Learn From Antiques
Avoid construction mishaps by looking at mistakes from the past
Synopsis: If you want to build furniture that will last well into the future, the best place to look is the past. Period furniture expert Steve Latta scoured the countryside in search of antiques, looking for cracked tabletops, split sides, broken bracket feet, loose moldings, and other flaws that developed over time. Then he provided solutions that will prevent these problems from happening to you. Most often, the culprit is wood movement and the solutions are simple.
Let’s say a future woodworker examines my furniture 100 years from now and notices a few consistent failures. Now imagine that person visits me in a time machine to tell me where I went wrong. Well, you can bet I would listen to him or her and make some changes to the way I build.
Luckily for us, we already have a time machine, thousands of them, in fact. Antiques let us see what happens to a piece during its life, and I’ve learned much of what I know by closely examining many of these old pieces.
For this article I scoured a number of my favorite furniture barns and museums, looking not only for cracks and breaks, but also for the most instructive failures—common problems that happen in pieces of all types and styles. I found the perfect collection at Philip H. Bradley Co., an antiques dealer in Downingtown, Pa. Bradley’s pieces are iconic and beautifully preserved, and plentiful enough to contain many of the usual issues I’ve encountered in my decades of furniture study.
Wood movement is the creator of headaches: In most cases of furniture failure, the problem is the same: The maker did not sufficiently accommodate the seasonal shrinkage and expansion of wood parts. In a nutshell, wood barely moves along its length but moves…