D'ja ever REALLY study a nice piece of furniture? - in my best Andy Rooney voice


The coffee table my son is making requires mitering corners of two boards of different widths. Posted several ways of solving that problem, along with one method often used in Chinese furniture, to a.b.p.w.
Since then I've been studying just one of the twenty or so pieces of Chinese furniture I inherited from my folks - 72" long, 20" deep and 34" tall - frame and panel top, four side by side drawers over two pairs of doors all on "horse hoof" feet -all in rosewood.
It was the triple mlitered ends that got my attention since it involved mitering an 1 1/2" "apron" to a 1 3/4" "leg" - and a triple mitered corner at that.
I guess with a 5,000 year wodoworking tradition, and a penchant for evolving designs and techniques over hundreds of years, refining in tiny increments, the finesse (sp?) of today's pieces shouldn't be that surprising. Unlike Western styles which come and go in a decade or two, Chinese "styles" last long enough, in many cases several centuries, to become truly refined and elegant, both in design and execution.
Now by elegant I don't mean froo-froo, fancy smantzy, rococco (sp?), baroque or Louis XIV (or was it XV?) swirls, inlays, marquetry or "gold" leaf elegant. By elegant I mean that every line, every curve, every relation of one surface to another, every joinery selection, is there for a purpose - to make a beautiful, strong, functional, coherent piece of furniture.
I'd previously noticed, when trying to put the four drawers back in the "carcase", that each one would only fit one opening properly. On close examination I notices there was a small saw cut on the bottom inside edge of one drawer front, and a corresponding small saw cut on the inside edge of the drawer opening. Drawer #1, opening #1 with one saw cut, drawer #2 and opening #2 with two saw cuts, etc.. Much more subtle than numbering them with a Sharpe pen, or stamping "1", "2", "3" etc. on the parts that go together.
But now I'm REALLY examining this piece, taking some measurements and doing some drawings. I'm just starting to understand the interaction between the design elements and the fabrication techniques that went into this one piece. The rounding over of edges to blend together the parts, the use of a bead to transition one part to another, curves going from concave to convex, subtle shadows making surfaces that interest the eye but don't grab its focus - for long, all blending into one another in a pleasant flow.
I contrast this design/exectution appproach with that of the current "HOT STYLE" - Arts and Crafts - fumed oak with "honest" visble joinery as design elements -shaped ends of through tenons (real or not), chamfered pegs (real or not) and visible "ebony" splines on bread board ends, lots of only eased sharp corners and edges - horizontal grain colliding with vertical grain square on, rail to stile, apron to leg, the eye jumping around like a flea on a hot skillet, contrasting colored details yelling "LOOK AT ME" and "honest" joinery that may in fact be fake, hiding perhaps a screw or two - or maybe strictly there as a decorative element.
The Chinese piece I'm studying has no visible joinery. In Western furniture would be added cock beading, is an intergral part of the "adjacent" piece rather than an added piece of trim. The top's frame and panel construction, with its mitered corners, allows the top's "panel" to move - without any "spline" showing or grain bumping into each other square on.
What impresses me more is that the structural elements are only as big as they need to be for strength and then made to appear more delicate by subtley rounded edges and other edge treatments.
This particular piece is at least 35 years old, has lived in both humid and dry conditions, has been moved numerous times - and still hangs together nice and tight - no joints opening/failing, no splits or cracks, no runs, no hits, no errors - no man left on base.
So back to the question D'ja ever REALLY study a nice piece of furniture?
If so, can you share a discovery?
charlie b
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Could you post or link us to some nice close-up photos, perhaps???
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professorpaul wrote:

Put two over in alt.binaries.pictures.woodworking
charlie b
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charlie b wrote:

Charlie, nice post. It would certainly make interesting and educational reading to have a pictorial dissection of that piece of furniture.
R
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RicodJour wrote:

Have started on that. When it will be finished is anyone's guess. IF I actually get it done I'll put it up on my site - easier to integrate text and illustrations and easier than doing it in a.b.p.w.
Have a book or two on chinese furniture with some illustrations of joinery and have found a few sites with Chinese furniture joinery. Will have to guess as to the joinery for this piece since none of it is visible from the outside of the joint. But there are joints that are favored for specific applications so the universe of possibilities should be narrowed down a little. I WILL NOT attempt to disassemble any part of this piece just to verify the joinery.
Will post here when I've made some significant progress.
charlie b
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wrote:

