There is a great article on the Woodworkers Institute website which I stumbled upon quite randomly. I was actually researching some information on construction techniques for making dining room extension tables, when “lo and behold” I came across this two part article entitled Poetry in Wood. (Note – as of 2022 it seems this article is no longer on their site – scroll to the bottom of the page where we have archived it here).
“One of the reasons why joints were so complex in China, Japan and Korea was the climate. There are huge changes of temperature and humidity throughout the whole of central and south-east Asia, and many European colonists discovered the furniture they took with them from Europe fell to pieces because the animal glue softened in the high humidity and heat. The woodworkers of those countries found that it was necessary to make interlocking joints which had mechanical strength rather than rely on glued joints. I recall the world-record price 18th-century mirror that I worked on at Sotheby’s, pictured left, which had tiny bamboo dowels joining the 6mm-thick backboards rather than the European equivalent which would be a rubbed joint.
This is not to say that oriental furniture was not glued; it just didn’t rely so heavily upon glue. There is a similarity with 18th-century Continental chairs which tended to be pegged and glued as opposed to British ones which were only glued. One could perhaps argue that Continental colonial furniture stood up to high humidity better than British furniture! One of the roles of the furniture restorer in China was to replace and tighten the dovetail wedges used when the joints in furniture had become loose. One needs to remember that the whole assemblage of a piece of Chinese furniture depends upon the interlocking joints for stability. The top is not glued up, followed by the legs being glued on etc. The frame holds the top boards, the legs then anchor the frame, and the dovetail wedges anchor the whole lot together.”
The article is not bad, though the best part is the excellent diagrams illustrating some of the standard Chinese joinery techniques used in Chinese furniture making.
Long considered the definitive work on Chinese hardwood furniture in a Western language, this indispensable guide contains 161 superb plates that include photographs and drawings of tables, chairs, couches, cabinets, cupboards, and wardrobes. There are also measured drawings for 21 exquisitely crafted pieces for woodworkers interested in creating authentic Chinese furniture.
Poetry in Wood Pt 1
Michael Huntley demystifies the furniture making techniques of Chinese craftsmen prior to 1900
(ALL PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF CHRISTIES UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED)
Carpentry was a highly respected activity among the artisan class of ancient China. Carpentry traditions there have existed for several thousand years, and have been noted in ancient texts. The Ode to Fine Grained Wood, quoted from here, was written in the 2nd-century BC.
Here in the west we are fascinated by Oriental crafts. There seems to be an unconscious perception that Oriental objects are made using some mysterious and arcane skill unavailable to us but I believe the real difference is in approach. Woodworking prior to 1900 – and in remote areas a long time after 1900 – relied upon locally made hand tools, skill in using them, and the understanding of the timber based upon generations of experience.
There was also a different perception of time. I am sure the Oriental woodworker’s children were just as hungry as his Western counterpart, and that wages were a significant factor, but the complexity of Oriental joints and the makers’ concern for aesthetic appearance is such that they cannot have been as concerned about time and output as their 19th-century Western counterparts.
one of the reasons why joints were so complex in china, japan and korea was the climate. there are huge changes of temperature and humidity throughout the whole of central and south-east asia, and many european colonists discovered the furniture they took with them from europe fell to pieces because the animal glue softened in the high humidity and heat. the woodworkers of those countries found that it was necessary to make interlocking joints which had mechanical strength rather than rely on glued joints.
I recall the world-record price 18th-century mirror that I worked on at Sotheby’s, pictured left, which had tiny bamboo dowels joining the 6mm-thick backboards rather than the European equivalent which would be a rubbed joint.
This is not to say that oriental furniture was not glued; it just didn’t rely so heavily upon glue. There is a similarity with 18th-century Continental chairs which tended to be pegged and glued as opposed to British ones which were only glued. One could perhaps argue that Continental colonial furniture stood up to high humidity better than British furniture!
One of the roles of the furniture restorer in China was to replace and tighten the dovetail wedges used when the joints in furniture had become loose. One needs to remember that the whole assemblage of a piece of Chinese furniture depends upon the interlocking joints for stability. The top is not glued up, followed by the legs being glued on etc. The frame holds the top boards, the legs then anchor the frame, and the dovetail wedges anchor the whole lot together.
Christie‘s in new york recently had a specialist sale of chinese furniture which they have kindly let me write about using their catalogue descriptions. the first piece is a late ming (16th/17th century) extended-leg table in huanghuali (dalbergia odorifera). this is an unusual table in that it has more decoration than is usually found on ming pieces. the top is made of two planks with a mitred frame, below which is an undulating lotus-leaf border. the rails are carved with phoenix, birds, flowers and cloud scrolls. the brackets are in the form of dragons. the bulbous feet are known as ‘garlic head’ feet. it is 865mm high x 535 x 647mm (34 x 21 x 25 1/2in).
