Opinions Wanted - Furniture Plans and "Fakes"


Well-known member
Recently, Chris Schwarz posted a blog entry on the Woodworking Magazine site.  The subject of the posting is that woodworking plans of period pieces aren't to be trusted, as they contain mistakes and modifications (some intentional):


While I think most would agree that it's ideal to carefully examine the original before embarking on a reproduction project, what caught my eye was Chris's contention that:

"But the more I get to know Handberg's drawings, the more I've begun to think that he perhaps smudged some of the details. It wouldn't surprise me if it were on purpose – counterfeit furniture is big business."

I posted a comment that, in my opinion, it's ridiculous for authors to add intentional modifications to plans of authentic period pieces for the purposes of discouraging "counterfeits", since an EXACT reproduction of an important piece of colonial (or federal, or shaker) furniture would instantly arouse suspicions as to its authenticity.  Since relatively few colonial pieces were produced in the first place (the population, after all, was less than 10 million in the entire colonies before the revolution), and a fairly small fraction of the total produced has survived to the present day, it's incredibly unlikely that an identical twin of a high-style piece would be found.  There are a few exceptions that I'm aware of in "The New Fine Points of Furniture", but overall, a piece that follows the same general design but has modifications to construction methods or dimensions would be MORE believable to a suspicious collector or antiques dealer.

Chris chose not to post my comment, but I'm curious to hear what SAPFM's membership's opinions are - does a plan exact enough to enable an almost perfect reproduction somehow enable counterfeiting?

His speculation as to why the plans are off is just that, we don't know what the authors intentions were. I don't trust measured drawings. They can be off due to typos or mistakes in measuring and transferring from notes. I too doubt that it was to stop forgeries. I also doubt that Chris chose not to post your comment. That site is goofy in that it asks you to validate your post twice. I have posted to it and not seen my post until I figured it out.
Ahh - thanks for the explanation about the blog's rules for validation.  I wasn't insulted that he didn't post the comment (it's his blog, after all), but I was curious.

This discussion sort of feeds into the topic of why some museums will not allow you to take pictures or take measurements of pieces (though some will).
The catch is that a museum may own a piece of furniture, but it doesn't own the copyright to the design (at least for colonial, federal and shaker furniture), since a copyright in the US reverts to the public domain 75 years after the death of the author (or designer).
Tell them that. If you can't photograph or measure the piece because you can't get access you're stuck. It is important to build good relationships with museums.
Mike is right on here.

Museums that want to stay in business have to keep a handle on every aspect of the items in their collections. This includes digital and print images of its acquisitions. Admission fees alone are an unpredictable source of income.  Larger museums can get much needed income by selling licenses to reproduce certain pieces they own. Knowing that a detailed drawing already exists for a given piece would mean that the manufacturer is not assured a monopoly on its reproduction. In addition, most museums would probably take issue with you if you used their name as a selling point, especially without compensation.

As for the comments in the initial post of this thread, I think Handberg's drawings are worth about what I paid for them. The drawings are very crude and lack many details. While I've never been a follow-the-plan kind of guy, I have referred to Handberg's book for overall dimensions of a form I was unable to see in person. I would never trust his drawings to make a pattern. His curved elements  are just too clunky. I'm not sure I agree with the counterfeit statement unless he is talking about an uneducated consumer and not someone who does research on antiques or deals in them.

"...does a plan exact enough to enable an almost perfect reproduction somehow enable counterfeiting?"
I think it helps to make for an almost perfect reproduction. A prybar can be a useful tool to a carpenter, but in the hands of a burglar it is a tool of criminal activity. Counterfeiting is the deliberate attempt to deceive. While exact specifications may be helpful to a malintentioned counterfeiter, I think they are otherwise usually benign.
I find this a very interesting thread on a very complicated subject.

I am not sure that you can trust any plan for a particular piece of furniture, etc. – even when that plan was drawn by the original builder/craftsman prior to or during the construction.  The plan is after all, “the plan” on how someone intended to build something in the begining.  Things change during “the build” and the finished piece is likely not going to be true to “the plan.”  And we all are pretty aware that many early craftsmen didn’t bother with plans (paper was too expensive!) but used story sticks and the like and measured and laid out “by eye” and very often without the assist of rulers or measuring devices.  I would bet that “identical pieces” by Goddard, Townsend, Sheraton, Chapin, etc., etc., just aren’t all that identical when you sit down and actually measure them and compare measurement to measurement.  There was and is a certain imprecision to all art – whether a painting or a well crafted piece of furniture.

I am also not sure that you can trust fully a plan taken from an assembled piece of furniture as there are too many hidden details. Plans that are drawn from the measurement and examination of an assembled piece are always going to be subject to some interpretation of sorts.  No two people see things exactly the same way.  What should, or even more interestingly, what does a draftsmen do when he encounters a piece of furniture that has, for example, one case side that is wider or longer than the other?  Does the draftsman correct it on his plan and if so, to the measurement of which side?  We all are aware that wood in the 17th & 18th Centuries was not carefully dimensioned.  A piece of wood located anywhere in a piece of furniture could vary in thickness from one side to the other or from one end to the other.  When that happened adjustments were certainly made by the original craftsman in the length of dovetails and pins or some other adjustment was made.  Early craftsmen probably made mistakes (we know they did – examples survive) and they made adjustments in construction to keep the piece marketable.  How should or how does a draftsman account for such quirks in a piece?

