Disseminating Those Anonymous English Master Makers

Two doors bereft of the cupboard they once belonged to lay askew on a burn pile. Disposal takes many forms for many reasons, but one man’s discard often thrives in another’s. Whereas some can’t be bothered, others don’t know the value or whether indeed anyone might want the discard. Time too might be the issue and of course so too storage space. The doors lay there for three days and my original thought that they would possibly get recycled diminished sufficiently for me to make my inevitable move. I U-turned, loaded and took away my prizes. The abandoned work of another meant reclamation for me because I wanted to know the unknown master-maker. It is possible that Britain might well be one of the only cultures that might do such things these days, I don’t know, but I do see such things often enough to suspect that to be the case. There they were anyway, outdated, outmoded, unwanted, uncared about and, well, ‘brown‘. Brown furniture is the modern name these days here in Britain. It’s not particularly new, just adopted. Of course it is disparaging. I mean, ‘brown‘. What? I can’t imagine a more derisive term given to mahogany and oak, walnut and others. Even describing it as brown suggests to you a ‘just get rid of it‘ attitude to most, but what’s funny to me is a new generation thinks it’s so, well, smart, clever, upbeat, superior in class and intellect. On the one hand it is all about recycle, upcycle save this and that but then to dis classic, well-made, lifetime furniture as ‘brown’ seems to me unfeelingly blind.

I did ask myself why? Why would a whole generation do that? It, ‘the generation‘—I’ll be as vague as ‘brown’—then takes “ugly brown furniture”, slaps and slops on (literally) some Annie Sloan chalk paint to replicate multiple levels, sands through it, adds wax and renames it ‘shabby chic’ when of course it is for the main part shabby unchic and more possibly shoddy unchic too. The sadness really is not so much only the trashing of the work and the workmanship contemptuously but the trashing of the ‘who‘ and the ‘what‘ that created it. The integrity of craftsmen they never knew and could never understand, that hand-cut joinery they never even knew existed, the techniques and methods of work that lay silently unfathomed in fibres they will never know of nor understand.

So, yet again, I needed the wood and could well use the discarded and free resource offered on the wasting heap. The wardrobe they came from was too massive, certainly for almost any UK house. At seven feet tall, four and a half wide in one-piece and panels two feet deep dovetailed on the corners could never translate into the world of the ‘upwardly mobile’, but more awkwardly immobile for all the UK stairways of today’s homes. But smart Alecks still thrive in every culture. They are alive and still kicking out but by different names. By the time I’d retrieved the wood I was a few hundreds pounds better off, of course, but it was more than the treasured wood that I looked to gain from, I once again gained insights to workmanship patterns long gone, patterns we generally no longer see or use. Whereas when a machine cuts a good joint it’s quite pleasing to see, when the cuts come from hand work only it becomes truly impressive. More important than anything for me was the discovery you see. Here I am learning a few more techniques from a long gone master. His saw and chisel cuts, plane marks and shavings all speak volumes of someone who lived integrity. A man who’s life defied anything but accuracy, sharpness and well-proven technology.

Here I go.

I got some top-notch mahogany, clear, beautiful pine and then some quarter-sawn ash. But then I got insights into the joinery and the tools used and then a good two hour’s entertainment from the dismantling and disseminating alone. In some countries I know of this wood would never have been discarded or ‘found’ on any burn pile. It would have been treasured for a guitar back or a keepsake box as the wood is indeed prime quality wood. I now have beautiful mahogany in rich, high;y figured panels 18’’ wide and 6’6’’ long. Who knows what they will make. I think of many things large and small. The sizes of the door stiles are ⅞’’ x 3 1/2’’ after trimming. I just made a stepladder from similar sized pieces. I’m thinking an arts & crafts floor lamp here. Maybe Greene and Greene rather than Annie Sloan.

But I wondered about the joints.

Ultimately I retrieved a pair of mahogany doors (top pic), the main carcass of clear white pine, which had free-cut dovetails and sliding dovetail shelving and then a four-foot wide drawer 10″ tall by 22″ deep made mostly from ash with a veneered pine drawer front I’m unsure what to do with just yet. They would not volunteer separation even with good heavy hammer blows—remarkably! I cut through the tenons to the top and bottom rails to examine the joints that held the doors together for 150 years or more.

