I visited two celebrated upholstery factories in the U. S. and one in Italy:
each fastidious in their choice of raw materials and production methods for upholstered chairs and sofas.
Their collective standards of excellence provide the criteria necessary
to judge the quality of upholstered furniture at any price.
Each frame is a non-splitting hard wood of one species.
After components are joined with mortise and tenon, frames are ready for the suspension system: strips of jute webbing are tacked to the frame and stretched, tightly woven and stitched to provide a firm, flexible foundation for springs.
Steel coils are placed by a springs specialist—to fill the entire seating area. The size and gauge of the coils is varied to support stress; heavy coils are densely packed and positioned under the knees and along exterior edges.
Spring coils are sewn to the tightly woven burlap base and the process is repeated for the back of chairs and sofas as well as upholstered arms.
Springs are compressed and 8-way tied so their original
tension and shape is retained throughout use.
Hand-knotting allows differentiation in stability and pressure.
Burlap, placed over the 8-way hand-tied coiled springs, is tacked down as a foundation for fillings.
Every layer of filling, whether foamed plastic—animal hair or whatever the specifications require —is covered with flannel or muslin—to prevent filling from shifting. This ‘unseen’ covering is sewn as carefully as if it were upholstery fabric.
Flying fingers reveal the sensitivity of a craftsman’s touch as he judges the amount of filling for a chair and then sews a second covering of burlap over the filling.
Frames must never be felt through fillings.
A craftsman rhythmically moves a magnetized hammer to his lips to retrieve an upholsterers’ tack clenched between his teeth.
An edge roll, (a heavy coil of fiber) is attached to the front edge of the wooden seat rail to add strength where body pressure is applied when changing from a sitting to a standing position.
Edge rolls eliminate gaps beneath cushion. It also raises the appearance of the base of the sofa. Edge rolls are stationary (not connected to the spring action) and covered with muslin for a firm application.
Cambric covers are sewn to encase
specified fillings for seat and back cushions. Above, light and fluffy goose downisstuffed into cambric covers.
Here, a dacron polyester fiberfill is the final padding
tacked and sewn to provide a soft hand beneath the upholstery fabric.
Upholstery fabricis cut from a pattern and usually lined to impart body and combat stretching. If welting is specified, soft cotton cord (never plastic)is covered with bias-cut upholstery fabric and sewn into the seams.
Upholstery covering is both hand-tacked and hand-sewn by master craftsmen.
To create real tufting, craftsmen must pull cords from a button on the front of a sofa through to the back where each cord is secured.
Physical force is necessary to pull heavy cords from front to back. In a ” SOFA VS. CRAFTSMAN” battle. The craftsman won!
Tufting on less costly furniture may be only an ‘appearance of tufting’,
achieved by inserting a pronged button— known to fall out in time.
The final step for good quality upholstery is a cambric dust cover— tacked to the bottom of chairs and sofas to prevent dust moving up and into the webbing and springs.
Production of good quality upholstered furniture
is undeniably very labor and capital intensive.
Remember jumping up-and-down on your couch or sofa or whatever you called that big, comfortable piece of furniture in your living room?
Kids in the 17th Century would have had a hard landing; upholstery was only in homes of the well-to-do.
And bounce wasn’t added until the invention of the furniture spring—-
in the 18th Century.
Perhaps no product requires ‘digging’ from the inside-out —more than upholstered furniture. We fall for pretty fabric at the expense of the most critical but invisible components.
Shopping for a sofa, I asked why information about frames, springs and fillings wasn’t on the label. The store owner said, “it would cost too much”. NONSENSE! Production tickets in every factory list all technical information which can easily be reprinted for consumers.
In a privately owned furniture store, a salesperson understood all my questions and directed me to a sofa that had every element of quality I asked for. I later viewed the manufacturer’s on-line video; it confirmed the excellent raw materials materials and production techniques I required.
I ordered the sofa in full grain, drum-dyed full-aniline red leather.
It’s comfortable—and beautiful!
FURNITURE FRAMES FOR UPHOLSTERY:
Frames must be kiln-dried hard wood of the same species because different species have different degrees of density which contract and expand differently.
Components must be joined with mortise and tenon or double doweling—nothing less, and chair legs must be secured to the seat rail/apron with properly screwed and glued corner blocks.
Frames must never be felt through fillings and upholstery fabric.
If you feel the frame, it will eventually protrude through the covering.
Do not compromise.
