Fine Furniture


Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
Are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing
For long years
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
Warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.
-D. H. Lawrence


F
ine furniture does not merely refer to great looking furniture but beautifully made or crafted furniture. In fact, I would say that fine furniture is that which has been designed and constructed beautifully and meant to last for a long, long time. Often fine furniture would also additionally involve the use of beautiful pieces of wood or meticulously finished surfaces. The joinery would be classical, strong and extremely enduring. 

While design obviously is a key attribute of fine furniture is does not mean that all beautifully designed furniture could be classified as fine furniture. For, many beautifully designed pieces of furniture could be meant for transitory needs or built cheaply for a mass market. In such instances there is no need for carefully crafted furniture with classic joinery and terrific wood. 

Furniture made by companies like Ikea is a case in point. The furniture designs are great, the products cheap and highly functional. The material is more often than not man made particle board, MDF or that sort of thing. Nevertheless it would often make sense to buy ready to use this kind of knock down furniture. But it is not fine furniture by any stretch of the imagination.

On the other hand, some people just love having beautiful things around them and can afford them. For such people there can be no substitute for fine furniture. Some people would just have one or two pieces of fine furniture and cherish them – like having a couple of original paintings in a house full of prints and reproductions.

Fine furniture is a piece of art, like a painting or a sculpture or a Ming vase. Often it is not thought of as such especially in Third World countries like India where functionality and appearances is often all that counts. Furniture makers tap on to this demand by producing good looking imitations of classic designs using cheap wood with faux finishes, veneers and so on to make them appear to be made of solid, genuine wood. But over the years as the piece chips, sags and wears down, its true character begins to show. By then it is ready to be discarded and replaced with another piece of imitation furniture.

Fine furniture, on the other hand, can last for generations. The finish might deteriorate, some joints might come loose but these can be fixed and the piece restored to its original splendour. In societies with a tradition of art and crafts such pieces of fine furniture are treated as family heirlooms and passed down from one generation to another.

This does not of course suggest that all old or long lasting furniture can be considered fine. There could be clunky heavily joined monstrosities that would last for ever and ever and yet never acquire the aura associated with fine furniture.

The definition of fine furniture is elusive and is reflected on some of the comments on fine furniture I have found in the Internet. Here is a sampling:

“Ébéniste, cabinetmaker, woodworker – the artificer may go by many names, but if we are talking about the definition of 'fine woodworking', then, as above, I believe the word 'fashionable' could be substituted for 'fine'. If we're talking about what constitutes fine woodworking, then I think that could be described as technical and artistic supremacy. The technical side of it is easy enough to define, but the artistic element is too subjective for this dinosaur to attempt to fathom.”

“Fine Woodworking" is synonymous to me with "heirloom" quality work. This may embrace many styles of (say) furniture, but that the design is considered a excellent example of its type, with high quality construction and finish (not restricting the methods), such that it ends up as a piece that is something destined to outlive us all.”

“Fine Woodwork" is not so much to do with the design but the "Engineering" that has gone into the article. By engineering I mean the skill that the individual pieces are joined together, the execution of properly spaced dovetails (for instance) the way different species are used to accent a design. I don't think that shape and size are as important as the execution of good joinery.”

“It's not so much about what tools were or were not used. It's the finished piece that says everything. I don't care if there are biscuits used or screws used, or whether it's veneer or solid. What I care is that the craftsman knew where to use the biscuits and/or screws, that he/she knew where to use veneer and where to use solid wood. That it's a good design with good proportions and quality construction. And it does not matter what specific kind of tools – whether hand tools or power tools.”

“To me, fine furniture is a good design, well executed.”

To me fine furniture is something that once built, others try to imitate. It does not just consist of fine craftsmanship, but is of great artistic value as well. The use or lack of certain materials or joinery doesn't automatically make or break "fine furniture".

Here are some examples of fine pieces:


A rocker designed by the late Sam Maloof
A Queen Anne style table: An all-time favourite

A Krenov inspired cabinet by Andrew Wallace

Spice Cabinet by Breet MacLearnsberry

Designs, choice of wood, type of finish and even joinery vary according to the preferences of individual designers or schools of furniture. In the past, famous furniture makers like George Hepplewhite and Thomas Chippendale inspired fine furniture makers for decades; today, new celebrated woodworkers have come up with new designs and concepts that further enrich the traditions of the old.

