You have to see this stuff to believe it. When I tell people that pre-industrial furniture (almost without exception) is rife with tool marks, overcuts, and even tear out, I get the sense that some people don’t believe me. They think that there’s no way that the wonderful antiques they’ve seen behind velvet ropes in special museum lighting could be as rough inside as I am asserting. I’ve heard some say maybe I’m just talking about vernacular furniture made by farmers.
I understand the skepticism because this kind of workmanship flies in the face of modern woodworking dogma. But I’m not just talking about a few slap-dash anomalies. These kinds of tool marks are exactly the bits of evidence that antique dealers rely on for authentication. From the nailed together chest to the elaborately carved highboy, this stuff is normal, par-for-the-course pre-industrial workmanship.
This discussion reminds me of an occasion in which I was demonstrating how I chop a mortise. As I was working, I was prying off the top edge. I explained how it is ok to pry off the top of the mortise (but not the bottom) because it had no structural implications and would be invisible in the assembled joint. I said, “No one will ever even know it is there.” One listener, visibly disturbed, blurted out, “But you will!” Sometimes our values conflict with our ancestors’.
I’ve decided the best way to inform our woodworking consciences is to persistently publish photographs of period workmanship. For this reason, every issue of M&T contains a photo essay of period furniture with measurements listed. To show period workmanship in all kinds of furniture, we are consciously documenting different forms. There was the secretary in Issue One and the drop leaf table in Issue Two. In Issue Three, we will be looking at two period high chairs: one 18th century and one early 19th century. There are similarities and there are differences between the two. Although the slat-back 18th-century chair was clearly more hastily made, they both retain riving and tool marks.
For some, the handful of photos in each issue aren’t enough. As we’ve done previously, we will also be offering separately an eBook with all the photos from the shoot. We’ve been getting great feedback about these eBooks of photography and so we intend to keep that going.
We hope that publishing this information contributes to your growth as a woodworker. Don’t take my word for it. You can see this stuff with your own two eyes. These photographs might just be the best way to unburden hand tool users from the strict tolerances of industrial machinery.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s announcement of the next article upcoming in M&T Issue Three...