<snip>
You make something out of solid rosewood and you get out of the wood's way. You make something out of oak and you gotta give it a little help. Try copying that Japanese piece in oak and see if it still engages you the same way.
The eye doesn't jump around on a well designed arts & crafts piece and a poorly designed Japanese piece would be dull and odd looking.
Heaven forbid we have horizontal and vertical grain meet each other. We ought to make everything out of a solid block of MDF so there's no joints at all.
-Leuf
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Leuf wrote:

The piece is out of "rosewood" - which in Chinese furniture may be several different woods with characteristics similar to each other. It is not like Brazilian rosewood - not as dense or resinous.
But your point is well taken - stabile wood lends itself to more options than stuff like oak, which requires quite a bit of "accomodation" - though quartersawn doesn't suffer from the range of movement that other sawing types produce.
You beg a question - how does the selection of wood define. to a greater or lesser degree, design constraints?

Would you say that most Greene & Greene or Stickley pieces are examples of well designed A&C pieces? If so, please explain the following:
1. Breadboard ends table top - with three or more pegs "fixing" the top to the breadboard end. Were they ALL to be actual pegs through the breadboard end into multiple tenons on the ends of the table top and back through the bottom of the breadboard ends the top would cup or tear the breadboard ends apart or snap the pegs. I don't mean a peg in the middle of the breadboard end and pegs in the breadboard end to hold the "ebony" splines on the ends.
2. "Ebony pegs" that are actually caps to cover screws
3. chamfered "tenon ends" that aren't actually the ends of tenons but mere appliques - design elements - and the joint it implies may or may not be a mortise and tenon.
As for a poorly designed Japanese piece, haven't seen many of them. Haven't seen a poorly designed Chinese piece.

To my eye, a mitered corner like (a) flows better than the butt joint looking joint like (b).
(a) (b) ---------+ ---------+--------+ --------/| ---------| | | | ------/ | | ---------| | | | ----+ | | | .. ---------| | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | |
charlie b
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charlie b wrote:

I'm no expert, but I have seen drawings showing elongated holes in the outer tenons for just this reason. The pegs are there to keep the ends from pulling away from the table over time.
Chris
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charlie b wrote:

Hey Charlie, I know this is probably impossible to determine from a finish piece, but if the Chinese use lots of mitered corners, do you know if they reinforce them somehow?
And do you know the type(s) of glue they employ?
Any mechanical fasteners commonly found in those pieces?
Sorry 4 all the Q's.
Thanks, Phil
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snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

Chinese joinery can be deceptively complicated. For instance, this joint involves a leg, two aprons, and a table top. From the outside it looks like a simple miter joint, but it's also got two sliding dovetails and a pair of tenons as well.
http://www.chinese-classical-furniture.com/images/joinery11.gif
Chris
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Chris Friesen wrote:

Great GIF animation of that complex joint. Doesn't show the mortise and tenon on the top mitered corners. This would be difficult to make with power tools, maybe a CNC machine could - if you could do the CAD file necessary.
Not that the apron part includes, as an integral part, what would likely be a separate trim piece to transition from the top of the apron to the bottom of the table top - which - though the animation doesn't show it, is actually a frame and panel - the panel not being shown.
This other page on the same site illustrates more examples of chinese joinery
http://www.chinese-classical-furniture.com/chinese-furniture-joinery.html
Michael Fortune has come up with a modern solution to a strong triple miter joint by using "L" shaped loose tenons out of plywood. Mortise the three parts and slip in the two "L"oose tenons and it's done. Simple - and elegant - and invisible from the outside.
Chinese joinery often relies on mechanical connection which don't require glue to hold them together. Yueng (or it could be Yeung) Chan, a terrific woodworker here in the SF Bay Area, made a Chinese chair which he sometimes brings to his demonstrations. The parts are in a box that couldn't possibly hold a chair, even in parts. After he assembles the chair it appears so delicate and, only dry fit, couldn't possibly support a person. Now Mr. Chan is by no means rotund. In fact he's probably 125 to maybe 130 pounds - if his hair is wet. But when he begins to sit in his chair you hold your breath, assured that a disaster was about to happen. This concern was, of course, groundless - Mr. Chan not being a fool by any means.
Chinese furniture may be the earliest knock down furniture - light years away from Ikea in quality, and appearance.
But I don't want to get bogged down on my specific example, but rather get into exploring nice pieces and how they were put together and getting others to share their discoveries.
charlie b
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charlie b (in snipped-for-privacy@accesscom.com) said:
| Great GIF animation of that complex joint. Doesn't show the | mortise and tenon on the top mitered corners. This would | be difficult to make with power tools, maybe a CNC machine | could - if you could do the CAD file necessary.
Looks like a good candidate for CNC production. The CAD file isn't necessary - given an appropriate machine and good fixturing, a hand-coded part program for each part wouldn't be a major challenge. It would probably not be a bad idea to build a rough model with balsa first, though.
-- Morris Dovey DeSoto Solar DeSoto, Iowa USA http://www.iedu.com/DeSoto
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wrote:

I thought that'd how you were supposed to do a breadboard end. The middle peg is fixed while the outer ones have elongates holes that hold it in the proper plane while allowing movement.

