After detailing the final steps of the project of making a dresser, the anonymous author of Joiner and Cabinetmaker describes how cabinetmakers would use veneering and other techniques to set off the dresser to a different level of work. Such was the distinction between joiners work and cabinetmaking in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Cabinet work was veneered and decorated, whereas joiner's work was not. In professional work this is no different today. The low-end carcass will be melamine and the high-end Italian carcass will be birch plywood, possibly with some exotic veneering. The more expensive you go, the better hardware and joinery you get. But unlike furniture of previous centuries, today's Ikea doesn't look that different than higher end brands like Herman Miller to the average customer, especially without scrutiny or use. In my opinion, this is one of the fundamental reasons why furniture has declined as a measure of conspicuous consumption and status.
In the early days of the United States, hardwood was plentiful and much furniture was made from Oak, Ash, Birch, Maple, Walnut, and Cherry. Yet Duncan Phyfe, the great New York based 19th century cabinetmaker, based his work on high quality imported Mahogany. This of course makes no sense if you look at furniture from a modern perspective, in which form is the most most important aspect. But it makes a great deal of sense when you consider the importance of marking the distinction between joiners work and high-end cabinet work, for which you want a premium. You have to use fancier materials.
Before the American Civil War, after which factories began to churn out facsimiles of rich people's furniture, the middle class and the poor bought joiner's furniture and Shaker furniture. Windsor chairs were also the standard common chair. The upper class (and upper middle class) bought veneered, decorated furniture, upholstered and carved chairs, all of which served to show off their wealth.
The picture above is of the hand tinted color plates in Manuel du Tourneur by L.E. Bergeron (1816), showing exotic woods and materials that were used for (luxury) inlay, marquetry, and turning.
The trees were cut down* long ago and the Cuban Mahogany that Duncan Phyfe was so fond of is no longer available commercially. American Black Walnut, which once covered the east coast in the 18th century, is now nearly an exotic wood. The bulk was cut down for charcoal to feed the iron furnaces of the early American iron industry. The other common cabinet hardwoods are available but expensive.
Laminated woods have been used for centuries but it is only in the twentieth century that plywood has become ubiquitous in furniture. First plywood, then all sorts of laminated sheet goods became popular. Proper cabinet grade plywood is now a symbol of quality. Melamine, fiber board, particle board, and all sorts of sheet goods are currently being used.
In general, custom builders - both amateur or professional - don't use lower end materials much in furniture construction (other than kitchens) so I will ignore the materials of mass production.
As we see from historical examples, in order for furniture to be perceived as "special" it needs fancy materials, finishes, and detailing.
Nowadays the meaning of "exotic materials" has expanded considerably to include all sorts of material, including spalted wood (wood that has been colored and discolored by fungal growth) and wood with interesting grain patters caused by genetic mutations (bird's eye or tiger maple). Solid wood itself is considered sort of exotic. Guests in my home have sometimes complimented my furniture (made of solid walnut) then asked questions or made comments that made me realize they saw no real distinction between a walnut finish and solid walnut. For them, all wood was naturally beige-tan, so "walnut" meant an added color. Of course most of the exotic materials of the past are no longer available because of extinction or bans on importing to prevent extinction. Another reason these materials I think are less common is that most people cannot tell the difference between ivory, ebony, and white or black plastic. We are so used to seeing the roaring figure of exotics copied in artificial materials that the real thing is much less of a standout.
What has gotten extremely popular is the use of reclaimed materials and we will be seeing more and more of that as time goes by. Reclaimed materials are being used three ways: as inexpensive secondary woods. This has always been the case, nobody in their right mind would toss a nice piece of wood staring at them in the shop. A second use of reclaimed lumber, and possibly the most popular usage, is to take large beams and other wood from older structures and re-mill them so that they can be essentially reused again as new material. The advantage is that we get access to old growth wood and materials which are simply not currently available. In our shop our display board for our tools was made our of reclaimed pine that originally was in a whale oil factory. The pine is dead hard, dead straight in grain, and oil impregnated. It's wonderful stuff. I see flooring and other woodwork routinely made out of reclaimed lumber these days.
The final usage of reclaimed lumber is the most interesting. This coming Saturday we will be having a book signing with Yoav Liberman in honor of the publication of his new book, "Working Reclaimed Wood: A Guide for Woodworkers, Makers & Designers" The reason Yoav's book is so interesting is that reclaimed lumber is increasing is used as a material in its own right. The wear and tear of the previous uses are left in. The reason the material is used is not because it once was a wonder bit of wood, it's being used because it shows its own history. This of course opens up a high avenue for design and exploration and gives the maker a wide choice of materials made unique and interesting because of past usage. And as I said previously success in high end furniture has always been about demonstrating something unique.
