The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Sobering up in the New Year.


I may have mentioned in a previous post that my wife and I picked up two pieces of furniture for my daughter, a chest of drawers and a bed-side table, at an antique store a few months back. The antique store is local, local enough to where it’s easy to just drop by a few times per month, and luckily we happened to wander in to see what was new and discovered the pieces there.

Firstly, the furniture isn’t “antique” in the sense that it is ancient. I would estimate both pieces were made roughly 75 years ago. I know that both the dresser and table were made in Pennsylvania because the faded makers mark is still on the back of both, I just cannot make out the name of the manufacturer. It is extremely well made stuff, solid maple casing, dovetailed drawers and case sides (the chest of drawers case sides), all poplar innards. Knowing what I know about furniture, I would estimate that a similar chest of drawers “new” would likely cost around $900-$1000, possibly more, and the table in the $350 range. We paid just around $180 total for both pieces including tax. So why is the price important? The answer to that question needs some background information.

Some time ago I wrote a post which asked the question: If some sort of theoretical disaster were approaching, and you either save the furniture you made or your woodworking tools, which would you save? Firstly, this question was meant to by hypothetical. This wasn’t meant to be a real world scenario and I wasn’t interested in the logistics of saving both.

What it all boiled down to is: Are your tools more important to you or is the furniture you build with those tools the most important thing? There was no lesson to be learned, I just wanted opinions.

Of the dozen or so people who commented, to a man they all said they would save their tools over their built furniture. And I felt the same way.

I wrote that post a few years ago, and my views regarding the subject haven’t changed too much. And in fact, I can confirm that many people share the same sentiment, because often times when entering a place such as a flea market, or antique store, vintage tools often cost more than vintage/antique furniture, even tools that look like hell compared to furniture that looks great. Of course there are exceptions, and certain pieces of furniture sell for large sums. But, more often than not, even “valuable” furniture sells at auctions for pennies on the dollar. Why?

Here is something I’ve discovered in the time since I first began to woodwork: most furniture is worthless. I don’t care if it was handcrafted, or machine made, or a little of both. I’ve found (though this is hardly a new idea) that furniture often becomes a burden to the owners, and worse than a burden to the people who inherit it. To put that in perspective, the two pieces of well-made furniture we purchased for my daughter were likely once part of a bedroom set, and the original owner, I would think, was probably proud to have them in his/her house. They were likely sold as a ‘lot’ at an estate auction or some such sale after the owners died, or sold their house, or whatever the case may be. Less than 100 years later, within a lifetime if you will, they ended up at the back of a dinky little antique store, priced to sell so the store could make room for more stuff. They were essentially given away even though their ‘intrinsic’ value was theoretically more than double the cost that I paid for them, and many times more than the dealer paid.

As I said, there are high-end antique stores that sell both expensive furniture and tools. I’m not denying that. But well-made, “middle class” furniture costs next to nothing on the pre-owned market. And I’m not referring to mass market stuff, I’m not bringing up IKEA or places like that. I’m talking about the very good quality furniture that the average person had in his or her home 75-100 years ago. While not claiming to be a furniture expert, I know more than enough to recognize a well-constructed piece of furniture, and the stuff I’ve been coming across is extremely well made, and it is selling for “cheap”.

Here is the sobering news: This isn’t a market anomaly. I’ve been in dozens of antique stores and in general you can get good quality furniture without spending much, and at auctions it can get even more crazy. And all of this makes me wonder, wonder about what I do with my time and what woodworking means to me.

For the record, I don’t make furniture to sell it, or in the hopes that it will one day become valuable in a monetary sense. But it dawned on me that there is a  chance that some of the furniture I made may end up having a dollar value placed on it, not so much because it will be sold, but because that “dollar value” may decide if it is worth keeping.  Or it could very well end up at an auction or an estate sale of some kind. It most likely won’t sell for much, if anything at all. Don’t misunderstand me; I make my furniture as well as I can using sound, time-tested methods. But that really doesn’t mean much with the realization that much of the furniture I have built or will build in the future will probably end up in the garbage.

The standard response I will probably get is: “Then strive to build stuff that won’t get tossed aside!!” My reply is that I already try. I can also point out that the vaunted furniture makers of yesteryear, the fellows who made some of the best furniture ever produced; the fellows that the experts tell us are far, far better than we could ever hope to be, built a lot of stuff that ended up in the garbage too, not because it was garbage, but it became garbage nonetheless.

In conclusion, I guess what I am trying to get at is the whole “make stuff that will outlast you” is all nonsense, because it will not. It is rare to find furniture more than 200 years old. Most furniture 300 years old or more is in a museum, and in some cases not just because it was well-made furniture, but because it belonged to somebody of historical importance. The stuff older than 400 years is relatively non-existent.

I know I’m going to get some responses pointing out “all of the antique furniture” that is still out there. Yeah, there is still a lot of antique furniture, a boat load of it, tons, but it is a miniscule amount when comparing it to all of the furniture made at the same time that no longer exists, or still does exist in the back of somebody’s storage basement. And all of the stuff that is still out there is worth little in a monetary sense when it really comes down to it. And here again, I am not trying to put a cash value on what I make, I’m trying to say that just because one of my grandkids may one day have a table I made sitting under a sheet in his or her attic doesn’t mean that I built a piece of furniture that “outlasted me”.

Furniture, like most things, is perishable. It is a fleeting object made by those doomed to die and fade into obscurity. Rest assured, I’m not preaching doom and gloom. I’m saying that working under the pretense of “it outlasting me” may be a losing proposition. I’m not advocating slapping together garbage out of wood and calling it furniture, but I am advocating the end of the high and mighty notion that our furniture is oh so important in the grand scheme of things.

