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.
a beautifully considered and nicely written piece, made from available words and constructed just to the right dimensions Ha!…..no really these are very valuable considerations especially in this day and age of diminishing wood stocks.
Old country houses and farms are full of this type of furniture, pieces that were knocked up from what was around to solve a problem and make do. Shaker furniture of course also has its roots in this philosophy. Keep it real, make it real and work from the real…..over considered furniture might be brilliantly clever, but does it really have a use?….yeah great thought Richard, always good to mull over these things, they’re often not discussed as often as they should.
Thanks Steve, that’s nicely put! It makes as much sense to recreate the philosophy of the original maker as much as it does to recreate their particular design.
Great read Richard. I always think Its nice to leave a little bit of your self in any thing we make.
Yeah, I’ve never been one to polish out the tool marks, just as I don’t shave my face as often as I should. Perhaps the tool marks represent that part of my personality… A bit rough around the edges 😉
Very well put Richard.
Another aspect to this concerns the use of exotic timbers. A century ago people were largely ignorant of the environmental damage done in felling, say, teak and mahogany – no one had considered carbon footprints, indigenous populations or endangered species. Ignorance is no excuse today and it makes even more sense to use our local timbers and not slavishly copy what they did back then.
It’s a shame there’s no decent elm about though!
The blanket chest is a beauty.
Thanks Rob, that’s an excellent point. It’s a real shame to think that much of the damage done to our planet is for such a petty cause as fashion and what‘s worse is that fashion rules even today – think of all the horrific gold mines. It’s much improved within the timber industry though, if we can’t source it locally at the very least we can ensure our timber comes from sustainable sources.
Paul Chapman says
Very interesting topic, Richard. Many hobby woodworkers can’t justify the cost of expensive machinery so exploring ways of working more efficiently and effectively with hand tools is very worthwhile. As you say, you need a different mindset but once you accept that, working primarily with hand tools becomes good fun.
I’m sure a lot of people find it frustrating trying to fit lots of machinery in to a small space / budget and this is a key reason why I think hand tools can be underestimated. Your work doesn’t necessarily become slower it’s just different, I’m really hoping that once we start getting our videos out I can encourage just a few more people to find the fun in hand tools!
Chris Buckingham says
You comment about learning by replicating the manufacturing proccesses of past times is very true,I built a Flint Barn when I lived in Kent,and by the time I had knapped 20 + tons of Flint,I knew much more about the proccess of building a Flint Barn,it is only by re visiting the early manufacturing practices that we can have a true appreciation of these items that have survived changing times to grace our lives in these troubled times.The making of these pieces also helps to put us in a more relaxed frame of mind.Sometimes!