Solid wood furniture can be detailed with carvings, but solid wood is also a very variable material. Surface treatments and finishing deserve their own blog entry.
Yoav's signing is this coming Saturday, you are all invited to this free event. For more information click here
*If you want to read a gripping story of the lumber camps in Mexico where Mahogany was harvested I heartily suggest B. Traven's Jungle Series. The last few books take place in the camps, although the entire series is wonderful.
I think it is fair to say that most furniture is made of solid wood or sheet goods - the latter being plywood, melamine, or MDF, depending on budget and design considerations. As discussed in the last blog, cutting sheets goods accurately and with a clean, ready-to-glue edge isn't trivial, and it's a real roadblock for a lot of beginners who are just trying to build their first pieces of useful furniture.
The obvious solution is to use a table saw, panel saw, or a portable saw and rail system like the Festool TS55. The first method requires a large amount of free floor space - eight feet on each side of the saw. The second method requires eight or nine running feet along a wall. The last method requires saw horses, and at least ten or so clear feet to set up the saw and have a little room to work on a full sized (8') panel. All of these methods require an initial capital expense of $600 and up and some training (not much).
I don't think any hand tool can cut a clean edge in plywood, so I don't think that's practical for any except very rough work.
Professional cabinetmakers in New York City have similar problems. Space is at a premium, and while having a table saw is pretty important for some of the work, breaking down panels to exact size can be slow, and errors are expensive. Noah Grossman, a cabinetmaker located in Brooklyn, applies a solution to the problem that is becoming more and more popular among professional woodworkers.
The walnut plywood panels above are part of a sideboard Noah designed and built, but instead of cutting all the material in his own shop (which he certainly has the capacity to do), Noah found it was easier and cheaper to outsource the cutting up of the panels to a CNC shop.
All across the country, CNC shops offer exact dimension cutting of sheet goods usually for a fixed cost over material cost. CNC shops can cut, rebate, drill, form splines for joinery, drill for hinges, and perform many other operations. Unlike a small shop with a basic CNC router, the best of these shops have sophisticated materials-handling equipment and automatic tool changers for flexibility. Modern CNC shops are set up to handle sheet after sheet of goods far more efficiently than any single person feeding a table saw could. Another bonus: as long as the CNC receives a correct data file, it's their responsibility for tear-out, damage, and any other screw-ups. Other parts of cabinets can also be outsourced very economically. There are many companies that will be happy to make dovetailed drawers for you in any size and quality for your cabinet. Noah did point out that outsourcing the sheet goods was only part of the project. The base of this sideboard was made from solid, using regular methods, in his shop.
Currently I am not aware of any CNC shops that cater to weekend warriors. Pro shops just don't want to deal with the learning curve and hand holding amateurs need. But I think in the future, after some brave entrepreneurs decide to specialize in the non-professional market, outsourcing the cutting of sheet goods will be a major facilitator for sheet good projects of all kinds. If you want to build a kitchen as a part-timer, having everything correctly cut for you makes a very large project manageable. Outsourcing precise material cutting will also encourage the creation of all sorts of free-form furniture that an amateur can design but can't really make in a regular shop. Most importantly, the parts of a project, as in Noah's case, that are made of solid wood, can be made by hand in a small shop.
I don't see much advantage in owning your own CNC machine if you are only doing a few projects a year.
Noah called this approach "Custom Ikea," and he's not far wrong. But big deal! Much of modern furniture design look like Ikea design, only better made, out of better materials. Ikea specializes in modern furniture; just because something in an Ikea store looks at a distance like your modern project is no reason not to build modern stuff, if that's what you want.
The last picture, another project by Noah Grossman and Alec Gessner, is a fairly straightforward run of white cabinets. Here CNC was used to cut up a large amount of similar panels. This is a real win for the small shop because handling that many sheets of lightweight MDF is a physical and logistics challenge in a small shop. Getting the dozen or so cabinets correctly cut and ready for assembly makes for a better, quicker job.
Yoav's approach to "The Future of Woodworking" is non-traditional, and shows the potential of what you as a maker can do with wood, using as an inspiration some existing materials that have exhausted their original purpose.
