Sunday, October 9, 2011

Repeat After Me

There is no shame in building nailed furniture.

It's been with us a long time. In fact, nailed furniture goes all the way back to the Egyptians.

But, according to Adam Cherubini in his presentation at WIA on nailed furniture, it was in 1632 when the Worshipful Company of Joyners of London managed to have standards for joinery passed into law.  These standards gave them exclusive rights to certain types of joinery, to the exclusion of carpenters.

Only joyners were allowed to use complex methods such as dovetails, mortise and tenon, and frame and panel construction.

This left carpenters with few joinery options for the furniture they built—mechanical fasteners, tongue and groove, lap joints, dados, grooves, and rabbets.

Adam explained that it's common to find centuries-old 6-board pieces such as chests, stools, and trays that are joined with nails. You can also find examples of writing slopes, hanging cupboards, bedsteads, tables, and large hutches that are held together with nails.

Carpenters had to think outside the box. They nailed thin strips onto a flat panel to simulate frame and panel construction.  They dressed up their pieces with simple moulding, corner and quirk beads, and roundovers.

"This is serious woodwork," Adam tells us. And it is. You need solid skills such as sawing, planing, drilling, and hammering nails without kinking them. There is also the challenge to make the piece look appealing without using all the bells and whistles found on high end pieces.

Do all our pieces have to be equally difficult to build? Who are we trying to impress? When was the last time a non-woodworker (who isn't a loved one who's been trained to notice) remarked on your fine English dovetails? More often than not, they comment on the shape of the piece, the appearance of the wood, and the finish.

Sure, we love the challenges and pride that come from cutting tricky joinery. And many pieces require complex joinery to be period-correct, to match their fancy design, or to be bomb-proof.

But building with nails is a blast.

When I got home from the conference, I remembered a couple pieces I had made that were completely assembled with nails. They were fast and fun to build and they have an honest charm. I built a sweater cupboard in a few hours and it's held up for over 15 years. The dogs' toy box is beaten up but the joinery is solid.

Adam showed us how to properly install nails without splitting the wood. It's a genuine skill, and one that we should pass along to the next generation.  Moreover, rose head, clincher and cut nails are just plain cool-looking. And shell bits, nose bits and brad awls are extremely fun to use.

Adam suspects that there will be a trend in nailed furniture because the reproduction market isn't very good right now.

He believes you can make a living at building nailed furniture. And even if you're a hobbyist like me, you might find that the nailed pieces that you built in an afternoon get more attention than those finely dovetailed keepsake boxes you spent days making.

Maybe—sometimes—we work harder than necessary and focus on the joinery rather than joy of the craft.


Robin Wood said...

I love early nailed furniture and also make most of my own furniture that way at home, quick easy and with nice rose heads looks good too.
I am dubious about the idea of carpenters being bothered about not making joined furniture. A carpenter in 17th C London is a timber frame house builder and the standard joint was the mortice and tenon. The London livery companies had no jurisdiction over all the furniture makers around the country, the village carpenters and joiners where makers tended to be more generalist so made furniture, houses, coffins, farm wagons etc.

Unknown said...

I love this. I wonder is there anywhere to view this presentation on line? Does anyone know of more information on this style furniture?

Kari Hultman said...

Robin, you would certainly know a lot more than I about this. I just took notes during Adam's presentation (and maybe I wrote them down in correctly). Hopefully Adam and others will join in the discussion. Thanks for chiming in.

Matthew, someone asked Adam about posting this online. I'll shoot him an email and ask if he plans to do that. He showed us slides of illustrated examples and a few images but I bet there are other resources online that show examples of nailed furniture which Adam may know about. If you go to his blog, he wrote two posts about his presentation but I didn't see any images.

Robin Wood said...

I don't know much about furniture Kari, Vic Chinnery is the man and his book "Oak furniture the British tradition" a fantastic resource. Peter Follansbee is very knowledgeable on early joined furniture and probably well up on nailed and boarded items too.