Finally to me, trusting a plan is very much like blindly trusting a cut list.  Should you?  Would you really cut all of your wood to the exact dimensions given on some cut lists before starting construction of a piece?  I believe some circumspection is warranted when using both plans and cutlists. 

I now await comment from that draftsman in Chalfont, PA! Go easy on me CB.
I agree with your comment about whether the original artisan stuck rigidly to a plan. If you look at the highboys atributed to Chapin or at least his shop in "Conneticut Valley Furniture", they list eight examples. All are obviously the same form yet they vary from 82" in hieght to 80". It's possible closer examination would explain, but my guess is we will never know. Maybe it was conscience refinement of the form or  just a mistake by an apprentice or even journeyman. Or possibly they worked within a framework that would have alowed more variance than we are accustomed to today. In my own limited experiance, I tend to not take most plans as gospel. For one thing, many plans, especially in books always seem to have everything to come out in neat little 1/8" or 1/4" increments. In my limited experiance documenting original pieces it seems the dimensions are always a bit odd ie 9& 7/32" or some other odd increment. Some of this may be due to wear or shrinkage but I have seen such a prevalence of it that I believe it's more due to the fact that they were using dividers working with a proportional scheme rather than a ruler working to a recipe or blueprint. Rather, there was a plan to the form they were executing but the recipe was a combination of proportions rather than dimensions. This method will acheive proportional results but will not often agree with a tape measure. I also agree with your comment about which dimension do you use. I am working right now on a miniture empire dresser made in Ohio circa 1830. It has four turned feet that at first glance look the same but a closer review revealed large differences. My guess is they banged them out and didn't think anyone would see how different the back feet are from the front.

George Walker
I have drawn several plans for the "Gene Landon Masterworks" series sold by Bess at Olde Mill.  These plans are done after Gene has measured the original, made templates, and then built the piece. Gene reviews tha plans foraccuracy before publication.  In most cases, I took the class, so as the draftsman, I have a pretty good understanding of the piece. Of course there will be some things lost in translation, but what exactly are you trying to build?  If the fact that the original side may have been 1/8" thicker at one end is of such a concern, then I hope you aren't thinking about building from a plan - you should be measuring the piece at a museum. (Purely my own opinion!)

Also, Gene will frequently make a small change from the original.  For instance he might make the gadrooning fancier, or have the back leg of a chair be rounded instead of chamfered, or change the cartouche on a high boy.  In those cases an "exact" copy of the original isn't trying to be produced.

I wonder how many people who are concerned about "exact" reproductions flinch at attaching a top with only glue blocks?  And of course there can never be an exact copy because of the grain of the wood.  I personally am more concerend about challenging myself, increased my skills, and ending up with a beautiful piece of furniture I can say I built - than having an "exact" reproduction.


Personally, I really like plans.  I really like measured drawings.  I own an expanding collection of plans and a number of books of measured drawings.  Plans and drawings provide a very good sense to me about the proportions of original pieces of fine furniture and the way the pieces were built.  Any, but the most rudimentary plan or measured drawing, represents a higher quality product that I can turn out with my lack of drafting and drawing skills.  I appreciate draftsmen and their work – their work has really added and will continue to add to my enjoyment of period furniture.

That written, for any number of reasons I don’t think you can trust a plan or measured drawing to be an exact “image” of a specific original/historic period piece.  I don’t necessarily believe the difference(s) between the plan and the actual piece to be intentional.  The differences occur for any number of reasons.  The point’s above about visiting the piece you intend to build in a museum are well taken.  If you intend to build an exact as possible replica of a piece of furniture, by all means head to the museum or other owner and “hug” the original piece.  Otherwise, I would think you use the plan as a guide and build your own interpretation.   
Kent says, "I don’t necessarily believe the difference(s) between the plan and the actual piece to be intentional."
This is a very good point and one with which chair builders are particularly familiar. An isometric view of a splayed-post Chippendale chair, for example, will typically yield a chair that is slightly shorter than the drawing would suggest due to foreshortening of the posts in the front and side elevations. (Imagine putting a dowel in a box such that it contacts the upper-right front and lower-back left corners. An isometric drawing will show this stick to be equal in length to the diagonal of one side of the box--shorter than its actual length).
"I wonder how many people who are concerned about "exact" reproductions flinch at attaching a top with only glue blocks?"

A very good point, and one I struggle with when I build pieces.  There's little question in my mind that many early craftsmen had no intention of their pieces lasting hundreds of years, because I think it's doubtful they were ignorant of wood movement to the extent that they would not realize a top attached with glueblocks would eventually croack (or the glueblocks would fail).

