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If anyone sees it, they are looking too closely.
I spend a lot of time looking at antique furniture, often from below. My interest is in pieces made about 100 years ago, from the Arts & Crafts period of the early 20th century. I share a passion with those who collect these pieces, but I look at them with a different eye. The lines and proportions appeal to me and I appreciate the rarity and value. But my mind is not on the dollar value of a particular piece; I want to get in touch with the guy who made it at the time.
On old house tours I hold the group in my arms crawling under things for a closer look. In museums I set off alarms by getting too close or reaching out to touch when the guard is distracted. My fascination lies in the way these things go together and I wonder what constraints of time, money and resources the original creator had to contend with. It’s a reality check against the overload of printed and online information. It is one thing to read about how things should be done and another to look at the tangible legacy of someone’s work.
My favorite moments are when I discover something that only a carpenter would recognize, details that fly over the head of the collector or curator. Building furniture involves a compromise; the material and the tools do not always cooperate and the cabinetmaker’s mind is not always as sharp as his chisels.
We strive for perfection, but when it eludes us, we have decisions to make. As we build, each part becomes more valuable. Every dovetail, mortise or tenon cut in a piece of wood is an investment of time. When things don’t work out, you have to make a painful choice: discard the investment and start over or try to fix it so that no one knows?
I’m no stranger to these choices, and when I look at old works I don’t look for flaws, but from time to time I find one. Recently I was lying on the floor, pointing my camera up to record how a drawer was built and how it slipped in and out of a cabinet. Coming out from underneath, I noticed a bump in one rear leg, just below where a side rail connected. I took a closer look and realized what I was seeing.
On this piece, a side panel was located in a groove in the square leg. Under the panel, a rail joined the leg with a tenon. The mortise is in the groove, a deeper portion at the end. The bump I saw was in line with the panel and I knew the original builder had made a classic woodworking mistake.
The sulcus must stop so that it is not shown, but it is easy to lose track of where to stop when milling the sulcus and to go too far. I did and was faced with the same dilemma that another cabinetmaker faced a century ago: throw away the leg or try to create an invisible patch?
He chose to patch, and I can’t find fault with him for putting it in. The leg under the railing is in shadow, and the texture and color of the patch matched the leg. What betrayed him was the movement of the wood. The leg had shrunk or the patch had swollen. Under the railing was a sharp, rectangular area a few inches long that barely broke the surface of the leg. I wondered if he cursed and threw something or if he just silently searched for a matching piece of scrap.
I took a step back and looked at the patch from a normal point of view and couldn’t see it. I crouched down to take a closer look, and again the repair was lost in the shadows. I could feel it if I ran my hand in the right place, but it wasn’t visible unless my head was close to the floor.
We tend to idealize the craftsmen of the past, but I think he most admires the man for finding evidence of his mistake and carrying out his repair. None of us are perfect, and discovering this sort of thing creates a better connection with past workers than an absolutely perfect job.
There is a possibility that I am the only person who has ever noticed this repair. I’m sure it ruined the man’s day and he probably worried what would happen if he was seen. In the end, it is a small flaw in a hidden place in what is considered a masterpiece. His presence makes sense to me, and if the original creator and I were to meet on time travel or some other cosmic coincidence, I’d shake his hand and say, “Okay brother, your secret is safe with me.”
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