Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Primer on Furniture & Terms

Why would you commission me to build furniture? With some notable exceptions, contemporary factory made furniture is tawdry. The designs 'sort of' replicate what they seem to be imitating, but really are copies of derivatives of interpretations. Xeroxes of xeroxes, muzaked elevator furniture.
The joinery is not joinery, but a variety of fastening systems: screws, staples, pin nails and so forth. These fasteners function as little clamps, holding various components in place until the glue sets. Traditional furniture is held together with mortise and tenon joints, square tongues fitted into a square holes, the well known dovetail joint, in its two incarnations, half-blind and through, and permutations of these two- scarf joints, through tenons, tusk tenons, mitered mortise and tenon and so on. Rarely, dowel joints. Factory furniture too often has resorted to dowel joints, especially that factory furniture from the 30's to 60's. ( Dowels have their place. But when dowels are used parallel to-, rather than 90 degrees to the sheering forces playing on them, they will fail. A common failure I've seen is the 'sort-of-Duncan-Phyfe' table. This table has a vertical center pedestal, or pedestals, and curved, quarter-of-a-circle legs fastened to the pedestal. The weight of the table top eventually works the dowels out of the pedestal. The proper joint to connect a curved leg to a central pedestal is the sliding dovetail. An elongated triangular cut is made in the pedestal, and corresponding triangular tongue cut in the leg. The joints lock and cannot fail, even if the glue loosens. The well known Shaker three legged table used sliding dovetails, cut, of course, by hand. They had great skill. The repair for these failed dowels is dicey as best. The joinery used was incorrect to begin with. And by the way, despite the name, with rare exceptions, certain table leaves, the sliding dovetail is not a moving joint.)
Another quarrel I have, the finishes. Very broadly there are two categories of finishes, film finishes and penetrating finishes. Film finishes, as the name suggests, sit on the surface of the wood. Varnishes, lacquers and shellacs are film finishes, in all their polyurethane, acrylic, solvent based and/or water clean-up flavors. Industry favors lacquers for three or four reasons. Lacquers spray wonderfully, dry virtually instantly and are very tough, especially the catalyzed lacquers. And lacquers will carry color. It is this last feature which, in my opinion, and to my aesthetic, brings grief. A walnut colored lacquer sprayed onto a soft larch, tulip poplar and gum wood sideboard, with two square feet of walnut burl veneer, is passed off as "Walnut sideboard". If you want dark wood, use dark wood. With rare exception, I do not use stains. (What are the exceptions? Some woods take stain horribly, hard maple for instance. It has small pore that fill with color and immediately look blotchy. If you insist on changing the color of hard maple, us a dye stain. Dye stains dissolve in their carrying medium. Others take stain very well, red oak notably, and mahogany. Poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, takes stain very,very well. I knew someone who described it as, and used it for 'poor man's cherry'. However, it has no particular beauty by itself. On the other hand, tulip machines beautifully, and makes excellent molding and trim. And as it takes stain well, it takes paint very well. Look at your baseboards.)
What do I do? First understand the nature of working with solid wood. Apprentices used to do all the tedious work. Now, machines have replaced apprentices. Hardwood dealers have replaced men with pit saws. And in the factory, machines have replaced the skilled hand and eye of experience and tradition. When materials were expensive, labor was cheap. Now materials are cheap, and labor is expensive. I am expensive. I am very good at what I do, and I expect to be well paid. Let's go back to that whatever, that whichever overseas or wherever furniture factory manufactured. You'll never see it on The Road Show. It will not improve with age. Your children will never fight over it. It may eventually be thrown out, after passing through several households and second-hand shops. Sure, it was functional and useful and...was it beautiful? Was it a delight to open and close the drawers? Dis you marvel at the skill and eye of the maker? Could you see the person behind the work?You see where I am going here.
About the photos. There are two drawers in this sideboard. They, and the panels in the doors are made of a wood from Mexico called goncalo alves. (Pronounce the 'c' as an 's', gon-salo.) The shaped legs, the figured wood panels on the back and the top are Honduran mahogany. (By the way, each leg took an entire day to shape using planes, files, rasps and a spokeshave. Tedious, but worth it. I think they are beautiful. The owner of this piece, a physician in St. Louis, put it in the center of a room so the back was visible. Makes my day.) The wood around the panels, the frames, is cherry. (Two of the pieces from a tree cut down by my father. Special to me.) When I can jpeg some more photos, I'll post the drawers so you can see the dovetails. Comments? Questions on woodworking are welcome. Orders?


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