Build furniture; build it the best way you know how, and most importantly have fun, but sooner, or later, nearly everything we make, no matter how lovely or well-made it may be, will likely end up being sold at a yard sale, or covered in dust in somebody’s attic, or gracing the bottom of a land fill. And that is a very sobering thought.

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8 Comments

  1. dzj9 says:

    A year or 2 ago, the word heirloom was slapped on just about everything by the WW mags. Not so much these days…

  2. pogo930 says:

    I pretty much agree. You can outfit a house with gorgeous furniture for pennies on the dollar. The top end reproduction furniture of the 50s and 60s is a bargain. The reproductions from the 20’s are becoming collector irems themselves.

    • billlattpa says:

      It is ridiculous what this stuff is selling for. I’ve seen dining sets sold at auction for less than $150. And this was no garbage..all solid hard wood construction, real joinery, nice hardware..It just makes me wonder what happened…
      Thanks

  3. potomacker says:

    Most furniture buyers pay a premium for newness. The ability to evaluate a high quality piece is a skill that few possess. There is little awareness amongst the general population between a industrial product and craft since they have only ever seen or used an industrially made item I believe that this trend is exacerbated with the consolidation of furniture manufacturing to distant lands.
    I can only think of one exception to this trend in that some buyers are still willing to pay a high price for refurbished Herman Miller or Steelcase office furniture. I think this continues because the decisions are made by businessmen for financial reasons; whereas, most high end home furniture is bought by housewives for emotional reasons.
    I do dispute your contention though that because your paid less for the older pieces than the comparative prices for new items of similar construction, they lost value. The two pieces that you paid $180 for retained a high degree of value despite 75 years of depreciation. In the grand scheme of things, the original price needs to be considered over the 75 years and the additional years that your daughter uses them for. You as a buyer certainly recognized the intrinsic value; otherwise, you would not have bought them. Consumer items end up in landfills for so many innumerable and unpredictable reasons regardless of their quality or expected usage. You’ve effectively reduced the mass that might have gone to a landfill and saved yourself a chunk of change. It’s odd that in this essay, you seem to be cursing your good fortune even if you don’t appreciate the environmental benefits.

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks for the comment.
      I didn’t want to make this post solely about price because that isn’t really what it was about. I was only trying to point out the fact that most furniture (not all) eventually ends up in an attic, or a basement, or being sold at places such as an antique store or flea market or at an auction where it is being given away for almost nothing.
      I’m certainly happy to have found the furniture we did for the price because it is extremely well made, looks great, and filled a need. But what I should have pointed out is that the store was filled with similar quality items selling for a similar cost. And I have to think that the antique store owners know their stuff when it comes to pricing out furniture, so my conclusion is that they purchased it for very little, and they are selling it on the cheap because furniture is seemingly a tough sell. If this case had been an exception to the rule I would have just chalked it up to good luck on my part, but this area of PA is filled with antique stores and nearly all of them are selling furniture which should be fairly pricey for a fraction of its worth.
      Of course there are exceptions, I even came across a few Stickley book racks that were selling for more than $1000 each at a place not too far from here. But that same place also had some beautiful pieces selling for peanuts.
      In the end, what I am getting at is that many people who make furniture, including myself, sometimes can get a high and mighty attitude about it. As an amateur, I take the hobby very seriously, and so do many others. Yet, when some of the most beautiful and well made furniture eventually ends up in an attic, or a basement, or sold for next to nothing, or maybe worst of all, in a landfill because the owners couldn’t even give it away, it makes me wonder about the value (not in dollars and cents) that furniture really has to all of us.
      Thanks again.
      Bill

  4. Bill, I’m sure we share the same brain waves. I could not agree more with your post. I’ve long understood I make things because I enjoy making them, the fact they can provide a use and hopefully look good in a home are a big plus. But it is all worthless!

    The concept of things being heirlooms is sweet and a nice sales pitch but there is little evidence for it in furniture, especially the furniture for plebs. A lot of old stick chairs got worn out and worm eaten, much furniture evolved through fashion making it’s previous forms useless.

    There is even more evidence of this with tools. Wooden planes are neglected because we all need the new “muct have” versions, old chisels go unused and discarded because they might have a plastic handle, old plane irons disposed of for new version X and we all need an alternative sharpening system every year! Heaven forbid the people espousing this “heirloom” culture should take the understand the tools of there forefathers made and put them to good use.

    Like you I make things to be durable, using proven methods and it’s nice to build with the potential of durability. But my motivations do not include “righting a wrong”, “a crusade against Ikea” or building a bizarre middle class hipster utopia were we pay each other huge sums of money for average furniture.

    • billlattpa says:

      Sorry about the late response! In this post I was trying to make the point that no matter how well a piece of furniture may be made, eventually the owner will become bored with it, or not want to move it, or what have you and it will in one way or another disappear. Secondly, considering that the furniture is made of wood, it will eventually deteriorate, as I am sure you well know, and fall apart, unless it is stored in such a way to keep that from happening (making it worthless as furniture in that regard). Of course, specially cared for pieces that you may find in museums or private collections are sometimes hundreds of years old, but once again they are technically not used as furniture therefore extending their life greatly.

      As I was saying, trying to make “heirlooms” from a perishable medium is not necessarily a smart endeavor. Once again, that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t build our stuff in the best and strongest way possible, but to pretend that we are somehow building for future generations is at best a fantasy and at worst vanity.
      Thanks!!
      Bill

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