THE SUSPENSION SYSTEM:
Better upholstery manufacturers use woven jute webbing as the
foundation for their furniture’s suspension.
Webbing strips are tacked to one side of the frame, stretched tightly and tacked to the other side. Cross strips are tacked, tightly woven, then stitched to provide a sturdy base for hand-tied springs and layered fillings.
Some manufacturers use perforated flat steel webbing, corrugated steel webbing and corrugated jute combined with steel webbing—but these cannot provide the durability and comfort of woven jute webbing layered with coiled springs and fillings.
Steel wire in different gauges is coiled into springs of different sizes and shapes. Coiled metal springs absorb shock, add resilience and add spring. Varieties of springs are commonly used; spirals that widen at both ends are called’ double-coiled’.
Gauge numbers range from 00, the heaviest, to 15, the thinnest.
The heavier the wire, the stiffer the spring.
Coiled springs for better upholstered furniture seats range from 9 to 12 gauge and from 5” to 14” in height in hard, medium and soft tension. Back springs are 12 to 15 gauge and 4” to 10”.
I had read manufacturers use from 4 to 8 coiled springs per seat, so I asked
an artisan upholsterer why he was using so many more. He laughed saying, “Lady, how can you have rules like that when each style is different—you gotta fill the whole area!”
The way springs are joined to each other is a critical component of quality.
Chosen for comfort and strength for each design, different gauges and sizes of coiled springs are first sewn to the webbing base and then joined to each other in a technique called ‘8-way hand-tied’—which prevents coils from shifting with use.
Hand tying allows variation of the degree of compression according to the placement of the coils; some areas need to be more firm than others (e.g. when rising from a sitting to a standing position, springs behind the knees must be firmly tied ).The twine has a waxed finish and is very durable.
Some manufacturers join springs with metal clips because it’s faster and cheaper–but this results in uniform spring tension, a quality ‘no-no’.
The National Home Furnishing Association states,“Eight-way, hand-tied remains the standard of excellence for those who want good quality”.
Very slim styles of upholstered furniture cannot accommodate the depth of coiled springs; ‘sinuous springs’ must be used.
Sinuous springs are made of heavy steel—closely aligned in parallel rows for strength —and cross-connected with small steel helical springs that act together to counteract weight and provide comfort and stability.
Fillings give shape and comfort to upholstered furniture.
In better quality production, burlap is sewn over the springs to become a sturdy support for fillings that give a chair or sofa its shape. Fillings prevent the suspension system and frame from being felt through the upholstery fabric.
Chair and sofa fillings:
Fillings depend upon the desired softness or firmness for end use.
Animal hair blends as mohair, hogs or cattle hair mixed with other fibers, foamed plastic or Dacron polyester available loose or in rubberized pads are preferred for flexibility and comfort. Horse hair, a more traditional filling, is quite firm.
OTHER GOOD FILLINGS:
• Fiber mats from fibers of the sisal plant. • Mossfrom an air plant. •Kapok(silk floss) from seed pods; resilient and resistant to moisture. • Foam rubber(flat sheets) available in compression: from medium to firm. •Polyurethane foam(flat sheets) densities range from soft to high resiliency.
PADDING: Padding is applied over filling materials—beneath the upholstery fabric
to create a smooth and perfectly filled and smooth surface.
Cotton padding—-excellent for durability and softness. Polyester fiberfill —soft and resilient padding available in rolls of various thicknesses. It is also used to wrap polyurethane foam in cushions.
Soft cotton cord (welting) covered with bias-cut upholstery fabric is sewn into the seams of joined pieces of upholstery fabric to define shape and prevent wear. Plastic welting is rigid; fabric coverings easily fray, especially at corners.
CUSHIONS: Good quality seat and back cushions should be cambric casings —
stuffed with a good filling and covered with upholstery fabric.
Down: the under plumage of fowl, preferably goose. It is very soft, expensive and must be plumped after being sat-upon —to avoid ‘looking squashed’. Synthetic down fillings are beneficial to people with feather allergies. Don’t confuse feathers with down.
Feathers:listed as a filling can be misleading because quality judgments cannot be made unless the specific variety and amount of feathers is known.
Polyurethane foam wrapped in cotton or polyester padding iscommonly used for cushion fillings.Premium polyurethane foams provide soft resilient seating. Qualities of foam are not equal;densities range from super soft to extra firm. The higher the density, the greater the durability.
Polyurethane foam topped with down, quality feathersor one of the better synthetic lofty products achieves resiliency with a luxurious hand.
