Some of the best furniture ever made is being made today.
Steve Latta, 6/24/2017
Steve Latta actually said that. Or something real close to that. That certainly is the gist of what he said. Might even be the exact words. I can’t remember.
Steve Latta is a professional furniture maker, teacher, scholar, author and star of several Lie-Nielsen instructional videos. He teaches full-time in the furniture making program at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pa. He also teaches at nearby Millersville University and conducts workshops at woodworking schools across the country.
He made this statement at the beginning of a breakout session on Rustic Inlay he was giving at the Mid-Year Conference of SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers) in Winston Salem, NC this past June.
On the drive home, I thought about what he said and decided he might be right. I have been to three SAPFM events where members displayed and explained their creations. Most were not professional furniture makers but highly skilled and motivated other-than-professional furniture makers. (I couldn’t come up with another descriptor that wouldn’t alienate someone.)
These people do have some advantages over those working in the past. A few members went on for a bit about procuring just the right wood. Checking with all the hardwood dealers with an email address looking for just the right pair of matching 14 inch wide by 11 foot mahogany boards for a secretary for their niece as a wedding present. This is a luxury not enjoyed by those working in the past. You can argue that they might have had better wood but I believe they didn’t have the access to any and all wood that we have today.
Information. You can learn how to do anything you can imagine by watching a video, reading a book or magazine, taking a class, or asking your local neighborhood expert. This might not be equivalent of an apprenticeship but we have the advantage of only building what we want to and not having to learn things we don’t care about.
Controversially, tools, both power and hand. Many of the presenting SAPFM members use power tools. Past furniture makers did make fabulous furniture using hand tools alone but there are advantages to power tools. Starting the annual Toys for Tots build, I have to process a few hundred board feet of 4/4 poplar into 1/2″ stock which will then be cut to size, rabbeted, have sliding dovetails installed, drilled and rounded. I can and have done all this with hand tools but am grateful for things that plug in.
Good furniture can be built with either type of tool. On some level it has become a religious discussion. No right answers. Whatever works for you and is within your comfort level.
I do cut dovetails by hand for reasons of aesthetics. Those machine cut dovetails look too industrial and I can’t afford the Leigh jigs. (I can, I choose not to.)
The biggest advantage some have is time.
If you’re not getting paid, it’s practice.
Chuck Bender, Some time in the recent past.
When I heard this, I made Mr. Bender repeat it. It was a bit of a slap in the face but I got his point.
We were taking one of his classes. Some members of the class were not happy with the quality of their work. (My standard line from any class is alway: Not my best work.) Frustrated, Chuck was trying to make the point that it really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. We are there learning new skills and attempting techniques for the first time. There should be no expectation of perfection. However, regardless of how badly things work out, we will probably still be able to make our mortgage payment. Our livelihood is not dependent making a salable piece of furniture. Furniture makers in the past needed to produce to pay for food, supplies, employees and apprentices. We have the luxury of time. It would be interesting to discover when in time did the hobbyist woodworker become a possibility.
Your niece’s wedding date is important but if you miss is but a week or so, you might be embarrassed but no long-term repercussions. Your spouse already knows better than to take any promised delivery date too seriously. Career furniture makers actually have to deliver. For the rest of us, it’s a matter of pride, self-esteem and perceived worth as a human being. That and we just invested a great deal money and time in a another pile of firewood.
Having delivered the sermon, I will now show an actual piece of period furniture. If you only see period furniture at museums and historic house museums, you are not getting to see the full range what was made. More and more, museums are thinning their collections so they just contain the best of the best. A few organizations, like MESDA (Museum of Southern Decorative Arts), do have some vernacular furniture, but that is an exception.
Let’s look at this piece from a recent auction:
Pennsylvania Chippendale Walnut Chest on Frame
Description : Circa 1770, poplar and white pine secondry, later applied cove molded cornice to the dovetailed case, three upper side by side lipped drawers above four graduated lipped long drawers, on a later but appropriate styled frame with a scalloped skirt, cabriole legs and trifid feet.
This lot has sold for $900.
Embarrassingly, in my zeal to get lots of pictures of construction details, i neglected to take a picture of the whole piece. This is their picture.
A look at the top reveals they only used the finest of hardwoods in the case construction:
A few knots but it looks flat. Made from a traditional Pennsylvania hardwood, pine.
Their picture shows the attention to detail given to the back of furiture:
No finish and only roughly planed.
The back of another chest shows rotary planer marks. Power tools were in use way back when.
In a previous blog, I asked the question: Would Duncan Phyfe have used Masonite® or Luan? Maybe not Duncan Phyfe but certainly some lesser makers might have. The function of the back is to provide structure and to keep dust out. Plywood would have worked as well as some of the wood actually used.
The trifid feet are nice.
The drawers are..
Dovetailed but overcut. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Drawer interiors have not been introduced to a smoothing plane.
Drawers bottoms, only a scrub plane.
And the not-veneered drawers fronts, gasp, a knot. Looks to be a stable knot.
Another drawer, another knot.
And the same care and attention to detail was followed on crafting the interior of the chest.
Furniture from the past might not be as finely built as the best furniture being built today but there were different expectations and different pressures on the furniture makers. Modern customers also have different expectations. For the money they are paying for period furniture, I do not think they would accept the furniture as it was built back then although some of them might also buy IKEA furniture.