Cold Weather Visit with Old Friends

After a few days of sub-zero weather, I stopped at a customer’s house to evaluate a sofa which needs some alteration. Having spent over an hour looking at the sofa, a settee, a couple of Windsor chairs, a bed, a deck chair and an old secretary, we made some conclusions about what to do with the sofa. Clearly, we have been stuck inside at home for too long!

orv desk small

The most interesting piece we looked at was this secretary/desk. This is a Federal cherry affair probably of country origin with some modifications to the fold out writing surface. I had seen this piece before, but not these little interior drawers. Leather loops act as pulls on an otherwise standard dovetailed drawer. The bottoms, however, showed an enlightening story.

orv drawers2



These drawer bottoms had handsaw marks across there width, but only partway down the length. The remaining length had been planed smooth. Lining up the two drawers back to back showed that the saw marks are on opposite sides and the point at which they are planed off match exactly. As well the scrub plane left some tear out, showing the grain runout going toward opposite sides.

Clearly these bottoms were resawn from the same piece of pine, set in a vice, sawn about half-way, flipped over and sawn the rest of the way from the other end. The saw cuts did not line up. Thus, perfectly matched opposing saw marks / plane tracks on the finished drawer bottoms.

Not a surprising method. Modern woodworkers do the same today, but use a bandsaw to cut all the way through and a power planer to quickly smooth the cut. There is, however, plenty of thickness as shown by the steep beveled edges. Why did the joiner of old not plane the whole piece smooth. Today’s market might consider this a job unfinished.

Of course, we live in a different time. We have machines that very quickly do that work. It changes expectations of acceptable craftsmanship. Joinery is expected to be perfectly tight. Surfaces are expected to be perfectly flat. Even inside, where nobody looks (except other woodworkers,) there is an expectation of perfection and fully finished wood. Quite the opposite from pre-industrial woodwork. It helps to understand these differences when evaluating today’s handwork. Perhaps interior woodwork with saw marks might not be acceptable, but rough scrub planing of those surfaces could be. Should studio furniture makers working primarily with hand tools be held to the same standards as a company with suitable machinery for such perfection?

Alas, so many have perfect surfaces, but are assembled with sub-standard joinery techniques. This is where I scream, “Enough!” I will not make junk that looks good. I will make something that lasts, and looks good. But don’t expect me to bring the underside of a table to the same level of finish as the top. It is a waste of time, energy and money. I will not assemble all my chairs with dowels and screws. I will use square ended mortise and tenons and dovetails that have shown their strength for thousands of years.  That is not to say I won’t use screws and dowels, rather, that I will use these when and where appropriate. Pine bookshelves come to mind. As do the backs of cabinets (which I will not french polish!)

Well, I didn’t mean to rant!  It is fun to see how someone else does their work.  What can I learn from the tracks of my woodworking predecessors?   Little mysteries that keep the mind nimble and a good visit with friends to boot.


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