What is Fine Woodworking? Part 2

By Jared Patchin | Posted: 05/31/2013 12:21PM


J Alexander Fine Woodworking Jared Patchin Last week we began our discussion on “What is Fine Woodworking” by looking at the cabinetry side of things. Today, we will turn our attention towards the more complex, intricate, and varied world of custom furniture.

We don’t build any large lots of furniture, nor do we specialize in any particular style of furniture at J. Alexander, so every piece we are commissioned to build is unique in some way. We have to decide which set of woodworking techniques will best complete the project at hand. But, don’t forget, when you are a professional woodworker, it is not enough to simply build high-end furniture, you must figure out how to build the piece fast enough to also make money and stay in business. Staying in business, and being profitable, has to be the main goal of any business owner. Building high-quality furniture is a means towards that end, but it is not the end in an of itself. There are thousands of amateur furniture makers whom can crank out beautifully hand-made furniture, but would go broke if they had to do it for a living.

Let’s look at a few areas of furniture making and see how I decide which methods to employ.

Hand Tools vs. Power Tools
I am a little hesitant to admit this, but we have almost no hand tools in the shop. Aside from a simple run-of-the-mill block plane, rasps, and a few chisels, we are entirely a power tool shop. Why, you might ask? One reason is that we really aren’t commissioned to build any intricate and highly detailed furniture pieces, where hand tools would really shine. The second reason is that, for pretty much every process, power tools can accomplish the task faster and more accurately than hand tools.

There are exceptions, to be sure, but speed and repeatability is critical. In the end, your client does not care what kind of tool you used to build their piece, only that you delivered what they ordered. Those who work with hand tools, do it as much for the love of the process, as for the precision of the final product.

Integrated Tenon vs. Festool Domino
This leads me into the integrated tenon vs. loose tenon or, more appropriately, the integrated tenon vs. Festool Domino debate. Maybe it is only a debate in the amateur woodworking community, or among furniture building purists, but I gave up on integrated tenons years ago, long before we even got a Domino in the shop. When we did purchase a Festool Domino about a year ago, it killed off the integrated tenon for us forever.

In my opinion, integrated tenons are just not practical because they take so much more time to create and fit. Two mortises with a loose tenon is a pretty quick process, lightning fast with a Domino and, from every thing I have heard and experienced, just as strong as the classic mortise and tenon. I also believe the Domino has helped us build better furniture, because now we have no excuse not to use a tenoned joint, since it is so fast and easy to make. I don’t want to turn this blog entry into a Festool Domino advertisement, but if you build furniture for a living, and are not using a Domino, save up $1000 and buy one. Your bottom line and work-flow will thank you.

Veneer/Plywood vs. Solid Wood
To me, this is not really even a debate anymore, given how good modern day plywoods and veneers are. I have no qualms about using plywood throughout most of our work. The stability of plywood is a life-saver when it comes to potential wood movement issues, and a time-saver on large projects. The only time I insist on using solid wood is on table tops, large or small, and trim work that will take a beating and may need to be re-finished in the future.

Glue on Veneer vs. PSA Veneers
This issue is what sparked me to write this blog entry in the first place. Let me begin by stating that I have used PSA backed veneer a total of six times. Twice for a cabinet re-facing job, once to repair the back of a stained cabinet that was burned by a wayward halogen puck light, and three times on a piece of furniture, two of which were made before I owned a vacuum bag.

Since building the curved Sapele hall bench, I have been able to meet with my KerfCore rep, and was shown some tips and tricks, which would have allowed me to veneer the curved bench in the vacuum bag. PSA veneer has no place in fine furniture, and should only be used for kitchen re-facing jobs.

I’m chalking up my previous use of PSA veneers as a lesson learned the hard way. I have listened to those in the industry who have more knowledge and experience than me, and I will be limiting my use of PSA veneers to those certain re-facing jobs only.

Mechanical Slides vs. Wood Drawer Runners
I know many purists loath the idea of using mechanical slides in any piece of fine furniture, but the fact of the matter is wood runners are too inconvenient for most customers. They can bind up with seasonal movement, the beeswax needs to be periodically re-applied, and they take a lot longer to design and build into the drawer box and carcass.

Mechanical runners are maintenance-free, easy to install, and require a simple drawer box without any additional dados. The main drawback to a side-mounted slide is the fact that it is completely visible, which is why on high-end pieces of furniture that have drawers, I like to sell the client on concealed undermount slides. All the benefits of a mechanical slide, without the unsightly metal.

Doweled Drawer Boxes vs. Dovetailed Boxes
We offer both drawer box options to our clients. I believe most people think dovetails are higher-quality and stronger, but in terms of everyday wear-and-tear, I would put our 3/4″ doweled drawer up against a dovetailed box any day. If the drawer box is mounted on ball-bearing or undermount slides, then there is very little force being applied to the drawer box itself. Short of a hammer blow, a well-built doweled drawer will last decades, and as such, we educate the client and allow them to decide what they are willing, or not willing, to pay for.

Finally, our main challenge as furniture builders is figuring out how to build high-quality pieces of furniture, that our clients can afford, while making a profit. Most furniture can be constructed in a dozen different ways, and with labor costs usually being the most expensive ingredient of any job, the shop that masters the most efficient methods and techniques will have the best chance of survival.

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About the Author

Jared Patchin J Alexander Fine Woodworking Network

Jared Patchin

Jared Patchin started woodworking professionally in 2008 when he set-up J.Alexander Fine Woodworking in Boise, ID, where he builds custom crafted furniture and cabinetry. He started building furniture at the age of seven when his father bought Shutter Crafts. He has developed his craft since then, moving from making wooden swords for himself and his friends to building some of the finest furniture and cabinetry available. He lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and two young sons, who have taken over the sword making side of things.

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