An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 247

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 21, 2023 - Issue 247

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

Mass manufacture certainly changed the world of craft, but did it make it better? This is an age old question. When you think about the time saving a simple planer or thicknessing machine can have on the creation of something like a bookcase, it is quite incredible. Of course, there is a temptation to say that the older method of doing things is better. I don't agree. The more time saving devices you can use in the creation of something, the better it is, whether you are making multiples or one offs. The obvious example of how much more effective machinery is to hand work can be seen in the use of digging machines. Why would it be any better to dig a ditch by hand than to have a digger do it quickly and efficiently? No, machinery has a valuable place in our world and furniture construction is no exception.

Not all machinery has been beneficial to manufacturing. There are certain tasks, finishing for example, where you may want a look that you can only get by hand--spray on finishes have a different feel to hand applied finishes. However, more often than not machines aren't the problem, it's the person using the machine. If you haven't operated a belt sander before and decide that it is just the tool for you to smooth a piece of wood, you can screw things up quite easily. There is a deftness of touch that machine tools require that is no different from the touch you need with hand tools. And when you see craftsmen who know how to use machine tools, you grasp that the craft of woodworking, even with the use of machines, is alive and well. And most importantly, the great craftsman knows that he is dealing with wood, a material that is both simple and complex. Understanding the complexity, I believe, is where 18th and 19th century craftsmen really shone in their abilities, machinery notwithstanding, but they may have had an advantage in that they used air dried timber.

Not far away from the workshop that my brother and I had in London was the Isle of Dogs, so named for being the exercise ground for Charles II's hounds. When I lived in London, it was the home for kilners, those places where green (wet) wood was dried under intense heat. The kiln operators were a very friendly bunch and used to give us pieces of wood that had been used for testing the moisture in a batch of timber. The  moisture measurers were pounded into the wood about half an inch deep and left a permanent scar, two holes, so those pieces could not be sold. They often gave us this timber and we used it for all sorts of things--the simplest and most profitable being bread boards that we sold to kitchen shops throughout London. In the process, I learned something about kiln dried timber from some of the pieces we used. They needed to dry further once they were planed as they would continue to shrink. Wood, in other words, never stops moving and the forced drying worked well, but not perfectly. 

Thomas Chippendale's workshop caught fire at one point and his greatest financial loss was his timber stock. Air dried timber takes years to get to the point where it can be used without too much shrinkage, usually every quarter inch of thickness of a piece of wood requires one full year of air drying. (It was a huge capital cost.) When you examine a proper Chippendale piece, you will see that the shrinkage, inevitable as it is, is not that bad, partly because of the dried timber, but also for cabinetmaking expertise, the knowledge that wood never stops  moving, used to prevent shrinkage. But not to romanticize all 18th and 19th century furniture, there were 18th and 19th century craftsmen that ignored shrinkage and other issues, and went ahead and used green timber in their furniture. I have mentioned a number of times over the years in this space that there was the "honorable" cabinetmaking trade and the "dishonorable" trade. The dishonorable trade capitalized on the need for furniture, making it quickly and on spec, often ignoring that the timber was green and knowing that their work was essentially flawed. This fact wouldn't be clear (to the owner) for at least a year, maybe longer given how damp English homes could be. In other words, it isn't necessarily the tools (hand or machine) used to make things, it is the choices made by the cabinetmaker that will determine the quality of a piece of furniture.