Utility Dovetails – Nancy Hiller on furniture in the wild

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These dovetails (which Jim McConnell joked may have been cut with an axe) are rough in the extreme, but the drawer still moves smoothly after many decades in use.

Whenever we stay in holiday cottages I find myself drawn to the old pieces of furniture you usually find in these places. I open the drawes to check for fit and look at the dovetails, peek inside casework to look at joinery and for evidence of whether the maker processed their stock by hand. As I’ve written about before, such pieces can be a useful education in furniture that was made for daily use by ordinary folk, I have found that such exploration can be really useful to illustrate, and ground, the principles that Joshua and the team write about in Mortise & Tenon. The Cotswolds cottage we stayed in earlier this month was stuffed with furniture that had clearly been made by hand, for daily use rather than for a high-end market. Two pieces in particular caught my eye – a small dresser in the dining room, and a desk in the lounge. The draws of the dresser still moved smoothly and without wracking, which pointed to solid construction. But on examination the dovetails of those draws were quite rough (to say the least). Thinking that others may find this real world example to be interesting, I uploaded a photo to Instagram, and what followed was a fascinating conversation about “utility dovetails” and furniture in the wild. 

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The desk in our cottage. At some point in time someone had decided to fit this brass drawer pull, preventing the lock from being used. I wonder why they did not patch in the lock hole, or place the pull a little higher to completely hide the lock?

Now, I can wax lyrical about my thoughts on utility dovetails till the cows come home. But what I thought would be more interesting would be to offer some insight from a woodworker at the top of their craft. And so, in a very first for Over the Wireless what follows is a guest post, and I am honoured to welcome Nancy Hiller to the blog. As well as being a professional furniture maker, Nancy is one of my favourite woodwork writers – her latest book “Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life” is essential reading for woodworkers and non-woodworkers alike, and her blog is full of thought provoking insights. So dear reader, please read on. 

 

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Nancy’s chest of drawers

A training in craft is a lesson in dissatisfaction. As craftspersons we are taught to internalize the message that we could, and should, always do better. Never mind the pots with minor defects in their glaze, the chairs whose turned finials are not a perfect match. However eagerly you long to exclaim “I made a chair!” you’re taught that these things are but means to an end: that great day when you will produce a Flawless Specimen, presumably the first of many in your career. For now, you must hold your head high as you hurl these personal indictments onto the bonfire.

***

One of my favorite pieces of furniture is a chest of drawers I bought at an antiques store in Reading (the English town, not its Pennsylvanian equivalent) circa 1984. At least a century old by now, it’s made of deal, a nondescript softwood, with knots and other characteristics usually considered defects. It was originally painted; traces of finish still linger in the cracks. By the time I came across it, a dealer had dipped it in methylene chloride stripper, which did the joints no favors. And yet it has held together over its three decades in my possession.

I love this chest of drawers, not least because it’s a mass of contradictions. It was made from defect-riddled paint-grade wood, but aside from the top, which is attached with nails, it was built with traditional joints cut by hand. Sliding dovetails hold the drawer rails in place. Stub tenons support the runners. The drawers themselves are dovetailed front and back; their bottoms, along with the cabinet’s back, are also solid. Altogether it’s a strange meeting of coarse and fine, at least by our own day’s standards.

What endears the piece to me most is the dovetails’ imperfection. They taper to a fine point, a mere saw kerf wide–typically considered a mark of high craft. Yet the gauge lines were left in place. What’s more, many of the kerfs go well beyond those lines; and some of the joints have gaps. If I produced a set of dovetails similar to these, I would feel obliged to consider tossing the drawer into my version of a bonfire, the woodstove that heats our house.

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Utility dovetails in the chest of drawers

These dovetails, which were clearly made by an accomplished craftsman intent on getting the job done, remind me that in the universe of making things, utility is no less worthy a goal than fine craft. Amidst the relentless drive to do better, it’s easy to lose sight of the grace that characterizes our very ability to make things, however imperfectly, not to mention the blessings offered by even the most basic material artifacts. Yes, the things we make reflect who we are, at least to a degree; and who wants to be defined by radical imperfection? But there’s a conceit in being so wrapped up in the tightness and proportions of a joint that we lose sight of the bigger picture, which includes those who will use the things we make.

***

I often find I can’t look at a piece of my own work without focusing on the parts that should have been done better. Even as I tell myself it’s alright to be less than perfect, I feel a pang of self-loathing. Sometimes I get a chance to visit a customer’s home years after I’ve completed a job. I see a table or a set of built-in cabinetry serving its purpose in its intended setting. And I am able to appreciate my work separate from its reflection of its decidedly flawed maker. It’s a valuable corrective, revealing my self-flagellation as a form of vanity.

This is one of the wonders of making. In the end, it’s not about perfection. While craft entails much character-building struggle, it’s also a practice of learning to accept our failings and appreciate our role as makers who bring useful objects into the world.

 

3 thoughts on “Utility Dovetails – Nancy Hiller on furniture in the wild

  1. Many years before the internet was conceived, I needed a large waterfall bookcase that somewhat matched the modern Welsh style dresser we had bought, in ‘pine’, with knots etc.. The only solution was to make my own. I had little woodwork experience except high school work twenty years earlier. I bought a cheap B&D DiY grade router, with pressed steel blades. That bookcase is still in use today, and looks just as good as the day it was made. I fretted for years about the place on the plinth that the router had slipped slightly and wobbled the ‘moulded’ top edge. Now I love it for it’s imperfections.

  2. Handmade furniture is far different from that of the period when everything had to be made by hand. Handmade is a luxury at current and because of this a greater focus is applied to details.

    Most have completely different expectations then those of yesteryear and now handmade furniture is often augmented heavily by machinery on a commercial scale adding to the level of detail that must be considered by those working mainly by hand.

    I agree with your post, I think it’s easy to for a modern eye to be critical of work like this but it’s also easy to forget what this was. This was the underside of a tabletop or the bottom of a chair leg or the back of a cabinet for a maker of that period, they really did not excruciate over it and doing so would likely have gotten them unemployed in a hurry. They had a budget for the number of man hours in a given work the same as we do.
    If we looked behind the facade of something made for royalty we often find the detail work to be exceptional. Chippendale’s carpentry work done in large Chateau type estates for instance, was fine by today’s standard. The drawers are piston fit and seems are tight. This is exceptional work commissioned by clients with considerable budgets.

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