Hand-Carved American Furniture that Never Came Close to a Chisel

The elaborate design on the crest rail of this turn-of-the-century oak rocker was pressed into the wood, not carved.

In furniture making and design, it always seems preferable that flat, plain panels of unadorned wood be largely avoided wherever possible. There’s a need to decorate blank space.

Over the centuries, that need has largely been filled using the talents of people with special skills that few of us ever acquire. These are the carvers—the craftspeople who can release a figure from a blank block of wood or who can depict a fluid battle scene in a stationary medium.

But when it comes to that American “hand-carved” 20th century oak chair, you might not be seeing the whole picture. While mostly true for early Colonial pieces, the advent of factories and technology has the made the term “hand carved” not a true part of American furniture since before the turn of the 20th century.

Hand-carved furnishings have been a part of many cultures and civilizations across time. Egyptian furniture was carved with religious symbols and animal figures. The Greeks and Romans followed suit, and Western art, much of it religious, was soon scratched into wood in the Middle Ages. The Far East has always enjoyed the work of excellent carvers. European Gothic carving was of the highest quality in oak, and later Renaissance carving was even more refined in the finer-grained walnut of the period.

This Hadley-style chest, circa 1694, is certainly hand carved.

In the United States, carving skills were quickly developed by early Colonial workers, and an American tradition of hand carving was established. Some of the finest carving ever done in the Colonies was the work of the great New England cabinetmakers, even though they were influenced somewhat by English tastes. Even after the United States was established as a separate entity, much of the carving work was influenced by European training and taste. For example, Duncan Phyfe and Charles Lannuier were great Colonial hand carvers, and their work is unmistakable, but they were both European-trained.

Many American-born carvers emerged during the Rococo Revival period of the mid-century, and American carving reached both its height and its depth at the end of the 19th century.

The Renaissance Revival period of the late part of the century required some excellent carving skills incorporated into its architectural theme, but American furniture manufacturing in the 1880s and 1890s was entering the great factory-production period, and hand carving was too time consuming.

One of the greatest American carvers worked in this period and represented the height of the art in the 19th century: Robert J. Horner. Today, Horner pieces are among the most highly sought, especially those that depict winged griffins.

But he was among the last of the great furniture carvers.

The griffins on this R.J. Horner desk, circa 1900, are hand carved.

So what about all the fancy carved furniture of the Golden Oak period? Or those elaborately carved sideboards and tall beds? And what about all the chairs with fancy carved backs? And all the elaborate furniture of the Depression era?

Four advances in technology pretty well put an end to high-volume hand carving by the end of the 19th and into the 20th centuries: the spindle carver; the die press; the router; and plastic.

The spindle carver came along in the 1880s and was perfected in the 1890s. It employed a series of cutting heads mounted on spindles attached to a central handle. A skilled worker could manipulate the handle over a single master carving and turn out dozens of identically carved pieces in very short order. In effect, it was a pantograph used to duplicate wood carving rather drawings.

And where did all those spindle-carved pieces go? They were applied to the tall oak headboard and the fancy sideboard, creating the look of expensive hand-carved works. All the detail work was machine-carved and applied, not carved from the background material.

Another sleight of hand (or factory, as it were) produced the overwhelming number of chairs around the turn of the century, primarily oak and sporting elaborate designs and patterns carved into the crest rails. But very few of those were actually hand carved, thanks to the die press.

A few of the more elaborate “face” chairs featuring demon heads or mythological creatures were, in fact, hand carved, but for the most part such designs were simply pressed in the wood. A sharp steel die was rolled under great pressure over the plain wood crest rail destined for a new chair. As it passed, it transferred the design on the die to the wood, literally pressing it in. These chairs became known as “press back” chairs and were the favorites of the mail-order and premium bonus houses of the period.

All of the decoration and “carvings” on the crest and doors of this turn-of-the-century oak sideboard are actually machine-made applied molding.

The elaborately carved knees of this Depression-era coffee table were spindle carved. You can see the grooves made by the cutting head.

This elaborate frame was not carved at all. It is made of plaster that was poured into a mold. Of course, the mold had to be carved at some point but only once. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Northgate Gallery photo)

This elaborate frame was not carved at all. It is made of plaster that was poured into a mold. Of course, the mold had to be carved at some point but only once. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Northgate Gallery photo)

By the Depression era, the spindle carver, combined with the hand-held router, pretty much eliminated hand carving to any great degree. The basic shapes of couch frames or chair frames were cut by machinery. Patterns were traced into the wood and the apparent handwork of the deeply carved frames and feet was done by a worker with a power router following a design. A real carver often came along and added a chisel marks for authenticity, but that was about it.

Finally came the use of synthetic appliques in the Depression era to augment the applied-molding concept of the oak period. While the spindle carver and the router could turn out most decorative molding, some of the work was too delicate for machinery and too time consuming for handwork. Of particular interest were the floral decorations of bedroom furniture. The delicate raised flowers and flowing garlands on the doors of chifforettes and top drawers of vanities appeared to be carved, but they were actually castings made of a plastic-like cellulose poured into a mold. They were then glued to the appropriate piece of furniture and finished or painted just like the wood.

Such technologies means that, when it comes to American furniture, much of what may seem hand-carved is actually a trick of trade—at least for pieces before the turn of the 20th century. And when it comes to collecting, knowing a little history helps a lot.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or e-mail them to me at info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800.387.6377 (Monday through Friday only, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time), fax 352.563.2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com. All items are also available directly from the website, www.furnituredetective.com.

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