his time, i.e. whether they used power tools and whether it had a negative effect on their quality. Of course we can never know the answer, but it is fun to speculate. I simply disagree that the machine would have driven down quality unless the consumer ‘s criteria changed. Cadwallader and Affleck didn’t discuss methods of work to the best of my knowledge.

    The thing is, it’s a huge issue, as the range of responses to the original question indicates. To push it a bit, we might consider something like slavery as a contributing factor to Chippendale’s success. Slaveholders and even their non-slaveholding customers were often dependant upon the forced labor of others for the wealth that supported the remarkable craftsmen of the time. However indirectly, the curly Q of that Chippendale commode was likely paid for by the sweat of the slave just as the Ikea instruction manual is what you get when a guy has to sweat for it himself.
    Furthermore, indentured servitude and the apprentice system as it was often practiced, for all their respective pros and cons, had a part in the marketplace of the time. How would that cabinet saw and the digital planer have changed things? I don’t know. It reminds me of the old SNL bit where they explore how history would have been different if Spartacus had a Piper Cub. Who knows ? The question defeats the answer.

    To conclude, I greatly admire people like Adam and Chris who pose the questions and explore “the arts and mysteries”. Their research and experiments can help us all to be better craftsmen. But our work will have to stand on it’s own. It will have to be made well enough to stand the test of time. If it is to be sold at a profit today, it must be made efficiently also. I know that it can be done today as well as it was yesterday with proper attention to quality and speed, whatever that means in our respective shops. I just think it would be a mistake to confuse the products in today’s marketplace with yesterday’s and to judge the quality of today’s true craftsmanship according to yesterday’s prevailing taste in furniture.

    I say this with all humility and hope that someone will please set me straight…

  • Bruce Jackson

    A dovetail is just a joint. So is a box or finger joint. One is primarily for mechanical strength and stability. The other, though strong enough for most purposes, is primarily for getting projects done. In fact, some dovetails are hidden, more for keeping front aprons connected to legs.

    I agree with Dave and James – too much was made from overfocusing on details without considering the context. That’s how most customers are soon parted from their money.

    Oh, by the way, parting cusotmers from money without holding them up with a gun – isn’t that the very definition of marketing?

  • James Watriss

    I see your points, both of you. And I wouldn’t trade my tablesaw, or my bandsaw, for all the infill planes in England.

    I’m not changing my position, but I’ll clarify a bit. I used to really love the guys who came in, bought the fancy tools, and actually did work.

    The cow-eyed herd I referred to are not the guys who are inclined to be wood geeks. The ones I’m talking about have more gadgetry than they have sense left in their head, and no real idea how to use most of it. I’ll talk for hours with anyone who’s collecting saws to learn something new or interesting, because I’d like to hear what they have to say. But I’ve also had to service cantankerous types who go on and on about how such and such a tool is clearly so far superior, etc, but they’re curiously silent on how any of that actually affects their work.

    My shopmate told me later that day that the one tool he was really disturbed by was a template to make dovetails that looked like bread loaves, so you knew it was a bread box. It’s the kind of novelty thing that seems, to me, to fall into the same kind of category as underwear built for two, or a pitcher shaped and painted like a woman’s naked breast, to hold cream. Cute, in their way. But not really the kind of thing you leave out for company to see.

    I agree that a lot of the craft is in the hands of amateurs. I guess I just wish so many of them weren’t so… amateur. There’s more to life, after all, and more to woodworking, than T-track and the latest and greatest dovetail jig. Or, at least I’d like to think so…

    But then, I’m a cranky young upstart. I do recognize that, but it is what it is. I’m sure I’ll know more as the years go on about how little I really understand. But for now, I have to ask… how has the dovetail become the holy grail of woodworking?