This alone I found quite stunning. Two different types of M&T held the junctures tight, but that was not what surprised me. Look above. Look at the tightness of tenons to the extremes of the mortise holes. Look at the tightness in the widths of the double tenons. Imagine, absolutely no shrinkage. This wood was bone dry when the piece was made. I thought this was lovely work. I split off this section to see the bottom of the mortise.

The man used strong, direct, dominant blows, confident work, no fuss at all. Seven strikes across 3″ of width. Well different to some of the prissy, tap, tap, tappy taps I often see and hear more of these days. See how amber the hide glue shines so in glossy glass-hardness. Hidden for over a hundred and fifty years but now unlocked for me to glean from. The chisel was a heavy mortise chisel. I know this because of the strength of the chops and the distance they are apart and then because of the depth they were cut to, 3″. See too the chamfered corners to the tenon ends inside the mortise where I split it off. See too the glisten to it that shows the sharpness of the chisel. Every time, without fail! I personally think this to be a marvellous thing. He took his inch wide chisel, a firmer, and pared off the corners as I do with my bevel edged ones. I can see it now, him putting down his tenon saw, paring the face of the tenon to fit and then in a single stroke, removing that corner without thought or hesitation. I can hear the mallet blows on a block now as I write. Four blows to fully seated shoulders. No fuss, no prissiness. Nothing affected, no aching, no headgear, no dust masks needed, just raw work, raw energy yet nothing crude at all about it. This man was a master. An unknown, anonymous man, powerful, independent, strong and reliable. He was an accurate man, intense, fiercely determined in his work ethic. Moderate, dependable. What else can I say. I think he was an admirable British workman.

So why the two tenons?

This was to do with integrity—the integrity of retaining fibre in the stile to keep the outside faces of the mortise tied to the opposite sides. He enclosed the tenons on five sides and sealed them with airtight shoulder lines—no undercutting anywhere. Lovely work. Just lovely!

The choice for two tenons at this juncture was due to the wider top rail. It needed either a wide tenon to constrain the full width of the tail as much as possible(that’s the lower part to the arching, or the two in tandem as shown. I noticed too how the mortise deepens to the inside corners of each pocket. This is quite common. The bottom of the hole should not touch the end of the tenon sufficient to hinder seating the joint at the shoulder. Now see how square the ends of the mortises are. How parallel. I mean we are talking totally hand cut here and dead on squareness too. There’s more.

See the twin arches? These have a slitter of mahogany extensions cross plying to catch the thin extremes of the arch adjacent to the stiles. The slitter 3mm passes through the arch and then enters the stile also – I imagine 3mm inlaid this way. More less obvious integrity! Solid, dependable. When I first looked at the whole door I wondered about so thin a point. Yes, it was split, but it seemed to be holding its place. Had it broken and been reglued, all six of them? Nope! There it was. A thin telltale of opposing grain ply but not plywood. Lovely, precise cutting. Now for obvious reasons the middle element of the arch had no added reinforcement. This part shrinks and expands unhindered.


Here’s a question

I actually don’t know of a single professional woodworker that cuts mortises by hand as standard practice. Everyone I know as a professional is for the main part a machinist. I haven’t known more than a handful since my apprenticeship in the 1960’s. Those in the handful are mostly ones I worked with and trained at some level or other as an apprenticed. That being so, here’s the questions. Have you ever seen mortise and tenons with end cuts, that’s the sides of the mortise holes not the tenon ends, as well fitted and square as those shown in this article? This is very remarkable work. Just remarkable. It teaches me yet again about exactitude, self discipline and much more. So I lift up this unknown craftsman who’s work shames our modern-day progress that gave us boring assembly-line production methods even in our weekend working. I hope I for one can learn that it’s not near over yet. These tenons fit tight in thickness too. Not an ounce of wiggle room.

No wiggle room and no room ever for air and perfectly sandwiched equidistant between the mortise checks. A mortise machine? Nope, none in sight in this man’s world. So with verniers I determined the walls were perfectly parallel, equal in thickness of mortise walls and tenon checks.

Now I admit the drawer dovetails to the rear of the drawer below were not as perfect as the door joinery. I suspect the apprentice was involved here on the back through dovetails. It was common practice to put them on the rear ones as they were rarely ever seen. Here you see a pine back and ash sides. Not so common but not rare either.

