Full Chisel Blog

August 23, 2008

What I would like to see…

Filed under: Furniture,Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 8:13 am

is a standard set for ‘reproduction’ furniture, but I don’t think that is going to happen.  I posted on WoodCentral and got several good responses (and one silly one) and have decided that it was indeed the nightmare I thought it would be. 


There is a difficulty in categorizing the stuff, disagreement on what the standards should be, on what variations are acceptable and many other issues.  Without a way to enforce any standards, if they could be agreed upon, such as a guild or society or association, the standards would be irrelevant. 


And as some pointed out many customers just don’t care as long as it looks good.  This is too bad as it doesn’t give proper credit to people who actually make ‘reproductions’, they are forced into the same category as modern furniture factories that make ‘reproductions*’, and that isn’t fair. But then again when is life ‘fair’? 


Lacking a standard the word ‘reproduction’ has little meaning as it has been corrupted to mean anything that looks like something old.  It is interesting that this is only relevant today as in the past people were not confronted with this issue.  They did however make ‘reproductions’, take Second Empire furniture, from classical works published in the early nineteenth century.  Colonial Revival popular during the centennial of America, varies greatly from the original colonial furniture that they were reproducing.  While outward appearances are similar, the construction techniques mirrored the technology of that time period,  Dowels instead of Mortise and Tenon joints, machine woven cane for chair seats, pointy screws and wire nails. 


One of the things about making reproduction furniture that I find very handy is that the work has already been done for me.  I don’t need to come up with a design, the old piece I am copying is in existence and all I need to do is reproduce the piece.  I don’t need to guess what tools they used as I can see by looking at the piece what tools it took to build the original (in most cases).  I know enough original techniques that I can employ to achieve the desired result, a ‘reproduction’.  Using similar materials as the original, it would be a legitimate reproduction and could be called such with impunity. 


I can’t compete with someone that uses modern tools, materials and techniques to build ‘reproductions’.  The big box furniture stores sells ‘reproductions’ and that is what we have to compete against and that just isn’t right.  Without standards this is the state of the trade and that is just too bad.  But calling both what I make and what is available at stores ‘reproductions’ is like comparing apples and dominoes.



When I am making reproductions, I have removed myself from the equation.  I don’t add anything to the mix as the design is already established, the tools and materials are known and the traditional techniques ensconced.  My particular work surroundings and conditions allow me to get into the ‘character’ or ‘persona’ of a nineteenth century Cabinet Maker.  After all I am ‘role-playing’ one all day long.  I wear the clothing, eat the food, talk the part, so it is a total immersion experience.  While I admit this is not necessary to accomplish the same task of making a proper reproduction, it does help me do what I do.



And there are those rare moments when I am engrossed in working, concentrating on the task at hand, when it all comes together and I can’t tell when I am.




  1. I do believe there is a way to peel this potato.

    I don’t think the big furniture makers will ever pay any attention to whatever we might do. We won’t ever convince the unwashed masses. We won’t ever get to where everyone understands what we are talking about. We won’t ever really agree on what a reproduction is or very possibly any other term unless we coin a new one. We can’t ever hope to define the terms big furniture marketing departments use. Nor do we need to.

    Let’s face it, out products aren’t generally exciting. We are trying to sell carrots and potatoes to a world that is used to buying super duper cheesy, low fat, low carb, crunchy, knock you flat, fabulously fiberful eat-em-up *insert name brand here* crunchkins.

    We need to get people to appreciate that our furniture or products are different and help them understand the value of what we are doing.

    Even just blogging about products and procedures how specific needs for our customers are solved could go a long way.

    Even just a booklet describing different techniques would be nice so we could point out which ones we used on a particular piece and how they enhanced it. (note to self: start writing booklet)

    Comment by Luke Townsley — August 23, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

  2. Educating the customer is part of the fun. Why is this better than that? What do you look for? It’s a way of building trust and confidence in the customer.

    I have a variety of fiddles for sale in my shop at any one time. Some I like. Some are not my favorites. But someday, someone comes in and tries a few tunes on one of my not-favorites, and it sounds darn good. That fiddle and that player fit together.

    There are a lot of butts in this country, and they all need chairs. Some of them are your butts, and some aren’t. Besides, you really wouldn’t want to be turning out several hundred chairs a day.

    Just like I wouldn’t want to sell a hundred fiddles a day. Wait a minute. Actually, that does sound kinda good.


    Good post Stephen — I understand the feeling.


    Comment by Ken Pollard — August 23, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  3. Luke,

    Thanks for the positive attitude on this issue, it is keeping me from giving up. After the posts on WC, I was discouraged and ready to give up. I will keep going on this and good luck with that booklet, if you need any help let me know.


    If I meet my customers face to face, I seldom have a problem, I find out their needs then tell them what they really need (well I let them think they made the decision) and everyone is happy. It is when trying to sell on a larger market that the real problem emerges. Well I guess I will get about informing those that don’t know, including those that don’t care, but the words of my first father-in-law, comes to mine, who said: ‘If you spend all your time teaching fools, you spend all your time teaching fools’. But I will continue doing what I do and that is inform people against their will.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 24, 2008 @ 7:30 am

  4. Maybe you *do* need to pick a different word. “Reproduction” is already over-used. Maybe the term “Period replica” or even “museum quality period replica” would be more appropriate?
    For the most part, as you say, we can’t make a perfect replica, anyway. We don’t have access to the same old-growth wood, pit-sawn and air-dried for years, the same hand-forged nails and hinges made from hand-puddled wrought iron… something is going to be a bit off, but just because it can’t be 100% perfect doesn’t mean it should be okay to be nowhere close to perfect.
    While I don’t agree 100% with the 19th century way of doing things, I still respect it and I’m glad that it’s still being maintained somewhere. In the current issue of “Woodworking” there’s a scary quote which I am going to paraphrase from a vague memory as: “We need 19th century woodworking like we need 19th century dentistry.” I think that’s going way too far.
    And today my chore is to figure out how to fix a thoroughly wretched ‘wooden’ file cabinet for my mother. She bought it because it ‘looked good’ and matched the furniture in the room, but it is all MDF with paper-thin veneer, and it’s thoroughly disheartening for me to even look at, let alone work on. The files keep falling down because the MDF flexes and the support rods for the files drop out of their sockets. So I need to reinforce the MDF to make this thing work, instead of burning it as it so richly deserves. Mind you, I might get sick from the fumes from burning that crap… but it would be worth it!
    Well, we may not *need* 19th century woodworking, but it sure would be nice to have some 19th century materials to work with…


    Comment by Metalworker Mike — August 24, 2008 @ 8:19 am

  5. M.Mike,

    Good point and someone else mentioned something like that on Wood Central, leave the single word ‘reproduction’ to mean everything else. I have to agree with Luke about the potato (he probably doesn’t know that my Mountain Man name is Tater (a somewhat overblown story about me eating someones baked potato)).

    Your idea about preserving original materials to work with is great and some places (I think Sturbridge) is trying to do that very thing from salvage. Out in the Great Salt Lake is an enormous amount of Redwood and first growth Douglas Fir in the Transcontinental Railroad Trestle which is up for salvage. You can easily get a permit to remove a million board feet. The first million has not been harvested yet, although it has been claimed, only 79 permits left.

    It is hard to make chicken soup out of chicken poop, good luck with the file cabinet.

    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 24, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

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