The term ‘extended leg’ refers to the fact that the early versions of these tables had a long leg extension that could be attached under the short stubby shoulder. This allowed the table to be used in wintertime low down on the heated floor, or in summertime raised up on its more elegant legs. These ‘knockdown tables’ were also easier to store.
The detail of making these leg extensions is described in Klaas Ruitenbeek’s Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China. A Study of the Fifteenth-Century Carpenter’s Manual Lu Ban jing (Brill Academic Publishers, ISBN 9004 105 298). Eventually two types of table were made. Those with short legs and those with (fixed) extended legs, as seen here.
this much plainer late ming table is also in huanghuali but this time the top is a panel of burr nanmu (phoebe nanmu). it is 785mm high x 1755 x 940mm (31 x 69 x 37in).
Chinese society was run by scholars. Some were civil servants while others were educated individuals known as ‘literati’, and this ‘painting table’ would act as a desk for official work and as a place for painting, calligraphy and writing poems. The spandrel brackets are in the form of stylised cloud collars, more usually seen on ceramics, and the braces securing the legs to the underside of the top are known as ‘giant’s arm braces’.
The ‘literati’ furniture which forms a very large portion of the extant domestic output was characterised by the use of ‘noble materials’ and restrained proportion. In the West oak might be regarded as a ‘noble’ wood in the same way that a lion would be a ‘noble’ animal, whereas beech or chestnut would not be a ‘noble material’.
The density and working characteristics of the timber allowed the Chinese furniture makers to cut very intricate joints and use very slender leg sections which gave an appearance of purity. This characteristic, together with attractive appearance and elegant design, gave classical Chinese furniture its uniqueness. Unfortunately the hard timbers meant that chisels had to be sharpened more often – as anyone who has worked on Oriental furniture will confirm!
Another major cultural reason why the Oriental craft ethos is so different from that in the West is that the Orientals respect the past. They venerate their ancestors and the objects associated with them. When a young member of a family inherits in the West the first thing they want to do is change everything and bring it up to date. In the East the objects and the traditions of the ancestors are maintained. There are in existence now, paintings from the Song dynasty (960-1279), which show tables very similar to the ones in the Christie’s sale 900 years later. We simply do not have, and can barely understand, such a long, uninterrupted tradition of craftwork.
another item from the late 16th/early 17th century is this 610mm- (24in) high incense stand in huanghuali. this is a rather nice version of the conventional jardiniere stand. the top has a little bead around the edge, known as a ‘water stopping bead’. the rim itself is formed of five segments above the panelled waist and the legs terminate in upward curling tendrils enclosing a sphere. these legs are rather similar to art nouveau designs. the cabriole leg, a french-derived term, was adopted by the west to describe the elegant curve of what the chinese had long known as ‘the elephant trunk’, ‘preying mantis’ or ‘dragonfly leg’ form.
the term ‘altar coffer’ is a western invention. this is probably due to their inclusion in pictures showing them used as family altars. they were also used for domestic storage. any narrow side table could be used as a family altar, as indeed could a plain shelf. in fact what is a table other than a shelf set on legs? the piece shown here, again in huanghuali, is 815mm high x 1805 x 560mm (32 x 71 x 22in) and has the familiar swing handles in brass normally associated with chinese furniture.
The plane was introduced in China in the 18th century. The effect of this straight edge-producing technology can be seen in the subtle shift towards angularity and straight-line moulded profiles that became characteristic of 18th-century items.
an 18th-century huanghuali bamboo-style corner-leg table, 815mm high x 1120 x 560mm (32 x 44 x 22in) is shown above right. the reeding around the top is intended to look like applied bamboo canes. sometimes the nodes are carved but in this instance stylised bamboo has been used in order to retain the symmetry. these legs run straight down from the underside of the mitred top frame as opposed to the extended leg version seen earlier.
Poetry in Wood Pt2
My appreciation of Chinese furniture and the West’s fascination with it continues with an investigation into an 18th-century bed – pictured above. This is, essentially, a dais or low platform. It’s made like a table but with larger-section timbers. The legs end with in-curving hoof feet enclosing a soft-mat sleeping platform. Above the dais, four posts, a lattice screen – the making of screens as dividers for rooms was a very important sub-craft within Chinese carpentry – and a canopy above are added. The carvings on the canopy frieze depict interlocking dragons and stylised medallions formed from the character for longevity.
