Full Chisel Blog

August 17, 2008

Reproducing Antique Furniture

Filed under: Furniture,Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 8:57 pm

Reproducing Antique Furniture are words that seem to get everyone worked up.  Is it a ‘reproduction’?  Is it a ‘copy’?  Is it a ‘replica’?   Is it a ‘duplicate’?  Is it a ‘facsimile’?  Yes I got out my Thesaurus to get more words into the fray. 


I am not sure there is any convention here so I think I will take a crack at this one.  A reproduction is a version of the original that has been made using the same tools, traditional techniques and similar materials to the original.  This would be based on the time period of the piece that is being reproduced.  Arts and Crafts probably didn’t use a pole lathe.  And while it may be difficult to get old growth wood, a species match is critical.  And while all old techniques may not be known (yet) using traditional methods is also important in order to call it a ‘reproduction’.   I think anything else isn’t. 


A copy or facsimile would be a faithful version in all outward appearances but with concessions to modern techniques. 




I think replica is related to the above characterizations as these pieces would be versions that replicate the look of the original with no indication as to how it was made.


 I think the same applies for ‘duplicate‘, although this word can be taken literally and technically and would therefore in an esoteric sense not possible. 


Now ‘our version’ can mean anything, and there is nothing wrong with that. 


But we need a convention to describe making furniture or other objects as they were made originally; tools, materials and techniques.  This is a reproduction and everything else isn’t. 


I have said this before and I will probably say it again and there is always room to discuss the use of the words and their meanings.  I just don’t know how far to push this issue nor where to set the bar.  But if an early 19th century Butler’s Desk is made with power tools unavailable in the early nineteenth century then it is a copy or duplicate or facsimile or replica, but it is not a reproduction.


Can you only made a reproduction 18th century piece if your body is nourished by traditional 18th century foods?  (I would like to go there, but I won’t).  Can you only make a 19th century piece if the shop is period correct?  If you are wearing the clothing of the period?  Once again I have gone too far or have I?  Should there be a further distinction of reproductions done where everything is correct?  Is that possible?  Is it worthwhile?  Or is this an academic pursuit I should not bother others with? 


That aside, I think that in order to give the proper credit to actual reproductions as opposed to things called ‘reproductions’ there needs to be a distinction.  If someone uses the same tools, materials and techniques of the particular period and makes a ‘reproduction’, then that needs to be accredited and acknowledged.  And they shouldn’t be expected to compete against those that use modern tools, etc to make what they call ‘reproductions’.  Let the modern folks call it something else but leave ‘reproduction’ to mean what it should mean. 





  1. Hey hey, the blogger is back…

    Obviously I agree in the main, probably even completely in so far as you’ve gone.

    The period shop, clothing, et al is an interesting addition. I personally don’t think these are necessary and one can always take this too far–beyond what is even capable today. There will always be a point at which one draws the reproduction line.

    So for me, that line would be the tools and methods in so far as I can understand them. Which (understanding, lack thereof and future, better understanding) brings up interesting issues itself.

    Take care, Mike

    Comment by Mike — August 17, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

  2. Mike,

    It is good to be back. Yes the tools and materials are easy to replicate, the methods that are documented help, but so many of those techniques were just not recorded, probably because everyone knew them, so why bother writing them down. I think we can discover or rediscover old techniques by experimental archeology (as they are calling it now). Sort of like reverse engineering.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 17, 2008 @ 10:05 pm

  3. Stephen,

    Once again, I am in complete agreement with you (ok, maybe not the 18th century nourishment or clothing; I think my wife might really question my sanity were I to start dressing like an 18th century cabinetmaker). I am not at all against those who make copies using modern materials, tools and techniques. Most of these folks make beautiful pieces and are far better crafts people than I will ever be. However, what I do have a problem with is passing off work of this type as a reproduction. It seems like a cheap sales ploy to me useful only to fool the uninformed buyer into thinking they’re buying something they really are not. It’s like the claim that a piece was hand made when the maker knows full well that 90% of the work was done without even picking up a hand tool. But that’s another discussion.

    By the way, thanks for the response to my plow plane question on my blog! It’s always nice to get confirmation of a theory from an expert.

    It’s good to have you back on your blog!


    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — August 17, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

  4. Stephen,
    I like your take on this. I haven’t thought much about it, but I don’t think wearing period clothing, having multiple wives, using period lighting, or even having a period workplace is necessary to do a “reproduction.” Perhaps we should further refine the word reproduction to describe something made under those conditions. There is certainly a place for that too. Perhaps we should call that a “completely faithful reproduction” or “museum quality” reproduction or whatever.

