Woodworking In America: Nailed Furniture
After you register for Woodworking in America, you will be asked for your preferences for classes. No one will be turned away from any classes. We’re just trying to establish if we need additional sessions or chairs.
When you are asked, be sure to request a spot in my Nailed furniture talk. I’m up against Peter Follansbee, which is tough competition and maybe not the best programming. Folks interested in what I do are liable to also be interested in Peter’s talk. I’d much rather be opposite “sliding dovetails with routers and jigs.” Inevitably, the choice will be yours to make. If enough folks respond, we may yet see things get shuffled around. Until then, I thought it would be a good idea to give you a sense for what this important talk will be about.
Sometime early in the fourth quarter of the last century (1970s -’80s), we saw the largest re-emergence of wood craft since the Arts & Crafts movement of the 19th century. Millions of individuals inspired by popular TV shows like Roy Underhill’s “The Woodwright’s Shop” and “This Old House” took to woodworking. There was even a woodworker in the White House! And these guys weren’t building bird houses as their fathers had done. The average American woodworker was now tackling ambitious projects ranging from kitchen remodels to timber-framed buildings, from Danish modern coffee tables to Queen Anne “highboys.” The diversity of interests and projects may lead some to believe that there is nothing left to discover, no challenges ahead.
Two years ago I built and carved a Philadelphia Chippendale chair. This is probably one of these most difficult woodworking projects there is. The joinery is crazy hard and the carving requires the practiced hand of a master carver. So putting aside for a moment that fact that my chair was a nightmare, I’m done right? I’ve done it all. I can carve a cabriol leg in less than an hour. I can produce an adequate ball-and-claw foot in even less time. I’m done, right? I’ve run the marathon, cycled a “century,” and jumped out of a perfectly good airplane. Time to try something else, right?
In our zeal to see how far we could go, we skipped an entire furniture form: boarded furniture. I’m not talking about a style of furniture, but an entire form, a set of styles linked by a common construction approach. Boarded furniture, as defined in 1632, is furniture built without the use of dovetails or mortise-and-tenon joints. So what’s left? Fasteners are a large part of boarded furniture. Early pieces also involved metallic straps, typically decoratively applied. But the clever use of rabbets, dados and grooves are also important contributors. Pieces ranged in form and style. Interesting that this furniture hasn’t (yet) been taken seriously by woodworkers or collectors. This is likely the furniture that decorated our ancestors’ homes. Ironic that it is boarded furniture and not “joined” or dovetailed furniture that is the direct ancestral parent of virtually all modern industrial furniture. Seriously? And we’ve never really considered it? And why is that again? IKEA isn’t new. It hearkens back to boarded furniture both in style and construction. Wouldn’t you like to see where this popular furniture came from?
When Michael Dunbar started making Windsor chairs, commercial Windsor chairmakers had no idea how period Windsors were built. Their industrialized processes has robbed Windsor furniture of it’s punchy style leaving ugly brown low slung dining chairs and thick legged bar stools in their wake of destruction. Dunbar introduced us to new joints, new tools and new methods of work, capturing our imagination and challenging our notions of woodworking (it doesn’t have to start with boards from the lumberyard!)
I think boarded furniture has all the same ingredients that Windsor chairmaking had. A wide variety of styles exist. Some specialized tools are required and skill with under utilized tools will need to be improved. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, boarded furniture is fun to make. It’s not a life style choice. It’s a challenging and fun weekend project. Can you make useful furniture without a tenon or a dovetail? Need inspiration? Check the IKEA catalog, have a look in Pottery Barn, or Restoration Hardware. The latter two have taken humble boarded furniture and renamed it “cottage style” and sent it upscale.
Looking ahead at a career in furniture making? Don’t look back. Old brown carved furniture is sadly on it’s way out. Ask your wife what she prefers. My wife likes freshly painted bead board. This talk could be the most important event at WIA this year. Don’t miss it!