Over Romancing The Stone.

I have always suspected that we (modern folk) tend to over-romanticize our predecessors a bit.  Before I go any further, I must state that I intend no disrespect to those talented craftsmen who have come before me.  In fact, I hold the the artisans that paved the path for modern woodworkers in high esteem.  I do feel though, that they were a lot more like you and me than many people want to believe...and this is where I will loose some readers forever.
Some Tools Of Old, Ready To Come Home!

I mentioned in some other posts that I have made it something of a mission to peek under the hood at all the old construction I can.  Working in the design and construction industry makes this task a lot easier and allows me access to some areas that would otherwise remain hidden.   Curiosity about construction techniques also turned me on to looking into old carpenters drawers (ahem).  Antique furniture holds a lot of information about what was important and what was not important to carpenters of yore, especially when you remove the drawers or turn the furniture over.  Oddly, I have found (in my semi-limited investigation) that home construction and in some instances furniture construction varies by the level of finish and effort, however, often not in the way you would think.

A lot of the obviously commercial ventures (homes built by housewrights, furniture built by a professional cabinetmaker, etc.) are, unless they are extremely high end, perfectly finished... to a certain degree.  In short, what I am saying is that the important stuff is executed to a high degree.  The stuff you can't see, however, is often only finished as much as it needed to be to get the job done.  This was frequently because every aspect of the project needed to be completed quickly in order to move on to the next project, otherwise they would never make any money.  The luxury of the high end builder was (is) that he had more capital and sometimes more time to complete a project (sometimes a one-off), thus resulting in things not found in more production work like smoothed case backs, exacting joist spacing and perfect moldings.  This suspicion was enforced when I took Adam Cherubini's class at WIA 2012.  Mr. Cherubini has certainly had access to, and inspected, far more pieces of furniture than I have, and his findings appear to have been similar.

Mr. Cherubini Discussing His Saws
Mr. Cherubini 
The part that has continuously surprised me in my sleuthing is that amateur work or hobbyist work is sometimes more finished (in the spots we don't typically look) than the professional work.  The trade off that I have found is that (especially in home construction) while the backs of boards are smooth and more details are finished, it is not uncommon to have "incorrect" or invented construction methods.  Usually in home-made antique furniture and home construction, these "incorrect" methods consist of overbuilding to a large degree, as I suppose the under-built ones often didn't survive.  I use the term "incorrect" only because they are sometimes not the traditional professional techniques, I don't mean to imply that they are wrong...after all the old ones have stood the test of time!  I can't count the number of times I have looked at something in a building and said "wow, it is amazing that this is still standing,"  or the number of times I have looked at something and said "well, it is no wonder that fell down!"  The idea here being that amateur craftsmen hold some idea of the professional finishing everything perfectly, which is not necessarily the case.

Here is my point in all this (if there is one), with all of our technological advancements and leaps in scientific development human nature hasn't really changed much in the last several thousand years.  It is in our nature to perform the task at hand with the least amount of time and effort, it is a survival technique.  I feel like we too often imagine the craftsmen of old happily toiling away in their workshop for hours on end making sure every detail  of every project is exactly perfect.  While this may have been the case for some, it certainly was not the case for the majority.   In fact, as Mr. Cherubini noted, before electrified workshops workdays would have been limited to daylight hours (try working by candlelight some time).  Short days mean craftsmen would have had to cram an awful lot of work into daylight hours, especially in the fall and winter, which in turn means some sacrifices must be made.  

All my mentally categorized investigations came to the forefront of my thoughts when I sat in on Chris Schwarz' lecture at WIA about his "Furniture of Necessity."  In summation, his lecture was about the book he is currently working on which covers vernacular furniture and why it was made the way it was made.  The projects he is choosing for his book are easily recognizable "folksy" pieces like a 6 board chests and English pub tables.  He is asking for help in determining the best construction methods and you can check out his request on his blog at Lost Art Press.  Mr. Schwarz made a very interesting observation (one of many) in his countless hours of research, the people who originally built these pieces had much more understanding of the materials than we typically give them credit for.  He also did something very interesting, he gave out a typed list of instructions to build a six board chest.  The interesting part is that it was ONLY instructions, no detailed drawings, he called it a "recipe" approach.  At first I thought this was a weird way to get people to build this chest.  I mulled this over while he was speaking and it occurred to me that "vernacular" furniture might have often been built by average Joes in just such a manner.

Mr. Schwarz Discussing Pizza Furniture Of Necessity
Just like hobbyists today building furniture because they need it in their homes, many of these people (I suspect) built this furniture because they had a specific need.  It is likely they couldn't afford to pay a carpenter to build it for them, or didn't have access to a local carpentry shop (think very rural farmer).  I propose then, that they would have gotten the plans to build such furniture via word of mouth, much like recipes are passed down through families.  Additionally, many of these people would likely have been illiterate, so written drawings may not have been much help anyway.  I imagine it is also possible that their tool sets would frequently have been limited to the essentials for home repair and basic construction, making it critical that they be able to work with the rough dimensions of the material available (another point made by Mr. Schwarz).  In short, woodworkers with limited tool sets worked hundreds of years ago the same way many woodworkers work today, with what they have.  

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