    I do think using original type tooling and techniques are important as least inasmuch as it affects the finished piece. I think you can still make a reproduction with wood from a bandsaw mill and a commercial planer if the final piece bears marks of tooling like the original would have. I don’t think you can do a faithful reproduction from the 1800s and before using only power tools or with modern finishes or even modern glues. While it may be a fine nostalgic piece of furniture, it is not going to be like the original.

    Unfortunately, this whole discussion may be moot since marketing departments have a way of stealing any useful phrase like that unless it can be trademarked and controlled by an oversight board of some sort.

    Comment by Luke Townsley — August 18, 2008 @ 10:49 am

  5. Luke,

    I think we need to set a standard and it doesn’t require period nutrients, comfortable clothes (traditional clothes are remarkably comfortable) or a proper shop setting, I was pushing the envelope (and not worrying about a paper cut) on that one.

    But it would be nice to have some standard or benchmark, so that those of use who do make reproductions are not compared to mass produced, machine made stuff.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 18, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

  6. Stephen,

    In the absence of an organized union or oversight board which might be quite undesirable even if it were possible, there might be another way to approach this problem.

    Part of the problem we are dealing with is education. People just don’t understand the difference between modern copies and true reproductions. Even if they wanted the real thing, they wouldn’t know what it was if it bit them. I recently heard an interview of Adam Cherubini that, in part, talked about a similar problem.

    It seems to me that a good approach in this case, would be to develop a document or series of documents that state what is a reproduction and what isn’t.

    That way, I can approach a customer (not that I have any customers or intentions of having any) and say, this piece conforms to the Realistic Reproduction Standard Class A for period reproductions for the 1800’s-1850’s or whatever, and here is the (hopefully illustrated) document that states what that means.

    Perhaps another document could state how a workshop should be set up for certain classes of certification.

    This is sort of like how they sell diamonds. The average uneducated person judges a diamond by size, but when you go to a jeweler to buy that special something for that special someone, they explain the grading and let you look at it through magnification, and you know, sure enough, you can see the difference and make a decision for yourself as to how much you love that special someone and what quality you want to pay for.

    This type of standard could be a single document covering a wide range of periods and situations, or it could be quite detailed with multiple levels of grading or certification. Some variation of the latter would probably be the best choice in the long run as long as it was easily understood by the customer since it would allow truly dedicated and skilled craftsmen to differentiate themselves from people like me who work in their garage, but still allow people like me to differentiate ourselves from the unwashed masses.

    If you or someone else were to develop some prototype documents and float them around among the “community” for a few months or a year or so to get input and suggestions, I think you would likely find that there would be a lot of authors, toolmakers, and craftsmen who would sign off on the idea. Within five to ten years, I would hope that savvy consumers would start to catch on and new consumers could be easily educated.


    Comment by Luke Townsley — August 20, 2008 @ 11:28 am

  7. Luke,

    Excellent suggestion, but a bit daunting a task considering the variety of opinions within the ‘community’ as to what a reproduction even is suppose to be. But if there were some standards that could be set and agreed upon, I think would be good.

    I don’t think it should be another organization or guild or anything that requires membership, but a standard to which people could sign a pledge or something like that. Certification is something that can be abused and would be difficult if not impossible to enforce, but a public declaration might work, I just don’t know.

    I do think that a standard could be set for furniture, but I think other trades such as metal working or pottery or other trades could use the standards as well. Maybe I am just dreaming.

    Thanks for the comments, I will give this some thought.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 20, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

  8. I think if someone wrote it, passed it around to a handful of friends for suggestions, gave a nod to the best of the suggestions, corrected any horrible oversights or errors, and then published it, it would stand on its own two feet. The worst I could see happening is that only a handful of people would adopt it, but they would probably still see some benefit from it in their careers.

    Also, you could avoid the whole “what is a reproduction” controversy by setting up your own standard with your own terms to be applied by the craftsman on a a piece by piece basis. Then you can call it a reproduction if you want, or not, and say it conforms to these standards upon which the consumer can look at your stuff and verify that indeed it does, and they can begin to appreciate the finer things in life.

    Essentially, what it comes down to is helping to educate the consumer so they understand and appreciate what they are getting.

    You are right that the task is a bit daunting. Also, it would probably require a second or third version after a few years of use to really get the bugs worked out. You might compare it to Richard Stallman and the GPL license.

    Comment by Luke Townsley — August 20, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

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