The use of machines in the conversion of raw material and the construction of furniture during the nineteenth century is a story of both important changes and minor developments. The development of machines such as circular saw planers, mortisers, borers, dovetail-cutters and veneer cutters for preparing and shaping timber was the most important change, which affected all woodworking industries, including particularly shipbuilding and house building. Machines for processing and shaping parts (bandsaws, fretsaws and lathes) were also being used in larger quantities, as was the third category of machines (embossers, moulders and carving machines), that produced decoration. Similar developments in the textile industry made soft furnishings more widely available.
In 1805, Brunel took out a patent for large circular saws particularly associated with veneer-cutting and in 1807 developed the saw further in association with block-making machinery. The importance of large powered saws for converting timber has been recognized in the development of the timber, joinery and furniture trades. However, one of the most important developments was not on this scale at all. The small circular saw of up to seven inches diameter, often operated by a treadle, was one of the keys to the success of small-scale furniture-makers. This saw enabled makers of cheap furniture to square up, mitre and rabbet cleanly, accurately and quickly, allowing the frames of cheap carcase work to be simply rebated and nailed. This method of rebating, using a circular saw, was particularly useful for drawer-making, which was traditionally a place for using dovetail joints. The advantage of this cheap method was that a dozen drawers could be made in the time it took to dovetail joint just one. This obviously had great advantages when such objects as Davenports and chests were being made.
In the same way as saws, planing machines had been developed by simply trying to replicate the reciprocating human action and in 1776 the first machine was invented by Leonard Hatton. Bentham improved upon this patent, first with a reciprocating plane and then with one based on the rotary principle. Joseph Bramah developed a trying-up machine for use in the Woolwich Arsenal that used a disc cutter mounted on a vertical spindle. These machines were called Daniels planers in the United States and in later models all had horizontal cutter blocks in place of the vertical spindle. All subsequent planing machines were then based on the rotary knife principle.
Attempts to apply machinery to joint cutting again originated with Bentham and his comprehensive patents of 1791 and 1793, but were not commercially viable until the 1850s. In this case it was the United States that led the way. For example, the Burley dovetailing machine, patented in 1855 was alleged to have been able to produce seventy-five to one hundred dovetail joints per hour. Improvements continued to occur in these machines but one that is worthy of special mention is the Knapp dovetailing machine, patented in 1870. It has been pointed out that this machine was significant because it was the first machine that did not attempt to reproduce the hand cut dovetail but rather produced its own peculiar 'modern machined joint'. Ironically, interest in traditional furniture towards the end of the century contributed to the decline of this obviously modern joint.
The development of bandsaws originated with an invention by William Newberry in 1808. However, it was not until the success of a Msr Perin of Paris, who produced a bandsaw blade that lasted reasonably well, that the machine was really viable and operated satisfactorily. It was again the Woolwich Arsenal that ordered some of the first to be used in England in 1855. The fretsaw or jig or scroll saw, developed from the simple marquetry cutter's saw, was one of the simplest and most useful tools for the cabinetmaker. Often treadle-operated with a single blade, it could cut out intricate shapes, and satisfy the demand for the most elaborate decoration.
The third group of machines includes two different divisions. First, the patent processes run by companies producing such items as carvings, mouldings and embossed ornament for sale to cabinetmakers (see below) and secondly, the machines that allowed a cabinetmaker to produce the decoration for his own work. The most important of this second group would seem to be the spindle or toupie moulder. It was said that it was particularly useful for Gothic or medieval work 'as more chamfering can be done by it in one hour than could be done by handwork in a day'.
From a technical point of view the developments in bent and laminated wood were amongst the most innovative in the century. Thonet, with his initial experiments in laminations and subsequent bending of solid timber, began the first large-scale production system based on interchangeable parts in furniture-making. He introduced simple functional designs which enabled him to have a commercial, as well as technical success (Figure 1.21). John Henry Belter came from the same tradition as Thonet but developed his ideas in the United States. His patents related to the bending of laminates of wood in two directions around formers to shape such items as chair backs and bed frames. Belter's technique was usually hidden behind a large amount of decorative carving.
Figure 1.21 Thonet bentwood chair, Viennese c.1865, stamped Thonet Austria 6811
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