Ready-made coiled spring unitscan be topped with down, feathers or a lofty synthetic product to achieve a desired softness or firmness with a luxurious hand.
We’re attracted to upholstered furniture by the color, pattern and texture of the fabric. You may like it—but how do you know if it’s good?
Animal, vegetable or mineral? Did you play this word game? You probably weren’t aware that textile scientists uncover and restructure fibers for textiles fromeach of these natural sources.
Highly complex and capital intensive global textile businesses have replaced the traditional homespun and cottage-industries of spinning and weaving. Technical specialists constantly strive to develop fibers that can be spun into yarns. e.g.bamboo is currently a popular textile fabric.
Color can be added in either the fiber or yarn state.
Capital intensive technology is used to knit or weave
undyed or dyed yarns into piece goods—which can
be dyed a solid color or printed with colorful patterns
by hand or machine.
For decades, textile scientists have restructured existing natural and man-made fibers to create new products, e.g. micro fibers. They have also created finishes for better end-use performance as stain-retardants, water-proofing solutions, etc.Most of these processes are applied by the textile manufacturer or contracted out to specialists.
Changes in temperature and humidity contract and expand wood;
furniture joinery can loosen and wood finishes can be destroyed.
Has the vintage wood furniture been kept in a cellar or attic? How trustworthy is the seller?
Examine furniture with the professionalism of a home inspector.
The best way to gain leverage for price negotiation is to describe inadequacies using specific terminology that explain why the price is too high for the quality.
Compromise becomes a treasure hunt when we apply timeless principles of quality to products we like. We always win, especially when we find a less expensive product superior to one we can’t afford.
How old is the furniture? Besides the condition of the furniture and how the wood was finished, AGE MATTERS. By the end of the 1940’s, engineered particleboard began to be used as an economical substrate for both wood and man-made veneers.
As discussed in previous posts, I do not recommend furniture made with a fiberboard substrate. Man-made substrates arouse my suspicion about all production methods, especially joinery techniques.
By the 1990’s, mergers and leveraged buyouts among branded furniture manufacturers enforced goals of volume and profit. For many, quality was negatively affected.
Did you get an honest answer about the age of the furniture? Depending upon the seller, you may or may not learn who owned the furniture and the year it was purchased. Look beneath wood furniture to see if the manufacturer’s name or logo is embossed. You may be able to learn more about a manufacturer’s reputation for quality on the Internet.
How long does a wood chair —or any wood furniture—last?” If well-made and well-maintained, wood furniture has no expiration date. International museums include chairs made by early Greeks and Romans.
Hand-crafted furniture and chairs from the 17th Century are the pride of the American Wing in the Metropolitan Museum and 20th Century furniture at the Modern Museum of Art is a product of modern technology and may last for centuries.
All of the above are in excellent condition although some may have been restored. Even if the vintage furniture does not have antique value, you’re justified in asking: “How old is this —chair—table—bench— desk– – bookcase?”
What is the wood species? This is tricky. If a seller says the wood is cherry, is it solid cherry wood? cherry veneer? or cherry stain ?—on pine or other wood? And if stain deliberately obscures the wood grain, the quality of the wood is probably less than furniture grade.
If you don’t get reliable answers to your questions, PASS—or bring a friend who’s a wood expert!
Where was the furniture made? Imported furniture must have a country of origin label in order to pass customs into the United States. However, previous owners may have removed these labels.
If the quality of the craftsmanship is good, more important than country of origin is the condition of the wood and joinery. A lot of wood furniture made in the U.S. is embossed with the brand name somewhere beneath the visible surface.
Since the 1970’s, domestic and imported knocked-down furniture is becoming popular. Much of it is less-than-good—-even if you assemble it.
‘Vintage’—has many connotations. I use the term to describe ‘old’–but not yet old enough to have value as an ‘antique’. But regardless of age, if furniture is used —and if you suspect the quality may not be good, give it a ‘rugged’ test.
What joinery is used? If furniture has a dovetailed drawer, all of the joinery is probably good. Ifdrawers are not dovetailed, all joinery becomes suspect —and one has to guess what joinery has been used. If the furniture seems sturdy? okay. If it wobbles?pass.
If furniture has legs, there should be corner blocks. Look beneath all furniture with legs to see of it has corner blocks where each leg meets the frame. Corner blocks are necessary for stability.
