…55 years later.

I told you the story about the man who ended up with gappy mitres to his architraves. How George helped me to see the true picture. Here is the story if you missed it. Well, I recalled this when I saw this gap in a hinge on the underside of an 1800s drop-leaf table. How easy it is to consider another man’s shoddiness 150 years beyond his death. The deep, impreciseness of his knife marks in the wood, the shim at the end of the recess. I have heard men woodworking for a hobby say that their dovetails were better than ancient craftsmen because there were gaps, imprecise angles and the saw cuts ran past the depth line. To their unswerving arrogance of comparisons, I would ask how long they’d taken to cut their dovetails. To that, they might say, “Oh, I’m a perfectionist so I took my time. Half a day!” Then I would say that the work of past artisans would disallow such luxury because for this work they would be allowed only one day to complete six drawers four to five inches wide with four tails to each corner — 64 single dovetails. There were a dozen or more joiners ready to fill this man’s shoes.

So here we are. Was this a mistake or a necessary addition for a good reason? The marks in the wood being so thick and overshot first: well, this would be the day when knives were used in place of very expensive pencils. Thus they were called marking knives. They were not to create knife walls. He took the decision for deep cuts because the light was disappearing and he needed candlelight. The knife marks were on the underside of a table. The start and stop points were immaterial as no one would lie on their backs under a table to examine his work. It didn’t matter and he was under pressure to complete the work for his unmerciful boss.

As to the shim at the end of the hinge recess. The likelihood is that he had the three hinges ready. These were hand-wrought by a blacksmith who hammered the tabs around the pintels on an anvil with a 1lb hammer and by eye alone. Variations in flap lengths varied and were sometimes longer on one flap than the other. He may have mistakenly laid out to the wrong flap. Filling the gap was not so much to hide his shoddy recessing skills but to align the hinge when the screws were applied. Secondly, this would maintain the position of the hinge in the years to come.

35 Comments

  1. Paul M. on 10 October 2020 at 1:29 pm

    We have a great deal of luxury when it comes to both quality of materials and tools.
    The manufacturer of both is able to create uniform sizes which are adopted nationally.
    From my reading it may also be the case that the table maker was possibly also an apprentice tasked with fitting the hinges whilst more complicated joinery was done by the master carpenter in the workshop.
    Lack of knowledge of historical circumstances of furniture making makes it relatively easy to be critical of work or products made in a less mechanised period of furniture production.
    Equally a hobbyist has the luxury of time to create perfection where an artisan clearly didn’t!
    You have made clear the need to make observations made from knowledge rather than ignorance when reviewing the work of others.
    That would for me also include anything created in this century too!

  2. tim ziegler on 10 October 2020 at 1:51 pm

    I have personally observed hand made hinges, on antique furniture, of varying sizes; so needless to say it was important to mark them when removing for restoration.
    Antique furniture/construction, before Paul Sellers, was my personal woodworking instructor. 🙂
    Best wishes

  3. Rick Selby on 10 October 2020 at 2:17 pm

    Those who live in glass house’s need not throw stones.
    I have been working with many of the tools of these craftsman of old, some that I made in the likeness of what was used back then.
    Working as a hobby and having unlimited time it is still hard to make things any better then these great men of old.
    Looking at some of there work I am amazed to think this was done without a table saw, router table or power plane.
    I wished I would have been around to learn some of these skills from my Grandfather.

  4. Jay Gill on 10 October 2020 at 3:15 pm

    This post opens the floor for a question that’s been niggling at my brain. What is the difference between a “worker”, craftsman and an artisan? Are you really a craftsman if you crank out 6 draws per day from a set of plans you didn’t contribute to? Are you really an artisan if you are making benches for the barn (utility) vs. carving scroll work on a pew?

    I hope someone (Paul) has an opinion based on experience. What is it like making the same thing over and over for the purpose of putting food on the table? How does that compare to building projects to teach students? Is it a different experience to build a new design from scratch for a favorite customer?

    • Garry Parkin on 12 October 2020 at 10:55 pm

      As a wood working instructor for almost 50 years before I retired (sorta retired lol) I have watched many students struggle to do an acceptable job. I always tried to bring new challenges and projects to the students. That kept it from becoming boring for myself as well as the students. Not all students cared but what a thrill to watch some of them steadily improve. And to have the occasional student do better than I can… now that would keep me going.

