Case Furniture Dimensions from Pictures


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I'm working towards making a set of drawings of a few pieces of case furniture from photos in various books, etc.  Quite often they give the dimensions, but it is not clear to me what it is they represent.  The height is pretty obvious, but is the width and depth typically of the top or is it the dimension of the case?  What I mean by this is that the top extends by some amount beyond the case dimension, so when I read the dimensions in the caption I'm not sure they mean the top or case width and/or depth.

Bill Kahl
Unless otherwise noted, they usually refer to overall width, ie, inlcuding the widest part of the piece, which would include the top molding, or the feet, or the knees, or whatever is the widest part of the piece. 
Bill, I agree with Rob in that the dimensions given generally are the greatest width or length. In many cases, with the height given, you can scale from that to confirm whether width and length is the top or the case. John McAlister
It is not always the width of the top as the widest part.... A lot of time it is the case.  As far as I know there is no "standard"  on taking numbers off a piece.  I vaguely remember an old appraiser telling me 32" cases(serp front) typically are more valuable than a 36"  and that those numbers were off the case not the top... I may venture to speculate that Sack took dimensions off the case but... what do I know.... 


In my experience, the dimensions are the overall measurements, normally given for calculating cubic volume for packing/shipping. I have never encountered an example of an item of furniture measured any other way. It serves no purpose to give any other dimensions unless itemising all dimensions in a set of plans or similar.
Re: measuring case pieces. I can't speak about most books, but the 17th-century stuff I study has been recorded a number of ways. Robert Blair St. George?s book The Wrought Covenant specifically states that its recording of measurements is only the case; no lids, tops, etc. This is what I was taught to do when making a record of a period piece, then record the overall dimensions of the lids, when they are thought to be original. Trent, in New England Begins does just that ? gives the overall numbers if the lid is OK ? but just the case numbers otherwise. The newest book in this small arena is Frances Gruber Safford?s American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Early Colonial Period: the Seventeenth Century & William & Mary. She gets the longest title, and the best care in measuring ? she has both the CW (case width) and OW (overall width). As to why you would go to all that trouble, I think that by measuring the case dimensions, you are getting near what the maker measured when he started to work out the piece. That's what I want to know; what was he thinking at his bench...
I think that is the better way to measure, as it is often difficult to tell whether the molding sticks out further than the feet, or whatever else might be sticking off of the case.  Overall measurements have their use, but the basic measurements of the case are much more useful for scaling.  It seems that the more recent books and sources have been including more detailed measurements, with specific dimensions called out, which is nice. 
From New Fine Points of Furniture, Early American, by Albert Sack.

......"Measurements follow certain patterns.  On a case piece, such as a secretary, highboy, slant-top desk, chest-on-chest, et cetera, the measurement is across the case or the lower case.  On a piece with a top board, such as a lowboy, bureau, or sideboard, the measurement is the width and depth of the top.  The height is always the total height, to the top of the finial if there is one.  Side chairs are measured only by height, armchairs by height and width across arms, if available."

I'm finishing up a chest from this book that was derived from their numbers, and I swear it's not as wide as it appears in the photo.  I assumed, as they describe and I quote above, that the width measurement was along the length of the top.  I'm wondering if their rules really hold for every piece in the book.


I'd like to post two photos related to this discussion, but they're too big.  Will someone volunteer to take them and compress them to under the limit?


John, tried to send you an email saying that I would be glad to reformat the pics for you, but your email is not listed.
Sketchup can be a great tool for this. You can import a picture and there is a scaling tool. So if you have the picture (from straight front is best) you can then trim all the excess in the phot so you only have the piece. Then in sketchup draw a line the same height as the piece. import the picture. Scale the piece along the line. then you can take measurements directly from the picture in full scale.

It takes about 15 min to learn, and 5 min to do.

This is also a useful tool for resizing a piece without losing the proportions of the overall piece. For example, I'm working on a corner cupboard for my dining room, the one my wife liked was 8' 6", and my ceilings are 7' 8". So I just scaled the picture for that height.
I tried to do that but found the program to be confusing.  It seems like there should be a program that could scale photos automatically.
Two photos attached:

One is from Sack's NFPF, given with three dimensions.  The other is my incomplete attempt to recreate it solely from the photograph.

They just don't seem the same to me, but I can't quite say how.  I go through this every piece I scale from a photo.

Any comments?



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Johnny D. I'm not, for one minute, being critical. Your work is beautiful, as is the work of whoever made the original. And if I was a customer looking at these 2 pieces I couldn't imagine choosing one over the other.  But my untrained eye seems to see 2 areas where there is a slight difference, and I think that's what you're asking about.
1.The serpintine curves on yours seems more pronounced than on the original.
2. The legs on yours seem shorter with a more pronounced knee than that on the original.
These may very well not be valid observations.  It's hard to really tell in a photograph; and, of course, that's why it's hard to copy from a photograph.
Will be interesting to hear from others.

Thank you for your kind words.  I'd reached both of those conclusions before my post.  When deriving the curves for the front, in addition to soliciting information on this forum, I asked a highly respected local reproduction cabinetmaker his opinion.  He suggested that I should err on the side of "bulginess", so I did.  I like it that way.  It's about the most bulged example I've seen, but oh well.

On the feet, your two points are both spot on.  I could fix the knee on the ones I have, but maybe I should start a new set that's a bit taller.

I was also concerned that the case is not as wide as the original.  The two photos are pretty close to the same angle, and perhaps do not indicate a strong deviation, but it sure feels narrower when looked at straight on.  No matter what, it'll be a fine piece when done and in my front room.  I lose a lot of sleep (figuratively) over things like this.  Putting this much work and money into a piece of furniture makes one wish for a high degree of confidence in the outcome, which is not always available.

Coming back to the topic of this thread:  Getting pieces just right from oblique photos is difficult, and you often can't tell how close you are until you've got the piece finished.

P.S. Thanks to Mike Holden, who generously showed me how to compress pictures with IrfanView.

On deck:
Newport flat-top slipper foot highboy.  I was able to locate photos of 12 pieces like the one shown below.


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I will be making this next.  Pretty straightforward piece, and I'll be making a matching lowboy for it.  Going for a land speed record on this next project.

Having various photos, and using calipers and much eraser, I arrived at the following:
Various interesting relationships came out (for me), such as the centers of the arches in the apron are set apart by one seventh the case width.  The height of the lower big draw in the upper case is exactly one quarter of the width of the lower case.  Looking at photos with these sorts of relationships in mind can be helpful in establishing proportions when you're working only with envelope dimensions.  Whether the original designer had these exact numbers in mind is another question.


Any comments welcome.


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