I was recently flipping through a book on Shaker Furniture that I’ve had for many years when I came across a letter written to me by my father. The letter was dated March 19, 1982 and marked a page in the book that showed a design for a Shaker trestle table similar to the one I make now. The letter came with the book which was a gift from my father. Given the date of the letter (approximately one month before I started my furniture making business) I assume he was giving me this book about Shaker Furniture to educate me on one of the styles of furniture that he admired. My father was an architect so I’m sure his views on good architectural design were the same as his views on furniture design. Most likely I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to this letter when I first read it (I was after all only 21 at the time) but rereading it 29 years later I find it very concisely sums up what I believe makes for good furniture design and a good furniture maker. Here’s the letter:
This is a book about how a particularly dedicated group of people made simple, utilitarian furniture the best way they knew how.
Some people copy it even today and the results are merely copies of Shaker Furniture.
Other people study it, learn what made it good for its time, use some of the techniques, and discard other techniques, substituting others which are more appropriate to the materials and methods of construction available today.
But wood is an old material and many techniques of working it are just as applicable today as they were when the Shakers made their furniture.
Really good furniture utilizes methods developed ages ago and combines them with what we have learned over the years. Some people even develop new techniques more attuned to modern-day technology. Or they may even invent new technology based on the inherent characteristics of the materials and their tools.
So, just as many of the jazz musicians first studied classical music and appreciated it for what it was worth, it is meaningful to develop a familiarity with the old stuff even if only to understand a basic approach to the task at hand.
I pass this book on, not expecting you to copy if verbatim (though some people might even do that to their advantage) but so that you can study it, learn from it, and perhaps even appreciate it.
You should look for other books as detailed as this one on really good furniture of other periods, even contemporary one. And you should try out the techniques yourself and decide for yourself which joints are right for you with the materials and tools available to you today.
To my mind, that’s what makes a really fine cabinetmaker. That, and an aesthetic sensitivity which may just be in ones bones or may be developed through exposure to some of the rare, good things we see around us.
Richard Bissell builds Shaker, Mission and Custom furniture designs in Putney, Vermont.