By Rex Krueger
Rex’s YouTube Channel
I go to a lot of sales: flea markets, garage sales, moving sales. Estate sales are my favorite because everything truly must go, but I’m not picky. If someone is selling old stuff, I’m in. Since I started woodworking, I’m on the lookout for old tools and handmade furniture, but I went to sales long before I took up the craft, long before I had any money.
I was a weird kid.
At most sales, I’m in and out in minutes. I don’t need children’s furniture, NSYNC records, or glass coffee tables. I’ve never been the type to buy ceramic puppies or Christmas wreaths made from plastic foliage. I look for things that are brown; the color of wood and rust. Almost everything I want is that mellow, warm old color.
But sometimes, as I zip past tables of pastel tchotchkes, I get startled by a small, wooden object. Often, it’s a bowl, lovingly carved from burl or turned on the lathe. Other times, it’s a cutting board, meticulously assembled from crouton-sized chunks of contrasting wood. I can tell right away when I’m looking at something hand-crafted rather than the pale imitations sold at Target. In my mind, I can see the piece, crisp from fresh machining and glowing under a coat of hand-rubbed oil. But by the time these pieces trickle down to the yard sale, the finish has dulled, the sharp edges have worn a bit ragged, and those once-bright chunks of purpleheart and padauk have aged to the color of topsoil.
I’ve made plenty of wooden bowls and cutting boards, so seeing these formerly cherished pieces sold off for a quarter is painful. I know the work that goes into these objects and I know the thrill that comes from selling them or gifting them to loved ones. But I’ve also seen the other end of the line where time and use have taken the shine right off these workshop creations. I get scared when I think about my own work sitting in a crate on someone’s driveway or even left for the trash with all the other junk that didn’t sell. How can I be sure this won’t happen to my work?
The answer—for me and probably most of us—is to stop making such disposable things. It’s painful to admit, but wooden bowls aren’t good for much beyond looks. They’re great at holding fruit and bread, but even plastic bowls handle those jobs just fine. Finely crafted cutting boards are nice, but excellent examples are also mass produced and can be purchased for pennies on the dollar. My cutting board came from Williams-Sonoma. I really like it.
When I go to yard sales, I also see a fair bit of handmade antique furniture. I live in Northern Ohio, so there’s a lot of it around, but I’ve never bought a piece of handmade furniture from a yard sale. It’s always much too expensive.
Even when they’re selling off unwanted stuff, people just feel differently about furniture, especially when it’s old and hand-crafted. I’ve been to sales where everything was selling for a dollar, but a single Shaker side chair was priced at $500. The people selling it had absolutely no taste (I could tell that from the other crap on offer), but even they could look at that old ladder-back chair and get a feeling. Something about the aged wood and tool marks just adds up to an aura that most folks can see. Nice old furniture just refuses to be pawned off on college students looking to furnish the dorm. When these items don’t sell (and I expect they often don’t), they go right back in the house. Until an old piece actually breaks, it simply can’t be thrown away.
Seeing the way old things are treated has changed my woodworking. I now mostly make furniture. Mostly by hand. When I first started out, I was more of a “maker” and I was happy to dabble around with dozens of materials and processes. Most of that work came out pretty well, but probably not well enough to be handed down through the generations. I recently threw away a laminated wood guitar stand that I built five for six years ago. Like so many other things I’ve made, it was “bold” and “creative”, but as an actual instrument holder, it was mediocre. It flexed too much, and I never quite worked out the part that gripped the guitar’s head. I would have had to make two or three more to really nail the design. You can buy really nice guitar stand made from steel tube for a few dollars. Revising my wooden one just didn’t make sense. I put it in the trash and I don’t miss it.
Furniture is different. Even as tastes change, everyone needs basic objects for their homes. Artificial Intelligence might be reshaping the knowledge professions, but all of us still have asses and we need places to park them. Mass produced furniture is cheap and often quite functional, but people like it when their side table was made by skilled humans in some past century. The current trend for resin-infused charcuterie boards will crest and die, and all those wood and plastic “creations” will steadily find their way to the flea-market booth. It can’t happen too soon for me.
As I write this, I know I’m irritating some folks. And let’s be clear, I know the segmented bowls and river-themed serving boards take time, care, and skill. I know they aren’t easy…but compared to furniture, they’re pretty easy. Since I’ve made both decorative objects and functional furniture, I can say that the furniture is harder. Joinery is harder than turning; squaring stock by hand is more difficult than pouring resin.
Furniture is also riskier because it has to work. That bowl you turned from crotch-wood only has to look pretty, but the entryway bench must hold actual human beings, over and over again, for decades. And it has to look nice. This goal is genuinely hard, and consciously or not, many of us turn to projects where failure is less likely but the results are also less likely to be cherished.
I came to furniture a bit late in my woodworking career. For several years, it didn’t much interest me. Furniture was simply “furniture” and it lacked the creative snap I wanted from my making. But many of the pieces I made in those early years were packed with self-expression and lacking in actual usefulness. When I switched to making real, durable furniture I made things that people needed. Visitors to my house often walk right past my turned bowls and vases, but their eyes zero in on a stool or a chest, and they always turn and ask, “Did you make that?” Many of them clearly want something similar for their own homes and sometimes I’ll make a piece for a friend. Even if I give someone a table for free, I know they won’t sell it cheap, and neither will their children, even after I’m long gone.