  5. Al on 10 October 2020 at 4:30 pm

    I also have come to believe social media and the hyper focus it has placed on idealized versions of every aspect of life has reset our expectations in very unhealthy ways. We all go around posting these images and vignettes of individual triumphs and success and create an illusion of life that is centered on attainment of perfection, beit in our craft, our homes, our careers, even in our own bodies. Each posting is carefully selected, edited, and filtered to show only the ideal.

    And when we see our neighbors’ posts, we are then driven to top them in some way, to demonstrate our own attainment of perfection, perpetuating the illusion of the ideal as the norm. Worse yet, we are raising a generation of children who are constantly under this same social media microscope and have a totally distorted view of the world. This is a true crime against our youth leading to staggering rates of anxiety and depression amongst young people who feel that they are unable to measure up to the rest of this idealized world.

    Nature is imperfect, in that imperfection lies its true beauty. Humans, being part of nature are also imperfect, and the small variations and subtle imperfections that add warmth, character, and beauty to all things made with human hands. Dimensionally perfect things come out of a machine and are sterile and lifeless.

    So, even if the gap in this example was due to a simple slip, a matter of human error from a worker who lost focus for a moment during a long day of hard work, I would say so what? Who amongst us can say that they have achieved ideal results in every action they take, all day, every day?

    Instead of denigrating it as shoddiness, I say celebrate the success of man who completed a task and made something (that outlived him) despite what might call a mistake!

    • Martyn Legg on 13 October 2020 at 6:50 am

      Al, your comment is a breath of fresh air, the pressure Instagram and FB put on us today is unreal and unhealthy. I’m struggling to enjoy the extreme end of the unplugged groups mainly because these people could never make a commercial go of their projects due to their pace and often they seem to denigrate any trace of simple human inaccuracies. Furniture was needed, not a fanciful desire, it had to be made flat out, by hand, in a cold, dark shop. These old guys could run rings around us, with our well lit, warm and dry, hand selected timber stocked shops that aren’t an hours walk from home each way. Paul has the balance right, care, efficiency, and an acceptance of our fragility. Good, is, in the end, good enough. Perfection is for the chosen few with little else to do…

  6. Brian on 10 October 2020 at 4:37 pm

    I trained originally as a bricklayer mainly because that was what the family construction business needed. Americans call us masons.The old timers who taught me knew that any idiot can lay bricks. The craftsman part came in when it had to be be done quickly or problems needed to be overcome. Same as the hinge, it’s only when troubles have to be solved that skill comes to light. I had a difficult arch to turn one day and I asked how it needed to be done. The answer was .. sort it out and get it done yesterday.

  7. Samuel on 10 October 2020 at 11:42 pm

    Coming back to the idea of perfection, it’s becoming clear that a planned and determined recovery May detract from the work but not the worker.
    Applying that to life, I guess it’s finding something to believe in that’s worthwhile and grabbing it.
    I like the Blaze Foley lyric, “ I’m tired of looking for answers to questions, that I already know”
    A young woman was asked what she was looking for in a partner… she said someone who was passionate about Anything.

  8. James Monette on 11 October 2020 at 12:03 am

    One of the things I have always enjoyed about craft is being able to recognize how to fix mistakes with a fix that lasts. I did a custom convertible picnic table for my daughter. I had to remove the tabletop multiple times and change the position of the screws multiple times. Now I had to plug all those holes. An opportunity loomed. I plugged the holes with rhododendron wood I had stored away ( shoved under the shelf ). It looked great, the best part of the job!

  9. Steve P on 11 October 2020 at 5:33 pm

    By the title and first line, i thought you just found out that George passed away.

  10. David R Grindel on 11 October 2020 at 6:48 pm

    Mr. Sellers,
    Please tell me the kerf on the saw you used for the “hissy snake”. I have a Stanley Fine Finish back-saw that has a kerf of 1.09 mm with 13 TPI. I wonder if it too course for the snake and may cause pinched fingers as you suggested in the video.

