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Thread: Accuracy in historic pieces

  1. #1
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    Accuracy in historic pieces

    Hi all
    I'm sure some of you around here have spent time looking at antique furniture/joinery, etc. I am curious as to how accurate the Craftsman of old really were?
    I know that a piece of joinery 200 years old has probably changed substantially since it was made, but realistically how accurate was the work? Do you think they worked to the same tolerances we can today, or even cared to?

    Thanks
    Michael

  2. #2
    Just like today, there were varying degrees of accuracy and economics was the deciding factor. Not furniture exactly, but I was fortunate to have been able to view the extensive Joe Kindig collection of 18th century rifles shortly after his death. The craftsmanship was unbelievable. But, they ranged from utilitarian to works of art. I think you would find the same in period furniture. There were varying skill levels and the prices they could demand was reflected in the quality of build.

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  3. #3
    Agree. A shop owner had to be always choosing who should do what. Had to consider skill level of workers
    and the sophistication and means of clients. But they would never forget "I'm the only one I trust to do this part!"

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    Of course they did. They invented the tools we use today. Marking gauges, dividers, rafter squares with 1/100 inch notched scales so you can set dividers with it etc. They also spent 5 to 7 years learning under a master.

  5. #5
    Mortise and Tenon magazine had a piece discussing this issue.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Michael J Evans View Post
    Hi all
    I'm sure some of you around here have spent time looking at antique furniture/joinery, etc. I am curious as to how accurate the Craftsman of old really were?
    I know that a piece of joinery 200 years old has probably changed substantially since it was made, but realistically how accurate was the work? Do you think they worked to the same tolerances we can today, or even cared to?
    This is a very complicated subject; here is one aspect.

    Craftsmen in the 18th Century routinely made rub joints for edge gluing. Hot hide glue was spread over the joint and the two boards were rubbed together for a few seconds until stiff and the joint was not clamped. This technique requires the boards to mate extremely well with no light showing either at the ends or the middle. A joint that is hollow by a thousandth of an inch will show light and not work very well. See Peter Nicholson's book (1812).

    I recently watched a video of David Charlesworth, "Planing a Straight Edge" from Precision Planing DVD. David uses a Lie Nielsen plane and a Starrett Straightedge. After demonstrating, he says:

    So this edge is now two thousandths of an inch hollow over 20 inches long, and I consider that to be straight. I think it is a remarkable tolerance for a hand tool on timber.

    It may be remarkable, but two boards like this are not going to make a rub joint.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqPP6-0jkws

    In other aspects today's craftsmen sometimes see something on an antique and think "I would never let that go on my work." But they often have stuff on their own work which 18th century workers would not have found acceptable.

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    I’ve had the pleasure of inspecting some 18th century work from the Philadelphia area. Very neat, tidy and with tight joinery.
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    Iím curious, Brian, if they were museum, private collection or run of the mill antique store pieces. The reason I ask, is I have a turn of the century piece and the hand cut dovetails are not exactly great. It may have been a mass produced piece, donít know. But like today, I suspect there was a full range of quality being offered at various price points.

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    Dovetails are a good mechanical joint that have strength partly because of redundancy. Think about things like mortise locks, rule joints, roll tops, sliding dovetails for table legs, and not even mention musical instruments. Dovetails are a normal everyday chore not the final exam.

  10. #10
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    I think you have to make a distinction between accuracy and tight/proper fitting of the assembled parts. Being able to make a cut at a given width to within one thousandth or one ten thousandth is not what makes a piece of woodwork an outstanding work.

    What's outstanding is a craftsman who can, for example, produce a rub joint with no gaps with wooden planes. I have a hard time imagining that he would be preoccupied whether his piece was, say, 10" wide or 9.999" wide.

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    Warren, Mr. Charlesworth's method sounds very simplistic and impractical for long work pieces. Are there techniques that ensure straight edges or well mated edges to do rub joints?

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    Quote Originally Posted by John Keeton View Post
    Just like today, there were varying degrees of accuracy and economics was the deciding factor. Not furniture exactly, but I was fortunate to have been able to view the extensive Joe Kindig collection of 18th century rifles shortly after his death. The craftsmanship was unbelievable. But, they ranged from utilitarian to works of art. I think you would find the same in period furniture. There were varying skill levels and the prices they could demand was reflected in the quality of build.
    Hi John,
    I didn't even think of that aspect, but it is so true. Thanks for pointing that out.

  13. #13
    You will probably find the best craftsmanship of yore probably equal to today's and probably the worst similar to today's worst. What would probably surprise most of us today, is the speed of the old craftsman. A guy like Warren could probably hold his own with them, but some of those old world guys could produce pieces by hand faster than a lot of us can with power tools. Much of that comes from just experience and repetition.

    You figure a teenage apprentice back then probably had cut more dovetails than several of us put together. I can remember (not sure what episode) Roy Underhill talking about how people these days romanticize craftsmen from a couple hundred years ago, but he said "those people were moving!" Klaus in his dovetail video talks about how good craftsman not only do good work, but they do it with speed, saying "if you are going to make a good living at this, you can't take forever to do good work."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Phil Mueller View Post
    I’m curious, Brian, if they were museum, private collection or run of the mill antique store pieces. The reason I ask, is I have a turn of the century piece and the hand cut dovetails are not exactly great. It may have been a mass produced piece, don’t know. But like today, I suspect there was a full range of quality being offered at various price points.
    Private collections, I’m sure quality has varied.
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  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by Warren Mickley View Post
    This is a very complicated subject; here is one aspect.

    Craftsmen in the 18th Century routinely made rub joints for edge gluing. Hot hide glue was spread over the joint and the two boards were rubbed together for a few seconds until stiff and the joint was not clamped. This technique requires the boards to mate extremely well with no light showing either at the ends or the middle. A joint that is hollow by a thousandth of an inch will show light and not work very well. See Peter Nicholson's book (1812).

    I recently watched a video of David Charlesworth, "Planing a Straight Edge" from Precision Planing DVD. David uses a Lie Nielsen plane and a Starrett Straightedge. After demonstrating, he says:

    So this edge is now two thousandths of an inch hollow over 20 inches long, and I consider that to be straight. I think it is a remarkable tolerance for a hand tool on timber.

    It may be remarkable, but two boards like this are not going to make a rub joint.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqPP6-0jkws

    In other aspects today's craftsmen sometimes see something on an antique and think "I would never let that go on my work." But they often have stuff on their own work which 18th century workers would not have found acceptable.
    This probably is a dumb question, but in the rub joint, would both pieces have been clamped together in a vice and planed together as to cancel out an errors. Or does that only work for the squaring of it and not the lengthwise edge?

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