In the early days of America, the essentials of life kept a person busy. The homeowner or a neighborhood carpenter built simple rough furniture quickly and simply. The country carpenter also made coffins and even arranged funerals. The first real cabinetmakers who made fine furniture arrived in America in 1700 and mostly worked in more populated areas. The cabinetmaking business boomed between 1750 and 1783.
Early during this high-demand period, a man in England named Thomas Chippendale published a book called The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director which influenced furniture made in the colonies. The furniture, patterned after the designs in the book, grew to be called the English Chippendale type of furniture.
One difference between the English furniture making and the American process is the kind of wood used. Of the trees found in America, the most popular one for furniture was black walnut. American cabinetmakers also specialized in oak, maple, and wild cherry. For lesser parts of the furniture like backs and drawer sides, they used pine, white cedar, and tulip. Additional varieties included beech, pear, gum, apple, and sycamore. Imported mahogany from the countries of Mexico, West Indies, and South America also became popular.
Colonial hand tools appear similar to today’s woodworking tools: saws, chisels, planes, gimlets, augers, hammers, files, braces, and bits. Most of these tools came from England. The cabinetmaker used simple machines like a great wheel lathe or a treadle run lathe to make rounded pieces such as table legs. Like today, the cabinet maker utilized a workbench attaching pieces to it with vices and clamps.
Good joints make good pieces of furniture. The colonial maker used many different kinds of joints to fasten two pieces of wood together. None of them used nails.
The earliest cabinetmakers decorated with carvings and paint to make furniture attractive. The later wood workers depended more on stains, shellacs, waxes, and oils for beauty. Some furniture even received padding by the cabinetmaker or an upholsterer.
Fisher, Leonard Everett. The Cabinetmakers. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1966. Print.
Kalman, Bobbie. Colonial Crafts. New York: Crabtree Publishing Co., 1992. Print.
*Illustration not from the Colonial Period