Don’t be afraid to be rough as you examine furniture to judge stability. If furniture seems sturdy but has a loose spindle, simply use good wood glue and clamp the joined pieces until thoroughly dry. But if many components are loose?—pass.
Hardware quality? If wood furniture has hardware, learn the name of the metal—and whether it is solid or plated.Plated drawer pulls or hinges are a wake-up call that shortcuts have been taken.Ifthe quality of the wood and joinery are both good, hardware can be easily replaced.
ENVISION A CHAIR -or other wood furniture-you’d like to own. Is it comfortable for you? Are the legs uniform in shape, size and height? How are the component parts joined? Is the wood grain visible? Can you afford to throw money away?
Prices are baffling.
Labels don’t tell what you need to know; nor can most salespersons.
It’s impossible to judge the quality of wood furniture without judging the quality of the wood, shaping and joinery of each component as well as the staining and finishing of the wood. Comparison shopping similar furniture at all prices helps one develop a discerning eye and perceive differences.
1. Identify the wood species: Woods are hard or soft depending upon the tree the wood comes from. Factory grade hard woods are recommended for furniture. The natural grain of all woods has color and vitality and can be used as full-grain or cross–grain depending upon how each log is cut. If stain has been applied to the wood, it should not hide the grain.
Wood furniture can be made of solid or veneered woods. If veneered, it’s critical to identify the substrate –which may be wood — or a man-made fiberboard. This information is probably not on the label.
Furniture should be made of wood having 6 to 8% moisture. Too dry, wood absorbs glue and doesn’t develop a bond; too wet, wood may warp and twist.
2. Production methods: Furniture is the sum of its component parts. Identifying each component is key in how to judge each part for uniformity and quality of both shape and joinery. Wood joinery is a measure of furniture quality, strength and durability.
Shaping machines are commonly used for both artisan and mass-production to assure uniformity of legs, arms, spindles and splats. Top rails, aprons, stretchers and legs/feet are names of other common components.
If you understand differences in woods —
and basic artisan and mass-production techniques,
you can confidently choose wood furniture at prices you can afford.
3. Finally: evaluate each of the following :
Wood Species : Require proof of the exact species of wood used to make the furniture you want to buy. You may also want to know if the wood is from a sustainable forest.
Is the wood solid or veneered?—and if veneered, is the substrate solid wood? Wood veneer applied over a wood substrate is called solid wood veneered furniture. Learn the species and grade of the wood veneer: Grade A is preferred for surface coats. Know the composition of the substrate (which may be wood or man-made fiberboard).
Furniture grade solid hard wood offers natural grain and resists marring. If scratches occur, the wood can be sanded and refinished although large flat surfaces of solid wood warp easier than veneer-covered solid wood.
CAVEAT: Avoid wood products containing formaldehyde; it is TOXIC. Question if plywood, fiberboard and MFB products contain formaldehyde.Its’ usage is probably noton the label.
Joinery: The method of joining structural components of furniture determines its quality, strength and durability. The most secure joinery for tables, chair and sofa frames is mortise and tenon.
A rectangular projection of wood (tenon) is glued inside a corresponding rectangular opening (mortise). The straight sides of each interlocking part resists movement. Double doweling is also very good. (Single doweling easily separates.)
Look beneath tables and chairs to verify if corner blocks are adequately glued and screwed in place where the legs are joined to the frame. Don’t hesitate to pick up a corner of all furniture to be sure it remains stable and balanced.
Staining: Wood stains enhance grain but must be translucent to show the beauty of the grain–even if the stain is dark.Opaque stains are often used to masque inferior grades of wood. Stain must be uniform and rubbed into the grain as opposed to sitting on the surface of the wood.
Finishing: Whether matte or high gloss, use your eyes to verify if the finish is well-sanded and rubbed. There must be no excess of stains, varnishes or lacquer —and your fingertips must not feel variations in what should be a smooth, seamless surface.
Exceptions are heavily grained woods as oak, especially if the wood has an oiled or waxed finish.
Drawers: In better quality furniture, drawer corners should be dovetailed. Drawer interiors should be sanded and sealed. Better quality furniture should have wood dust-panels between drawers.
Drawer glides: Drawers should slide easily on wood glides attached to the side walls of the drawer —or slide on a centered rail directly beneath the drawer. Preferred glides for desks are heavy metal.
Shelving: Quality wood shelving should be finished on top, bottom and sides. Shelves should be adjustable and held in place by rails or routing in the side walls. If shelves are held by clips inserted in the side walls, the clips must be firmly secured and preferably metal.