  • Adam Cherubini


    I hope to be one of thoe codgers one day, doddering around a tool show wondering if I should spend my retirement savings on the woodworking water jet or the EDM (electrical discharge machine). Thank goodness there is a hobby market for woodworking. Professional woodworkers simply don’t have the time, and in my experience, often lack the inclination, to test new plane designs, purchase tools, read magazines, post on web forums, teach classes etc.

    My brother Steve, a professional cabinetmaker and boat builder of 35 years said recently, "the craft is in the hands of the amateur". Professional woodworkers are not training or maintaining their craft. Steve wasn’t talking specifically about what I do. Even just the basics of say, working with solid wood is slipping by the wayside.


  • James Watriss

    I think there’s another problem involved here… while there’s a huge business with professional woodworkers, there’s also a booming market for hobbyists.

    Yesterday, I went to the Boston Wodworking trade show. It wasn’t as big as I’d hoped, and so, probably as a result, some of the vendors I was hoping to see weren’t there. Instead there was a lot of stuff from Ridgid, Peachtree woodworking, and the like. Lee Valley was there, Lie-Nielsen was not, and there was one table that was like a yard sale, and must have had every router bit that anyone had ever thrown away.

    But here’s what I noticed. If you took away T-track, (and other extruded aluminum widgets) and dovetail jigs (of all kinds, form clamping units, to template based kits that used router bushings)… there wasn’t a lot left.

    It’s getting to the point where I’m tired of dovetails. It seems like that’s become the holy grail of woodworking, and it really shouldn’t be. It’s a good beginner lesson, but it’s not the be-all and end all. Inlaid dovetails with contrasting woods have replaced real woodworking as the be all and end all, and if yesterday was an accurate gauge, there really isn’t a lot more to talk about.

    I blame the hobbyist market, in part, because aside from T-track and dovetail jigs, the other thing that the show was overrun with was cow-eyed old men. I’m 34, I’m sure that comment will get me all kinds of calls from the AARP, the ACLU, and anyone else who will likely accuse me next of cross-burning. I get it… they’re retired, they’re looking for something to do when they’re not mowing the lawn, sweeping the hallway, or finding other quiet things to do while they do their best not to get in their wife’s way. And most of them think that this woodworking thing sounds neat. I sold tools to many of them for a few years.

    But, (and I say this, fully cognizant of the host site for this blog) I also have to blame the magazines. There are a lot of articles on the best way to cut dovetails, but I haven’t seen any that explain that this is just a joint, and while it’s more involved, the function of the joint is no more glorious or glorified than a butt joint. You’re just joining the wood together. And while I do understand that the hobbyist crowd is very proud of their ability to cut a decent looking joint, that’s not.. or I don’t think it should be, a reason to make it a design feature of their latest piece. If you look at Chippendale… Or Goddard… Or Townsend.. or Seymour… who really looks at dovetails? Gorgeous furniture that’s something to aspire to, but the magazines haven’t bothered to point out that hey, yes, you can do this, but it’s only one step on the way to something much more interesting, and they’re JUST dovetails.

    I want to see that phrase in print. "They’re just dovetails."

    I fear that in another century, people will be incredibly proud of a dowel joint. Or an actual (gasp) hammered nail. Such skill!

    Great, you can cut dovetails. Or maybe you can’t and you’re doing it with a router jig… fine. What does the rest of the piece look like?

  • Bruce Jackson

    The blooming of human potential we started to see in the 18th C. had, as it turned out, unintended consequences. Cabinetmaking was not the only endeavor which flourished; so did a whole host of other activities. The key, though, was to look at the products of some of our musings. For us Americans, they were the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Across the pond was a Scottish writer named Adam Smith.

    Smith wrote during a time, as enacted in both Colonial Williamsburg and various Philadelphia and New England settings, that virtually everything we owned was homespun or made in small shops owned by independent tradespeople. Cabinetmakers and seamstresses. Wheelwrights and milliners. And so on. We also would see some degree of specialization of work – the woodworkers bought tools from the blacksmiths who formed them from the woodworkers’ designs. All of this Smith noted in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. What Smith regretted seeing was the demise of the independent small shops in favor of, first, the waterpowered mills and later the giant manufacturing complexes financed through corporations, another British development of the 17th and 18th C.