Marilyn in Seattle said...

Seemed like Adam was the belle of the ball at WIA. I'd sure like to hear more.

I got to be an expert nailer hand-nailing the siding on my house. And I'd love to save some time in project making. Note to self: find out more about this.

Chris Adkins said...

Growing up my father built lot of furniture and always used nail. Not that he just face nail everything, he understood how to make things strong and nails were part of the way he did things. The things he built are still strong and beautiful. I have really never thought a lot about this, and never uses nails in my own work but it does make me think...

Thanks for the post Kari. Sounds like everyone had a great time at WIA this year, disappointed that I didn't make it, if nothing more than a chance to meet all of the wonderful online friends I get to interact with, theres alway next year!

nathan said...

I remember a "non-woodworker" friend of mine saying once when she was shopping for a dresser that she didnt know anything about them but she had heard that she should look for "drawers that look like this" and she interlocked her fingers to simulate dovetails. People havent even heard of dovetails, they just want something that looks pretty and will last. Alot of the time, they dont even know that real wood is better than particle board.

Badger Woodworks said...

Funny you should mention the subject of nails.

I just finished the exterior of box to hold my saws. The sides I spent a long time drilling and and gluing some wooden pegs. It took quite a lot of juggling to get it all together.

When it came time to do the bottom, I decided to say screw it, and just nailed it on with some wrought nails I'd picked up from Rockler.

Then it struck me, that I could have been done a few days earlier, and saved myself a little bit of headache, if I had just nailed the sides on too. It was even period to the time of the chest I was making.

It wasn't even dove tails or anything (grain directions were wrong for that joint) but it still look a lot of time that I could have used for other things.

I just got a box of nails in from Tremont Nail company, and I love them. I'm going to be making a few more boxes with nails instead of dovetails. It's really true that you should use the joint where it is most appropriate for the joint. Not what is currently "fashionable" among the internet groupings of woodworkers.

Not to say we shouldn't master all these joints, but we should look to where and what the joint is used for in in the time it was used. At least that's how I am looking at it.


RONW said...

I'm not a woodworker, but with the commercial jigs available nowadays, dove-tailing takes 2 minutes to route out a pair. 2 hours to set up, perhaps. Only your chisels would recognize the difference. However, you still end up with a nicer joint if say dove tails are an absolute necessary to a less than generous client.

Shannon said...

Well summarized Kari. This was the only seminar that I made it to in it's entirety for the whole weekend. That should be endorsement enough! I love this style of furniture as it is something I can relate to seeing as I don't have the same disposable income that the Lords and Ladies who ordered high style furniture in the 18th century.

John Cashman said...

I love playing connect the dots. The Worshipful Company of Joyners' slogan, "Join Loyalty With Liberty," was written in 1774 by John Wilkes, a staunch supporter of the American colonists. A distant relative named for him was John Wilkes Booth.

Ain't history great?

Zach Dillinger said...

I love the mentality of the early nailed furniture. An item's utility is so much more important to me than a fancy set of dovetails or a French polish. I get bored with perfect surfaces, fancy wood, etc. Give me Eastern White Pine, a nice c.1680 design, and maybe some milk paint and I'm a happy guy.

I agree with Adam about the coming trend of simpler furniture, partially due to the economy and a pervasive mindset that we aren't as well off as our parents were. You see similar trends already emerging: cars are becoming smaller, clothing is becoming less ostentatious. Handmade furniture that is actually affordable is where its at.

Kari Hultman said...

Robin, thank you for the reference. Peter was teaching classes at this conference. He does use nails and/or pegs for I *think* all of his pieces.

Marilyn, I heard a number of people mention how much they liked his presentation. Bob Rozaieski is also planning to write a blog post on this topic.

Chris, somewhere along the line I think nails got a bad reputation for being unsightly or something. Everyone I talked to really enjoyed the conference. Hope to see you next year!

Nathan, that is true. Most people don't know what to look for when shopping for well-made furniture.

