As someone with a few completed pieces of functional furniture under my belt, I've found that I've developed a chronic condition that causes me to look underneath every dining room table, and around the back of every sideboard to see how they're made. The other day at a wedding I even found myself waiting for an old lady to vacate her ladder-back chair just so I could turn it over and look for tool marks. Maybe madness is setting in, but even this madness has its method. I do this (compulsively now) because I find that I'll often learn a thing or two about how another craftsperson came up with an ingenious solution to the same problems I encounter. Sometimes, I learn from their mistakes. Either way, I almost always learn something that informs my own practice.
The other day I took my daughters to buy milk paint at the only local spot that sells such a thing which, as you may expect, is also one of those chi chi "antique" stores meant for interior decorators and not rust hunters. I always feel like I'm walking into an issue of Garden & Gun when I go there, and this time was no different. As I entered the front door I was greeted by this magnificently reclaimed dining table.
The tag made a selling point of the fact that this was made from "vintage" wood reclaimed from a farmhouse. Or maybe it was just regular old wood from a "vintage" farmhouse. It's hard to follow how people use adjectives in advertising these days. Regardless, the point was that they wanted you to know it was old and it looked old and that the price would be adjusted skyward because of it.
We love old looking stuff, we just don't have the time it takes for it to actually get old.
The table certainly was striking and my curiosity was piqued, so I began to study it to see how it was built. A twinge of worry came over me almost immediately when I noticed the breadboards had no pins, so I looked under the table and to my dismay all I saw were pocket holes and plugs - hundreds of them. Not only were the "breadboards" attached this way, but the long boards were edge joined likewise. I cried a little inside.
I wish to be clear. Pocket screws have their uses, even in pre-industrial period work, but this is not one of them. There's absolutely no need for them, and it is possible that they will predestine this "one-of-a-kind-vintage-farmhouse" table to the scrap heap when the wood begins to do what it does (move) and the screws do what they do best (keep things from moving). Maybe the wood is old enough and dry enough that this won't be a problem. Maybe someone won't lean too hard on that breadboard and tear the four brave screws out of the opposing end grain. Maybe I'm over-reacting. Maybe.
On one hand, I feel like ranting about how someone was in such a hurry to make this thing that looks "authentically" old that they doomed it to the same fate shared by other hastily manufactured commercial furniture, but that's not really the heart of my concern. They could have reclaimed this resource more responsibly, but wood is wood. It grows on trees and in 200 years someone else will make equally ill-advised choices.
What interests me is this - hand tools so often meet skepticism over the myth of how "slow" they are to use, but how long did it take to drill, screw and fill all those holes? Edge joining a table top like that would be relatively quick work with a plane by comparison. And yes, it would take longer to properly join a breadboard to the ends, but those tenons and pins would likely outlast more than a few vigorous games of cards with your rowdy uncle Phil. When I looked at this table all I could see was an unnecessary calculation to make something that looks like it's been around for 200 years rather than making something that may actually be around 200 years from now.
The relationship between furniture and fashion has changed over time. It was once perfectly reasonable to commission a piece in a "fashionable style" (else where would the highboy be?) but the understanding was that a client was also commissioning a piece that was structurally sound. The ornament was once icing on an already very sturdy cake. This is no longer the understanding people have when they think, "hey, I want a farmhouse table" because there is always an implied "for now" at the end of that thought. We expect our tastes to change, and so we want things based on a "look" and not on their lasting function in our lives.
We can no more hurry up and make things that are "old" than we can hurry up and make things that will last. Good things take the time that they take whether they are fashioned with a frame saw or a table saw. Part of educating ourselves (and others) about period furniture (or furniture, period) is learning this lesson. Good will always be good. Junk will always be junk. We may make our decisions accordingly, but at the very least we should take a look under the table and make them knowingly.
- Jim McConnell