I don’t know but with the M&T being as perfect as they were, and the drawer being just a tad more tolerant of space between, that was my thinking. But then I thought perhaps not. Ash and pine seemed an odd combination for such a massive and deep drawer. Perhaps differences in expansion and contraction was to do with it. Also, often, interior, unseen work was given to lesser men. Maybe the journeyman. Now that’s it, apprentice or journeyman. Let’s blame them!

25 thoughts on “Disseminating Those Anonymous English Master Makers”

  1. Beautiful! I need to learn to be more skilled at recognizing salvageable hardwoods. I never see stuff like this. At least I never notice it, anyhow.

    It’s funny that you mention the whole shabby chic thing, too. I was just telling my wife that it would break my heart to know that some furniture that I worked hard at would someday end up painted with house paint and sold as ‘shabby chic’.

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. The old master didn’t use a two Cherry’s saw on those M&T for sure lol . Beautiful work!

  3. Tassos Aristidou

    Just beautiful
    I am always intrigued about the old ways and the old days..!! 🙂
    Thanks for this post Paul

  4. My father-in-law’s antique business fell into our hands upon his passing, and we finally put all up for sale. It was heart-breaking how little the “brown” furniture fetched at auction. No one values well-made furniture anymore.

    I wish I could have saved the business and retained the inventory for the next revival of sorts, but the stress was too great to bear, trying to keep up a deteriorating business.

    Thanks for another great blog entry.

  5. Brown is out of fashion in the U.S. as well.
    There is a TV show that shows people looking to buy houses.
    In one particular house there was a beautiful carved cherry mantel that extended up to the ceiling. They almost didn’t buy the house because of this, they painted it white to solve the “problem”. Nice find Paul, very interesting how this piece was made.

    1. Do the people on TV shame you as much as they do me? I can no longer watch them. The TV inspired house flipping hit my area in Alabama hard. You would ride by an old shoddy built house, looked as if it were built on top of a waterbed, and the next day vinyl siding had been slapped and glued on it. I’d ask and the new owners would state, “we’re flipping it!” To which I’d reply well keep flipping it and maybe it’ll straighten up.

  6. I was talking to some painters on a job. They had just refused to paint an original jarrah staircase, balusters, handrail etc white, because the lady wanted ‘the hamptons’ look. They basically said they had to draw the line somewhere. Given the fact it was Australian federation architecture I don’t think painting it white would have achieved a great deal , except making it white.

  7. Michael Ballinger

    I might not be popular for this view point but what the heck. Most people don’t understand what goes into joinery and well made furniture of old. They look at it from an appearance only. I’m not so sure that’s the worst thing, if they don’t like the style of something then they don’t like it. There’s a lot of furniture that I can see is made with amazing skill but I wouldn’t have it in my home because I just don’t like it. Is it not better that someone make’s it their own by painting and enjoying it than it being thrown into a dump? Not that I would ever do that myself.

    I love the way that Paul makes things, the care, consideration and love for the craft… it’s infectious and inspiring. Design wise a lot of the time it wouldn’t be my taste, but that’s just my sense of style – nothing wrong with that. That said the ladder and laptop table, beautiful design!

  8. Dumpster digging is alive and well for me where I live. I am an equal opportunity lumber gatherer: from the set of 4 mahogany doors that someone left for free on the sidewalk (which became the entrance to my shop) to a stack of 2x4s that someone left by the dumpster bin (which became a rolling lumber rack for my shop) to a massive stack of vintage 2×6 rafters from a house remodel (which became several pieces of furniture for my house, and counting), I pick up every free piece of lumber that is useful to me to make things out of wood. Color doesn’t matter to me…. that’s what hand planes are for 8) Life is good in free wood land!

  9. I really, really hate the words shabby chic and rustic…. really hate them. I equate them respectively as you screwed up your finish and you didn’t know what you were doing. And I am the utmost of amateurs.

  10. Dear Mr. Sellers:

    I’m intrigued by the ‘slitter of mahogany cross ply.’ Would it be possible to do a video showing how this piece was set into the door?

    Thank you.

  11. Mark Stockwell

    Those dovetail tails look incredibly small – barely a saws thickness at the tops – and inconsistent in size. All done by eye and very little measurement I assum?

  12. Excellent article Paul, your approach to unlocking the methods and personality of this master craftsman from the past is on par with a very accomplished forensic scientist. You are fortunate to have learned from British masters in your youth. There is something to be said about hand cut joinery; sadly, it’s only if people know what they are looking at.

    I am glad I found your blog (island of hope) in our world of mass production and sameness; could we call it the “Ikea Effect”?