Badger, good points, and glad you mentioned Tremont Nail Company. They carry all the period nails we need. Sometimes a nail actually looks more appropriate depending on the piece.

RonW, I can definitely tell the difference between handcut and machine dovetails, but I agree that sometimes machine dovetails make much more sense. For example, if you're building a ton of drawers for your shop or building large runs—I'd never want to cut all those by hand.

Shannon, looking forward to your write-up on Adam's class. :o)

John, thank you for the history lesson! I wish I'd paid more attention in history class. Alas....

Zach, there does seem to be a trend along those lines. Just look at Tumbleweed Houses to see how far we're downsizing.

Brandon said...

I noticed Adam in the photo using a period correct brace. I'm trying to put together a set of period correct tools for living history demonstrations that I plan to do next year, and I need some help either finding toolmakers that make 18th century tools like this brace pictured or some info on building period correct tools. I have some antique planes, but I don't have the knowledge to tune them properly. Can anyone point me to a resource that can help me in more detail build or buy these tools?

Megan Fitzpatrick said...

If only cut nails came in a strip for my Grex, I'd be a happy girl!

David said...

I have to admit this is why I like doing finish carpentry -- there is definitely craft in it, most certainly skill required, but the gratification is quicker and everyone notices the difference. (And if it isn't perfect, there's spackle and paint.)

John Cashman said...

The nails I use in my Paslode 16 gauge nailer are actually very similar to cut nails. They are rectangular in cross section, rather than round and smooth like wire nails. They are obviously not period correct, but they still beat wire nails.

Adam Cherubini said...

For Robin, the restrictions placed on the carpenters in 1632 only serve to identify a different (and I argued equally valid) method of construction that we as a community have arrogantly ignored.

Boarded furniture has a long history on both sides of 1632. I've seen furniture that is only nailed (militantly nailed!), and some that is a hybrid (nailed together carcass with frame and panel doors for example). And like 17th c carpenters, contemporary woodworkers are at their leisure to build however they choose.

My take is that Kari and a few others aside, we haven't chosen to reproduce this furniture. My concern is that there is a belief that dovetails (and in some circles, perfect dovetails) have become the minimum standard for "fine woodworking". Time to put a nail in that coffin.

Jeff said...

I built a sweater cupboard in a few hours and it's held up for over 15 years.

I am late to this conversation, but like you I have a piece that was built with nails and glue, mine about 25 years ago, and it is still going strong.

A very interesting discussion. Thanks for posting this.

Kari Hultman said...

Brandon, I'd run this by some of the hand tool forums. Lots of expertise there. Try the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM) and Old Tools Archive sites.

Megan, shame!

David, there's something really fun about hammering a nail, isn't there? Probably why we drove so many into boards as kids.

John, the rectangular ones are definitely preferable to the round. But cut nails are the cat's pajamas. ; )

Adam, thanks for commenting.

Jeff, interesting that you mentioned glue. Adam pointed out that many of the nailed antiques did not use glue and they still held. Shows us how well nails can hold up. That being said, I still plan to use glue with nails....

coat stand said...

I have to admit this is why I like doing finish carpentry -- there is definitely craft in it, most certainly skill required, but the gratification is quicker and everyone notices the difference. (And if it isn't perfect, there's spackle and paint.

Hank Gillette said...


Coincidentally, I recently read an article from the Jan/Feb 1999 Fine Woodworking by Mike Dunbar, "18th-Century Six-Board Chest". He pointed out one advantage that a nailed chest (no glue) has:

"The original chest from which this one was copied has been in continuous use for nearly 200 years and is still solid and very much intact. Its survival is not unique. The chest seems to violate an important woodworking principle, in that the grain of the ends and sides is arranged in opposite directions. One would expect this to cause the front or back boards to split. However, that did not happen to the original example or to the untold numbers of other chests like it. Unlike glue, the nailing allows enough movement to compensate."

So, if you are using nails, you might want to skip the glue entirely!