The piece is tiger maple, and the overall dimensions are 2290mm x 2030mm x 1395mm (90in x 80in x 55in). As in the West, curtains were hung inside the bed to protect the sleeper from draughts and insects. This four-poster bed is more likely to have been a man’s bed; the six-poster was a wedding bed and was often a dowry item brought into the marriage; this was more likely to be found in the women’s quarters.
there is an association between those who could write, the ‘literati’ and those who made tables for them to write on. the emperor tianqi (1605-1627) enjoyed woodworking, and guilds regulated the activity of carpenters. there was a difference between ‘large carpentry’, which included beams and roofs, and ‘small carpentry’, which covered doors, windows, screens between rooms and the furniture used in the rooms. apprentices worked with relatives or friends, and were expected to start with menial tasks before slowly working up to greater skill levels. the apprentice was expected to do everything from his own observations, and, in some cases, the asking of questions was not allowed. if you could not see how to perform the task you would not acquire the knowledge. the guilds also organised the annual celebrations to honour their guardian deities. in the case of the carpenters this was lu ban – see bibliography below. another example of the organisation of the craft is to be found in a sung dynasty (960-1279) manuscript which deals with the sawyer. rates of pay are indicated for plank sawyers – the cutting of oak attracted the highest and fir the lowest. an adjustment was made for re-sawing single lengths of old, re-used material which was ‘full of nails’. there are also figures for the various tasks within a workshop. a common ratio is four rough carvers, four finish carvers, three joiners and one finisher, all within the same workshop. another fact recorded is the use of oil, lacquer and ash to finish furniture. in fact, chinese written records contain so much historical, but perhaps apocryphal, detail about the craft that their writing, just like their furniture, puts us to shame.
Suggestions of further titles to read are given to the right (See ‘Bibliography’ box out) for those who want to undertake further research.
this pair of huanghuali chairs (see picture 5 above) dates from the 18th century. the chairs are known as ‘official’s hat’ chairs because the silhouette of their high rectangular backs resembles the hats worn by mandarins. they are 1120mm (44in) high. notice the elegant ‘pipe-joints’ which join the arm and back elements – see drawing of joint opposite. this other pair of huanghuali chairs, above, was made a little earlier. the crest rail resembles a yoke, explaining why they were known as ‘yoke back’ chairs. the splat is pierced with a ‘ruyi’ or cloud scrolls shape, which contains a lion on one chair and a deer on the other. the serpentine arms pre-date the european equivalent – bear in mind these chairs were made at around the time of the english civil war. we just had boring puritan furniture then while the chinese had serpentine and cabriole forms.
This is a member of the Leguminoseae family, and is botanically classified as Dalbergia odorifera. It is closely related to rosewood. In ancient times the wood was known as huali or hualu. The prefix ‘huang’, which means yellowish-brown, was added in the early 20th century to describe old huali wood, the surface of which had mellowed to a yellowish tone due to a long exposure to light. This is a fine example of the antique trade altering traditional timber nomenclature.
No European equivalent – the botanical name is Phoebe nanmu.
Southern elm – Zelkova scheneideriana – was an important Ming cabinetwood. Not the same as our elm, which is Ulmus spp. Some of these timber descriptions are taken from the web and should be treated with a little caution, but I suspect the basics are correct. The glossary in Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture seems to provide the best cross-reference between Romanized Chinese common names and botanical Latin.
There is great confusion in the naming of Chinese timbers and in the translations. Chinese makers were much more concerned with the appearance and workability of a timber than its actual name.
W Shixiang, Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture, Chicago, 1990, ISBN 1-878529-01-3
G Kates, Chinese Household Furniture, New York, 1962, ISBN 048620958X
W Shixiang & Evarts, Masterpieces from the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, San Francisco, 1995, ISBN 1883662028
G Ecke, Chinese Domestic Furniture in Photographs and Measured Drawings, New York, 1986, ISBN 0486251713
N Berliner, Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th centuries, Boston, 1996, ISBN 0-87846-434-4
Various journals of the Classical Chinese Furniture Society are all worth a look too. There is also a permanent exhibition of both ancient and contemporary Chinese furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
K. Ruitenbeek, Building and Carpentry in Late Imperial China, A Study of the Carpenter’s Manual Lu Ban Jing, reprint 1993, Leiden 1996, Brill Academic Publishers, ISBN 9004105298
This book deals with the world of carpenters and joiners, discussing both the technical and the religious aspects of Chinese house-building. As furniture making was a part of the carpenter’s job, sections on this craft are included. The recipes and proportions are ritualistic rather than actual, but a general sense of how the craft was organised can be felt. The book was written around 1600AD, and it’s worth remembering that there is no equivalent of this book in the West.