I’ll admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for crude antique furniture. I don’t mean crude in the sense that it’s poorly built or falling apart or left to rot for 50 years in a dank barn. I’m talking about the furniture that was built quickly and competently and well-used for a century or two, but without much consideration for the complete removal of surface blemishes and measuring marks. There’s something about the tool marks on a chair that connects me to the man who made it. Instead of seeing my own reflection in French-polished perfection, I see a window into another world.
Was the maker in a hurry? Was furniture-making his profession, or did he just build some chairs during the winter to pass the time before spring planting? Did he have a well-equipped shop or did he make do with a rough collection of tools? Did he take the time to sharpen his tools or did he press on with a plane that was well past due for grinding?
Every woodworker leaves a trace of his or her methods in one way or another, but in rough rural furniture, the questions and answers leap out at you before you even think to ask them. I was thinking of this after inspecting an old children’s ladderback chair that belongs to my niece. I sat in my brother’s living room inspected the chair for every tool mark I could find.
The chair probably originates from somewhere near the North Georgia antique shop from whence it was rescued. The paint color is a fantastic blue and red with stylized flowers on the back slats.
The real story is in the woodwork, though. The first surprise is the choice of the wood itself. This chair is made completely of yellow pine. It’s the only pine ladderback I’ve ever seen, and it probably only lasted this long because it was made for 30-lb toddlers instead of 200-lb men. Stranger still? The wood was riven (i.e., split from the log as opposed to sawed). That’s not unusual at all for chairs of oak or ash or hickory, but this is the first I’ve seen of riven pine for furniture. The riving marks are everywhere you look:
There’s evidence of hatchet work as well:
The rungs were shaved with a drawknife, not turned. This is not unusual, but it’s interesting that the maker didn’t even attempt to make them round. They’re nearly square in cross section, with just the edges chamfered:
The mortises for the back slats appear to have been cut with a pocketknife – and they probably were. Apparently this was common practice in southern Appalachia as documented in the first Foxfire book.
Finally, a view from above. The maker didn’t even attempt to bend the slats – not surprising, since (a) yellow pine isn’t exactly known for bending well and (b) rough chairs like these were often made with flat slats anyway.
In spite of (or really, because of) all of its flaws and asperity, I love this little chair. Who knows how many diminutive derrieres have rested in this seat over the years? Its current owner is certainly a fan – I caused quite a stir when I took the chair into the yard to photograph and joked with my 4-year-old niece that I would be using it to start a campfire.
As we poked and prodded the chair, I mentioned to my brother that I would find it hard to make a chair with the same kind of surface quality as this one, even if I made a reproduction. I know I’m not the only woodworker who shoots for a higher standard in my own work than I look for in an antique.
So what’s the deal, then? Why do we insist on such perfection in our own work while admiring the crude pragmatism of the old?
My brother, who is not a woodworker, but is one hell of a musician, offered an analogy that I found interesting. Apparently there was a bit of a trend recently in British rock to sound intentionally rough and unrehearsed – the instruments were left just a bit out of tune, the music was played a little sloppy, the vocals maybe not quite on key all of the time. The idea being that the bands were aiming for the nostalgic imperfection of the Rolling Stones, rather than the flawless polish of Rush.
It sounds like a good idea. I’d take the Stones over Rush any day, right? The problem, however, was that the music ended up sounding, well, contrived – at least, to fellow musicians. They wanted to sound soulful and natural, they but instead they sounded like they were trying to be imperfect.
I think it’s this idea of striving for imperfection that I take issue with. I’m afraid that my furniture would not resemble the brisk work of a competent professional, but the formulaic inconsistency of those godawful “handscraped” floors that seem to be popping up everywhere these days.
One could argue that the man who made this chair had more in common with a garage band than the Rolling Stones, and they would be right. The truth is, he wasn’t at the top of his game. There are far better examples of chairs in the historical record, with more attractive proportions and more careful surface finish. I don’t think it matters, though. Have a look at this blog post at Popular Woodworking if you’d like to see an example of an 18th century masterpiece complete with turning marks and tearout from riving. The blemishes are smaller and more discreet, but they’re still there, and I still try to avoid them.
I think it takes a surprising amount of skill to pull off this sort of historically accurate imperfection. Robin Wood can do it with his medieval bowls and spoons. Peter Follansbee can do it with his colonial chests and joint stools. But both of them have more than a couple of decades of experience working with traditional tools in traditional ways. I’m but a neophyte hack compared to those men.
What it boils down do, I’m afraid, is that I chase perfection to hide my own lack of skill.