Common Sense Antiques

Discover Mid-America — March 2011

Hand carved or pressed?

In furniture making and design it has always seemed to be preferable that flat plain panels of unadorned wood are to be largely avoided wherever possible. There is a need to decorate the blank space. That need has largely been fulfilled over the centuries using the talents of people with special skills that few of us ever acquire. These are the carvers, the craftspeople who can release a figure from a blank block of wood or who can depict a fluid battle scene in a stationary medium.

Egyptian furniture was carved with religious symbols and animal figures. The Greeks and Romans followed suit and Western art, much of it religious, was soon scratched into wood in the Middle Ages. The Far East has always enjoyed the work of excellent carvers and European Gothic carving was of the highest quality in oak. Later, Renaissance carving was even more refined in the finer grained walnut of the period.

The elaborate design on the crest rail of this turn of the century oak rocker was pressed into the wood, not carved

Early colonial workers quickly developed American carving skills and an American tradition of hand carving was established. Some of the finest carving ever done in the colonies was the work of the great New England cabinetmakers even though they were influenced somewhat by English tastes. Even after the United States was established as a separate entity, European training and taste influenced much of the carving work. Duncan Phyfe and Charles Lannuier were great artists and their work is unmistakable but they were both European trained. But many American-born carvers emerged during the Rococo Revival period of the mid century and American carving reached both its height and its depth at the end of the 19th century.

The Renaissance Revival period in the late part of the century required that excellent carving skills be incorporated into its architectural themes. However, American furniture manufacturing in the 1880s and 1890s was entering the great factory production period and hand carving was too time consuming. One of the greatest American carvers worked in this period and represents the height of the art in the 19th century. Works by Robert J. Horner today are among the most highly sought after, especially his works that depict winged griffins. But he was among the last of the great furniture carvers.

So what about all the fancy carved furniture of the Golden Oak period? Those elaborately carved sideboards and tall beds? What about all the chairs with fancy carved backs? And, what about all the elaborate furniture of the Depression era?

Four advances in technology pretty well put an end to high-volume hand carving by the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. The advances were the spindle carver, the die press, the router and plastic.

The spindle carver came along in the 1880s and was perfected in the 1890s. It employed a series of cutting heads mounted on spindles that were attached to a central handle. A skilled worker could manipulate the handle over a single master carving and turn out dozens of identically carved pieces in very short order.

And where did all of those spindle carved pieces go? They were applied to the tall oak headboard and the fancy sideboard creating the look of expensive hand-carved works. All of that fancy work was machine carved and applied, not carved from the background material.

Another sleight of hand (or of the factory) produced the overwhelming number of primarily oak chairs around the turn of the century with the elaborate designs and patterns carved into the crest rails. But very few of those were actually hand carved. A few of the more elaborate “face” chairs featuring demon heads or mythological creatures were in fact hand carved but for the most part the designs were pressed in the wood. A sharp steel die was rolled under great pressure over the plain wooden crest rail destined for a new chair. As it passed it transferred the design on the die to the wood, literally pressing it in. These chairs became known as “press back” chairs and were the favorites of the mail order and premium bonus houses of the period.

By the Depression era the spindle carver, combined with the handheld router pretty much eliminated hand carving to any great degree. The basic shapes of couch frames or chair frames were cut by machinery. Patterns were traced into the wood and a worker did the apparent handwork of the deeply carved frames and feet with a power router following a design. A real carver often came along and added chisel marks for authenticity but that was about it.

Finally, came the use of synthetic appliques in the Depression era to augment the applied molding concept of the oak period. While the spindle carver and the router could turn out most decorative molding, some of the work was too delicate for machinery and too time-consuming for handwork.

Of particular interest were the floral decorations of bedroom furniture. The delicate raised flowers and flowing garlands on the doors of chifforettes and top drawers of vanities appeared to be carved, but they were actually castings made of a plastic-like variety of cellulose poured into a mold. They were then glued to the appropriate piece of furniture and finished or painted just like the wood.

The term “hand carved” has not been a true part of American furniture since before the turn of the 20th century.


Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at P0 Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com

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