    Folks who read The Wealth of Nations glossed over Smith’s concern for the welfare of the individual in favor of growing the company’s outputs through mechanization and specialization. In a way, it seems Smith’s title connecting company growth to the state was an unfortunate omen of "What’s good for GM is good for the nation" uttered during the last C. Now we’re finding out the hard way that a company’s welfare does not necessarily promote that of either the individual or the nation. We need to learn to value growth in quality more than in quantity. That’s why for me the only reason a clock, so important to the corporate managers, is in my shop is because when it’s 5:00 or 5:30, my shop morphs into our garage.

  • Jeff

    And just to clarify, I am quite fond of hand tool only work both philosophically and for the sheer joy of it, and am able to do so myself because I only work for myself.

    If you want to learn from folks who really wrestled with this, then I would suggest some reading about Gimson and Barnsley. Philosophically, they would be very much in tune with our fondness for the human fingerprint, if you will, visible in the work. This was precisely what energized the Arts and Crafts movement. They absolutely despised machinery. Most were dyed-in-the-wool Luddites! Yeah, I know Adam…much of A&C forms lend themselves to machinery but I don’t think it applies to Gimson and Barnsley. Yet, they were forced, by the realities of living in an industrialized environment, to rely on machinery for stock preparation.

    Who knows. The industrial experiment may be coming to an end. We may eventually see unskilled wages drop to reasonable levels and the cost of industrial equipment rise to reflect increasing energy costs such that one may indeed see shops such as Chippendale’s once again.

  • Jeff

    "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."

    Would he have mortgaged his shop to buy a shop full of designer hand tools that cost more than double their power tool counterparts?

    The best way to find an answer to this question is to look at who precisely is MAKING A LIVING at building WELL CRAFTED period furniture today (Latta, Hack, Breed, Lowe etc) and see whether they use power tools. I expect that the answer is that power tools are used for stock preparation and hand tools for joinery and detail work. This is precisely what Chippendale would have done if he were to have lived in an industrialized setting.

  • Bruce Jackson

    At one time, I had a half-baked notion, which I’m still entertaining, of going back further than the 18th century. Second thoughts about dealing with cries and shouts of "heresy" and "blasphemy" notwithstanding, I considered doing some woodworking in high heat and humidity of 1st century C.E. Israel, a time when Jesus was said to have worked as a carpenter. Since I live in SW Florida, where not too many folks are likely to practice any form of woodworking (usually folks down here hire out their grass-cutting and shrub-trimming), the high heat and humidity would almost perfectly approximate working conditions of more than two thousand years ago. As for tools, as long as some complexity and specialization of the economy was assumed, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that the local ironsmith forged the major tools as specified by his carpenter customers. So I could use Japanese-style pullsaws with thin blades, chisels, scrapers (if I don’t find sharp pieces of glass) and plane-blades, and then finish my outputs with shellac, a form of which was likely to be imported from India or its neighbors, as a way to preserve my work for the foreseeable market. Anyway, now that I have set myself up as a target for those likey to call me "nuts" or "fanatic", if not worse, the method to my insanity is that a period of interest can be understood more deeply if I were to walk in the sandals of a carpenter like Jesus (or, for that matter, a 5th Century B.C.E. stonemason like Socrates).

    Why? Well, something to do with the notion that a man is product of his times every bit as much as the times are the product of men and women like him.

    I saw your scrollsaw in your article for PWW on formng the splat and thought if I want to make a Chippendale replica, I would need either to cut the blade of my bandsaw, thread it through pre-drilled holes, then braise the ends back together before making my cuts or buy a scroll-saw. The coping saw I have has too shallow a throat. But there you are – part of creative problem solving is determining your own skill set (I’m mainly a power tool man with some supplement from hand tools like chisels and the aforementioned Japanese saw) and the resources at hand in terms of equipment and supplies. This does not preclude my going over to Sears ("local" merchant of choice) to get a fret saw (God only knows which "blacksmith" or group of button-pushers made the damn thing) with a deeper throat.