While it might be difficult to define what fine furniture is, in practical terms there are a number of attributes that indicate the quality of furniture. Aesthetic value is of course a very subjective thing and there could be much difference of opinion on the artistic merits of a particular piece. The issues of craftsmanship are, however, much easier to point out.

Some of the things to look for in fine furniture:

Design
What is good design is a question that has been posed and answered in many ways through the years. While some of it has to do with subjective issues such as personal taste, aesthetics, pleasing proportions and so on, much of it can be narrowed down to a few basic attributes. 

A good design in furniture firstly has to do with functionality; the usefulness of the piece and how well it serves the purpose for which it was built. A chair, apart from looking interesting, different and so on, must first of all be eminently sit-able. Second, it must be ergonomic, easy to use and comfortable. A strange looking chair where a person must sit awkwardly and in discomfort cannot be good design even it looks trendy and has been declared an object d’ art. Third, the way the furniture has been put together, whether its joinery is strong, sound and enduring, in other words, its build quality as conceived by its designer is another key attribute.

But that is not all; the shape and texture and colour of an object has a psychological impact on us as well and determines our interaction with it. A functional, comfortable chair would not be considered of a good design if its appearance and proportions were not pleasing or eye catching as well – just as a woman with a lovely figure and great clothes must also possess a pleasing countenance to be considered truly gorgeous. A good design must be gorgeous in all its aspects, something oddly difficult to achieve yet instantly recognisable.

 

Wood

In India just a few local species of wood are used for making fine furniture – CP or Nagpur Teak (Tectona grandis) being the most commonly used. In north India Sheesham has also been used for making lasting furniture. Properly sawn CP Teak will not have very dramatic, cathedral grain patterns while reddish Sheesham (Indian Rosewood) will invariably show dramatic grain. Both are excellent for making fine furniture but are expensive as the Indian government carefully controls their felling to preserve forests. The original Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), a fabulous long grained wood, is protected in India and the more readily available Sheesham (Dalbergia sissoo) is often used in its name.

Most wood sold commercially in India is imported. Most teak available is one or the other African variety (Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and so on), while most Saal (Shorea robusta) comes from Malaysia and Meranti from Indonesia and other parts of South East Asia.

Indian furniture makers invariably claim that all their products are made of the finest CP Teak but these claims are usually fictitious. Cheaper woods like Meranti and Mango are often used and disguised by applying an opaque patina over it. 

Another quality of the timber used is the manner in which it has been sawn. The most common method of sawing a log of wood is “plain sawn” where the log is sliced into equal thickness planks along the length of the log. This is the most economical way of cutting out planks from a log but a better (and at least twice more expensive way) is quarter sawing whereby each quarter of a log is sawn. The famous cabinetmaker Gustav Stickley had pointed out: "The quartersawing method of cutting... renders quartersawn oak structurally stronger, also finer in grain, and, as shown before, less liable to warp and check than when sawn in any other way."

Side view of Plain sawn wood showing growth rings in a arched manner. [Courtesy: Three Reasons to Use Quarter Sawn Wood, Woodworkers Guild of America]

Side view of Quarter Sawn wood showing growth rings running roughly perpendicular to face of plank. [Courtesy: Three Reasons to Use Quarter Sawn Wood, Woodworkers Guild of America]


Fit

Craftsmanship is about attention to detail and one of the key features of fine furniture lies in its joinery, the precision of its parts and the closeness of the fit of its various parts. Dovetails, perfectly mated mortise and tenons, balanced shutters, matching facing grain and well-fitting drawers are among the many details to look for in fine furniture.

Example of exquisite joinery [From the college where Krenov taught woodworking]
Drawers, most cabinetmakers would aver, are among the most difficult parts to make with some degree of precision. The best drawers are flush, piston fit ones that slide in with little effort and the air trapped inside provides a cushion for its entry. It is very rare to find such drawers in Indian furniture these days. Even the horrendously expensive furniture found in the upper class salesrooms of Delhi and Mumbai usually have cheap drawers with overlay fronts (that overlap the side of the cabinet instead of fitting inside it) and metal sliders that rattle. Very few furniture makers care to use good quality metal slides like those produced by Hettich. Ideally, metal slides should not be used at all but that is the trend today, even in expensive furniture. 

