Some thought on furniture reproductions…

Newport Tea Table by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

John Sexton a nationally renowned photographer commenting on the need to master the basics said the following –

 “I am unaware of an educational institution with a good music program that does not offer instruction in the piano, even though a student may be more interested in performing on the synthesizer.”

I’ve done a fair bit of reproduction work and my view towards that type of work has evolved. First, I’ll say it is a time honored way to learn not only basic joinery skills but also a tried and true method for learning design. For centuries aspiring artists, sculptors, and architects studied and sometimes copied masterful works as a necessary part of their creative studies. This still holds true today and in my own case has been invaluable. Another thing that I might add is that someone who attempts and succeeds in reproducing a great masterwork is on par with a musician performing a perfect rendition of a great piece of music or a violin maker creating a great instrument. Yes it is a copy, but like music a lot has to happen to make a great reproduction really sing and I have nothing but respect for those able to achieve it.

But I said my view has evolved. There are some who do reproduction work that attempt to get it as exactly as close possible down to duplicating the tool marks, glues, and finishes. I’ve done some of that myself. It’s full of pitfalls. Any close examination of a period piece is often filled with the fingerprints tough to copy. I was duplicating a small dowry chest with turned feet. Every foot was different. I’m not that great of a turner to begin with and the thought of trying to make regularity out of something built irregular seemed wrong. I ended up choosing one foot as a pattern, and they all ended up a little different anyway.

 I still look to pre-industrial furniture for inspiration but I’m now more interested in understanding the proportions and design secrets hidden within. I may make a piece that looks like a reproduction but it will be in spirit only. If you have some interest in pre-industrial furniture a great resource is SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers). Not everyone is a lover of classical music and period furniture but I’m glad we still have great builders who keep this flame alive.   

George Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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5 Responses to Some thought on furniture reproductions…

  1. akfurn says:

    Beautiful comparison of Classical music and Classical furniture. There are always great lessons to be found in the past. Looking to the masters of previous times opens our eyes to the realms of possibilities in our work, today.

    Imagine if reproduction was part of the project curriculum in fine furniture programs around the country? I look back and wish it had been for me.

    Very eloquent article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  2. Jeff says:

    “I ended up choosing one foot as a pattern, and they all ended up a little different anyway.” – funny.

  3. Roderick Drumgoole says:

    Well said, well written….absolutely encouraging for those of us who aspire to reproduce classical furniture. Your thought on “turnings” speak volumes to the same pitfalls that I have experienced. Thanks for taking the time to share something that exudes with passion as with all of your blog comments.


  4. I agree George. I love period furniture but I try to build pieces that look the part without making exact reproductions. I don’t have access to museum pieces and private collections to be able to take measurements and patterns from an original piece. But I can use a pair of dividers to try to unlock the oveall proportional scheme of a couple of different pieces, then take the features of those different pieces that I like best and incorporate them into a piece I build. Understanding the general proportions of those period pieces to me is a very important part of making a piece that looks “right”.

  5. I went through a period on my career that I was tasked with documenting antiques for Kittinger. We had a program with Colonial Williamsburg that was marketed as a “line for line reproduction utilizing period primary and secondary materials. I was also faced when working on the item to select “which” element to copy from and in many cases actually copied more than one. We did a piece that had slightly varying finials for example and reflected the Foundations notion of “the intent of the cabinetmaker”. We went so far as sourcing Atlantic White Cedar for a tall chest reproduction from Philadelphia.
    I loved the work, the atmosphere at CW was a pleasure to experience and something I benefit from to this day. Stickley is still producing CW product to this day, I’m not sure if it is as strict a program. The idea of reproductions, I think, still has merit commercially but few companies see the value in marketing it’s distinction from basic “traditional” design.

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