NOTE: For all of you who don't know, Pat Leach is the resident net expert on old tools. Not just on the tools themselves but the hows and the ways in which they were used.
Patrick Leach

SUBJECT...Old Geezer woodworking

Note: This is a long rant, that travels to far out places. Places you might not wanna be going to. Skip it if you're not into old junk.

(Pageowner's note: this was in response to a discussion on the merits of the old time cabinetmakers)

In an article Bennett Leeds writes (Bennett in italics):

Lately, a number of posters seem to be raising 17th and 18th century woodworkers to mythological levels. Saying that somehow, we've lost all the vast knowledge and savvy of these great woodworkers. A recent example: An entertaining read is FWW #23, especially the article "In Search of Period Furniture Makers." (And yes, Patrick, Goddard is mentioned more than once). For me, it dispeled many of the above myths that seem to be more and more prevlantly expressed in this newsgroup. For instance, on 18th century pieces:

Pat replies:

Certainly a tenuous source, at best, for a detailed description of 18th century furniture, I contend. How many pages did the article devote to the 100 years of cabinetmaking by the myriad of makers, 3, 4, 5 at most? Hardly worth the paper it's printed on when compared to the volumes written about one maker, one style, or one region, wouldn't you agree? I don't have a copy of the issue you quote, so I'm left wondering what the author's credentials are. People have made an entire career out of researching the work of these earlier makers. Since you brought up the Goddard(s), the absolute definitve work on the matter needs to be referenced, rather than some magazine geared for mass consumption. Find a copy of "Master Craftsman of Newport, The Townsends and Goddards" by Michael Moses. There are over 200 pages of their work that will make your head spin.

"It's good to know a great piece of furniture can have its back nailed on. But it's not so good to konw that beneath the finely worked face are some unquestionably troubleseom constructions. Not only are glue blocks running crossgrain to the bracket-foot members,"

The de facto standard for attaching a bracket foot to a carcase, during the 18th century, in New England, is done this way. But, it's done in a way that isn't obvious from your description. Horizontal glue blocks are butted up against the carcase bottom and along the backside of the bracket feet, where the blocks are running with the grain of the feet. These are sizeable blocks, usually 1/4 to 1/3 the height of the foot proper. These two blocks are what really attach the feet to the carcase. Immediately below these two glue blocks is placed a vertical glue block to increase the "footprint" of the foot, and give it greater strength to carry the weight of the piece. With the proper choice of wood a good quartered stock there is no danger of the feet splitting over the 4, or so, inches (given the average bracket foot being 4 to 6 inches in height) where the vertical glue block is cross-grain to the foot. Assuming that this technique is the sole cause of split feet is wrong. If it were the case, the practice would have long been abandoned, but it wasn't. It worked, and worked well in most cases. I've seen numerous pieces of furniture that haven't suffered splitting about the feet, and they are constructed in the manner I just outlined. Likewise, I've seen many others split about the feet using the same construction. This breakage is usually an inch or two above the floor. But I do not assume, like the author of the article you quote does, that this is the cause. The foot (I'm talking human here) is a lethal weapon. Accidental kicks with it can break stuff. Where human foot meets furniture feet, especially delicate furniture feet, things can, and do, break. I did it myself growing up I was running through the house and I caught my foot on the foot a candlestand and broke it right off (caught Holy Hell for that one). Another danger furniture feet suffer is during movement. If the piece is slid along the floor, and not lifted entirely off of it, the friction on the feet can snap them off. One other way to compromise their strength is the addition of casters, which many of the early pieces had them fitted with, long after the piece was made. The old casters typically have shanks measuring about 2" long, which are inserted into the foot and vertical glueblock. It's wrong to assume every broken foot is a result of a glueblock restricting the wood's movement.

but the bracket feet themselves aren't even attached to the carcase. They're attached to the moldings, outside the line of gravity of the carcase. And the molding is merely nailed (on the side crossgrain) to the carcase. I can't understand how the thing is standing there, until I realize it's resting on its glue blocks. No wonder the feet are so vulnerable, they're only molding."

It's apparent to me that the person critiquing the furniture is not well-versed in the contsruction details of the furniture. Yes, in some cases, the feet are entirely outside the carcase's line of gravity. But in many others, the feet are directly below the carcase, carrying its weight. Whether or not the feet are carrying the weight, or glue blocks are, what's the difference? It's still a piece of wood supporting the carcase. It's interesting to note that the author failed to mention the sound techniques used by these makers (he may have, but you didn't indicate whether this is the case). In particular, the common method they used to attach the top to the carcase is perfect in every way. They secured the front of the top directly to rails, spanning the carcase sides, with nails and/or glueblocks. Thus, the front is permanently fixed in place. On the back of the top, they let in a double dovetailed piece, which mates with a member of the carcase, so that the dovetailed piece locks the two together. It's friction fit, with the lower portion of the dovetail sometimes glued in place, where the top can slide over the dovetail during seasonal changes, preventing it from splitting. Perfection in its simplicity. Another example of period construction is a group of drop-leaf tables originating in the Portsmouth, NH area. The method of attaching the top to the base is likewise perfect in its simplicity. On the underside of the table top, positioned in the four areas where it is near the corners of the base, are secured four blocks of wood (by nail/screw and glue). Projecting outward from each of these blocks, pointing toward the table's long rails, are dowel-like pins that are glued into the block. Each of these pins then fit through a corresponding hole in the long rails, where they are allowed to move. Since these pins are aligned with the wood's direction of movement, there is no chance that the top will split.