  11. Brian on 12 October 2020 at 11:27 am

    Just reading the posts and I’m still looking for the answer to the question of what to say to a partner when they suggest that while we are doing whatever it is we are doing that we have a look at whatever next project they want completing. I ask this because I started out yesterday giving my study a quick coat of wall paint. Emulsion I add. I now have plans for a new book shelf and refinished desk because “we” have fallen out of love with pine! This has led to new window treatments and an attempt to work on a leather skive top. Other shelves will be needed and picture frames to match the new desk. And possible a new printer stand unit thingy.

    Wish I had just put up with the marks on the wall now lol.

    • Paul Sellers on 12 October 2020 at 2:17 pm

      Many mentally creative people think that they are too creative to be orderly and self-disciplined. They are not usually so, they just lack prioritising. This can be a part of a disability for some with a disorder but for many, it more that they are disorderly and shun or shunned the discipline that would get things done1

  12. floyd Briscoe on 12 October 2020 at 2:25 pm

    I am a vampire and I have been alive for hundreds of years. I can testify that Bill was just a shoddy workman who took shortcuts lol
    Seriously though thanks for exonerating the workers from yesterday …people tend to find it easier to criticise than compliment in certain sectors nowadays.

  13. Stijn Bossuyt on 12 October 2020 at 3:00 pm

    What a timely post. Yesterday I was at a friend’s house and I saw a dovetailed box I made a couple of years ago (made to contain a board game). I picked it up for further inspection and to my surprise, I noticed one of the corners wasn’t flush anymore (either tails or pins were protruding, can’t remember which). And I’m 100% sure they were planed flush when I made the box. If someone else were the maker, I too would have thought it was carelessness. Now I’ll think twice before judging.

  14. Lou Carreras on 12 October 2020 at 3:13 pm

    As a woodcarver, I’ve often seen things that have been miscut. The interesting thing is looking at how the carver concealed the error or made it seem deliberate. It may have started as a mistake, but in the end, it looked like inspired creativity.

  15. John on 12 October 2020 at 5:12 pm

    Years ago I used to work as a software developer. Many of the programs we produced had hidden “bugs” that were not discovered in testing and only came to light when customers began to report them as a problem. Some required simple changes, but many were complicated and would have required months of effort to resolve. So, as in woodworking a way to resolve the problem was easily found. Change the instruction manual by listing the “bug” and call it a new feature!

    • Bill on 12 October 2020 at 6:25 pm

      You must have been working for Bill Gates.

      • John Besharian on 19 October 2020 at 5:28 am

        Bill,
        (From a long time Mac user -Boom!)

  16. Matison on 12 October 2020 at 5:40 pm

    Knowledge and Perspective

  17. Bill on 12 October 2020 at 6:24 pm

    I was racing a small sailboat yesterday and was having problems with the spinnaker. This sail can be very tricky to hoist correctly. The skill is not in knowing how to hoist it but in sorting it out when it all goes wrong.

  18. Merton Bisbee on 12 October 2020 at 7:36 pm

    Great post. We are human we err at times. You could also mention those drawers have been opened and closed 1000 of times. Also the wood has gone through many seasons and moved from climate to climate. It amazes me that furniture that ancient is still around.

  19. Frank McInroy on 12 October 2020 at 8:08 pm

    As an apprentice when you made a mistake this was always treated as part of the learning process. My journeyman who used to look after me used to say , the man who has not made a mistake has never made anything.
    You gain more expertise from fixing your mistakes than sometimes learning the right way, it’s called progress.

  20. john cadd on 12 October 2020 at 10:56 pm

    In Woodweb there is an article about “Squaring up Cabinets ” . I felt better knowing the problem seemed to be universal . My kitchen cabinet was originally intended as a straight cupboard. Maybe with a shelf for large pots .
    My better half decided , after the frame was made , to have drawers in it . So I made three dovetailed drawers. Then bought some metal runners with ball bearings. That led into a frustrating nightmare and I ditched the runners for nice simple roller style sliders. Unfortunately the frame I made had one fatal flaw. The diagonals (top surface and bottom were one centimetre adrift ) .But today , I cured the mismatch by using metal washers to line up the drawers. In between that I glued a bridge on my guitar with Fish glue and home made plywood bridge clamps . A good busy day with two good results . Read the Woodweb messages from experienced craftsmen and their cabinet problems .

