What Makes Fine Furniture Fine?
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image of period furniture bookWhat makes a piece of fine furniture “fine”? The level of craftsmanship? The design? Joinery methods? Materials? Some would argue, for example, that plywood has no place in fine furniture making. The plywood issue, in fact, kicked off a lengthy discussion on the Woodworking.com Forum recently. Not too surprisingly, the original solid-wood-versus-plywood question - while inspiring a couple of interesting analogies having to do with hot dog ingredients, among other things - took a back seat to a more global discussion of what constitutes quality in a piece of furniture.  The general consensus seemed to be that woodworking becomes “fine” when it goes beyond the everyday on a number of fronts. One contributor summed it up this way:

"I think "fine" furniture has characteristics to it that set it apart from - not-so "fine".

Joinery is one characteristic. Dovetails especially if hand cut and to spaced so as to look machine cut, Mortise and Tenon joinery and the other joinery of like manner are characteristics of "fine".

Finishes to me are another characteristic. Fine finishes are layered buffed and polished.

Artistic appeal - is another point. "Fine" to me makes a statement - curves that are "faired" and well proportioned make a statement. Highlights of contrasting colors and materials.

Material selection and grain patterns and colors make "fine".

I would look at "fine" as a piece being carefully thought out and composed with all of the above brought into consideration."

Sounds reasonable, and at the same time, it throws light on an interesting feature of the debate. Discussions about what’s “fine” and what isn’t, it seems, can’t help but get tangled up in the tendency to think of traditional materials and handiwork and “refinement” as the same thing. There’s probably nothing all that wrong with feeling that way, and most of us seem to, to some degree. But it does give a person pause to wonder whether there’s anything that makes a hand cut dovetail “finer” than dovetails cut with a router and dovetail jig other than the fact that they all used to be done that way. 

It’s interesting, too, that traditional materials are still held in such high esteem. Most of the discussion participants seemed to agree: The most likely reason why 18th century craftsman never used MDF is that they didn’t have any. But there’s still plenty of support for the idea that furniture built from 100 percent solid wood is just flat-out better than furniture made using any type of manufactured sheet material. Today, most woodworkers are quick to list the advantages – ethical and otherwise - of using man-made substrates and veneer rather than solid wood. Still, many would have to confess that they stay away from it out of a feeling that there’s something suspect about using materials in the particleboard family.

There’s nothing wrong with using traditional methods strictly out of a love of doing things that way, of course. This is just food for thought. Some of the old ways are undoubtedly the best ways. Others will fall out of favor as modern materials and faster methods gain respect. And then, as more than one forum participant pointed out, what counts as “fine” will have to be redefined.

posted on June 29, 2007 by Rockler
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