Why Do We Aim For Perfection?

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.

Children's Chair 1
Well-painted furniture only gets better as the years go by.

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:

Camping Oct 2015 037 Camping Oct 2015 041

There’s evidence of hatchet work as well:

Camping Oct 2015 039
The flat spots on this foot appear to be the work of a hatchet. Also notice the grooves from the lathe work on the lower part of the foot. It appears the maker used a gouge instead of a skew chisel here.

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:

Camping Oct 2015 034
Very crude rungs.

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.

Camping Oct 2015 033
Notice the over-cut mortises. You can see where the knife scored the beads above the mortise.

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.

Camping Oct 2015 036
The slats weren’t bent as they are in more refined (and comfortable) ladderback chairs.

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.

Handscraped floors
WTF? Whose hands did you scrape these floors with? Wolverine’s?

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.

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2 thoughts on “Why Do We Aim For Perfection?

  1. I just read your section on your nieces chair. I enjoyed the article as I have a chair just like it that I am trying to refinish for my 1 year old granddaughter. I also was fascinated by the fact they have tapered cross braces that appear to have been completed with a spoke shave as opposed to dowel rods. I have completely disassembled it as some of the joints were loose and the rush woven seat was in sad shape. I will soon be ready for the woven seat but have yet to find any directions on how to weave the seat in the original pattern. Do you have knowledge of this chairs age or origin or where I might turn to find the rush weave pattern for the seat?
    By the way this chairs location is in Michigan but not sure where or when it was purchased. My grandmother gave it to my daughter at 2 years old in 1981.
    Thank you

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    1. Hi Denny, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! It’s tough to date chairs like this – these ladderbacks were made without any major design changes for a couple hundred years. Since, as you noted, the rungs are spokeshaved (and probably split, rather than sawn) it’s most likely that the chair dates from the 19th century. Similar chairs from the early 20th century would be more likely to be built with sawed and turned stock, rather than split and shaved. But of course, there’s no guarantee either way.

      As to the rush seat, I’ve done those before. They’re labor-intensive, but not really difficult. I used the instructions found here: http://www.cohassetcolonials.com/fiber-rush-weaving-instructions.htm. Good luck!

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