Adam Cherubini gave what, in my eyes, was one of the best talks of Woodworking in America 2011. His nailed furniture discussion was one that I had a lot of interest in seeing, and I wasn’t disappointed. I think probably the best part of the talk was that he was able to take this historical form, and relate it to pieces that we see every day, all around us. With enough foresight and careful marketing, I think one could even make their living building these kind of pieces today.
The history of nailed furniture is kind of interesting. The pieces were designed to be put together quickly and inexpensively, sure. But at its beginning, there was a little more to it. One of the interesting points that Adam talked about, was the mandate by the English trade guilds as to which construction methods different guilds’ members could employ when it came to building furniture. For example, the use of dovetails and mortise and tenon joinery for furniture was reserved for those in the joiners guild. So if a house carpenter decided to make some furniture to sell in the colder months when the carpentry trade was slow, he wouldn’t be permitted to use this joinery to make the furniture (even though he would be perfectly capable of doing so). The solution, of course, were fasteners of some kind. Screws were available, however, they were very expensive. Since nails were much cheaper to make and therefore purchase than screws, nails were the fastener of choice.
Today, when most of us think about reproduction period furniture, the first thing that comes to mind is probably fancy, carved mahogany stuff like the pieces made in Newport, Rhode Island, or the heavily carved Philadelphia pieces from the mid to late 1700’s. Why wouldn’t we? These are the pieces we find in the museums. These are the pieces that the myriad books on reproduction furniture have been written about. These are the pieces that have been featured in the woodworking magazines over the years. These beautiful pieces with their fancy dovetails, elaborate moldings and carvings, and imported figured mahogany must be the pieces that everyone had in their homes in the 18th and 19th centuries, right?
Obviously, that wasn’t quite the case. The pieces we see in the books and museums are really only the creme-de-la-creme of period furniture. They are the masterpieces. The items owned and flaunted by the extremely wealthy. They’re the pieces that managed to survive for 250 years because they were well cared for and passed down through the generations.
Nailed furniture, on the other hand, wasn’t usually made from exotic hardwoods, or adorned with elaborate carvings. These pieces were more functional in nature, and saw hard use during their limited lifetime. In most cases, they weren’t showy or fashionable (at the time), but rather they served a purpose, and that’s about it. While many of these pieces do still survive, they’re considered average, if you will, and therefore don’t typically find their way into books and museums. However, it’s these average pieces that are much more aligned with how most of us see and use furniture today. That’s why they interest me so much.
One of the simplest forms of nailed furniture was the nailed chest. These are often referred to as six board chests today, in reference to being constructed from six wide boards, rabbeted and nailed together. They are also sometimes referred to as blanket chests, however, this is a contemporary terminology owing to what is typically stored in them today. During the period, they were used to store just about anything, and keep it up off the ground, away from the moisture and the vermin. These pieces are very common in antique stores today, which may at first seem to go against common knowledge due to their cross grain construction. However, it is the nails themselves that have kept these chests from self destructing over the years. The old wrought nails are malleable enough to bend as the wood moves, allowing the cross grain to slide past the long grain as the seasons change. If these chests were joined with glue, the joints would have failed long ago.
A smaller variant of the nailed chest is the nailed box. Often referred to as bible boxes today, they were used to store anything from important papers to spices. Some of the most well know reproductions of these boxes, such as the one pictured here, are made by Peter Follansbee. Unlike to the simple nailed chest above, the sides of these boxes were typically carved with elaborate patterns, consistent with other 17th century pieces. Similar to the nailed chest, these boxes were typically assembled with only rabbets and nails. Contrary to the nailed chest though, the grain in the sides of these boxes all ran in the same direction around the box as they were typically set on a table top and therefore did not need feet to get them off the ground.
Using nails doesn’t have to be limited to simple forms either. Here, several boards have been joined with simple rabbets and nails to make a very useful item for the period kitchen. This cupboard could have been used to hold plates and utensils, spices and herbs, or anything else that the cooks would want to keep up off the ground and away from the dirt and rodents. The doors are simple board and batten, and a cornice has been added to the top to dress the whole thing up. A piece like this could work very well in modern bathroom, say over top of the commode, for storing extra towels and toiletries. Or how about in a laundry room over top of a washer or dryer for holding all sorts of odds and ends.
One of the things that appeals to me so much about this style of furniture is the speed at which these items can be built. Using an average of hand tool olympics times as an example, a set of dovetails (for a small drawer sized piece) takes about 10 minutes per corner for most people to cut. A tenon takes most folks about 5 minutes or so (not including chopping the mortise). By contrast, a rabbet can be planed in a minute or less and be ready for nailing. In addition, once the nails are in, you can move on with the project. There’s no waiting for glue to dry before you can go on to the next step.
This is where I think that one could actually make a decent business out of making this style of furniture. Let’s face it, fewer and fewer furniture shoppers are interested in high style period furniture. It’s becoming a dated style, and, reproductions of museum quality high style pieces are extremely expensive due to the time and skill required to build them. On the other hand, simpler nailed pieces can go together much faster, and therefore cost less to build and purchase. Many of the nailed forms we see are very similar in appearance to the imported termite barf being disguised as furniture by the big retail stores. So the form is now in fashion. The benefit to the customer by purchasing a custom piece though would be higher quality, stronger, more environmentally friendly material, and most importantly, custom sizes and finishes not available retail. Prices for these custom pieces could likely be very competitive with the higher end retail stores due to the ability of the cabinetmaker to build them faster than if they were made with dovetails and M&T joinery. Plus, let’s face it, most non-woodworkers don’t really care about the joinery.
One of my favorite modern nailed pieces is a step back cupboard made by Mike Dunbar several years ago and published in Fine Woodworking. Mike’s article speaks almost exactly to what I’ve just said. In essence, Mike’s wife bought a piece of termite barf from a local retail store. Mike was disgusted by the piece and promised to build her a proper piece if she returned the junk to the store. The piece that Mike came up with is a perfect example of a simple yet elegant piece that can be assembled with mostly rabbets, dados, grooves and nails.
Nailed furniture doesn’t have to be throwaway junk. With some simple thought, a nailed piece can be just as strong, just as beautiful and last just as long as one made with more elaborate joinery. However, the nailed form makes building functional, stylish furniture a possibility to woodworkers of just about any skill level. So if your dovetails aren’t quite up to par yet, and your mortise and tenons won’t quite stay together or won’t close tight, don’t beat yourself up. Just get yourself some nails and build something. There’s also no better way to introduce a kid to woodworking than nailed projects. Trust me, it’s a whole lot of fun!
Thanks Adam! I think I’m going to go build a couple of Christmas presents for my girls.