"Yale's Garvan collection includes some of the best American 18th century furniture and indeed, as we walk past them, I notice many of the highboys, lowboys, and secretaries have split sides and cracked feet." Applied convex shells have cracked, sides cross-grain attached to legs have cracked as well. "Insulated homes with central heating have created a significantly drier winter environment for furniture that was so for the first 150 years of its existence." Robert Trent, research associate at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts says "People talk as if 18th-century cabinetmakers were building pieces of architecture that were going to last forever, and that's not what they were trying to do. I don't think they had any interest beyond the generation it was owned in, and, of course, most of the pieces didn't last more than a couple of generations."

Since we started off speaking of mythology, it's time for some more. Set the Wayforward Machine to the year 2143, Sherman, where we'll visit the sub-aquatic nation of Mare Liberum located in Scantum Basin, in the Gulf of Maine... Jethro Aqualung, a research fellow with the All Wet Institute, explains "the old geezer furniture built by such 20th century notables as Frid and Abram, was not meant to be anything but disposable, as that once-great nation was wont to provide. Nevertheless, some of their furniture has survived, but it isn't contructed well. Their choice of glues, for instance, is very unfortunate. Had they the good sense to use waterproof glues, their furniture may have withstood the rigors that undersea living demands. Their joinery is also somewhat questionable. You see, at these great depths, furniture needs to be made stronger to withstand the greater pressure put on it. Metal fasteners are a much better solution than, say, a simple mortice and tenon. Finally, a wood that can survive immersion in water would have been better for us. Had they used a wood like oak, perhaps more of their work would have been handed down to us. So, it's not surprising that the few pieces of work, which escaped the trash heap, merely by happenstance, didn't survive more than a few generations as we took to the sea for habitation." Point being, how can someone design to something that doesn't even exist? So we fault 18th century makers because what worked well for their times doesn't work well for ours? That's a point of contention that's worthless to debate, in my book. Another point to chew upon remember the famous Brewster chair incident, the one made by Armand Montaigne (sp?), which ended up on a museum floor as a stunning example of a rare design, only to be later exposed for the forgery that it is? If not, that's the story, in a nutshell. Anyway, sometimes those museum dudes are a bit too much book smart, if you know what I mean. Not all, but some. Furthermore, how a museum dude can make that claim about furniture being designed for the current generation, when the evidence of the cost of such furniture (and housing) says otherwise, illustrates that the guy is preaching bull. Further evidence, which contradicts his bull-spewing, is the many examples of early New England furniture popping up in Ohio (The Western Reserve), Indiana, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, even Colorado (my parents found an early cupboard and tall clock when we were living there), speaks volumes that the furniture was made to last and that westward bound settlers cherished their possesions. People back then simply were not a throw-away society like we are today. Too much labor and cost was demanded to make what they wanted or needed. And, to continue my slam against the guy's claim that the furniture didn't last, let's look at the surviving numbers of period furniture that we see in museums and collections. It absolutely amazes me how much of it is still with us, including the bad with the good. I have a wobbly little stand, made ca. 1820 that has all kinds of shortcuts on it (the legs are not pinned to the rails, the top isn't attached well, etc.). Despite this shoddy workmanship, the table is still with us. Sometime, get a copy of Antiques Magazine, or The Arts and Antiques Weekly to see how much stuff is for sale by dealers and auction houses. And this is only the tip of the iceberg the examples the public can see. There are still many private stashes of antiques still in the hands of families or private institutions. Hell, I know of dozens of examples alone in the hands of local families in the town I live, and its population is only ~2500 (very small by MA standards). Finally, the guy also ignores the fact that much of what was made met a different fate. A lot of it was shipped out of the country (Boston's pre-Revolution work was notable for this market). Also, house fires, and outright town conflagrations, claimed many more pieces. Once furniture became mass-produced, and, hence, cheap to purchase, a bunch of the earlier stuff was given away to immigrant families, put out in the barn, or even tossed in the dump (my father found a Windsor armchair in our town dump). So, if we look at the sheer numbers of furniture extant, and consider that some of it met a fate beyond its control, I'd say most of it was meant to last, and a sizeable amount did. Now for something different I'm gonna slam some of the earlier makers, one in particular. They all weren't woodworking deities. It is foolish to assume that is the case. One notable guy was Joseph Davis, a Boston trained, Portsmouth practicing, cabinetmaker, who worked primarilly in the 2nd quarter of the 18th century. In his quest for gracefulness, he compromised strength. This is ever so apparent in the tall chests he made. They are massive, blockfront pieces supported by delicate cabriole legs. What looked pleasing to the eye, was also pleasing to moon-gravity, and the legs snapped. This wasn't the unfortunate result on one or two pieces, but on many of them. Only a very few case pieces made by him have survived with their original legs. These pieces are the lighter dressing tables, but even these have suffered the same fate. However, guys like he are needed to make woodworking evolve. His apprentices surely learned from his mistakes, which helped the woodworking gene pool's natural selection so that cabriole legs could be made stronger without compromising their grace. One thing I need to mention to you, Bennett, and this isn't meant as a slam. There are far better sources for all of this information than what you'll find between the covers of FWW. Far better. I think you need to broaden your sources for this subject, lest you be lead to believe what's printed in there is gospel. Some of it is, some ain't.


Patrick Leach       Just say A few pages does not a case study make. etc
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