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Old chairmaker's books - and other ramblings

I saw this and had to mention it here, if for no other reason than to have a record for myself of it so I can refer to the links... On the WoodCentral handtools forum Joel Moskowitz (of Tools for Working Wood) posted a link to a book archived on Google Books titled “The London Chair-Makers and Carvers' Book of Prices for Workmanship” which was originally published in 1829. Later, he also put up a link to another book archived on Google Books titled “The Cabinet Makers London Book of Prices and Designs of Cabinet Work” published in 1803. These books are fascinating reads if you are at all interested in period woodworking of any kind – and the thread on WoodCentral is a great read as well..

While on the subject of books, another of my favorites is the Wallace Nutting Furniture Treasury, a book introduced to me by a good friend John Edwards.  Basically, it's a book of 5000 different photos of furniture Mr. Nutting (a furniture-maker/collector of the later 19th early 20th century) collected of furniture pieces that include everything from desks and dressers to mirrors and spoon racks.  If you're looking for inspiration, you'll surely find it within the covers of this book.   You can often find a copy of it on ebay for very little...

Next on my list of books are those authored by Franklin Gottschall -  who happens to have been an apprentice in the Nutting workshop.  His books are basically plans of early furniture designs - which are not really for the beginner woodworker, but are a good insight into how the furniture was built.

Finally on my list of favorite books/authors is anything by Charles Hayward.  His writing style is so very easy and clear to read, that just about any of his books is a joy.  "Woodwork Joints" is among my favorites.

These books will get you a long way in your woodworking - from Nutting for inspiration, to Gottschall for seeing how it was done (at least one way), to Hayward on the skills to get it done.

I hope to publish some reviews on these and other classic woodworking books in the coming months, as I think they are great reading for woodworkers of any ability.

Now - on my lack of recent entries in the blog:

Yes, I know I've been lax on updating this blog, and I apologize for that... it's been too long since I've added anything new of substance. In my defense I can say I've been quite busy - just not with woodworking. I was beginning to get a bit burnt out, so I decided earlier this year to take the summer off of woodworking and pursue some of my other hobbies were beginning to suffer from a decided lack of attention. I've spent the summer traveling around the northwest, visiting and hiking the mountains of Idaho and the Oregon coast, both of which should be considered national treasures.

That, and I've been concentrating more on another true love of mine, music – I had been lax on practicing, so I've recommitted myself to playing more guitar... Also, my unbelievably patient, understanding, and encouraging wife has endured the endless hours of scratching and unnerving noises emanating from the fiddle I've been trying to learn... I'm still not any good at it, but at least it sounds like a fiddle – at least on occasion.

After Labor Day, I'm hoping to light a fire under myself and get back to work on the shop...




Good to have you back I hope you enjoyed your hiatus and travels in the mountains.  The discussion on WC is interesting, but I don't know why people think than craftsman of the past were so fast?  They did it all the time, so they would get fast.
Good luck with your fiddle.


Thanks for commenting, Stephen!  

I would tend to agree with you...  it was their day job, and in those days, that pretty much meant the entire day, and usually six days a week.  Do anything to that much extent and not only will you get faster, but you will also get better at it - practice makes perfect, as they say.

I don't agree with everything in the discussion on WC but still find much of the discussion entertaining if not enlightening.  It's hard to compare life and work today with the same back then, because quite simply - they are not the same.  BTW, I found your blog posts on reproducing antique furniture and on understanding traditional craftsmen engaging...  

When you wrote this passage:

"one thing I can not quite get is the mind set of cabinetmakers of 150 years ago.  If I step on a nail, I will get a shot, I drink clean water and have antiseptics, things not available to our ancestors."

It reminded me of my great-great grandfather, the one who made the spinning wheels and whose picture can be found in this article  where I mention how he lost his leg when he injured his foot using an adze on some birch.  By the time a doctor could be fetched, the foot had grown gangrenous - and three separate amputations were made, trying to save as much of the leg as possible, with the last being above the knee.  The anesthetic used was either rum or whiskey, the operating table was the kitchen table... 

Today such an ordeal would likely be national news...  but back then it was simply how things were done.  I am somewhat fortunate in the fact that I grew up amongst the last vestiges of those people.  Their mind set survived in my grandparents, all of whom were born in the 1880's and were children of the frontier.  I can't claim to fully understand or be of that mind set myself - but feel I can at least empathize with it somewhat having known some of these folk, if only towards the end of their time here.

Continuing the discussion somewhat aimlessly - another interesting story of the old days as it was told to me involved how lumber was procured...  Most of the first homes in the region I grew up in were sod huts, followed by log cabins.  But sawn lumber was needed for the next stage, which were full-on homes and furniture.

But there was no sawmill in town as one might picture.  It wasn't economically viable in a sparsely populated region to haul logs from any distance to mill then sell at a fixed retail outlet.  The road were too rough (or non-existent) and the only way to transport them would be by horse and wagon - it would have been too difficult to supply enough logs to make a saw mill profitable.  For the homebuilder, doing it by hand with a pit saw might work for a small project - but was very labor intensive and therefore deemed too much work to be worth the effort most of the time... so a saw mill was very much desired.

So - to make it a profitable venture a saw mill owner would move his mill to the work - the mill was made mobile to an extent.  A deal would be struck with a landowner to harvest and sell lumber from his (as well deals made with owners of adjacent properties) to mill and sell lumber from the landowner's trees for a single season (or two if there were enough logs and customers).  If the landowner needed lumber, the deal would provide him with it - if not, a share of the profits from the sale of the sawn lumber was given.

The mill was water powered, so required at least a good running creek to function - and as such often only worked until the creek ran dry in mid-summer.  When the season was over, the mill packed up and would move to the next region/landowner, though usually stayed within a 30 mile radius or so.

One of my father's first jobs was going out with another of my great grandfathers to clear a site for one such saw mill, during one of the last seasons it operated.  They bought some dynamite from the local dry goods store and blew up some rock for a site (and a road to it) next to a creek for the mill to be placed.  He showed me the location once, and though the creek had long dried up (diverted by the Corps in the 50's) you could still see where they had blasted the rock.  It was from this site that supplied lumber for several barns in the area he built, many of which still stand today.  It was at that time that he also gave me the recipe for making your own dynamite...




If you want a real world modern example of how repetion and experience improve the time it takes to build something, look at Popular Woodworking's site, there is a video there taken my Glen Huey of Franz Klaus doing a complete dovetail assembly in three minutes using frame saws. The only marking he did was the width and then he eyeballed the pins, marked his tails cut them out with the saws, including the waste, and they went together. He remarked if they are tight and don't go together easy get a bigger hammer.
He said if he had been doing this for a drawer front he would have taken a minute to clean up the joints with a chisel, but since it was just carcass work it was good enough.
Huey said after "man you suck." But it shows how someone who does it all the time and has the training could do this sort of thing very quickly.
I also want to curse you Leif I ended up spending a good hour on that wood central thread. the best bit being an attachement by Mike Wenzloff of an article by Mack Headly regarding 18th century cabinet shops.
Welcome back and I hope your refreshed and revitalized.  


Forgot to put my name in James Mittlefehldt


Thanks for commenting, James!

I completely agree.  Frank Klaus, IMO, is one of today's best - easily equivalent to the master craftsmen of whom we speak.  I've seen his work before, he's amazing - here's a direct link to the video James refers to:

He is a craftsman in every sense of the word.  Definitely one of my favorites...