A typical mass produced drawer. Notice the overlay or lipped front that will sit over the drawer opening instead of going into it.

A beautiful flush fit drawer made by Joshua David Wood Design [http://joshuadavidwooddesign.com]


Also, the manner of a drawer construction is key to its quality. The way the drawer sides attach to the front is very important since a drawer will be opened and closed thousands of times during its lifetime; a strong joint will last whereas a loose joint or one held with nails or screws will eventually loosen or come apart. The best joint is the half blind or drawer front dovetail joint. This looks good and is extremely strong.

This picture shows the drawer front dovetails on a drawer that will sit flush with the face of the furniture. This exquisite drawer has been crafted by Derek Cohen of Perth. [http://www.inthewoodshop.com]


Hardware
Hardware can also make or mar a piece of fine furniture. Good quality hardware nowadays can cost many times the amount spent on the best wood and yet not be satisfactory each time. Good quality hardware is not easy to come by but there are many Indian manufacturers making very good imitations of classic hardware like escutcheons, pulls and handles. But good quality, speciality hinges such as barrel hinges, SOS hinges, knife hinges and small but hinges are difficult to come by. Fine furniture must have matching, carefully chosen high quality hardware and not lacquer covered bright brass fittings or ill shaped hinges.


Different Types of Hardware


Finish

Articles made from good wood are almost never covered with opaque pigments or painted over; completely obscuring the grain of good wood is like drinking excellent single malt with soda. Only boors and persons utterly lacking in taste would thus diminish the beauty of good wood.

In India most furniture is heavily pigmented, ebonised or finished with some dismal form of paint. One reason for this is that thick or opaque finish hides poor quality wood and craftsmanship. High quality finish over light stain would expose imperfections, gaps, gouges, badly made joints and so on. Gaps in joints, tear outs and egregious wood surfaces can easily be “fixed” by using grain filler and being painted over either by pigment or by a layer of some sort of colour, usually black. The surface more often than not would be lacquered to give an appearance of great polish and finish.

Fine Furniture, on the other hand, requires that finish be put on gently; it should be subtle, designed to show off the wood, joinery and so on and yet impart that extra glow to the piece. Also pieces need not be finished to a mirror surface; in fact, most furniture would look tacky if mirror finished. Often a gentle matt finish is preferable with the underlying stain adding to the wood texture. The wood should feel smooth and silky to the touch. 

At times, the wood could be left untreated or covered with only a few applications of oil (Tung, boiled Linseed or Teak). 

It is becoming increasingly difficult to come across fine furniture in India and often what is passed on as fine furniture and sold at exorbitant prices in flashy showrooms is nothing but what could be called imitation “fine furniture”. The average consumer cannot distinguish between good and bad and usually equates good furniture with furniture that looks good on the surface. I once bought a beautifully made rocking chair and paid a small fortune for it. Today, after a few years, I can see the joints showing and the finish peeling off.

One reason for the demise of fine furniture in India is the greed and duplicity of the average Indian businessman. The other problem is more serious and was explained to me recently by a Gujrati furniture dealer in Delhi’s timer market. He said that most good craftsmen and carpenters currently were old and their children were not coming into the trade. With rising aspirations, the artisans or karigars of India have been sending their children to school in order to ensure that they no longer have to work with their hands to make a living. The good ones coming into the trade were rapidly picked up by furniture factories or by overseas recruiters. India is witnessing a huge decline in skilled craftsmen and this is leading to a concomitant decline in quality furniture. The Gujrati furniture dealer told me that in another 5 or 10 years the only furniture available would be the factory made, mass produced ones.

That is a sad thought and just underscores the need to preserve our heritage in fine furniture making. In order to do that, the educated and the affluent must first recognise what is fine furniture. I sometimes recall an often used saying in The Proverbs and wish our karigars could say the same.

Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will stand before kings;
He will not stand before lesser men.

