Full Chisel Blog

August 11, 2008

The Problem with Reproduction Furniture of the 19th Century and Earlier

Filed under: Furniture,Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 10:16 pm

The Problem as I see it, with Reproduction Furniture of the 19th Century or even earlier stuff is that everything being reproduced is from museum and they tend to collect high end pieces owned by terribly wealthy people.  It is the best, finest and fanciest furniture ever made and reflects so little of the vast majority of furniture that was used by almost everybody else.



Museum specimens are wonderful study examples but I have a feeling those pieces reflect less than 1% of the furniture made and actually used.  Shaker furniture seems to be the exception, although I am not a big fan of their furniture.  While there are some fine examples there are also some really ugly Shaker furniture.  I always think of this one chest with a drawer underneath, it looked like a cabinet giving birth to another cabinet, not very sightly.



And that high end furniture reflects the high end life that the few could enjoy.  For the rest of us there is usable, serviceable and practical furniture that was used and used up.  Not that there isn’t some fine examples of common furniture, I have seen hundreds and hundreds including many well done, finely constructed and thought out pieces built in the latest style and fashion, made for the average customer of the period.



The problem as I see it is that the woodworker wants to make the very best and many do and get (or at least ask) a high price for their products, again putting them in the context of the past where only the wealthy can afford the best.  A Chippendale High Boy, a Ball and Claw Chair with cabriole legs are wonderful pieces of furniture but I am fairly sure most people can’t afford them.  That doesn’t mean you can make them for yourself, but I think this type of furniture reproduction sets the bar a little too high for most woodworkers.



And while I could make either of the above, I never will, I have no desire to own one and less desire to make them.  I prefer to make furniture that is indicative of what was made and actually used in everyday life of the common person.  I think I can gain more insight into the past by studying this type of furniture rather than the high end stuff that causes everyone to drool.



 We also have a twentieth century work ethic that is totally unlike that of a century or two ago.  We work an eight hour day, in the past they worked as long as there was daylight and burned oil on certain occasions like coffin building which had to be attended to immediately.  We now know the difference, back then it was just what was done.  You worked when you could see and didn’t when you couldn’t.



To our ancestors it was both the process and the product, the process had to be done and the product could be sold or traded for what was needed.  There were standards and fair market value for commodities in the nineteenth century and earlier.  You could buy pork for $0.14 a pound, nails were $0.59 a pound or a Windsor side chair for $4.00 or a Bureau (chest of drawers) was $26.00.  In the late 1850’s in the West the U.S. Army paid $3.00 a day for skilled laborers, above the wages available in settlements of around $2.00 a day.



I make reproduction nineteenth century furniture, using the same tools, similar materials and traditional techniques of the originating craftsmen, whose furniture I am copying.  I don’t add anything that they didn’t have into the mix, but one thing I can not quite get is the mine 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.



I work an eight hour day, albeit mostly in the nineteenth century, I know back in my mind I will go home to central heat and air conditioning, a big flat screen and laptop, cold clean beverages and unprecedented medical care.  I can get close to the mind set but there is still that reassurance that if a wound goes septic, I can do something about it and survive.



They also worked smartly or didn’t stay in business.  They produced quality product or didn’t have any customers.  Certainly crap was produced, it was of bad construction, got used up and thrown away, well actually burned.  Common furniture was produced in great number and on occasion the shop would produce a fancy piece for a well to do customer, but by and large most of the production was for furniture to be used.



Now our ancestors were not hayseeds that just fell off the cabbage wagon, they were usually well read and liked the latest fashion and style popular in the East or in Europe.  Trends are reflected in the styles of furniture that was available in the time.  Some high style influences can be seen in common everyday furniture as people like nice stuff, they always have and they always will.  But they also wanted good serviceable and inexpensive furniture, stuff they could afford and would actually use.




Can we accurately reproduce the furniture from the past, well we can get fairly close, but there will be something lacking.  It may not be noticeable, it may be difficult to discern and maybe no one can tell the difference.  But there is, we are making this stuff, even if everything else is exactly right, we just can’t know the exact context in which this stuff was made.  And maybe we don’t need to know that, but the more we can know of the framework and matrix in which this stuff was produced, the more history that we are familiar with, the more information we have will make us better at accurately reproducing furniture from the past. 







Earlier furniture from the eighteenth century and before presents a whole different problem.  If you are going to make reproduction furniture then you need to use all of the tools, materials and techniques of the period.  This means that almost all of the work has to be prepared by hand in order to call it Reproduction Furniture. 







In the nineteenth century it is a different story.  Much of the material was provided by a saw and or planing mill, so the boards would come sawn and in some instances planed.  The Wadsworth planer, the Blanchard lathe, table saws, band saws, sash saws, grinders, powered by human, water, animal or even steam.  Many shops in the nineteenth century had steam engines powering their equipment.  I get a lot of my lumber from an old sawmill that was originally powered by steam but later converted.  The saw is the same the power source is different. 







If we make reproduction furniture it needs to be done using the same methods as the originating craftsmen in terms of materials, techniques and tools in order to call it reproduction furniture, if we don’t, it isn’t.  Is the power source the issue, I don’t know, but I am looking for a steam engine to power my turning lathe, if the freight wasn’t so high having it shipped by ox cart from St. Louis.













  1. Hi Stephen,
    I listened to an interview with Adam Cherubini, last night, you can find it here http://blip.tv/file/1149497
    he has interesting view on period furniture making, you might get more from it than most. My own view is that we have a natural tendancy to overly romanticize the past. I think however there are limits to the search for “authenticity” The ox-cart shipping rates are just not realistic these days.


