Measured Drawings of Eighteenth Century American Furniture

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Furniture Craft Plans

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by Ejner Handberg

Berkshire House Publishers

Stockbridge, Massachusetts

To my family, without whose help and encouragement this book would not have been finished

MEASURED DRAWINGS OF EIGHTEENTH CENTURY AMERICAN FURNITURE

Copyright © 1982 by Ejner P. Handberg

Foreword © 1993 by Berkshire House Publishers

Photographs by Robert Shartrand

Cover: Cherry bonnet top highboy, courtesy of Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission. For information address Berkshire House Publishers, Stockbridge, MA 01262.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Handberg, Ejner P., 1902—1985

Measured Drawings of Eighteenth Century American Furniture / Ejner Handberg p. cm.

Originally published: Stockbridge, Mass : Berkshire Traveller Press, 1982. With new front matter material. Includes index.

ISBN 0-936399-46-5 : $10.95

  1. Furniture—Drawings. 2. Measured drawing. 3. Furniture, Early American. TT196.H24 1993
  2. 21409033022—dc20 93-22381

Printed in the United States of America 109876543

Foreword by Paul Kleinwald vi

Preface vii

Some Notes on Early American Furniture viii

Some Advice on Making Reproductions viii

Selection and Drying of Wood ix

Furniture Woods x

Mahogany Tall Case Clock 1

Cherry Bonnet Top Highboy 6

Maple Highboy 8

Cherry Desk and Bookcase 12

Cherry Chest on Chest 14

Cherry Slant-Front Desk 16

Tambour Desk 20

Cherry Chest of Drawers 22

Chest of Drawers 24

Maple Chest of Drawers 26

Pine Chest 27

Chest with Two Drawers Below 28

Lowboy 30

Cherry Lowboy 32

Dresser and Mirror 33

Cherry Tip-top Stand 34

Cherry Tip-top Table 36

Mahogany Tip-top Table 39

Maple Stand 40

Maple Candlestand 41

Gate-leg Dining Table 42

Butterfly Table 46

Windsor Chair with Writing Arm 48

Continuous Arm Windsor Chair 50

Bow-back Windsor Chair 52

Windsor Side Chair 54

Photographs 57

Index 67

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are generally regarded as the golden age of furniture making. As roads improved and faster ships were built, worldwide commerce expanded greatly, carrying both raw materials and finished products to the far corners of the earth.

People, too, traveled the world in search of new lives. Those who came to the North American shores brought with them their hopes, customs, and possessions. Life here was hard for most, but eventually the new American citizens began to prosper. Goods were both imported and manufactured here to fill their needs.

The vast majority of New England's inhabitants were from the British Isles and were greatly influenced by their motherland's customs and styles. Before the Revolutionary War, it was considered the highest fashion to have imported English furniture in the home. Those who could not afford it — or would not put up with the long wait for English furnishings — had it produced in America. It was only natural and necessary that urban craftsman copied the latest London styles and in turn the country cabinetmaker/joiner copied the styles of the nearest cities.

In furniture making, just as in language, an American accent was developed. Just as in today's English language we have regional accents, so then in the golden age of furniture making an Americanized English style developed, breaking down into variations of regional style.

When I began my career as an antiques dealer, I was initially attracted to the intricate designs and woodworking acrobatics of the great French cabinetmakers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It didn't take long, though, before I developed a deep appreciation for the more restrained styles of our own American craftsman. In this book, the last work of Ejner Handberg, you will find primarily non-urban examples of New England furniture. These pieces are typical of what prosperous citizens of a budding new nation had in their homes far from the din of city life. As in his previous books on Shaker furniture, Ejner has undertaken the exacting task of making measured drawings to enable you to make accurate reproductions. It's up to you to do the rest. If you have only a limited experience with antique furniture, it would be a good idea to view similar genuine examples before starting on the more ambitious projects here.

Inevitably, the passage of time has altered and enlarged our understanding of certain pieces. The Red Lion Inn's highboy on page 16 has had an extra board added to the top of the lower case on which the top case section now rests: at some time, the lower case must have been used as a serving piece or lowboy by itself. The tall case or "grandfather" clock on page 2 has had its original pierced fretwork crest replaced with a later Victorian leaf design, probably done in the later half of the nineteenth century. In addition, the feet of the base are a little short. The lowboy on page 30 is the bottom section of a highboy. The gate leg table on pages 42-43 is an early twentieth-century commercial reproduction adapted from a late seventeenth or early eighteenth century design. With all that said, Ejner's pioneering work is little diminished, for his invaluable book is among a precious few of this type that are available.

