You might wonder why go through the effort of constructing a prototype when building a new piece? After all, it requires material, and at least as much time to create it, as the “official” piece. Why not just apply those resources to the finished piece?
So here’s my story…
I embarked on this Oeben re-creation, after much study, by constructing a three-dimensional SketchUp (SU) model. The thought being build it in SU to work out the bugs in the process. This may come as a surprise to you, but ALL of the aprons on this table exhibit a curve to some degree (fortunately they’re not compound!). There are very few flat exterior surfaces on the piece! At the time, I thought the easiest way to handle this would be to begin with thick material, then shape it appropriately. I drew it this way, and didn’t look back. Life was good… Or was it?
Now it comes time to cut wood. So, I choose an appropriately thick piece of stock for the “Main Box” front. The “Main Box” being the “drawer” that extends forward when the top is released and retracted. It contains all of the other “hidden” components. For several weeks, I continue working – yet, something keeps bothering me. Each time I look at the curve for the front, it seems out of place, like it’s inappropriate, and not representative of what I see in the original. Finally, I sit down, and look through the photos. I come across an image taken of the bottom. It’s available on the Getty Museum’s website. I’m showing an outline of its shape below. The two open spots at the bottom are where the legs protrude.
From it, I calculate the extent of the curvature at its most extreme, and learn that my drawing is about 1.5 cm too shallow. Not necessarily a show stopper. But wait – I look closer. Not all of the aprons were created in this fashion! It appears that the board comprising the rear apron was bent. Looking further still, I come across this photo showing the underside of the “Main Box”.
It shows a uniform thickness board bending in a gentle arc composing the front of the “Main Box”. So, it appears that my plan to work a thicker board to shape is incorrect. Now the question becomes how did Oeben’s craftsmen accomplish this?
There are several methods for creating curves in wood. The most basic is to cut perpendicular kerfs along its inside. This leaves voids allowing room for compression. However, these spaces are highly visible, and from the previous picture, not in evidence in this table. A second method involves slicing the board into thin planks along the grain then gluing them back together while clamped to a form. Once the glue dries, the board maintains the shape. I have witnessed instances where this was done and difficult to detect, but I don’t believe that this method was used either. A third procedure involved steaming the board and bending it. While this seems to be plausible, was this historically correct for the period in which the table was made?
Following a brief exchange with Patrick Edwards, this appears not to be the case. According to Patrick:
Oeben did not steam bend furniture. French curves are sawn from solid wood. Although Denis Papin (1647-1712) invented the steam pressure cooker, no one thought to use it to bend wood until the 19th century. Complex two dimensional curves are “sculpted” as you suggest using chisels and scrapers. Final truing of the surface was with toothing planes.
So, my initial methodology was correct, and the aprons were hewn from thicker stock.
If I hadn’t taken the time to construct the prototype, I may have missed out on this learning opportunity. Not only do prototypes help you work through unforeseen issues that weren’t caught during the modeling phase, and provide valuable practice for building the final version:
If you can’t get it right on the prototype, how do you expect to get it right for the final piece?
The process of creating a prototype gives insight into how the piece was originally made – living archeology, if you’re paying attention!
So, what becomes of the current prototype now that this issue has come to light? After all, good material and effort has already been expended to reach this point. Rather than discard it, I decided to laminate material and “thicken it up”, upon consideration. While this will allow me to obtain the appropriate external shape, the interior will remain as it is presently. It’s a compromise I will live with for now…