Better by Accident

By Rex Krueger

I mostly build reproduction furniture. For each piece I make, I gather dozens of photographs from period furniture collections, pull out design features I like, and assemble them into a piece that could have existed in the 19th Century. Except for modern hardware and fresh surfaces, my pieces would fit right into an 1850s farmhouse.

But once in a while, I set myself a different challenge. Sometimes, I make a direct copy of a single piece. I’ve recently gotten interested in Mission furniture from California and New Mexico. It’s simple and sturdy in the way that I like but has Spanish design flourishes that you never see on the more sober furniture of New England and the Midwest. And while I was trolling through endless pictures of Mission interiors, I found the dining room from the La Purisima Mission in California. All the pieces in this room are interesting, but what caught my eye was the tiny bench in the lower-left corner.

This piece was perfect for a video project. It’s sturdy and functional and small enough that it doesn’t take too much wood. The joinery is all nails and a couple of notches, perfect for even beginning woodworkers. Oh, and it’s also lovely. Everything from the proportions to the angles to the flattened Roman Ogee cutouts on the feet; it all added up to a compact and graceful package. I even knew where it would go in my house. This time, my task was simple. I would build an exact copy of this piece, squeezing every detail I could from the photograph and changing nothing. It was a modest goal.

And I failed completely.

I messed up the minute I selected my materials. Authentic Mission furniture was made from native timbers, mostly scrub oak and Ponderosa pine. The boards were split from the log and adzed into rough shape. Lumber was left thick, often two inches or more, and surfaces bore the marks of the adze even in the finished piece. The closest timber I could find was red oak, and mine came sawn and kiln-dried from the lumber yard. It was one-inch stuff, both for cost and because I have no interest in working with 8/4 oak. My supplier surface-planes all their stock, so there would be no rustic texture on my piece. Even before the first tool touched wood, I was off to a bad start.

YouTube Build Video

The tools themselves took me further away from the original bench. Mission-period carpinteros were mostly men of modest training with rudimentary tools. Their saws looked like overgrown butter knives, and their surfaces were mostly prepared with the adze, a tool most of us don’t even own. By contrast, even my vintage hand tools are positively space-age. Mostly out of habit, I took wood that had been machine-planed at the mill and hand-planed it to a glistening finish. It’s just what I do. Unlike the charming roughness and chunkiness of the original wood, my timbers are slender and perfectly flat, with straight lines and sharp corners. These surfaces could never have come from some frontier workshop. For the curves and the joinery, I used finely made saws with blades of tough, modern steel. Almost without trying, I cut tight joints and crisp details that the original maker could never have accomplished.

Thank goodness I didn’t botch the joinery. For once, I was able to hold close to the original. I notched the aprons into the legs and pounded square, cut nails into the joints, and through the seat. I didn’t louse it up with some fancy half-lap dovetail. I got the construction right.

Of course, I ruined all that with the finish. Instead of leaving a textured finish with open oak grain, I eased all the corners and chamfered all the edges. Then, ignoring the authenticity of raw wood, I hand-rubbed a coat of boiled linseed oil. To make matters even worse, I encased the whole thing in two coats of polyurethane, which I rubbed out with wax and steel wool and buffed with an old t-shirt. The final finish is silky to the touch, protected from dirt and spills, and guaranteed to make the piece last longer. How did things go so wrong?

Despite my every attempt to create a rustic piece, some creeping modernism worked its way into the design. Without even trying to, I raked the legs at a slightly more dramatic angle and squashed the Roman Ogee detail to make the feet more delicate. I brought the undercarriage together more tightly underneath the seat, which somehow made the piece more dynamic and gave it a subtle sense of uplift.

The final bench will never be much like the original. Where the first one is blocky and roughly made, mine is slim and tight. The shape is the same, but mine somehow reveals the hand of a modern, post-industrial craftsman with more consistent lumber and more effective tools. The original bench could only be at home in a rough Mission interior, while mine sits comfortably in my 1920s Craftsman bungalow. Any visitor to my home would note the subtle flare of southwestern influence while feeling that the bench was skillfully integrated with the rest of my furniture. It adds to my home without sticking out, and it will do so for decades to come. In making a straightforward copy, I somehow ended up with a subtle fusion of historical accuracy and modern style, and I built it to last.

I didn’t mean to. I swear.

(If you like the finished product, there’s a video and a nice set of plans)

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