Whether recreating only one piece or many, you will derive the greatest satisfaction from a project if you follow the same guidelines the eighteenth century cabinetmakers did. Before you begin construction, select all the materials for the project and choose the best grade of materials available. Work in a methodical way and do your work in the neatest manner.

Paul Kleinwald Great Barrington, Massachusetts April 1993

PREFACE

Eighteenth-century American furniture is my favorite of all furniture: in my estimation it is the finest furniture anywhere. In my many years as a cabinetmaker in New England, I have restored and made reproductions of many fine seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American pieces, and I have found that books of measured drawings of such furniture are extremely scarce. There are many good books with excellent descriptions and photographs of rare pieces but, as any cabinetmaker knows, it is nearly impossible to make a faithful reproduction from a photograph.

It is therefore my belief that this book will be of great help to cabinetmakers working on reproductions of early American furniture. The pieces I have chosen for this book are those I have admired over the years and I feel that they represent some extremely fine examples of early American design. I have personally measured very carefully every piece, all of which are in either private collections or museums. In the case of one piece, the butterfly table, it was necessary to have it taken out of storage in order to get the exact measurements.

I would like to thank all those friends, including the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, the Berkshire County Historical Society at Arrowhead, and the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who allowed me to make drawings from their collections.

SOME NOTES ON EARLY AMERICAN FURNITURE

Before the Empire period, the style of eighteenth-century American furniture followed very much the same lines as English furniture. This was owing, no doubt, to the fact that the first American cabinetmakers were in all probability English immigrants who had been trained in England. American cabinetmakers, however, made furniture that was simpler and less ornate, often adding a few of their own ideas, thereby creating a real "made in America" style that combined beauty and utility with the very finest results.

The furniture styles in the Colonies and New England always lagged behind those in England by ten to twenty-five years, particularly during the first part of the eighteenth century. After 1700, as times became more prosperous here, the Queen Anne and the later Chippendale designs which had been developed in England gained great popularity. These styles in their American version were again given simpler and less ornate lines, but were frequently made with mahogany after its introduction here in about 1720. The Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture was never altered extensively enough to create a new American style; however, the block-front desks and other pieces by John Goddard of Rhode Island and the furniture of Duncan Phyfe of New York were entirely different from the English designs.

The first pieces of Empire furniture by Duncan Phyfe were good, but by about 1820 they had become heavy and clumsy with meaningless curves and other very ornate details. After that came the Victorian period in which even more ornamentation was added, to the detriment, in my opinion, of good American furniture.

SOME ADVICE ON MAKING REPRODUCTIONS

The careful reproduction of simple, classic furniture can be a very satisfying and rewarding project. Whether or not a reproduction is a good or bad piece of furniture will of course depend of the quality of the workmanship that has gone into it. However, there are a couple of additional points that will be helpful in creating a successful reproduction.

First of all, before undertaking the reproduction of early American furniture, the wise cabinetmaker or woodworker examines the original piece for authenticity as well as beauty of design and pleasing proportions.

Making a reproduction true to size will give you the best result, but changes in design and size are decisions that the craftsman must make for himself. However, it is my opinion that copying a beautiful old piece and making it smaller is very bad. The value and beauty of the reproduction will depend on the good judgment and taste of its maker.

The same kind of wood and hardware used in the original will be the best choice for the copy. A well-made reproduction in plain maple or cherry will always be far superior to one that is badly put together in a poor grade of mahogany. (A list of the woods most frequently used in eighteenth-century American furniture is given on another page.)

One will very seldom see a good copy of a Windsor chair because the seat must be of a size and thickness to allow for the proper saddling of the upper side, which then reduces the thickness in the center of the seat by about half. Also, some of the turnings on a Windsor chair cannot be made on an automatic lathe.

These are just a few suggestions that can make the difference between a successful reproduction and one that doesn't quite come up to expectations.

SELECTION AND DRYING OF WOOD

I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of selecting the very best lumber for your project and being sure it is properly dried. The use to which the lumber is put determines how much moisture is to be removed in drying. Lumber for outdoor furniture need not be dried to as low a moisture content as lumber used for fine furniture which will be exposed to heated indoor air. The moisture content for fine furniture must be about 5% or less. Very dry lumber with less than 5% moisture will swell during humid months if it is not finished immediately after it is assembled with several coats of your choice of finish, and always the same on the bottoms as the top.