    On a side note, my grandfather was born in Bavaria and apprenticed as a cabinet maker (he lived at the shop for five years while indentured), then moved to the USA in the ’20’s. He trained my father who was a gifted craftsman in his own right, but he was more of a “machinist”. There was an intensity about my dad and you did not want to get in his way when he was working – nothing prissy about him. For example, you had better look alive when you were helping him glue up a complex assembly.

    Paul, thanks again for helping to keep true craftsmanship alive.

  13. I hate shabby chic,boy do I hate it,howncan they think masking the true Beauty of the piece is acceptable

  14. A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything
    but the value of nothing.
    Oscar Wielde

  15. The same eyes that see grandeur in McMansions cannot discern valuable brown furniture from the paintworthy. Many brown pieces are nothing special but a handmade piece of valuable wood should be preserved and offered to someone who can appreciate it.

    I expect nightmares of Townsend chests being painted with chalk paint and distressed with chains.

  16. It breaks my heart to see people not appreciate the quality in”brown furniture”. There is only one good thing about this alarming trend, and that’s good antiques are becoming more affordable than ever. In fact, I have see some quality brown furniture in used stores selling for way less than the particle board trash sold in new furniture stores. One of the reasons for the devaluing of brown furniture is the disturbing trend towards “mid-century modern” decor. True there was some well made ash (blonde) furniture made in that time, but most of it was dreadful.

  17. Good to see I’m not the only one annoyed by the white-washing of fine (and sometimes not-so-fine) furniture.

    A few years ago I overheard the neighbour lady saying to her husband, as he was white-washing a cabinet, “[…] but don’t make it too nice/pretty!” (lit. “maar maak het niet te netjes!”). Quite a bit of a shock to me, that people intentionally didn’t want to do the best job possible. Something that goes against every fibre in my body. Ever since it has become a household expression with us, whenever we’re making or doing something: “But don’t make it too nice/pretty!”

    I recall a visit to a second-hand store a few months ago (where the whitewashing craze is a vivid business) and noticed a can of grey paint and a brush laying on the (still brown) cabinet. Felt pity for that cabinet for what was about to happen to it. Mind you, if at least they’d bother to clean, degrease and sand before applying the paint, I’d feel slightly less bad about it. But what a waste of good paint, a good cabinet, time and effort to just smear paint on something without the proper preparatory work for a decent job.

    To me it shows a lack of care, dedication, and appreciation of the value of things. And, in essence, a lack of respect – to the workmanship of others, but mostly towards oneself. Sadly, it permeates everything I see these people do (and not do). I’m also less optimistic than you that such behaviour can be corrected at a later age.

    Incidentally, all the wood I use is reclaimed. Partly for monetary reasons, partly because plenty is available so easily, cheaply and plentifully, just for the taking at the rubbish. A sign of the times, I suppose.

    When I see the fine pieces of furniture my brother hauls in (offered to him for free on 2nd-hand sites) and chops up for firewood I can’t help but feel sad. I recently offered him some books I was going to otherwise bring to a 2nd-hand store. He gladly accepted with the remark that it would provide a few seconds of nice heat. I was shocked to hear such a remark coming from someone who grew up with me (and who I thought shared much the same values) and had, like me, seen the inside of a university.

    I utterly dislike such a Philistine mentality.

    Good wood – good bicycles – good electronics components (all for free, ‘liberated’ out of old televisions/radios/etc. over the past 35 years ever since I first learned to hold a soldering iron at the age of seven – every single resistor, transistor and capacitor having been through my own hands as I removed, sorted and stored them) – televisions for free – my cellphone – the computer I write this on – nearly everything I use regularly was discarded by others as ‘too old/slow/unfashionable/broken’. The desk chair I’m sitting on now (Ikea…) was thrown away, rescued by me and has been used for another 10 years by now. About 4 years ago I re-covered the seat as it was getting tatty. 3 weeks ago I made a removable cover for the seat (from a left-over bit of 2nd hand curtain), so as to be able to keep it clean easier. This on a piece of (dare I say?) ‘furniture’ that many people regard as disposable. But I think the ‘disposable’ is more a mind-set than something intrinsic to the objects themselves.

