The term cabinetmaking is derived from the word cabin meaning to enclose, so a chest or cupboard is an enclosed item that’s used for storage and therefore the word cabin is applied to such items.
The term “cabinetmaker” as we know it today was unknown by tradesmen and therefore was an unused term in the trade from the 13th century until about the mid-17th century. There were no cabinetmakers who were dedicated solely to building furniture for those 4 centuries. Carpenters also known as joiners were the woodworkers of the time who not only built large constructions such as doors, beams, cottages, halls but also coffers or chests as the need arose. They were the jack of all trades. So, from 1500-1660 furniture was made by the carpenter; his work was crude and appropriate to the characteristics of a typical carpenter.
Cabinetmaking was a slow and gradual process that developed over a span of 400 years, as mentioned above. Cabinetmaking grew out of necessities of the times, any advancements made were that of the 13th century. They consisted of chests, “coffers” which also served as seats and tables, from there adding a leg or shelves to a chest was easy, and from there sprung a new form of furniture. It was merely an advancement of what was already in existence, much of everything we have and build today, including policies and new laws passed down by governments are nothing more than advancements of earlier times.
This continued up until around 1660 where specialisation in the making of furniture was born.
In between that period the separation of carpenter and joiner developed. Historians aren’t certain when this separation occurred, but what they do know is that the seed of specialising was planted in the 15th century when carpenters begun to specialise in the building of coffers, which led to the creation of the guild of coffers. By 1660 there were two distinct categories or class of woodworkers.
The carpenter and the joiner.
The carpenter’s primary duties now involved mainly in the constructions of framing for halls, dwellings and even ships. The joiner however monopolised in the construction of tables, coffers, which included panelling, window frames, doors, anything of a smaller nature and so forth.
Each class of tradesman however, served its own intended purpose which complimented each other but it wasn’t seen as that by the carpenters. The carpenters were no longer the jack of all trades but were confined to those mentioned above. Animosity by the carpenters arose towards the joiner as they felt a part of their trade was being robbed by the joiner.
It will be interesting to note that the term “joiner” is no longer used in later times including up until today in conjunction with the making of furniture. The joiner is restricted to the work of we call now the house wright.
In my view a group of carpenters failed to see the need of specialising, as the needs, wants and tastes of upper class was changing and leaning towards the fine arts. As wealth increased from kingdom to kingdom, so did their tastes and desire for the finer things in life. It no longer wanted crude furniture the carpenter was so accustomed to build.
By 1660 the age of the cabinet maker was born, hence the term joiner dropped. There were now 3 distinct classes of woodworkers and within a short time, the carpenters’ duties were further stripped by further refinements to the craft, with the addition of new classes. Carpenters, shipwrights, wheelwrights, joiners and cabinetmakers. Later in history, additional refinements were made by the guild, and added to it, marquetery, carvers and turners which up until today hasn’t changed.
Each class had their respective duties, and each class were confined to their duties.
To do the work of the other was not permitted. You may think this was harsh, but has anything really changed since ancient times? I don’t think it has; these laws set out by the guild are still in existence today.
If you hire a handyman to install a ceiling fan in your house, and as a result the house burns down, insurance won’t cover you because he is not a qualified electrician. You thought you were saving money, but in the long run you lost more than you bargained for.
These guilds were there to protect the consumer and the tradesman, they protected jobs. If I may I would like to divert a little off the topic and make mention of an important point.
YouTube has done more harm than good in my opinion; it’s main use is that of advertising. Many tradesmen are willingly happy to share some of their trade secrets, not because their generous and have any desire to pass on the craft, but to advertise themselves as qualified professional tradesmen in the hope they will gain extra work by using this form of advertising.
Instead what they got is people trying to do the work themselves, thinking their saving money but in fact, they’re not. Their work is shoddy like a flock of seagulls just crapped on it, but it doesn’t bother the viewer because they saved money on labour. Come time to sell that house they have to sell it at a much more reduced price than they normally would have had to, or worse yet, have the house burn down and possibly even their neighbours; because they wanted to cut down on costs.
I think you get the gist so let’s move on.
About the middle of the 18th century a new breed of craftsmen developed, the designers. I have written about some of those craftsmen in earlier posts who were talented cabinetmakers but also talented designers as well, so there is no need for me to repeat myself here. Instead, I will briefly make mention of the periods in order of advancement.
Jacobean Period 1603-1660
The Jacobean period is a term used to reference two kings, James I and his son and successor Charles I who reigned from 1625 – 1649. Furniture built in that era was mainly of oak, they were of solid and sturdy construction, heavily carved and usually embellished in exotic materials like mother of pearls. They painted their furniture black to imitate the Asian styles.
The Walnut Period 1660-1720
The reign of oak material was now being replaced by the introduction of a new material called Walnut. This new timber took cabinet makers by storm, it could take finishes really well, hold nails and screws, responded nicely to glues and was easy to work with. However, by 1709 winter killed almost all the Walnut trees which led to a major shortage and France wasn’t about to give up their Walnut to help the British, their response to this crisis was placing an embargo on the exportation of Walnut. By 1733 an import tax on Mahogany was removed making it now more affordable and a new age of Mahogany was born.
There are 3 more periods in the English speaking world worth mentioning
Chippendale 1745- 1780
Volumes can be written on this subject however, the nature of blogs are only to wet your appetites. To give you enough information to be informed but not enough to understand the subject thoroughly.
Understanding our past is making sense of the present and provides a glimpse into the future.
These three periods were the pinnacle heights of furniture designing and making, thereafter was the beginning of the end of beauty, quality of design and build. Since the introduction of machinery very early in the 1800’s, craftsmen have been fighting a never ending losing battle, a tug of war between the mass manufacturers and the small custom cabinet shops.
Each serve a purpose and play their respective roles. While I am not fond of machinery, I do understand the important role they serve in many modern-day cabinetmaking shops. It cuts on labour costs by doing all the laborious tedious tasks of thicknessing and dimensioning you would do by hand. Having said that, not all the machinery in the world in any small cabinet shop can compete with mass manufacturers.
They undercut because their buying power reduces their costs to bare minimum, they mass produce for the masses and not the niche market. Whilst talented craftsmen target the niche market which seem almost impossible to penetrate without years of experience, knowledge, expertise and most importantly of enormous skill. No amount of schooling will teach you these skills, they can give you a good foundation, but it’s years of practical experience that will earn you these skillsets.
We owe much to our crafting ancestors from whom we have learned so much from by studying their work and, from the few manuscripts and even some books they left behind. While the craft of hand work is popularising due to the recent years of revitalisation of hand tool woodworking which I feel will be short lived, it is important that we all play a part to its upkeep.
Regardless of what level of knowledge or skill you may have, it is encumbered upon you to pass this knowledge on to the future generation. It isn’t important whether future generations will earn an income or not from this craft, but what is important is to keep this craft alive and progressing well into the future.
We all must play a part, I am doing my part by way of this blog, and I’m hopeful that I will gain a young apprentice. An 11-year-old boy, my son’s best friend, who has shown a keen interest to the craft, even though he wants to be a doctor.
Two honourable positions, both in service to mankind.