Any lumber that is newly cut must first be air-dried outside during the summer for six months or more. Air-drying of lumber consists of carefully piling the boards outdoors with stickers laid crosswise between each layer and about three to four feet apart to keep the layers separated. There should be about an inch space between the edges of the boards for air to move up and down through the pile. The top of the pile must be covered against the rain and sun. After air-drying, the lumber must be brought inside. A good place to store it is in the loft over the shop or a similar heated space. The time necessary to finish drying depends upon the thickness of the board: about six months or more for one-inch lumber, twice that for two inch, and so on.

To present splitting and case-hardening of the surface, never dry the surface of a board any faster than the moisture can be drawn out from the center of the board. Even if your lumber has been kiln-dried, but then left to build up moisture during humid weather, it must be brought back to a moisture content of about 5% or less before using it for fine furniture. For a more accurate guideline to the moisture content of wood for fine furniture, cut a sample of no less than ten square inches and weigh it very accurately to find its original weight. Then dry the sample in an oven set about 215 degrees until it stops losing weight; this will be its oven-dry weight. Now subtract the oven-dry weight from the original weight, multiply that by 100, and divide by the original weight. The result is the moisture content of the original sample.

Example (original weight 5 oz.)

oven-dry weight 4 1/2 oz.

During the eighteenth century the American cabinetmaker used many different woods. Eleven of the most used are mentioned here. Except for mahogany the rest are all native to this country. Eight are hardwoods and three are softwoods. The softwoods are equally useful for cabinetwork since they were the woods used for items like drawer sides, backs, and bottoms, and also for much of the less expensive country furniture.

BASSWOOD

Straight-grained and soft brownish yellow color before it is finished. Used for drawer sides, backs, and bottoms; also for the backs of case pieces and occasionally a few pieces such as chests of drawers, etc., made by country cabinetmakers.

BIRCH (yellow)

Very hard and close-grained. The color is light brown, sometimes with a curly grain. Used for tops of small tables and also drawer fronts on birch chests of drawers. Also fine for turning. White birch is very soft and of no use for furniture.

BUTTERNUT

Hard and close-grained, light brown color when finished. It belongs to the walnut family and is sometimes called white walnut. Some eighteenth-century case pieces made of butternut have been found.

CHERRY (black cherry)

Very hard and close-grained; has a reddish brown color. Used for fine furniture in New England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

HICKORY

The best wood for bending and other places under strain. It was used for bent parts of Windsor chairs, also for the spindles.

MAHOGANY (San Domingo)

Hard, heavy, strong, and durable. It was used for very fine furniture. The color is reddish brown with both straight and curly grain. It is more beautiful than any other wood.

Good mahogany is rare and expensive. Honduras, Mexican and Central American mahogany is softer and lighter in color, often called baywood. African mahogany is not mahogany and is very inferior.

MAPLE (hard or rock)

Very hard and close-grained; the color when finished is brownish yellow to amber. There are three kinds of maple: straight-grained, curly maple, and birdseye maple. During the eighteenth century both plain and curly maple were the most popular wood for furniture in New England. Maple was used for chairs, chests of drawers, highboys and many more pieces. It was also used for carving and turning. Soft maple is not as strong or beautiful, but was also used in some furniture and turning.

OAK (white)

Heavy, hard, and after about 1700 not used much for furniture except for Hadley chests and parts of late pieces. Red oak is softer, coarser, and not used for furniture.

PINE (eastern white pine)

Straight grained. The finished color is a warm yellow to a light amber. It was used in early New England furniture. It was the wood most used for seats of Windsor chairs and Boston rockers; also for unseen parts like drawer sides, backs, and bottoms of case pieces. Sometimes used as tops of simple tables. Seldom bothered by shrinkage or warping, and very popular for its ease of working. The California white pine is a little harder and is now used more than eastern white pine.

WALNUT

This wood is beautiful in both straight and curly grain. The color when finished is a reddish brown to a chocolate brown. It was used for fine furniture.

WHITEW00D (tulip)

Fine grained, yellow to light gray. South of New England it is sometimes called poplar. It was used for drawer sides, backs, and bottoms in fine furniture; also for Windsor chair seats and country-made furniture.

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EIGHTEENTH CENTURY AMERICAN FURNITURE

Scale in inches r= 1"

Antique American Furniture Carvings

Scale in inches

Brass base

Quarter-column with brass cap and base shown full size r l

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