Review by Gerald W. R. Ward
Encyclopedia of Furniture Materials, Trades and Techniques

Clive Edwards. Encyclopedia of Furniture Materials, Trades and Techniques. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. x + 254 pp.; 24 color and 148 bw illus., bibliography. $134.95.

Witold Rybczynski. One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw. New York: Scribner, 2000. 173 pp.; line drawings, glossary, index. $22.00.

One way of measuring the maturity and viability of a field of scholarly endeavor, perhaps, is through an assessment of the number and quality of its standard reference works—those essential tools that should reside on or near everyone’s desk. In the field of American furniture, there are not many such works—some general dictionaries of decorative arts, the magisterial but venerable Dictionary of English Furniture, some collection catalogues and pictorial surveys, and a few more or less unsatisfactory encyclopedias are all that come to mind quickly. Thus the English historian Clive Edwards has advanced the cause of the study of old (and more recent) furniture tremendously in his new Encyclopedia of Furniture Materials, Trades and Techniques. He courageously attempts to define and summarize every subject—from abrasives to zippers—related to the making of “British and American furniture and furnishings of the period 1500–2000.” Although the emphasis is mainly on British work before about 1920, the coverage is indeed broad, and the student of American furniture will find much of interest and value here.

The intended audience for this work is the furniture historian, broadly conceived, including collectors, curators, dealers, conservators, and students. It is not a “how-to” manual for the practicing woodworker, nor is it an attempt to summarize the evolution of design and aesthetics for the traditional art historian, although both groups would profit from having the book nearby for ready consultation. Rather, Edwards has provided us with a highly useful guide to furniture woods and other materials; to construction techniques and processes, including joints, adhesives, finishes, and so forth; and to the principal craft specialties within the large umbrella of furniture making, including the carver, joiner, gilder, marquetry worker, frame maker, upholsterer, and others. He also supplies entries for most furniture-making equipment, from hand tools to power-driven machinery. Some style terms, such as art deco, art nouveau, and baroque, are included but are dealt with (in accordance with the book’s ground rules) rather quickly. Others, such as mannerism and collector’s terms such as Queen Anne and Chippendale, are omitted.

One of the strengths of the book is the grounding of its entries in period sources, allowing for the discussion of a given term to be anchored in time. As might be expected, much of the documentation cited is from English materials. More emphasis is naturally placed on the historical aspects of a given topic than on more recent developments, but the coverage is nevertheless extensive. Carefully chosen illustrations supplement the text, although in some instances (as with the discussion of various joints), the inclusion of line drawings would have enhanced the text. Selected references are given for most of the longer entries, and a useful bibliography of both primary and secondary sources is included at the end of the volume.[1]

Almost every term one could think of finds a definition here, although I searched without success for cake, an upholsterer’s term, stack lamination, a process used by studio furniture makers such as Wendell Castle and Jack Rogers Hopkins in the 1960s, drawer blade, and a few others. However, if you want or need to know what a fat bag is (in terms of furniture), or what xulopyrography, domes of silence, atomic wood, or beaumontage happen to mean, this is the place to start.

But perhaps the book’s greatest strength is not so much the short definitions of obscure words (which in any event can be found in most good dictionaries), but in its longer narratives that provide capsule summaries of more well-known, but complicated to explain, processes and crafts. These provide a quick spot check of the state of our current understanding of the anatomy of the field, and will be of enormous assistance in manifold ways to students of all kinds. Specialists in various topics may find nits to pick here and there, but overall the Encyclopedia accomplishes its audacious goal in a superb manner.

Obviously, most research will not end by checking the Encyclopedia, but much of it will begin there. Many of Edwards’ subjects, to which he can only devote a page or two, might easily occupy a full volume. Such is the case, for example, with the five paragraphs (p. 191) he gives to screws and screwdrivers, a subject that Witold Rybczynski expands into an entire volume in One Good Turn. In the kind of book perhaps only an established and well-known author could get published, Rybczynski rambles on a bit about his attempt, in response to an editor’s question, to determine the best tool of the last millennium. After considering a variety of hand tools—most of which date much farther back in antiquity—he settled on the humble turnscrew (as screwdrivers were initially known, although the term doesn’t appear in Edwards). He allows us to follow his research, which begins with the Oxford English Dictionary and then moves on to many period books, including Moxon, Roubo, and Diderot’s encyclopedia. He digresses (always entertainingly) about various side trips along the way, such as his visit to the collection of Henry Mercer at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, or to the arms and armor gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Much of his research, however, was book-centered, rather than object related, which is unfortunate, since he could have learned quite a bit very quickly in a few hours with a curator or conservator of old furniture. But it is always a pleasure to follow the thought process of a great scholar, and Rybczynski doesn’t disappoint. In fact, he has a good deal of interesting material on various screw types, such as those invented by Peter S. Robertson and Henry F. Phillips, that Edwards simply doesn’t have room to discuss.

An astonishing statement made by Rybczynski concerns the screw-making factory established by the brothers Job and William Wyatt in 1776 near Birmingham, England. Using a process they patented in 1760, they developed machinery for making screws that could be operated by children and completely eliminate the workmanship of risk. Thus, he claims, “their factory was the earliest example of an industrial process designed specifically to shift control over the quality of what was being produced from the skilled artisan to the machine itself” (p. 87). Quite an achievement for the humble screw.

Although the Edwards volume and the Rybczynski essay are at opposite ends of the literary spectrum, each reminds us in its own way of the importance of understanding tools, materials, and craftsmanship when evaluating an example of furniture as a work of art or as material culture.

Gerald W.R. Ward
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

American Furniture 2002

  • [1]

    The bibliography is weighted toward English sources (no American cabinetmakers’ price books are cited, for example) and has its share of minor slips in citations: C. Hummel is given as C. “Humell”; J. L. Fairbanks as “J. C. Fairbanks”; D. Fennimore as “E. Fennimore”; and so forth. The list of periodicals has a curious omission (The Magazine Antiques) and doesn’t include some more recent technical periodicals, such as Fine Woodworking (published since 1975), that contain useful articles on twentieth-century furniture making.