Everything we build is inspired to some extent by what we see, and generally this will be either from nature or from history. Recreating old furniture is common place and often we’ll only aim for a likeness to a particular style without being too concerned about historical correctness though it’s also common to build furniture as an exact replica.
For me, the point of building replica furniture has always come from my aim to learn from it. You’ll probably have gathered that I’m a hand tool fan and I’m keen to find the best ways to use my tools efficiently. I’ve realised that there’s a lot to be learnt about my approach to hand tool woodworking by studying the works from a time when there was no alternative; back then they had to be efficient!
I take a very different approach to replicas than simply putting a tape measure up to a piece and re-creating it measurement for measurement. If I’m going to gain anything from the process then I need to focus less on what I see and more on how and why it was done that way.
Think of it like this – let’s pretend I’m building a lovely six board chest and the example it’s based on uses very wide elm boards. If I’m building to make it look the same then I might spend the next week or two scouring timber yards desperately searching for something suitable but of course elm is rare today and wide boards even rarer. By the end of the search I’d either be empty handed and frustrated or my wallet would be pillaged and I’d feel the wood is far to precious to put a tool to.
I feel that replicating work can be much more than making it look the same on the surface. I know many would disagree with me but I don’t find sourcing the exact material to be the most important part. A common approach might be to source the elm, bring it to the workshop and get to work putting it through the machinery.
Whilst I always aim for my piece to look like the original I prefer to replicate the methods as this way I can learn from it and end up with a piece that also feels like the original.
All this talk of history and learning might sound pretty dull and niche but it’s actually the most enjoyable approach I’ve ever found to woodwork. Nothing takes the fun out of things more than pulling your hair out trying to find the perfect length of timber only to find one then realise it’s ½” too narrow!
It’s rewarding to take away the restrictions of a piece by putting yourself in to the mindset of the craftsman who built it; if elm wasn’t on they’re doorstep do you really think they would have gone travelling out of their way for it? Of course not! And since I build a lot of very early work, medieval and country pieces I can throw away the tape measure as well because they would almost certainly have let the timber dictate the dimensions rather than searching for something of a set size.
When I take in to consideration the tools that they would and wouldn’t have had together with the use of the piece (most furniture would have had to be made very quickly) then my version of the lovely elm chest might be made of oak or even pine and be slightly different in dimension so can I still call it a replica? Well to me it certainly would be and whilst you can machine up elm boards to match the original exactly my chest would have something more, it would have captured the very spirit of the piece. And if the piece was more enjoyable to build because of it then perhaps it doesn’t only keep the history alive but it ensure it stays relevant to how we work today.