    Perusing the Taunton Arts-and-Crafts book I bought recently, I found a particular affinity for Danish Modern, which really is made using a good blend of power and hand tools (at least for some graduates of the Danish apprenticeship program, like the founder of Laguna Tools). And that’s playing a secondary role in my hesitation in buying a tablesaw. It helps that my bandsaw does very nicely for ripping straight cuts as well as following a curved line, thank you very much. It also helps that my biggest reason for not having a tablesaw is that my wife thinks my shop is our garage. Getting into a car parked in the garage is a hell of a lot drier than getting into a car parked in the driveway during one of Florida’s daily summer downpours.

  • Jim Tolpin

    The more power you apply to the process, the further you (the craftsman) gets from the product.

  • James Watriss

    *insert long, low whistle here*

    I dig the quote from Sennett, too.

  • Adam Cherubini

    Here be the smartest comments on any blog anywhere. Eat your heart out New York Times. Your pithy posters have nothing on us!

    Bjenk, I dig the quote from Sennett.


  • Bjenk Ellefsen

    The enlightened craftsman

    It is a silly thing to say and at the root of this thought lies a deep misunderstanding of social and historical changes. It is also rooted in a twisted interpretation of progress. I remember a show when Norm routed mortises for small hinges in a cabinet with his huge router. When Norm was was done, he said: "And that is what I call progress".

    Chippendale would not have used power tools even if such a thing would have been possible at the time (which is already silly to presume). Presuming that a high craftsman like Chippendale living right in the atmosphere of the enlightenment would think like an industrialist of the 19th century makes no sense at all.

    To reach his level of craftsmanship, Chippendale invested years to master his skills. Would he have cast all that aside to gain what made no sense in his time: standardization, equalization of skills, mass production in factories? Of course not. His craft gave him pride and made him an enlightened craftsman.

    Diderot en the encyclopedists in the life time of Chippendale is such a clear indication of this culture. Diderot’s encyclopedia was not a manual for practitioners but it was to stimulate the philosopher. Diderot wanted to press the point that craftsmen were icons of enlightenment: the elite were not useful and contributed nothing to society while the world was brought into being by the virtuosos in an imperfect and yet very human way. Ordinary workers were to be admired no pitied.

    Machinism was not a celebrated modern achievement that freed the poor craftsmen of debilitating and hard work. Quite the contrary as we all know. The Machines soon became the enemy if you all remember the very violent workers’ strikes where they tried as much as they could to destroy the machines in the shops.

    Chippendale was an enlightened craftsman. A man of his brilliance and craftsmanship would have seen the power tools we have today for what they would meant for him: estrangement of his fabulous skils and of the expression of his journey and his abilities as a human being.

    But, let me finish what is certainly a much longer and complex discussion by expressing here Sennett’s interpretation of Diderot:" The enlightened way to use a machine is to judge its powers, fashion its uses, in light of our own limits rather than the machine’s potential. We should not compete against the machine. A machine, like any model, ought to propose rather than command, and humankind should certainly walk away from command to imitate perfection. Against the claim of perfection we can assert our own individuality, which gives distinctive character to the work we do. Modesty and awareness of our own inadequacies are necessary to achieve character of this sort in craftsmanship."

    Many of us are now on the journey to become enlightened modern craftsmen: walking away from command and towards an expression of our human character with its beautiful inadequacy and imperfection.