    And who nowadays still overhauls an old ’78 Sturmey-Archer AW 3-speed hub as I did recently?… On a 1978 bicycle that his father bought 2nd-hand in 1985 for his son who’d need it to ride the 16 km daily to school (I being the only child in class who didn’t get a new bike). But only later did I begin to realize that my bike was much more valuable and precious than all those other store-bought bikes. In mine, every little bearing ball had been through my father’s hands, just as every individual stainless steel spoke before it was laced into the wheel, as he completely overhauled the bicycle before giving it to me, who is still using it everyday to this very day – simply because it works fine, is fit to the task with just the occasional little bit of simple maintenance and care.

    And when reading your stories I’m reminded of my primary-school days and the care with which I always put my (new!) children’s bike away, in a safe place, locked, making sure not to scratch it, using the kick-stand only as a last resort. And the horror at seeing most other children just throwing their bikes to the ground wherever it pleased them. Every time I read in your blog about ‘care’, things like that come to my mind.

    For me, store-bought items don’t really feel like ‘my own’ until I’ve done some work, maintenance or repair on them myself. It’s hard to describe, not sure if the feeling gets across. Things don’t really become ‘mine’ until I’ve spent time or effort on them myself. Not sure whether other people feel the same or whether I’m unusual in that respect.

    In short – thank you mr. Sellers for your care in teaching woodworking skills to people like I. As you have probably gathered, it’s not just your chiselling techniques that attract me – it are things that go much deeper than that. Even though, the shooting board I’ve finished yesterday based on the one in one of your videos works marvellously too!

    I apologize for the long and rambling reply – probably longer than your original post too. It’s my first reply since I’ve started viewing your videos and reading your weblog. Feel free to remove this reply if too long – no offence will be taken.

  18. I’m with you on the “Shabby Chic”. To each their own, but I cringe when I see “flea market flips” where pieces could have been restored to original and been beautiful. But in the interest in the the quick flip these treasures are painted. I have even heard stories of other visiting flea markets and finding perfectly good wooden planes painted and decorated as “art pieces”. I too look for treasure in trash. I recently rescued an old sewing machine cabinet from “heavy trash pickup” to repurpose, as soon as an idea comes to me. Furthermore I am constantly searching ads on sites such as CraigsList. Two years ago a house in Frankfort Indiana, US, had been condemned and the owner of the property was allowing people to pick through the rubble. I found a nice old floor beam approximately 10+ feet long and around 5 inches square, it had been pegged to other beams. I am still waiting for it to “talk to me” In addition i recovered several real 2 X 4 studs, for this home was built in the late 19th century. I still have trouble identifying wood with out their leaves, but a gentleman that stopped to talk to me told me that they were more than likely made from Sycamore trees that are native and dominate to Indiana at the time that home was built. I may have just enough to produce a fine farm table from these studs. I promise you no Paint shall come near them. This particular entry into you blog has inspired and motivated me even more to get on with my hobby. Thank you!

    1. Indeed, in the good ol’ days, dimensional material was a lot closer to the nominal dimensions that now, and the edges weren’t nearly as rounded as now. Some of the vintage 2x4s and 2x6s I have obtained came from old growth pine, nice and dense with beautiful grain. Too bad the massive knots but I can work around them (or “with” them).

  19. I’ve started to do this a little and really like it. I’m making a dresser for my shop but when its finished I’m replicating a narrow rectangular tool box I bought from Weil Antiques in Allentown, PA in the U.S. Since I started woodworking by hand, I’ve felt a curiosity towards learning how old furniture was crafted. A table I bought about a year ago I originally thought was handcrafted turned out to be manufactured by machines. The first clue was the thickness of the material and the material itself: plywood. The second clue was when I tried planning it. The 3rd and final clue was no evidence of chisel indentations in the bottom of the mortices.

  20. Mike Sterland

    A very good friend passed away in May & to my surprise left me everything, including house & contents.
    There are two solid wood wardrobes in the house, one is seven feet high, seven feet wide, two feet deep & appears to be mahogany.
    It’s a beautifully made piece, probably pre war & disassembles into three pieces, plus base & pelmet.
    I really do hope I can find it a home, otherwise I’ll have to (sadly) break it down for other uses.
    Thankfully the other one, solid oak, will have a new home with my 87 year old mother. Like me, she really dislikes what she calls “MFI furniture” & likes solid stuff (possibly from being married to my late father, who was a joiner by trade).

    1. I chuckled when I read “MFI furniture” because I grew up with that phrase knowing that MFI was pretty on the facade but poor grade MDF and fibreboard underneath and behind the scenes.

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