A choice. You could cap the screw with a plug carefully chosen to match the grain or you could not try to hide it, make it a feature. Once you've made the choice to use a screw instead of a more traditional joint there's nothing wrong with doing something like that.

I don't know whether this stuff is found on the originals, I doubt it. Obviously it's cheating.

I have no doubt there's plenty of Japanese furniture with your snazzy mitered corners that are just that, plain ol mitered corners with some kind of mechanical fastener for reinforcement. I'm sure they do it too.

I think having the grain running all the way from top to bottom on the stiles gives your eye direction, it defines the corner. If you've got miters everywhere then you've got a bunch of rectangles stuck together. If the top is a frame and panel I like miters there, but on the sides give me my trusty butt joints.
It's a different world now with modern glues and hardware. If the point is that everything serves a purpose, well then what is the purpose if you could have made something 'strong enough' with something simpler? The yankee in me says that's wasteful, and more about stroking the woodworker's ego. If they had all that we have today would they have made things the same way?
-Leuf
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Leuf wrote:
snip

The breadboard end, basically a deep tongue and groove but with grain at 90s rather than parallel, is what holds the top in the proper plane, the peg in the center holds the breadboard end to the top's core. Unless the breadboard end crooks it won't pull away from the ends of the top, opening the joint.
Using modern glues - you only apply glue to the center of a breadboard end - no pegs or any other fastener needed.

Interestingly enough I just read an article on a Shaker community that used exposed nail heads in some of their mortise and tenon joinery. To some this sounds blasphemous. But them Shakers were a pretty adaptive group when it came to making furniture. They often used state of the art (for their time) machines and adopted electricity when it became available - only in the shop of course.
As for using screws and showing off, as decorative elements of course, that things are screwed together - that'd be in keeping with the "honesty" part of the A&C philosophy. But, with the exception of pocket screw joinery, most screwed together stuff doesn't stay screwed together over time and use.

OR - it could be "a design element" snip

I don't think mitered corners are snazzy, nor are they common in Japanese furniture - but quite common in Chinese furniture. All oriental furniture does not look alike. Chinese joinery is often complex - inside - yes - outside quite plain - but, IMHO, effective in the overall design.
I think it's a Western vs Eastern approach to the visual arts, furniture being functional visual art. The Eastern approach is evocative, providing just enough information to imply the rest, the viewer filling in what isn't actually there. The Western approach is more provocative - "I'm showing you EXACTLY what I want you to see.". We Westerners have a tendency towards details and specifics and dislike ambiguity and not proned to nuances. But in cultures where your life, and the lives of your family can be jeopordized by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, nuances and ambiguity are necessities of existence. Ambiguity and nuances then spill over into other things - furniture design being one example?
I'm told that in Japanese, there are numerous ways to say "no" by using variations of what sounds like "yes". Both the speaker and the listener know that what is being communicated is "no", but both parties may "save face" by appearing to agree. snip

see above re: Evocative vs Provocative regarding eye direction.
re: "a bunch of rectangles stuck together" - that's basically what furniture is. The trick is to integrate them in a pleasing manner while maintaining the functionality. Doing a nice piece where the pieces flow together is the goal, be it via The Golden Rectangle, Graduated Drawers, edge treatments, grain selection and orientation, contrasting woods, etc..

