Tuesday, January 26, 2010

More musing than usual

Hand tool furniture, or furniture made by hand tools. I was reminded of my long-stabled hobby horse (see previous blog entry) and have been mulling over the thing again. In the current furniture climate, taste leans towards the simpler design. Florid mouldings, veneer and painted effects are out; clean lines, solid wood and 'expressed joinery' are in.

I should make a confession here. I'm not sure if the term is recent, or I'd just forgotten it during my break from woodworking, but when I first read of 'expressed joinery' in my magazine catch-up I thought for some minutes it was something to do with the speed at which it was cut... D'oh.

Now I'm a bit dichotomous about exposed joinery. I think it can look fabulous, often as an accent in an otherwise fairly boring slab of timber. But I also think it's in real danger of being as overused as mouldings ever were. In this age when available timber, and inclination, is meaning we use more and more highly-figured woods, why not let the wood do the talking with one clear voice? Does shouting against a panel of figured walnut with 16 through tenons with contrasting wedges really improve it? Okay, so I possibly exaggerate, but I'm betting many woodworkers can think of a real-world example they've seen that has started along that road.

A more worrying possibility arising out of this desire for visible joinery is one of simple craftsmanship - using the wrong joint or the right joint the wrong way because it 'looks better'. Now at the moment the only examples I can think of are in tool cabinets - and one may have been a simple error of layout and not a design choice - but one was certainly done deliberately, and it makes me wince. Viz: Cutting drawer dovetails so the tails show at the front. i.e. Completely disregarding the mechanical advantage of dovetails. For heaven's sakes, why not just dowel the thing together and put some self-adhesive tails on the front and be done? Ack.

Now obviously that's a bit extreme and it's hardly widespread - yet. But will 'expressed joinery', in its own way, end up being taken to similar extremes as the mouldings and use of poor machine joints did before it? Will it become a by-word for all that's bad in furniture as the new age of real furniture advances in a cloud of ogees and ovolos? Okay, probably not, but don't say I didn't warn ya...

Anyway, one argument seems to be that designing modern furniture with hand tools in mind is rendered difficult because of this desire for visible joinery, clean lines and no mouldings. This floated into my mind over the weekend in particular. On the one hand I was reading the Lost Art Press reprint of 'The Joiner and Cabinetmaker', and on the other I went out to lunch at a local hotel.

Yes, it wasn't bad, thanks. The game terrine is recommended. The furniture though? Variable. One monstrosity clubbed me about the head and demanded to be recorded for posterity - a cursory inspection suggests it's not particularly old and someone went mad with the off-the-shelf mouldings. Somehow it doesn't speak of time-served craftsmen labouring over a carving bench, and I think I detected some machinery in it's manufacture. All told, pretty ghastly.

Meanwhile, in 'The Joiner and Cabinetmaker', the hero of the piece ends up building a chest of drawers as his final demonstration of how much he's learnt. And thus, because of the nature of the reprint, so does Chris Schwarz - and so I've swiped the photograph of his version from his blog (do hope he doesn't mind).

So what do we have from this piece of design from 1839? Clean lines, no mouldings and... exposed joinery. And it's all made with hand tools. Okay, so the original text suggests a paint effect and a bit of simple moulding round the base, but it works with this modern interpretation perfectly well. Now if I'm reading what Chris wrote correctly, he actually cut stopped housings (dadoes) for the drawer dividers, only to realise that actually they should have gone the whole depth of the carcass. Which kinda feels like it makes my point for me - we have a tendency to think like power tool users and make furniture accordingly.

Now I can't design stuff to save my life; I have enough of a learning curve on my hands trying to make things. The requirement for the amateur woodworker to master so many diverse skills that a professional cabinetmaker of the old school would have never contemplated tackling is another hobby horse in the stable. The last thing we should feel obliged to be is designers as well. But I digress. What I mean is I can't sit down and come up with the next big thing in furniture trends - I don't have the skill. But history tells us it'll happen, and it has been known to be influenced by the trends in woodworking tools before now. At the moment that really does seem to be using hand tools, so wouldn't it be lovely if the next trend was modern furniture designed to get the best out of old tools?

But in the mean time it seems we have 1839 to draw on... ;)


  1. The design 'problem' has a really easy and very traditional solution; just don't even attempt it!
    Always copy, copy, copy.
    For almost everybody this will improve the quality of their work no end. When they are good at it they may find themselves 'designing' but without really being aware of it.
    It's like learning a language.
    That's my theory anyway.

