Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Dillinger's With Saw, Plane & Chisel: How to Build Historic American Furniture

As a collector of American Colonial furniture for over fifty years and a user of hand tools for over thirty, I read Zachary Dillinger’s With Saw, Plane & Chisel: How to Build Historic American Furniture (Popular Woodworking Books, 2016) with keen interest. Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver what its title promises.

Dillinger’s six projects span a good hundred years. With detailed instructions and excellent photographs, Dillinger shows how to build a Jacobean chest of drawers, a William and Mary side chair, a Queen Anne stool, a Queen Anne desk, a Chippendale bookcase, and a Hepplewhite hunt board. But how historically accurate are these reproductions? A critical look at these projects soon reveals that they are generic, based less on specific surviving examples than on stylistic features generally attributed to whatever so-called period is in question. The sources for these six projects remain vague: Dillinger says that the William and Mary side chair copies a chair he owns and that the Hepplewhite hunt board comes from Vermont, but he does not give sources for his other projects. Even worse, three of his six projects distort what historic examples looked like.

Dillinger’s version of a “Queen Anne” stool, for example, is nothing less than grotesque.  Upholstered stools with cabriole legs were common in England with its more stratified society but rare in America. Squatty with bandy legs, Dillinger’s stool looks as if it had been whelped by an English bulldog. His “Queen Anne” desk also has faulty proportions:  Colonial slant-top desks with drawers were generally about as wide as they were high.  At 29 1/2” wide, Dillinger’s desk is unusually narrow for its height of 41”, so it looks top heavy. His “Chippendale” bookcase possibly could be considered an example of early 20th century Colonial Revival style, but it certainly isn’t representative of American bookcases from the second half of the eighteenth century. It’s a modern bookcase with some period details applied to the carcass the way icing is applied to a cake.

Half of the six projects, therefore, present distorted versions of Colonial American furniture. To that extent, they are not remotely “historic.” Dillinger’s With Saw, Plane & Chisel is a useful guide to hand tool techniques, but anyone who wants to understand period styles or reproduce furniture that looks right will be far better served by Jeffrey Greene’s American Furniture of the 18th Century: History, Technique and Structure (Taunton Press, 1996) or by Norman Vandal’s Queen Anne Furniture: History, Design and Construction (Taunton Press, 1990).

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