Cab­i­net maker

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - MASS OBSERVATION -

trade at all. Most laboured for long hours at home sur­rounded by han­dles, locks and hinges, pots of glue and pol­ish, strips of glass-pa­per and rose­wood, wal­nut, oak and sat­in­wood ve­neers. Many used rare-wood scraps ac­quired from great masters and pi­ano mak­ers as raw ma­te­rial.

Fancy cab­i­net mak­ers also cre­ated in­tri­cately de­signed func­tional pieces evoca­tive of cab­i­nets from pre­vi­ous eras. Fold-down writ­ing desks fea­tured con­ve­nient slots and cubby-holes for pa­per, pens and stamps, while mir­rored toi­lette-ta­bles bore nests of draw­ers. In ad­di­tion to draw­ers, mas­sive fine-wood sec­re­taires of­ten fea­tured cup­boards, hinged trays, shelves, and glass-fronted book­cases.

Gen­eral cab­i­net mak­ers, in con­trast, cre­ated large, sim­ple, util­i­tar­ian pieces like din­ing room ta­bles, wardrobes, chif­foniers and side­boards. To ease work­loads, many hired ap­pren­tices and paid them a pit­tance.

Mas­ter­ing the craft

Ap­pren­tices mas­tered the trade by mov­ing from one cab­i­netry shop to the next, al­though this might take years. Up to 1819, a an ap­pren­tice­ship of seven years was typ­i­cal. Af­ter­wards, many be­came jour­ney­men, tasked to cre­ate pieces in­de­pen­dently from start to fin­ish. This en­tailed cut­ting pro­ject com­po­nents ac­cord­ing to sketched de­signs (while hid­ing de­fects in the wood and high­light­ing their at­trac­tive qual­i­ties), then plan­ing, mold­ing, carv­ing, join­ing, glu­ing and ve­neer­ing their work as needed. On com­plet­ing their in­tern­ships and ac­quir­ing ba­sic tools, jour­ney­men of­ten opened their own shops.

Some then worked ex­clu­sively as sawyers, carvers, turn­ers, en­gravers or French pol­ish­ers, ei­ther com­plet­ing the work of oth­ers or mass-pro­duc­ing fur­ni­ture com­po­nents. Oth­ers, less skilled per­haps, masspro­duced spe­cific pieces of fur­ni­ture over and over again. Bed­stead mak­ers, for in­stance, joined pre-carved or pre-turned ‘posters’ to sim­ple ma­hogany or birch wood frames.

Chair mak­ers, cater­ing to all palates and pock­ets, pro­duced not only carved, painted, stained, and ‘ japanned’ frames, but bases for cabri­ole-legged and ‘s’-shaped tête-à-tête so­fas. Oth­ers were drawer, loo-ta­ble, gipsy-ta­ble, or look­ing-glass frame mak­ers.

Many cab­i­net mak­ers ‘scamped’ wares in great haste, sup­ply­ing them to ‘slaugh­ter houses’ or ‘ linen drap­ers’ – re­tail­ers who hawked them at rock-bot­tom prices. Be­cause quan­tity usu­ally re­placed qual­ity, scam­pers, within the trade, were known as ‘slop’ work­ers. They also hired low-cost ap­pren­tices who, as they be­came in­de­pen­dent, hired ap­pren­tices of their own.

By 1861, this glut of in­fe­rior work­ers not only low­ered gen­eral wages, but un­der­cut prof­its of highly skilled crafts­men.

Be­cause gen­eral cab­i­netry prod­ucts var­ied in so many ways, their prices var­ied as well. In the 1880s, for ex­am­ple, sim­ple hall-ta­bles sold for £ 2 each, while ma­hogany toi­lette-ta­bles,

Cab­i­net mak­ers cre­at­ing Cotswold- style fur­ni­ture, 1923

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