    Comment by Ray Gardiner — August 12, 2008 @ 3:02 am

  2. Ray,

    I listened to Adam’s interview, it was interesting. Adam considers himself an artist and that is where we differ, I consider myself a craftsman, more of a mechanic than an artist. Artists come up with new stuff, reproducing furniture, that work is already done, all I need to do is ripe off the past.

    I agree about the tendency to romanticize the period, it really wasn’t that great a time to live and die young. And the ox cart shipping was a bit tongue in cheek, but I still want a steam engine.



    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 12, 2008 @ 8:22 am

  3. Stephen, I couldn’t agree with you more anout the “everyday” furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries. I did recently carve a practice ball and claw cabriole leg sized for a chair, mostly just because I wanted to carve it. I had no plans to actually make anything at the time. I have considered it, but as you say, this stuff is just too fancy and would not fit well into my family’s home. We like the pieces that would be considered more for the commoner. Problem is, as you mention, there are many fewer examples of these types of pieces remaining to look at in museums and very few if any books of examples. I have seen volumes written about the fancy 18th century pieces and while I do like them, I wouldn’t have a use for them if I built one. I have been looking for books on the more common furninture but I’ve yet to get any good recommendations. Some of the pieces that Mike Dunbar has built in some of his older FWW articles were very appealing to me, and I have actually built one (Colonial Cupboard) for my shop and am currently working on a modified version of another (Country Stepback Cupboard) that I’m designing as built-ins for our living room. I really like a lot of the painted designs but so few of these pieces exist today that I don’t have a lot of references for ideas. I am not building reproductions as I don’t copy pieces to the last detail, rather using period pieces for inspiration and building in the style using their proportioning and design techniques. I would like to see a lot more of the common type furniture though as I am much more inspired by these pieces than the fancy stuff usually seen in the museums. Oh if I only knew your shop was there when I was in Salt Lake City in 2006. So, do you have any good book recommendations for this type of furniture?

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — August 12, 2008 @ 9:11 am

  4. Great post, Stephen. Blogging about your woodworking makes one wonder how much craftsmen really talked about what they made. Although the time people had to spend gabbing might have been different than today, I would imagine that over lunch and on breaks, and even when they were supposed to be working, a lot of time was spent telling stories about various unusual happenings and jobs, steam engine explosions and so forth.

    I can smell a book here, Stephen. When you get it published, I want a copy. I think taking a few representative pieces of furniture and picking them completely apart showing construction details and appropriate techniques, along with a gallery of pictures of a variety of work would be a good start.

    I have never done any reproduction work, but I would love to try some middle-class or middle-upper class furniture if I had a good book or video on the subject.

    Comment by Luke Townsley — August 12, 2008 @ 11:24 am

  5. Regarding the steam engine, you might find it to be a bit of a pain in the butt to have a steam-powered lathe. It takes a bit of planning. That having been said, all you need is a great-wheel lathe (or something similar) to start with and it would be pretty easy to do. Easiest for testing purposes is to run the motor on compressed air until you have it figured out as far as what kind of pressure you require. Once you know how much pressure you need you can source a boiler and run the motor on steam, then you will have an actual steam engine. External combustion motors are interesting things, and still used today in great abundance, but usually in rather a larger size than they were 200 years ago.


    Comment by Metalworker Mike — August 12, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

  6. Bob,

    There are actually some really good books out there on ordinary furniture, most of it published in the early 20th century. I was exposed to a lot of books when I first took up the trade, my first father-in-law had an excellent collection. I am in the process of gathering those books for my own library and plan on adding books to the Bibliotheque page that I started with the bibliography from my book. I will add more titles soon.


    I don’t think woodworkers of the time period are that much different from woodworkers today (with the historic context in mind), you can’t shut them up when it comes to woodworking. I am sure they talked of their trade as we talk of our jobs today, some things don’t change. I am actually working on a work of fiction right now, loosely based on my families history in America but with a woodworking slant. The working title is ‘Memoirs of an American Cabinetmaker’, just flows off your tongue, right? I will have to split it up as it is too long and only half the story is done. I have the first part at an editor now, we will see.


    My lathe is a grand wheel with a 5 foot wheel, so I only need a little tiny peanut engine to run the thing. I like the Irish boiler design. I have had experience with steam, operated a traction engine for cutting firewood, a little overkill but that was a lot of fun. And I have restored a couple of model steam engines.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 12, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  7. It sounds like you have the right setup for a steam-powered lathe, then. I’ve never heard the term ‘Irish boiler’ before, though… what’s the format?


    Comment by Metalworker Mike — August 13, 2008 @ 6:40 am

  8. M.Mike,

    Sorry this took so long, had to buy a new computer and get it all set up, what a nightmare. An Irish boiler is a horizontal boiler like on traction engines. The boiler on the African Queen is an upright boiler. Most people think steam engines are large, actually they are small it is the boiler that is large.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 17, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

  9. I do not see a problem with reproduction furniture. Building such pieces as viewed in Museums gives me insight as to how things were done in the past by my fore fathers. I build some high end furniture and some very common
    pieces with straight lines simple chiseled decore. I think the most important thing is that even the bed made by a Farmer was well made and solid one piece of wood Hand cut, hand planed, hand fit. the use of mortise and tenon is still today the mark of excellence.

    Comment by Dana De Brosky — August 29, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

  10. Dana,

    My contention is that not everyone agrees on what a ‘reproduction’ is or is not. I am trying to work up a list into which I hope to classify different levels of what is called a reproduction. This is to level the playing field, so to speak, so totally hand made, period accurate reproductions are not compared to modern machine made ‘reproductions’.

    Thank you for your comment.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 30, 2008 @ 6:18 am

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