We revere Old World work, and rightly so. Sometimes, though, the work wasn’t the best.
I spoke recently about some shortcuts I found on an old antique drop-leaf table. All woodworkers take shortcuts, but we tend – rightly or wrongly – to hold woodworkers of the past to a higher standard. They used nothing but hand-cut dovetails, after all, so they must be perfect right? Not always.
For that drop-leaf table I found that the hinge mortises weren’t true mortises at all, but overlong dados cut on a table saw. The work was good, though, and everything matched exactly. However, for another old piece we recently acquired – a cherry end table with turned legs – not everything matches quite so perfectly.
I was crawling underneath it the other day (spring is hairball season for shedding cats) and while there gazed at the underside of the table for a while. The work is good, but from my vantage point it was easy to see that the legs didn’t match. They’re very good, which explains why I never noticed before, but no two match exactly. The spindle shape is a mix of coves, beads and ogees, but the distance between the various profiles wasn’t the same in spots. Almost, but still noticeable on close inspection.
Nothing about this diminishes my appreciation for the table. To the contrary, the slight differences in the legs tells me the table isn’t a production piece where the legs were churned out by the score, but rather were most likely done one at a time by a single woodworker. A very good woodworker, but one who put far more importance in the total piece than nitpicking over the small details.
I think I like this table even more now.