Fabrication First: Start with a Goal

By Rex Krueger

Rex’s YouTube Channel

How many videos or articles have you seen on woodworking techniques like crosscutting or planing? Dozens? Hundreds? Another question: how much time have you spent researching furniture styles or influential designers and builders? For many of us, the answer is very little. Many people—even some woodworking enthusiasts—have spent literally no time learning about styles or design movements.

This is really weird. Even some knowledgeable woodworkers spend all their time thinking about how to pursue the craft, with little thought given to what they will make.

But I’m exaggerating, right? Many of us have produced a piece of “Shaker” furniture or perhaps something in the “Mission” tradition. Those are styles.

Fair enough, but terms like “Shaker” have become broad and generic. They refer to a large family of stylistically simple furniture. How many woodworkers know that the Shakers were a fringe religious movement with apocalyptic leanings and a curious obsession with chastity? How many craftspeople understand that the Shaker’s religious beliefs directly created their classic, unadorned style?

For lots of folks, these details seem dull and disconnected from the work. Who cares what the Shaker’s believed? They made nice furniture. Let’s build some. I mean, it’s all woodworking, right?

Unfortunately, no.

As I’ve written before, there’s no such thing as woodworking. There isn’t even a single craft of furniture making. A chair-maker will likely never cut a dovetail. A cabinetmaker does not need to buy an ax. Even in the craft of joinery, there are very few universal skills. What you learn must be guided by what you’re going to build.

Consider a popular designer and content creator like Chris Salamone. He’s a talented craftsman who builds mostly in the Midcentury Modern style. Chris’s shop is like a small factory, filled with machinery and optimized for an efficient workflow.

Midcentury furniture is machine furniture. It was mostly conceived by architects and very much designed for mass production. Working in this style requires machine tools. You could build these pieces by hand, but Midcentury’s compound angles, flowing curves, and unusual joinery make it masochistic to build with plane and chisel. In Chris’ shop, he’s basically recreated the 1960s furniture factory on a smaller scale. The pieces he builds are clean and precise, emblems of machine perfection that fit his style.

You could follow Chris’ example and make some lovely furniture, but pick a different style, and your whole shop would change.

I like American Craftsman furniture in the style of Gustav Stickley. These designs suggest tradition and solidity while slyly nodding towards the modern. They’re beautiful. But Stickley was a businessman and even though he loved handwork, he also wanted economical furniture that people could afford. Stickley’s factories combined machine work with hand-cut details and hand-woven chair seats. The Craftsman style gives you the clean lines of the machine along with the thumbprint of the joiner. We might say that Stickley was the first “hybrid” woodworker. If we want to work in his style, we’ll need basic machinery and traditional hand skills.

No matter what you build, the product controls the process. I mostly build Early American country furniture and I do it by hand. I love the variations in the final product. My pieces look handmade because they are. You could plunk them right down in the farmhouse and they wouldn’t look out of place. I make my pieces the way they were originally made and I get authentic-looking results.

But that’s a recent thing.

Like many of us, I came to woodwork as a hobbyist.  I wanted a break from intellectual work that chained me to a desk.  I wanted to work with my hands.  I wanted to make something, damnit.

As I set up my first shop, it was the process that engaged me.  I enjoyed the precision of machines, the discussion of horsepower, and the careful placement of each new tool.  Discovering hand tools didn’t change much.  Instead of carefully setting up my band saw, I lovingly restored vintage hand planes.  The point wasn’t so much making something as it was “getting in some shop time.”

My goal was to spend time in a tactile, mechanical environment and do things with my hands.  Since that’s what I was after, that’s what I got.  Considering all the time I spent in my first shop, I made a shockingly small collection of actual things.

And they were “things.”

I wasn’t very interested in furniture.  I liked woodgrain and sawdust and setting things up with a dial-indicator.  I built a couple of guitars and made my wife a desk.  But the desk, the guitars, and the replica film-props that I produced were all the same to me.  They were all just “things” that I made.  I could sort of make anything.  That was thrilling.

But because I made anything, every project reinvented the wheel.  How would I handle big lumber on such small machines?  How could I cut that exact curve?  Perhaps I should stop and build a jig.  Very often, I didn’t have the right tools.  But that was okay because my ingenuity could save me, and I could brag about making a turned part even though I didn’t have a lathe. 

Looking back, it was all a hodge-podge, an endless series of hacks and jerry-rigged solutions.  I had no process because I had no goal.

I think many of us wander through the craft because we have no goals.

Historically, this problem was unthinkable.  To enter a craft, you apprenticed to a master, and your master taught you to make the objects of your profession.  If you apprenticed as a house joiner, you knew that you would make sash windows, doors, and moldings.  If your master, the wheelwright, taught you a certain way to split a log, you could be absolutely sure that his method would lead you to a functioning wheel.  In each craft, every tool and every action was relentlessly directed towards an efficiently produced and saleable final product.

But now we are our own masters, and the apprenticeship never ends (if it even begins at all.) Like me, most of us meander through the craft, spreading money around, accomplishing little, and never realizing that we’re actually dabbling in dozens or even hundreds of distinct wood-related professions.  If I paint a depressing picture, it’s because of all the depressed woodworkers I hear from.  They lack direction.  Many of them have pursued the craft for years and can’t get rid of a nagging feeling that they haven’t accomplished much.  The shop full of tools somehow hasn’t created a house full of useful objects. 

I understand.  I’ve been there.

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Over the decade I’ve been woodworking, I have slowly given up the idea that I’m a “maker” or a “fabricator”.  I’ve settled on calling myself a furniture maker or occasionally a joiner.  I think skill comes from specializing, and efficiency comes from having a system.  Rather than a million options, you need a small set of useful solutions to common problems.  You need a kit of tools to handle any situation, not because the kit is so enormous, but because the problems are few and easily understood.

Maybe I’ve painted an attractive picture, but how do we get there?

For a little while, you must walk out of the shop.  Close the door behind you and go find a comfortable chair.  You’ll need some books.

I know many people aren’t big readers, but that’s okay; there are lots of pictures.  You’ll need to read at least a few books on furniture history and furniture styles.  You should know the big names.  Not just Maloof and Nakashima.  I could make you a list, but you’ll find your own list if you take a little time.

If you’re dying for a place to start, here’s a list of styles and periods that I think every woodworker should know about:

William and Mary
Queen Anne
Mid-Century Modern

It’s a very short and incomplete list because my own knowledge of furniture history is just getting started.  It’s only in the last few years that I even discovered the Craftsman style.  Turns out, I adore it.  I hope to make some in the years ahead.  Of course, changing goals will mean adjusting my tools and techniques but it won’t throw my shop into a flurry of chaos and new purchases. The list of tools will be short and definitive. How do I know this?

I know because I understand where I’m going.

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