To The Craftsmen Of Old – A Lament

An appreciation for my forebears in the trade.

I have a great sense of gratitude and appreciation for the cabinetmakers of yesteryear. When I see their work I often think about what they used to produce it: the tools, the machines, the techniques, and the process of construction.

Nowadays the rare antiques we see are from the mid- to late-1800’s and more common still, are pieces from the 1920’s and 30’s. Even these are approaching 100 years old, and to think about the life a cabinet or a piece of furniture has had during that time can be amazing. What was it used for? Who was it made for? How was it taken care of? How was it built? Why did it last? are all the questions that come to mind as I ponder a piece and its maker.

By the mid-1800’s the Industrial Age was coming to an end and large, high volume machines were used in all industries. Mechanical engineering was at its finest for the day. So to think that the antiques we see today were built by a craftsman with nothing more than hand saw, a chisel and a hammer, is a little naive on our part. I believe it was the best of both worlds. They were coming from an age of pioneers; an age where their mother and father had to carve out a living with their own hands and survive on the land. They learned how to work, be wise with resources, and solve problems with what they had and what they knew. As a result, with advancing machinery all around them, they could produce with a level of quality that they knew built reputations, and they produced it at a volume to cover the country… it still wasn’t quite the global market we have today.

This is another reason items lasted as long as they did–the necessity of the consumer to care for what they had. You can even see it in older generations still alive today. When they bought something, they bought the best you could and they took care of it. There was no thought of replacing it in 3-5 years. Items were repairable, intended to be fixed if broken. They bought it to have it, and use it for the rest of their lives.

They knew what quality looked like. For example:

  1. Clear lumber – Wood that was void of any natural defect: splits, cracks, checking, wane, knots, or any other possible weak spot in the board. Boards were chosen and showcased for the natural beauty they possessed, i.e. large flecks of quarter-sawn white oak often used in the earlier eras.  Proper joints – The most commonly known was the dovetail joint for its mechanical ability to hold without the need for glue or nails, and definitely the most visible as it was the primary drawer joint. If viewing an “antique” and you do not find dovetails holding the drawer together, there is a good chance it’s not an antique.
  2. Understanding how wood moves – It may not even be a thought today with all the sheet goods being used, but the true cabinetmaker understands this very well. If this aspect is not considered drawers will become too tight to open, backs will push out gables, and joints can pull apart which only ensures the piece won’t be around very long.   

I believe these are some of the reasons why the cabinets and furniture built then can still be found today– craftsmen understood their trade and produced enduring items that they could be proud of –a mentality greatly lacking in today’s disposable world in both manufacturing and consumerism.

Although many of the machines used in the early 20th century are very crude by today’s standards, the machines were a huge improvement in production over the hand saw, the chisel, and hammer used by craftsman of centuries earlier. BUT– the skills with hand tools were still there! The machines, as fancy as they seemed to be, could not do it all and craftsmen were still needed. The woodworking skills with hand tools were still being passed on from the generations. I marvel at what could be accomplished with such simple tools. It’s a shame that automated manufacturing have replaced the craftsman of old.

At Heninger Woodworks, I do not have the latest CNC 7-axis robotic arm in my shop, but I do have all of the the tools that robotic arm is trying to replace. When I’m confronted with a problem, my mind often reverts back to thinking of the craftsmen of an earlier time when great things were accomplished with simple means. How would those tradesmen have done this? Answers always come when I reflect on how it was done before. I try to incorporate all the principles of an old craftsman in my work. Firstly, quality in every aspect, then, building a reputation on understanding the trade and what works, and finally, taking pride in my work knowing I’ve done my best. I view my work as an investment for my customers and hope that they will take care of the pieces I build for them so they, too, will last a lifetime and be passed on for generations.

I believe the following quotation sums up everything I strive to accomplish in my shop:

“When we build let us think we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work that our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone (or wood upon wood!), that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our fathers did for us.”

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.