Furniture without Glue
Tuesday 14 September 2010
Modern glues could be the undoing of furniture concludes Gary Ramsden as he looks at the adhesive-free joinery of Elizabethan times, and Derek Jones looks at bamboo furniture that bonds with a water-based glue
In Cabinetmaking, The Professional Approach Alan Peters said that despite all the advances in adhesives nothing would stop a piece of timber moving if it so wished. Using fairly conventional time-tested methods, he tried in his construction never to rely solely on glue. Much of his furniture would stand up and survive without any glue at all.
His confidence in centuries of empirical knowledge is based on a fundamental principle that is often forgotten in the quest for visual artistry. An over reliance on bonding technology sometimes ignores this basic truism. Timber has character, moods and needs long after it has been felled.
Peters said that this simple fact was ignored even by professionals who allowed their search for visual appeal to override this fundamental question that even the most uneducated village carpenter understood and took into account. No village carpenter would ever have done that traditionally in Britain where frame and loose panel construction has been used successfully for centuries.
The most obvious expression of this principle is found in the wood panelling that has graced the walls of many Elizabethan country mansions for more than 400 years. The longevity of the work is based on the integrity of a jointing system that does not try to constrain movement but assumes and accommodates it.
The rarity of early trunks and chests owes much to the fact that much early furniture was a collaboration between the carpenter and blacksmith who attempted to nail and bind boards together with iron straps. Inevitably, the work would tear itself apart over time as it responded to its environment.
The pinned mortice and tenon with a loose panel infill represents a technological leap that heralded the sophisticated carcass constructions of subsequent centuries. The principle of a well-fitting joint with a mechanical anchor can be seen in country oak furniture of the period.
Elizabethan furniture remained a preserve of the very rich, most people owning few pieces beyond what they could make themselves. They lived communally in the streets and taverns where they would come into contact with refectory and trestle tables and benches. These were essentially knockdown glueless designs exploiting joints like the tusk tenon that were developed for timber-framed buildings.
The country carpenter of the Elizabethan period would recognise many of the designs made by Alan Peters, particularly his stools and benches which use the familiar technologies of wedged through tenons and wedged spindles, often seen on milking stools of the period. It is this sensitive and honest approach of the country craftsman that inspired the architects of the Arts and Crafts movement.
It is probably too early to make a meaningful comment but Alan Peters may have anticipated a problem that could haunt furniture restorers in the future. It is a restatement of the problems encountered by the carpenter and blacksmith making Gothic chests, concerned what happens to a joint assembled with an adhesive stronger than the wood itself.
Many surviving early pieces have not always survived intact but have been repaired and restored many times. Use of traditional glueless joints, or adhesives that degrade, allows the joints to be disassembled, made good and reassembled as a serviceable piece of furniture.
The relative novelty of super glues does not give us the empirical evidence to make a meaningful assessment but it is possible, given the inevitable movement in a joint, that the joint itself will fail rather than the bond, making repair much more difficult.
Chair stripped bare
The maker of this mid 18th-century chair has been sparing with his selection of material. The back and rail of a chair can tell us a great deal about its age and who might have made it and in spite of its simplicity this example is actually very revealing.
The choice of material is rather lean which suggests it was not intended to be a luxury item. However, the baluster back panel indicates that it had every intention of appearing attractive albeit from a distance.
The hard flat seat was not made for comfort and it is likely the user was never intended to sit for long. A carpenter or similar tradesman and not a furniture maker would probably have made items of this nature.
There is a nod towards the current style with the back panel but any evidence of knowledge about current methods of construction or furniture design are lacking. The back legs are straight in profile and the seat is nailed onto the frame through the top. Grain direction and thickness of material are partly responsible for the breaks that have been crudely but nonetheless effectively repaired.
Elsewhere the joint system is rather more telling. Every joint is morticed and tenoned with pins in a style reminiscent of wall panelling, a skill that would have been second nature to a carpenter who had learnt his trade from generations of carpenters before him.
A construction like this is an example of the mechanical virtues of many woodworking joints. Design has always been an intellectual action even if it has not always been recognised as such. Craftsmen have been at the cutting edge of this discipline but have largely been usurped by the intellectualising of the design process.
Straight-line thinking has taught us to eliminate any tension in wood as early into our making process as practicable. So, what of a joint system that harnesses the very nature of the material itself?
With his Grassworks furniture collection Jair Straschnow harnesses the very nature of the material. Made of bamboo and designed for flat-pack delivery, his self-assembly structures offer space-saving storage solutions with a twist.
Loyal to a single material, the various tables and trestles, bookshelves and benches can all be assembled with a minimum of metal fastenings.
Avoiding screws and glue led Straschnow to rethink traditional woodworking techniques, most notably the reworking of the dovetail joint.
For economy as much as anything the manufacturing process relies on modern CNC routing to implement the dovetail joint, not only as a detail but also as a structural principle, allowing the user only one possible way of assembly.
Another core aspect of the Grassworks collection is the consideration of physical space as an actual resource. Trying to use space economically resulted in multi-purpose objects like a dining chair that converts into an easy chair, a bookshelf that can function as a space divider, tables that extend, fold, collapse and flat pack.
The Grassworks collection is an attempt to make maximum use of the structural and flexible qualities of a material, as well as the physical space it occupies.
Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on earth. Technically it is a grass, hence the name Grassworks, that can be harvested again and again from the same stalk.
A non-toxic water-based glue was specially developed for bamboo laminates, resulting in a truly green material designed to leave a minimal footprint in the process. As for the restorers of the future, well I think we are making their job a little easier.