  2. Totally agree about the over use of exposed joinery. It can indeed be as ghastly as moulding. Another 'feature' that I think is over used in current furniture trends is contrasting timbers. Everything seems to have light and dark woods, sometimes to the extreme.

    I also agree with Jacob, but PLEASE, don't tell anyone! ;)

  3. "wouldn't it be lovely if the next trend was modern furniture designed to get the best out of old tools?"

    Indeed it would!

    For me one of the most useful things we can do as crafts-people at this moment in time is to help bridge the yawning gap between past and present. To welcome the best of the new and the best of the old and make them TALK to each other instead of locking them away in separate boxes, one labelled "progress" and the other labelled "heritage".

  4. Jeremy Kriewaldt (jmk89)1/26/2010 11:45:00 pm


    I know what you mean but for once I don't think we can blame the power tool directly. I think it is more subtle. When you read the books by the modern designers/craftsmen who have had a huge influence recently, and especially in the USA, they worked with power tools to a significant degree and produced furniture that deservedly attracted attention because it was a fresh change from the overly ornate furniture produced before.

    This reaction happens about once every 100 years - Queen Anne reacted to Rococo, Arts and Crafts to the heavy early Victorian, and so on.

    Earlier manifestations were done by hand tool workers, it was the design element that changed - so the underlying joinery did not (although the introduction of the dovetail was a real breakthrough).

    The most recent design trend has been led by craftsmen who are power tool users, and their designs are optimised for their work methods.

    So we have a slight conundrum - historically the originals that we regard as 'good design' were made using hand tools and with the appropriate joinery (because, frankly, there weren't the appropriate power tools). Subsequently, power tool users developed ways to replicate the joinery so that they could make replicas of those historical models. Now, and I think for the first time, some attractive designs have been originated using power tools and the joinery that they do best. I wouldn't be too hard on someone who shows that the same designs can be readily made by hand.

    So I agree with you - ugly is ugly. Putting dovetails around the wrong way is silly - why use an engineered joint and then ignore the engineering? Hand tools can make some joints better and stronger than power tools and vice versa - if you are following a design which was based on hand tools and using power tools, you have to decide whether to make the same sort of joint as the hand tool original (in which case you may do it worse) or do a different joint that your power tool does better, in which case someone will say it's not authentic. The same applies to a power tool design that you replicate using hand tools.



  5. Keep it quiet, Tom, but I agree with him too... And good point about contrasting timbers; that is indeed another one.

    Marcus, the pigeon-holing of things like that is not helpful, I agree. I fancy I'm probably guilty of it more than I would care to admit...

    Jeremy, I'm not blaming the power tool exactly - at least I didn't mean to. They've had an enormous impact on how we can do things, just as improvements in glues and manmade boards also brought about whole new designs. It's inevitable that you'd take advantage of them and some great things have come out of it.

    But it's an interesting point you make, that from the power tool perspective you're often spending your time trying to make hand tool joinery. Heh. Hadn't thought of that at all.

  6. Interesting ideas Alf. I agree with you about design...there's not two ways round it, it's just bloody hard!
    I do though like exposed joinery but it needs to be done 'tastefully' (there's a word to define!) Exposed jointing was a favourite of the late Alan Peters and was used extensively by JK. To my mind, none of those two makers ever got it wrong and their pieces never shrieked..."EEEEK! exposed joints!" so I think it needs to be done, and moreover, done well and in moderation to be effective. If it is done properly, it can lift a mundane piece and make it something a bit more special, but to it do requires a bit of judgement - Rob

  7. Hi Alf,

    I think you've pretty much hit the nail on the head. Times they are a changing and the maple and black walnut with excessive exposed joinery look is 'sooo last decade!' But what's to be the next direction? I was particularly interested to see this take on art nouveau recently:


    Subtle, elegant, but still definitely modern... it could be the next big thing?

  8. I have to add a pet peeve: I'm tired of power-routed roundovers. It's not just form and function anymore—it's form, function and production.

  9. Less musing than usual . . . .


Owing to vast quantities of spam this blog is getting, I'm afraid only registered users can post. All comments are moderated before publication, so there may be some delay. My apologies.