  • Bob Rozaieski

    I don’t think that the introduction of power and the disappearance of the "art furniture" was really a coincidence at all. In fact I think it was inevitable. As you say, once machines began to come onto the scene a lot of the skilled craftsmen were not needed. I think that the machines shaped furniture design after their introduction. Pieces were designed to be more rectilinear and less ornate because the early machines just couldn’t do ornate. If you wanted ornate, you still needed a skilled craftsman but who except for the wealthiest of clients could afford to pay for both the speed of machine work and the skill of the craftsman to refine the machined pieces. I can see how the machines may have originally made [simple] quality furniture available to less wealthy clients and this was probably a good thing for people living at that time, however, I do believe that the machines meant the demise of furniture as an art form, at least until later in the 20th century when the boutique craftsman came onto the scene.

  • James Watriss

    You know, Adam, I think it’s a hard call to make regarding whether or not we made the right choice. I agree with you about the race to the bottom, and I’d love to see Ikea go down, though not in flames, because the fumes from that would be awful.

    Truth is, (and I say this as a North Bennet grad who’s currently trying to get a viable business rolling) that the pieces chippendale made are more on the level of art than furniture. True, his craftsmanship was tip-top, but I think that you, of all people, made the best argument regarding the line between furniture, and what transcends and becomes art… you make a very good point that there’s a lot of middle class furniture that we really never see. Maybe once in a while there’s something in an antique shop, but by and large, a lot of it is just gone.

    I’ve seen things like chairs that were M/T’ed together, but what really held them together was the woven rush seat. When someone sat down, the tension would pull the chair together… but the chairs were rickety as all hell. Not exactly particleboard, but once that rush wore out and came undone, the chair was bound to do the same. But at least back then, it would make decent firewood if you didn’t have the time or inclination to weave a new seat.

    For the average joe, I have a feeling that we’ve always received what we paid for. Maybe it’s crappier now than it was back then, but we have computers and chemistry to make an ever finer line between something that’s crappy and breakable, but usable, if only for a little while, and something that’s unusable. I have a feeling that the olden stuff was still crappy, and wouldn’t hold up for too long… but the line was broader, so it lasted for a lot longer. Yes, it was repairable and rebuildable, but with enough 5 minute epoxy, drywall screws, and lack of either common sense, or another option, so is Ikea furniture.

    I’ll offer another option. Consider the clocks of Phillipe Wurtz.


    This man has engineered these things down to an obsessive degree, to the point of making a clock within a sealed case, and maintaining air density to ensure uniform pendulum swings. Only need to wind it thrice per year, and it’s accurate within seconds over that year. It’s a $100,000 clock. And I can say without a doubt in my heart that if I had the dough to spare, I’d buy it, because it’s art at its best. He obsessed, and made something as immaculately as he could, despite the fact that you can buy a watch in a gumball machine that’s just as accurate. It’s not JUST a clock. It’s evidence of toil and obsession, and a willingness to go as far as is possible to get the end result as close to perfection as is humanly possible. I’ve seen one in person… they’re breathtaking. But, in the end, all it really does is tell time. Sure he could mortgage the shop, and go into quartz movements. But what would be the point?

    Chippendale was an artist, within the bounds of his craft. Clearly his work was exceptional. I think he might have traded in his apprentices for powered equipment if he had the option, but his is not the kind of work that was for sale to just anybody… or made by just anybody, either.

    There are still artists who do amazing things with wood (and other materials) today. But, as always, they’re not priced for just anyone. After 2 years at North Bennet, I feel confident in saying that anyone who wants a piece like that commode table, ornate as it is, could have one made. IF they had the dough.

    And there are others who are doing work that’s not quite as high-end, or high-class, but they’re pretty good. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly available to those who have settled down to good jobs and have an eye for things that they won’t have to keep replacing. AND, they’re being made with a mix of the best of the power tool and hand tool techniques.

    I share your lament for the days of serious craft, and I can only imagine that your personal road of hand-tool only work has revealed all kinds of things to you about work, and about skill, that I can’t quite wrap my head around. (yet… I hope) But I am grateful, still, to know, that there are still people in a variety of fields who are able to stretch their minds and skills to bring ordinary things to amazing heights.

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