You've raised several intersting issues.
If they were doing mass production work I'm betting that is probably true. Almost by definition, mass production has a designed for "an expected lifespan" and styles come and go. Why build for things that will last for centuries when they will probably be in a land fill - or fire place - in 20 or 30 years?
As for the woodworker ego - it doesn't go with their culture. Ego can get you in trouble - "it's the proud nail that gets hit again". I think Chinese joinery is more about the seamless blending of form and function. Why in the world would one go to all the trouble of making these kinds of joints when no one will ever see them. I suspect there is more ego in A&C joinery - though couched in "honesty" and "design elements", you must admit there is a little bit of "look what I can do -see".
Then there's the Western "over design" thing. If you examine most Chinese furniture, there's a minimalist quality about them - using just enough to do the job, and then making it seem like there's less there than there actually is. Western furniture typically over designs then emphasizes that it's over designed - but stout and solid. Ironically, "clouds" are often added to lighten the piece up a little, in a purely decorative way.
As usual - I've wandered WAY off the path I was trying to follow. It's not about "A" is better than "B". It is about really looking at and studying a piece you like and maybe indentifying some of the subtle things about it that make it special to you and worth noting/describing. A surprise perhaps, an edge treatment that makes or breaks the design of the piece. The orientation or parts and how they come together with adjacent parts in an interesting and pleasing way. A surface that just begs you to run your hand over it.
You clearly know about A&C furniture and no doubt have a favorite piece. Have you really studied it and if so, what have you found that isn't apparent at first glance? There must be things that folks that aren't familiar with Stickley or Greene & Greene don't, out of ignorance, appreciate.
The fact that most of it is in oak must dictate some of the joinery requirements and grain selection for some of the parts, quarter sawn "moving" less than riff sawn, . . . What are some examples you've noted?
Is ebony often used because it provides stability where oak won't?
Is the closed grain, takes a nice polish, of ebony used to contrast with oak's open grain, and relative coarseness the reason for going with ebony?
I know that square pegs produce a stronger, more durable joint than round ones. Is a square peg oriented with its top and bottom parallel to the ground better than when they're oriented like a "diamond"? Pick your favorite piece, really study it and share some of what you discover - please.
charlie b
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wrote:

Right. If the end wants to warp and there's nothing holding it on the ends the joint will open up. You want to fix the joint in two axes while allowing the third with the cross grain to move.

I didn't say that well. I meant it would be like you took a cube/rectangular solid and stuck picture frames on 5 sides. It just doesn't seem right to me, though I've only seen the closeup

Well you go back to the past and you have a time where people did not move as much, furniture was more expensive compared to the wages of the day. The builder's reputation was I think more important to him. Regardless of culture the thing just had to not fall apart. When you can say I built your father's furniture and my father built his father's, and they are all still together you don't really need to show off your skills. So that guy can do whatever he wants that no one but him will ever know was there, and it's not about his ego. But for me, if I do that then I'm just showing off for myself. And if I enjoy doing it that's fine.

Well I think you compare a typical Western and Eastern home and the Western home is full of "stuff" and so the furniture needs to shout a bit to be noticed amongst the clutter.

You must have me confused with someone else ;) I only really have a vague understanding. And don't ask me about Queen Anne or anything like that, I have no clue whatsoever.
Mostly what I like about the style is that it can be done without a million router bits, and it's extensible. Sort of a blank slate. You can keep it the way it is and it works. You can add twists and embellishments and it still works.

Not so much in terms of joinery, but I think that oak being what it is in terms of appearance, which unless it's QS is pretty dull and coarse. As I said in the beginning, I don't think subtle design features and oak really work. Not that the design shouldn't have some subtleties, just that it's got to have 'something' to it.

Well I do mainly jewelry boxes, it's rare for me to do a full size piece of furniture. So I'm going to pick out this jewelry box:
http://jewelry-chests.com/index.cfm/fa/product.display&product_id !
What I like first and foremost is that it looks good with 'ordinary' wood. Okay they are showing it there in some really nice cherry, they show it in birdseye too, though you can't see the eyes at that size picture and it still looks good. They also show it in a really wild cocobolo, and honestly I think it looks better plain despite the gorgeous grain of the cocobolo. I think there is too much reliance on fancy woods and mouldings in jewelry boxes, so it's nice to see a design that works without relying on that.
The open sides - never would have occured to me. I wonder about the practicallity of it, doesn't it allow dust in? But it gives it a feeling almost like it's a little table with the drawers hanging in space below it.
The drawer slides are structural.
I'm curious about how the 'legs' are attached to the top. They specifically mention something about it in the comments, but don't give any details. I'm assuming one pair is fixed and the other is allowed to slide.
I wish I could get away with those prices...
-Leuf
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"charlie b" snip

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Charlie, I do believe in the axiom that form follows function. One also has to consider the local materials available as well as the competency of the labor force. In a area where exotic timber is plentiful, you could expect common use pieces to be made from what we would consider un-common woods.
As for joinery, I would suppose the ancient woodworkers depended on the joints mechanical connection for the lions share of the strength where currently we have glues that surpass the strength of any wood. I love to build projects that challenge my design and joint making ability. However, when all I need is a functional item, I can bang one out using modern methods and products.
I'm sure that should we have a shop full of willing apprentices and a limitless supply of exotic wood even you or I could build some pretty nice stuff.
Dave
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