• Blog
  • Guide to Buying Antique and Modern Furniture: Why is Joinery Important?

Guide to Buying Antique and Modern Furniture: Why is Joinery Important?

Guide to Buying Furniture | George Nakashima

Beautiful butterfly joints in a large English oak burl and walnut table by George Nakashima (1905-1990). Auctioned for $204,000

How a piece of furniture is put together indicates how long that piece of furniture will stay together. For example, when I am shopping for a piece of furniture, I always check out the drawers and how they are constructed. Why chance having all your belongings fall out of your nightstand because the drawer bottom was stapled in and simply couldn’t hold together for very long?

Understanding how a piece of furniture was made before you buy can prevent you from having to replace or repair the piece. In the long run, this knowledge can save you money and time.

For centuries, craftsmen constructed furniture using hand tools and different methods of joining together the various parts to create a whole. Hide glue, nails, and wood joints were popular and practical methods used to hold a piece of furniture together.

Dovetail Joints

Guide to Buying Furniture | Dovetail Joint

This is one example of dovetail joinery commonly used in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The dovetail joint functions to keep the parts together as the wood expands and contracts with changes in moisture and temperature.

Note the scribe line marking the joint line–this shows that the maker used hand tools. If you feel tool marks on the underside of the drawer, this means it was hand -planed. Machine -planed wood has a smooth surface and does not leave the ridges that hand tools leave.

With the advent of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, machines became a popular way to make furniture parts and join those parts together. Nobody expected to see the joinery, and it was typically seen as an engineering solution, not an element of design.

Through Tenon Joints

Guide to Buying Furniture | Through Tenon JointBy the early 20th century (c. 1900) the Arts and Crafts Movement pushed back on the frenzy of the industrial revolution. Joinery came to the forefront and became a design principle offering strength, comfort and beauty.

As can be seen in this Arts and Crafts Morris chair, the through tenon joins the leg to the wide arm. The corbel below, which is joined to the post and supports the wide arm, provides additional support.  In this chair, joinery is an essential element of the design. It’s exposed and not hidden.

Finger Joints

Guide to Buying Furniture | Finger JointThe 20th century continued to embrace exposed joinery not only for its strength but as a design element, as can be seen in this mid-century modern chair from Denmark.

The curvilinear chair back continues through to the arm.  The use of a finger joint keeps the parts together, providing an elegant solution as well as strength and stability.

Butterfly Joints

Guide to Buying Furniture | Butterfly JointThe Studio Furniture movement started in the last quarter of the 20th century and is still thriving today. George Nakashima (1905-1990) designed his furniture based on the natural form of a piece of wood using minimal joinery. His sensitivity to the craft resulted in pieces where the wood seems to come alive. His daughter Mira Nakashima continues crafting furniture with the same intuitive gift.

This is a fine example of furniture crafted by George Nakashima.  A slab of old growth burled hardwood became the table top, and the natural fissure in the wood is held together with a butterfly joint. This functional joint provides minimal ornament. The through joint at the base provides strength and support for the large free edge top.

If you are shopping for a piece of furniture, paying attention to the joinery can tell you a lot about how  a piece was made, when it was made, and how long it might stay together. Good joinery and design stand the test of time.


2 thoughts on “Guide to Buying Antique and Modern Furniture: Why is Joinery Important?

  1. Pingback: How to Buy Antique Furniture | Buying Wooden Furniture

  2. Pingback: How to Buy Antique Furniture | Buying Wooden Furniture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *