The Society of American Period Furniture Makers

Membership Services => Post questions about SAPFM membership here. => Topic started by: Ron T on July 10, 2009, 04:55:38 PM

Title: New to Period
Post by: Ron T on July 10, 2009, 04:55:38 PM
I'm new to this forum and period furniture. I consider myself to be a very good self-taught novice builder. I've taken am interest in period furniture because I see a challenge.

Does building period furniture mean you MUST use the technique and joinery of yesteryear for it to qualify as period?

Thanks in advance for your feedback!
Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: msiemsen on July 10, 2009, 07:05:00 PM
Hey! Did I just hear someone open a can of worms? Welcome Ron, even if you are trying to stir up the rabble! Seriously, some use the cafeteria plan and take what they like from the period designs, others make complete reproductions using period tools. See where you fit in.
Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: Freddy Roman on July 10, 2009, 07:29:52 PM
Welcome Ron,

All I have to say is that if John and Thomas Seymour of the Federal Period had access to what we all have access to now, then they would accessed a lot of modern materials, equipment, router bits, etc. etc.  Just enjoy making and designing Period furniture.
Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: frangallo on July 10, 2009, 10:58:33 PM
It is my own opinion that a reproduction of a period piece is just that. I was trained by the old school methods, forced by my masters to plane rough boards flat by hand and cut joints by hand. However, as I have stated before, the use of modern methods for reproductions really depends on the piece. The less important pieces, I feel, can certainly be jammed together using modern devices without offending anyone. But other pieces, those which inspire us to venture into period reproduction, I believe warrant the effort required to stick to the original methods. For example, would it be right to CNC batches of carvings of originals? I think one loses the sense of what these pieces mean to our culture in the historic context.
Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: Mark Bortner on July 11, 2009, 02:21:06 AM
Well Ron.... the devil is in the details! Look at it this way, "period" is a style while "reproduction" is more a measure of authenticity. Very few people will care about your methods as long as you're always honest about how you got to the end result. We have machine nuts like myself as well as "purists" who hate the fact that they have electric lights in their shop and would probably be burning whale oil in railroad lamps if it wasn't for the fire hazard! I have tremendous respect for the guys who do it true to the era when an original was made but I think you'll have a hard time finding anyone on here who dug a pit in there backyard to saw their own lumber!  The only things that really matter are that you have an interest in us and what we do and that you're welcome here.
Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: Adam Cherubini on July 11, 2009, 07:32:11 AM
"Does building period furniture mean you MUST use the technique and joinery of yesteryear for it to qualify as period?"

The term has never been defined. In another thread (Gateway Chapter), a poll question was asked about the appropriateness of the use of plywood.  None of this has been hashed out.  The quick answer to your question is "no".

But the longer answer might include, "yes", "it depends on whom you ask", and "maybe".  Personally, I think the use of hand tools is more important for some styles than others.  Anything pre Federal/Adam really benefits from being hand made.   And I can usually spot 100% hand made from 25% hand made.  I could see (have seen) very convincing reproductions of Sheraton furniture made with power tools.

Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: dkeller_nc on July 13, 2009, 10:53:21 AM
I'm new to this forum and period furniture. I consider myself to be a very good self-taught novice builder. I've taken am interest in period furniture because I see a challenge.

Does building period furniture mean you MUST use the technique and joinery of yesteryear for it to qualify as period?

Obviously, this is my own opinion, so take what you will from it:

The argument that colonial builders would certainly have used table saws and electric routers if they'd had them is misleading.  While on the face of it, it's correct, one has to understand that virtually all of the furniture made in the period was from small shops, and these small shops would not have existed had there been access to machine tools and modern materials.  Furniture would've been made in a factory, assembly line style, just as it is today.  That doesn't mean that a few tenths of a percent of the total wouldn't have been made by small shops, just at it is today, but for the most part the John Chipmans and Goddards/Townsends wouldn't have existed.

As for the appropriateness of modern materials and methods in making colonial and Federal period reproductions, that depends on what you want to achieve.  Realize that modern materials and methods will alter the final product.  If what you want to make is a true reproduction, then yes, you are obliged to use the original pattern tools and equipment, because such tools and methods have a big effect on the final piece - from surface texture, uniformity of parts, and internal construction details characteristics.  I call this a "true reproduction".

If your intent is to is to make a piece that only looks like a piece from such an early period externally, then it will matter a lot less if you use a jointer/planer to surface the parts, and a table saw and a router table to cut your joints.  I call these "period representations" - they aren't true reproductions, but there's nothing wrong with owning or making one, it's just different than owning or making a true reproduction.  This is essentially what Norm Abrams makes on "The New Yankee Workshop"

Finally, I'd note that this is a slippery slope - few among us would consider what Ethan Allen makes to be reproductions in any sense of the word - even "period representation" or "in the style of" would be far too generous.   Partly this has to do with making items with Queen Anne or Chippendale style characteristics that didn't exist in the actual period - coffee tables, for example.  Partly this has to do with modifying the style to fit the needs of factory production and minimal material costs - attenuated pads on queen anne feet, glued-up solids, and veneer over MDF constructions, and part of it has to do with thick, heavily dyed and plastic-looking modern finishes.

What you choose to do is entirely up to you, and I'd say that most of us have made pieces during the course of our interest in the field that run the gamut from not-so-authentic to pretty dang close.
Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: Freddy Roman on July 14, 2009, 07:45:51 AM
Now this just an opinion and a good discussion I wanted to partake.

A perfect factory format is what Thomas Chippendale had in his school and the school of John and Thomas Seymour.  I think at least these two would of had the same success or even more with power tools.  The only difference is that Thomas Chippendale and the Seymour's would have had even more examples of there furniture in the market, and a lot more money in the bank when they passed.  Now, Norm is a great finish carpenter and kitchen cabinet maker, just a not furniture maker.  Norm doesn't really make any representations when comes to Period work.  A perfect example of True reproduction makers are Anderson and Steuffer, Irion furniture makers, Headley's just to name a few.  Yet these makers have realized a long time ago that not many people out there want to pay for furniture to be made all by hand.  So are these true reproductions that they are making?? I would say who am I to judge.  I would love to see the makers in Hay shop in Williamsburg compete out there in the woodworking world with just hand tools.   

Now I agree with dkeller_nc and his statement of  "What you choose to do is entirely up to you, and I'd say that most of us have made pieces during the course of our interest in the field that run the gamut from not-so-authentic to pretty dang close." 

So go out there and challenge your self and enjoy the craft. 

Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: ttalma on July 14, 2009, 08:03:50 AM
In my opinion if you choose to make period furniture at some point you'll have to use the same techniques.

If you choose to make a reproduction of high chest and buy an 18" wide board for the side. If you don't have a planer large enough then you'll be using your hand planes.

If you choose to make a chair with a ball and claw and knee carvings you'll need to buy either a $100,000 5 axis cnc machine or a handfull of carving chisels.

etc. etc.

By choosing to make period furniture the choice of tools is already made.

But for roughing out stock power tools are a nice thing to have, but they are limited in what they can do. Hand tools can do everything power tools can but production time can be lengthened, or the purchase price is unreasonable for one job.

I personaly use both, but I think that's a choice evry builder makes for themselves. As long as you are safe, do the best work your able to and are not afraid to learn something new you should do what you are comfortable with.

And that's my $.02 and worth every bit you paid for it.
Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: dkeller_nc on July 14, 2009, 01:55:20 PM
A bit more explanation of what I mean by colonial period furniture makers being unable to exist if modern materials and methods were available:  What I mean by factory production is very specific.  Particuarly in England, the work structure in a cabinet shop was fairly specialized, particularly in regards to carving.  However, this specialization, while it may appear factory-like in its resemblance to assembly line work, there is a major, glaring difference - uniformity.  No matter how many cabinetmakers Duncan Phyfe had working for him (as many as 100 are estimated), each piece that came out of his shop was unique because of the methods used to cut and square the stock, finish the surface, and cut the joints.  All of this was done by hand, and by definition, each joint was unique - table aprons weren't interchangeable across the production in the shop.

This is why an individual cabinetmaker in the sense of a colonial or early Federal Period woodworker could not survive if modern techniques and materials were available, other than as an anachronism that catered to very specific tastes.

If one looks carefully at Norm's show where machines prep the lumber, finish the surface and cut the joints, one realizes that very little "fitting" is being done for each joint.  Why?  Uniformity.  With the uniformity of machines, parts are suddenly interchangeable across the entire factory's production.  This leads to the possibility of the economies of scale, and signs the death warrant for the individual cabinetmaker except as a very tiny percentage of the total amount of furniture produced in a given market.

This is actually what happened in America in the 1840s-1860s, and has greatly accelerated since.  Because of machines and techniques for producing uniformity, the price of a piece of furniture went down by an order of magnitude, and craftsmen producing such goods could no longer earn a living.  There's "from the horses mouth" documentation of this by Frederick Dominy, the last of the Dominy family of New York that made clocks and furniture in a one-room workshop, now at Winterthur.  Some of the letters still in the family document his decision to shut down the shop and go to work in a factory.

If you think about it, modern manufactured materials has further widened the gap between what an individual craftsman can produce and still earn a living and what a factory can do.  Ikea is an excellent example - the use of perfectly uniform veneered sheet goods and modular fastener systems has lowered the price of a given piece of furniture below what any of us can buy the materials for, much less the labor to make it and apply the finish.

So no, if modern materials and methods were available in the 18th century, we simply would not have a catalogue of 1000's of individual cabinetmakers running small independent shops whose output we can admire in the 21st century.  More than likely, what would be sought after by collectors and whose prices would be pushed into the stratosphere would be the incredibly rare production of a very few throw-back craftsmen whose geographic location made transportation of factory goods very expensive, and the few untrained fellows in the mountains that needed a chair and didn't have the few pennies that it took to buy one.

This is why the oft-repeated idea that 18th century craftsmen would've used plywood or electric routers had they had them is, while perhaps an interesting topic for conversation at a cocktail party, irrelevant to whether a modern piece is a true reproduction or a modern representation.
Title: Re: New to Period
Post by: albreed on October 17, 2009, 06:51:42 AM
Ron- If you don't need to make money doing it you can saw the trees down with a handsaw if you want. There's a whole range of "period" work, it just depends what you like and whether you need to find someone to pay for the time spent in cutting down that tree.
It's really fun to research period methods and use old tools, but most of us use a combination of new and old tools if we need to make a living. If someone's telling you about how they spent a year making four chairs for a customer there's a trust fund in there somewhere.-Al