Knowing that I could do a "better engineered" job by using buttons in elongated slots, I still prefer to use glue blocks, though, because I prefer to have the repros I build not be immediately identifiable as products of the modern age (though close inspection would say otherwise!)
Sorry to come in so late on this Kent. There are already a lot of great replies and insights in this thread, but since you goaded me into it, here's my two cents. First, I don't agree with the "counterfeit furniture is big business" notion. With the prices that good pieces command, no one in their right mind is going to invest in a high end piece without having it examined by an expert. There aren't many craftsmen out there that have what it takes to fool the top conservators and consultants. In the end, it really isn't worth the effort.

Obviously this is an interesting topic with no definitive answer(s). "Measured" drawings can be made in many ways; from photographs, from someone's reproduction, by actually measuring the original piece, a combination of these methods, etc. If the drawing is published in a book or magazine, an art department will take the drawings and redo them to fit into their publishing template. This opens up loads of opportunities to introduce errors. Almost every plan that I've seen in a magazine or book contains at least one discernible error. The trick is to find it before you start building the piece. Other errors can't be found at all. I just heard about a fellow that made a chest of drawers from plans in a book and the feet were 1" shorter than the original piece. The discrepancy would have been obvious had there been an overall height dimension given, but one wasn't. After building the piece, the fellow saw the original and it looked different than his. He finally figured out what was wrong and decided to live with his awkward-looking chest. Had he done additional research or been a more savvy woodworker, he may have noticed something didn't look right before he got to the point of no return. Who was at fault? Certainly not the poor fellow that built the piece. Neither was the craftsman that wrote the book. It was an error introduced by the publisher's art department. If you're working from plans in books or magazine articles, I recommend doing a full scale layout and doing additional research before cutting any wood.

When plans are drawn by, or in conjunction with the craftsman that actually built the piece (Al Breed, Phil Lowe, Gene Landon, Bob Whitley), I think the plans are more reliable. Usually they are laid out full scale which is very handy for checking suspect dimensions. In some cases, they are actually used in classroom situations so any errors are found quickly and corrected. These are the plans that I find most useful and reliable. I do take issue with intentional changes and embellishments that deviate from an original piece and are not called out or noted on a drawing. No one knows what the fate of any plan will be. Perhaps in the future, the plans we draw today will be taken for actual historical documents. I'd hate to see them muddy up the waters for subsequent generations of furniture scholars.

That said, even with an original at hand, I have to make judgment calls constantly when I draw plans. It wouldn't be practical to make separate drawings for each leg of a chair or table. I pick the one that I think is the best and use that as my guide. I pick one side of a case piece and use that as my model. I make a tracing of a back splat, fold it in half and split the difference. I measure drawer sides and come up with an average. I'm working on a desk interior now and each partition and divider was a different thickness (we're talking +/- 1/16"). It's not practical to draw it like that, so concessions have to be made. Usually, I can't take a piece apart to get exact joinery details so sometimes I have to make some educated guesses based on knowledge of the period, the original craftsman's methods of work, regional idiosyncrasies, etc. Often I will consult people who are wiser than me in these matters. When I draw a case piece, I dimension the openings because it makes the most sense. I've been called on the carpet because I don't include dimensions for drawer gaps but I don't know what time of year you're going to build the chest or what the moisture content of your stock is. No matter how talented a craftsman you are, you're still going to introduce your own "errors" to any piece you build, regardless of who's plans you use. In the end, plans won't build a piece for you. They just provide an easier way to create a reasonable facsimile of a piece that you like.

In conclusion, I wonder if we are misusing the word "reproduction." Maybe we should call our pieces "representations" or something else. Our modern methods of work and our contemporary thought processes really don't allow us to work in the same manner that 18th century craftsmen did. For example, it's not efficient to make drawer sides different thicknesses, customers don't want to see tree bark on the inside of case pieces or chair rails, etc. What about Phillips head screws? How many "reproductions" have you seen that incorporate drywall screws? I've seen plenty. At the end of the day, do you have time to reinvent the wheel? Plans are like a road map for a journey that we want to take. Like maps, sometimes we take a detour every now and then, but eventually we arrive at our destination.

Kent states
"I think it's doubtful they were ignorant of wood movement to the extent that they would not realize a top attached with glueblocks would eventually croack (or the glueblocks would fail)."

I think that conditions were vastly different in old houses. With the advent of modern heating systems the air in our houses is typically much drier in the winter months than it was back in the day which causes the wood to move more seasonally. they did a lot of things that we can't get by with today.

Kent states
"I think it's doubtful they were ignorant of wood movement to the extent that they would not realize a top attached with glueblocks would eventually croack (or the glueblocks would fail)."

Ooooops!  Kent didn't state that or write that.

I put some thought into this topic over the weekend after reading quite a few issues of Woodworking magazine (Chris Schwartz's mag), and it occurs to me that perhaps Chris was referring more to furniture in his style preferences (shaker and arts & crafts) when he stated that "counterfiet furniture is big business", rather than the hand-made products of the colonial or federal period. 

If that's true, than perhaps his statement makes more sense.  Since most Arts & Crafts furjiture was produced using machines to specific dimensions, it would be considerably easier to fake a Stickley table than it would be to fake a high-style handmade piece from the 18th century, where not only oxidation and wear would have to be duplicated, but the marks of hand tools as well as construction idiosyncracies specific to a particular master's shop.