Tuesday, June 19, 2007

"Crude" may not be so crude after all

This article on greenwood mortise and tenon techniques used by colonial Americans is very interesting for me, at least. I've often heard the techniques used by colonial builders described as "crude" or "primitive", usually by comparison to their contemporary European peers. The drawbored mortise and tenon joints in the article are a good example of this: the joints are, by the standards of machine-milled precision joinery using modern equipment and resources, or even hand-milled joints using contemporary European techniques, quite crude and sloppy. However, the problem here is that the European techniques are simply an inappropriate standard.

Furniture makers in the 17th century had the ability to produce finely detailed, precision joints in wood, as anyone who has examined European furniture from that era can attest. It's rather certain that at least some colonial woodworkers knew of the European techniques; many of them had been trained in Europe, after all. It wasn't out of lack of knowledge that they weren't use by the colonials; rather, they eschewed them because they weren't appropriate. These crude-looking, even ugly joints are actually precisely engineered for the specific requirements of the colonial woodworker. Colonial woodworkers didn't have the luxury of drying their wood under controlled conditions. They had little choice but to work with green wood, and that means using totally different techniques.

As the article shows, these supposedly crude joints are actually carefully engineered to take advantage of, rather than be ruined by, the changes in the wood as it dries. The shrinkage of the wood in the joint actually makes the joint stronger over time. Rather than being evidence of the lack of craftsmanship of the colonial woodworker, these are evidence of innovative genius under adverse conditions. To quote Peter Follansbee, himself quoting David Pye, "Because people are dead, it does not follow that they were stupid."