Proverbs 22:29
(New International Version)

Indranil Banerjie
10 December 2012


Comments

  1. A very nice article.Can you also let us know where we could get drawings of furniture past designers!That would be a great help.
    Rao V

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  2. Thanks Rao; There are a lot of books and Internet articles from where you could get photographs if not furniture plans. Look for Thomas Chippendale, Geroge Hepplewhite, Sam Maloof and James Krenov, to name a few.

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  3. Nice opening Indranil with that poem by D.H. Lawrence. You love all things wood and it shows. What I would not do to own that rocker chair! Enjoyed reading this blog post thoroughly.

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  4. I think in the journey of India as a nation and culture it is time for craftsman/designer/businessman combo to emerge and replace the craftsman plus trader system. I hope to make a small contribution to it in the coming years.

    As for overlap cabinet drawers I think it needs a clarification. The overlap style is an old style from English furniture and one of the most used in US. Though it is more known to be extensively used by bad quality mass manufacturers it is not the design which is inherently bad quality.
    A good quality drawer would be made with(wood) through or half blind dovetails on the front and half lap joint the back and a ply base(almost best thing since it avoids the expansion/contraction conundrum). The overlap front face does help in that much accuracy is not required in fitting the front of the drawer. Many old pieces of fine furniture are made this way and still many contemporary fine furniture makers use this style.

    A mass manufactured drawer on the other hand is often made of particle board often with the front joints just butt joints stapled together and often a 1/4" ply base back joints are some times stapled and some times half lap with staples to hold the joint.

    I personally have taken a dislike to the overlay drawers style. Perhaps seeing so much of badly made cabinets and furniture in this style has influenced me. Still I have to acknowledge this is a classic way to make drawer fronts and is one of the most forgiving ones. Though having made a few I must say even in this it is possible to just go by seat of the pants and screw on the fronts or go by the fairly detailed list of points and techniques to ensure that fronts are level, even with each other, and at proper angle so that they sit flush with all sides of the frame.

    As usual you write well researched posts. I enjoy reading them as much as you enjoy writing them. I can attest that it is not easy to write such detailed and interesting writeup. I have no talent for it myself.

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  5. Thanks Kittu for your considered reply. Appreciate it very much. As for the drawer front, you are absolutely right but somehow I am loathe to consider that style as fitting for fine furniture.

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  6. That is a really nice write up Indranil. Makes me want to really practice!

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  7. Very nice and helpful information has been given in this article. I like the way you explain the things. Keep posting. Thanks. furniture manufacturers

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  8. Very Nice Post.it's very nice blog. This information will increase more and more people to know about all these type of furniture. I use to do buy furniture india
    as its time saving.

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  9. hi ,
    can u suggest me the best wood that be used for rustic look furnitures
    for example for centre table ..an affordable one .i live in the coastal region in chennai so any kinds of wood available here thats durable .

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  10. Div Mani: I have seen magnificent doors in Tamil Nadu especially in the Chettiar region made of palm logs. I am not certain how much palm wood is used in woodworking these days but try to get hold of it and it should make for some great furntiure with the appropriate finishing. Otherwise go for teak. Making stuff is cheaper than you think. Good luck.

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  11. I want to make a box (12 in X 6 in X 6 in) of thin plywood. The back partition should swivel by 180 degrees on its central axis so that the inner surface of the back wall becomes the outer surface and reverse. Please suggest me how I may fix the back partition so that it swivels on its central axis.

    Please suggest me any way of cutting plywood at home without splintering. A small saw with fine teeth is working fine but I am not able to cut with it at much depth.

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  12. Magician Indra: Question 1 on making the back panel swing - should be easy if you take a slim brass rod (say 1/4 inch dia) and cut out two pins. Drill holes for these pins on both the backpiece and where they will be attached.
    Question 2: Making a splinter free cut is best with a fine blade - there are other methods including putting scotch tape over the line along which you will cut. Alternatively you could score the line you would be cutting with a chisel or knife. Best is to use a hand saw to do the cutting but that requires some practice. best wishes

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  13. Nice information. Thanks for sharing the article in the blog.

    thank you

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  14. Thank for sharing this impressive Classic Café Table infor mation. It’s really helpful for knowledge. It will really help me in the future.

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  15. Great blog. Awesome information.

    ReplyDelete

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