Now that woodworking is no longer regularly taught in schools, young people as a group have a distinct disadvantage compared to the youth of bygone eras when it comes to skills and equipment. (Yes, I know this doesn't apply to everyone. Many customers come to our showroom with their kids, and some of them, even those under 10, have some serious skills.) Fortunately furniture making doesn't have to be off limits to folks (young or old) without a lot of tools or accessories. In Part Three I hinted at some ideas about the future of furniture making without a giant shop. The concept isn't new. Many writers and designers going back to the 1930's basically had the same idea with different solutions. Two books that we stock and another three from my personal collection address this very issue. In chronological order:
My favorite of the bunch is "How to Construct Rietveld Furniture," which we stock. (The first edition came out in 1986; this is the later second edition.) It's still in print and still great. Gerrit Rietveld, like Gustav Stickley and other Arts & Crafts proponents, wanted to design furniture that anyone could make. Unlike Stickley, Rietveld used construction grade lumber, dowels, screws, nails and paint. Nearly a century later his pieces still look fresh and modern. We offer classes in building a version of the Zig Zag chair. Seventy years after it was first introduced the chair looks as modern as ever and isn't a very complicated build. All the designs in his book are like that. The original zig zag chair was made out of solid wood, in the class we use Europly, which is simpler to use. We also use modern equipment for cutting and joinery. Unfortunately most beginners don't have access to that sort of equipment in their home. The original chair was bolted together, and like most of Rietveld designs basically require some sort of handsaw, some sort of drill, and simple fasteners.
Enzo Mari's "autoprogettazione?" originally published in 1974, also wanted to make a visionary's work easy to make. Like Rietveld, Mari used solid wood and common fasteners to hold it all together. Popular Woodworking recently did an article on how to build one of Mari's dining room tables (October, 2018). The tools here are also pretty simple. Mari mostly used solid material so a saw and a drill are the key tools.
I think we have to add in some sanding equipment, which could be as simple as a sheet of sandpaper and a block of wood, to make Rietveld and Mari furniture. A chisel or two might be handy but not essential.
"Designer Furniture Anyone Can Make" by William E. Schremp (1972) isn't a very good book. There are no photographs to convince me that anything was ever actually made from this book. The designs are less a copy of designer pieces, and more a silhouette of the original design. The book is interesting to look at because essentially everything is reduced to a square of plywood, joined using glue and screws. Schremp does talk a little bit about the mechanical considerations of making a sturdy piece but he totally glosses over the details. All of the projects are made out of sheet goods - plywood, and you are stuck with the problem of cutting plywood cleanly unless you have a good power saw of some kind.
"Ridiculously Simple Furniture Projects, by Spike Carlsen is a book we stock. There is a plywood chair project in it that I built and it was a few hours of cutting apart a sheet of plywood. I was impressed. The book unfortunately is mostly about smaller projects and not enough projects to furnish a house, but the author's instincts are good. The chair I built from his plans used a portable circular saw and a jig saw, but I could have done it only with the latter. For the solid wood projects, a handsaw and a drill might be all you need.
Finally, Clement Meadmore's "How to Make Furniture Without Tools" (1975) has a great concept, but I don't think it is practical the way the author describes it. The basic premise is that the book includes cuts lists and layouts for all the projects, and all you have to do is take the plan to a lumberyard and have them do all your cutting. While I don't think any lumberyard can cut wood as precisely as you might need, the idea that all you need to do is glue everything together and paint it shows that the author in the 1970's understood that the urge to build something useful way exceeded the skill level of most people. I don't think just gluing the materials together as the author recommends would last. But the basic idea of the book - namely that outsourcing might be a realistic approach for the future of furniture - is something that is worth discussion, and I plan to explore the idea in a very practical way in the next installment of this series.
Thirty years ago it was fairly common for students to have classes in some sort of craft in high school. Arts ‘n’ crafts for younger kids, and as kids got older, probably home ec for the girls and shop for the boys (and all three for the lucky minority). This probably included woodworking instruction. This experience meant, among other things, that the idea of making something wasn’t alien or a big reach. Nowadays Steiner/Waldorf schools continue to teach craft, but by and large most public and private schools don’t. The underlying reasons are varied, but crafts courses of all kinds have disappeared from schools, and consequently most young people start out totally disconnected with the maker world.
And thirty years ago if you had the urge to make something and your friend-relative-teacher-neighbor couldn’t help you, the only information available was through a half dozen national magazines like Popular Mechanics, Popular Woodworking, and Fine Woodworking. Specialty and niche publications existed, but the smaller magazines did not have a ready access to distribution and they took some looking to find. The larger magazines functioned as a introduction to setting up a full shop and doing mainstream projects. Of course they all tackled projects with specialty techniques, but the magazines were generalists in orientation. If you had the urge to get more involved in a specific area of woodworking, the magazines were where you could find out about other smaller specialty magazine, woodworking clubs, and of course classes.
I remember that one of the appeals of Fine Woodworking when it first came out in 1975 was that it addressed niches (see table of contents in the photo above). While the other mainstream magazines of the day were focused on how to build practical furniture, mostly in neo-colonial or Shaker style, Fine Woodworking's interest and focus was about traditional techniques that were still being practiced, and how you could do them too. Of course, over the years what was unusual at the time has become usual, with the result that someone whose says their hobby is "woodworking" can mean anything from building simple pieces, fancy bentwood, to carvings, turnings, or all sorts of complications.