  21. Mike Baker on 12 October 2020 at 11:07 pm

    I have only been doing hand tool woodworking (or any other type of woodworking besides guitar building) for about two or three years.
    My dovetails are still quite ugly, but they work.
    I’m always striving for perfection, but usually my results are far from that.
    Posts like this one encourage me to keep going.

  22. Jeff Tapp on 12 October 2020 at 11:22 pm

    This discussion always puts me to sad thoughts. I have been a “tradesman” all my life, but feel often the cruel denial of an apprenticeship brought on by the glorious YTS. I will never be a craftsman. I have spent days on end hanging doors, or studwork. And in later years here, days on end of flat packs, positively sterile in their uniformity. I have no one to blame but myself, for I could have taken the time to learn. I was fortunate to have a great couple of teachers, and truly feel your words about the love and care. In these days of jigs and expedience, I fear we are loosing far more than we realise. All that skill and craft, lost for the sake of a few pennies. I often feel a charlitan, picking up my father’s No. 4 Stanley. The youth I have met, are now again given apprenticeship and most are far more skilled than me, but waste it completely on machines. I hung doors with a set of hand tools. They router it out with a jig now. They are much more efficient and I dare say accurate. But getting to the crux of the issue here. I have had the pleasure of working on items many years old even hundreds of years, and I have always marvelled at how they worked. And most importantly how a window 200 years old still works, for me to be replacing a cracked pane, and in the case in point, your table is still standing. How many cardboard doors will still be hung in 100 years, or flat pack wardrobes still standing! None. And I am truly saddened that all that we had once worked so hard for will be lost forever. All that potential, thrown away for pennies. I had a “Bill”, and he worked on well into his ld age, but my “George” ended his days as a delivery boy. And many are trolley boys or shelf stacker now, laid off before they could claim their rightful retirement, too slow and old fashioned. And it is my fault. I let it happen on my watch. I am so truly sorry.

    • Emanuel on 13 October 2020 at 12:09 am

      Jeff, it doesn’t matter.
      You’re here on this beautiful island of a website in a sea of consumerism. There are also many other islands of great value.
      Remember, the same technology that enables mass consumption also enables our virtual apprenticeship with very real results and lasting personal change.
      I’ve experienced what you have written.
      Start where you are.

      • Jeff Tapp on 13 October 2020 at 10:25 am

        Thank you, and I agree that this place right here is a shining example of a hope for the future. Paul has given us a wonderful legacy.

  23. Anne Platts on 13 October 2020 at 8:59 am

    And its possible the piece was reused – which is becoming popular again.

  24. Stephen Tyrrell on 14 October 2020 at 12:26 am

    After about a year of woodworking, I sometimes express my disappointment at the gaps in my dovetails and the sliding box lids that I over adjust and they wobble in the grooves. Then a friend tells me that many people would value such imperfections as the mark of a truly hand made piece. I think she is being too kind, and perfection is what I would aspire to, but it is true that a truly hand made piece may not have the “perfection” (uniformity really) of something made by a machine.

  25. Nathan Jones on 15 October 2020 at 11:09 am

    Someone once commented to Van Gogh whilst working furiously on a painting, that it looked as though he’d painted it so quick and crudely that no one would dare buy it.
    Van Gogh spewed out “ I worked for years to be able to paint like this.!
    Everyone’s a critic.

  26. Ed Minch on 17 October 2020 at 11:09 pm

    It’s not a mistake unless you can’t fix it

  27. Blake Dozier on 19 October 2020 at 10:03 pm

    These comments remind me of my maternal grandfather, who became a woodworker following a serious accident at the old Reo Auto plant. The story was that he had a job as a bricklayer. Now, Guy Blake took pride in all that he did and left the union when he was told that he had to slow down because he was making the other men look bad. My grandfather felt that that was a problem for them and not for him. He did good work and did it quickly. Someone is always faster and better and should not have to compromise on that.

  28. Christopher Johnston on 28 October 2020 at 8:26 pm

    I appreciate these blogs as i am old , but I suspect MANY of your readers do not even know sometimes what you are talking about . how many of those reading this even know what a pintle hinge is? Just a thought Paul that you may want to clarify some of the more unusual old terms . best regards . p.s. it is the male part of the hinge that inserts into the female or gudgeon .

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