Then along came the internet!
We aren’t going back to the old way. Someone with the urge to make something can totally bypass the traditional furniture route. We meet a lot of turners, spoon makers, carvers, and chair makers, some of whom have branched out or will branch out to other types of woodworking. For most of them, the traditional path never comes up. The internet has made resources - the knowledge, the community of clubs, both in-person and virtual, the tools themselves - accessible with limited gate keeping.
In the pre-Internet days, information about a new group, a new toolmaker, a new source of tools and equipment might take years to circulate - sometimes too late, if the new thing folded before getting sustainable amount of support. Today this is not the case. This access to information will be what enables all sorts of woodworking to continue.
All this information affects the type of woodworking people will do because the leap for someone who has never had a shop class to invest in a table saw, a jointer, a planer, etc. is pretty large. But the leap to a local class, or following instructions on the Internet to build something, or find out about and then going to a club meeting is pretty small. I see a future where people satisfy their urge for woodworking by finding and participating in any of the less capital-intensive niches. And I am sure those niches will survive and prosper.
What is less secure is full sized furniture construction. I am pretty sure the high-end will survive but I am a little more worried about the weekend warrior. It's hard to convince someone to deck out a workshop if all they want to make is a bookcase. In another chapter I will discuss a plan for making simple projects simpler than ever, with minimal needs for the workshop. I have genuine enthusiasm for a new approach to casework that is becoming very common among professionals in New York City and will soon be readily accessible to amateurs.
I read a lot and I firmly believe that no matter how indispensable a YouTube video, a blog, or a magazine article can be, the long form of writing - a book - can both entertain and educate the way no other media can. Here is a short list of books that we stock, old and new that I think are worth reading. Now actually I think all the books we stock are worth reading, but I particularly wanted to highlight some personal favorites. I'm including some of the many new books we stock along with some classics that really shaped my understanding of woodworking.
In no particular order:
The Mechanic's Companion by Peter Nicholson. This is a high quality reprint of the 1841 American edition of the book, which was originally printed in 1812. The Mechanic's Companion is one of those books you don't actually read as much dip into. It's structured as a dictionary, and it's an important book for anyone who has an interest in historical woodworking. What really turned me on is the inclusion of the 1830 building code of New York City. This is so interesting to me because it's the first gasp of zoning and regulation in New York. We have to comply with Fire Department regulations for our aerosols and flammable storage regulations (including passing the Certificate of Fitness test) so the rise of safety regulations especially caught my eye. Apparently in 1830 the regulations were pretty similar, though they weren't about spray lacquer - they concerned whale oil and gunpowder. The book also covers the tools and usage for different trades. But there is so much crammed into the book, you can always learn something new. For me, the woodworking tool material wasn't unfamiliar but the section on plastering was totally amazing.
"The Joiner and Cabinet Maker" is approaching a decade since we put it back in print. I still find it as exciting as ever to go through. For anyone interested in working unplugged, the first two projects are a great first set of challenges. If you can complete the third project - a dresser - you can confidently say that you really know what you are doing. Back then I thought the book was the best education for hand tool usage out there, and today I would double down and also say it provides an anchor for other hand tool instruction you might (and should) get elsewhere. It's also a good read, which is why I think you can learn from it pretty easily.
Robert Wearing's - "The Essential Woodworker" is the single best book on useful advice on woodworking every written. Short and sweet, it's a great practical book no matter what equipment you use - hand or electric. I can't imaging not having a copy.
Lost Art Press just reprinted "Welsh Stick Chairs" by John Brown and issued an English-language version of Slöjd In Wood by Jögge Sundqvist. Both of these books are standards in their field and if there is any interest in chairs or Sloyd projects these are obvious choices. I also want to recommend "Woodworking in Estonia" which is another standard text for greenwood woodworking - a bit more hardcore and less accessible than the other two, but also very worthwhile.
Hardcore carvers might like "Manual of Traditional Wood Carving" by Paul Hasluck. I'm actually in the middle of the chip carving section. I took Daniel Clay's course in September and Hasluck has an article on chip carving explaining the English method of doing it. I have also been poring over the book's decorative designs for furniture as part of my research for my blogs on "The Future of Furniture." The text is dense but chock full of useful stuff.
For younger people who have an interest in early crafts and tools, Eric Sloane's "A Museum of Early American Tools" had a huge impression on me when I was a kid. Still does.
P.S. Next week I will return to "The Future of Furniture" with Part 3: Tools!
PPS Yes, this title was inspired by the recurring sketch [could link: https://snltranscripts.jt.org/78/78dbooks.phtml] on Saturday Night Live with the original cast.