Hardware: Examine all metal hinges, locks, and drawer handles or pulls for quality. Metal castings should be solid metal—not plated. Preferred hardware is hand-cut from solid metal sheet stock as brass. Piano hinges and recessed locks indicate excellent quality.
Care: Follow care and maintenance directions from each manufacturer of new wood furniture.Your use of wax, cream, paste or oil depends upon how each wood is finished. If there are no care labels, contact the manufacturer.
Sunlight can bleach some woods and stains. Follow the manufacturer’s directions regarding placing furniture in front of a window.
Keeping wood furniture in an unheated summer home, attic or cellar—can loosen joinery and destroy finishes:temperature and humidity affect the contraction and expansion of wood.
A home furnishings magazine pictured three all-wood chairs. Their title: LOW–MEDIUM–HIGH–referred only to price.
The $149 chair was plain. The $425 chair was a bit decorative. The $755 chair was rather ornate.
The inference? MISLEADING!
Style elicits our emotional response but has little or no impact on price or quality of furniture—nor any other home product. Identical styles can be made in broad price ranges depending upon raw materials, joinery, staining and finishing.
There’s a lot of tradition in furniture design —and no rules— so where do you begin?
Is your lifestyle formal or informal? Is your design aesthetic traditional, country, modern, eclectic or other? Do you like to combine vintage with modern?
Rushing to fill our rooms, they become locked in a ‘time-warp’ instead of becoming a chronicle of our lives.
Furniture satisfies our emotional and physical needs—and it takes a lifetime to furnish a home. Knowing your personal preferences makes purchasing decisions easier. Then, bring fabrics, accessories, paintings and cultural interests into play.
Many of us experience the following: STYLE—–paramount when we first buy furniture. QUALITY—paramount when we grow in discernment. COMFORT–paramount when we grow in wisdom.
But, you can choose new or old furniture having style, qualityand comfort at prices you can afford—-all IN ONE PRODUCT!
Quality is not about style—but style attracts us to furniture. It’s a good idea to save interesting pages from furnishing magazines —even if you have no immediate need for them.
Differentiate your WANTS from your NEEDS; then PRIORITIZE your needs.
• Do you need a bedroom dresser? or can you outfit your closet with shelving for folded clothing?
• Do you need a dining table for four or twelve? and can the dining chairs double as pull-up seating in your living room?
• When I needed a serving table for a dinner party when living in New York, my sturdy ironing board, covered with a colorful table cloth, was a perfect serving table.
BUDGET FOR YOUR CRITICAL NEEDS! Appreciate that good quality wood furniture is made in a broad price range
using different woods and production methods.
When I found a cherry wood desk that suited my needs,
I couldn’t use the color of real cherry wood.
I ordered the desk in OAK —stained espresso brown. Oak is cheaper than cherry wood—but the production
quality was identical.
I wrote this post at my espresso-brown oak computer desk!
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
My next post: JUDGING THE QUALITY OF WOOD FURNITURE
FIRE • WEAPONS • TOOLS • SHELTER Early man used wood as if it came with instructions!
The Industrial Revolution gave us democratization of wood furniture:
machine technology enabled uniform production of legs, arms, spindles, rails, splats and joinery techniques.
As I began visiting international manufacturers of everyday essentials, a highly respected NYC architect/interior designer of commercial spaces insisted I visit Fancher Chair because of the excellent quality of their mass-produced wood chairs.
A region of rich farm land in southwestern New York State known as the ‘fruit-belt’ was home to Fancher Chair because of select native hardwoods as red and white oak, maple, cherry and ash.
I never heard of Fancher Chair but the interior designer smiled and said I probably had sat upon many of their contract chairs in offices, libraries, restaurants, hotels and motels throughout the U. S.—from Marriott’s to the Waldorf Astoria.
And so, I first visited Fancher Chair in Falconer, New York 20 years ago. Older buildings had been modernized and ‘green’ standards were in place before environmentalists gave it a name.
Fancher Chair not only made and sold contract chairs (that I ‘probably sat upon’) ; they also made chairs for international furniture companies who would hand-stain, hand-finish and ‘seat’ them for their own prestigious brand-name collections.
During my visit, Bruce Erickson introduced employees by name as he extolled their Yankee work ethic. I witnessed chair production that incorporated excellent standards of quality— and became my standards for furniture quality.
Each task; shaping, cutting, sanding, drilling a mortise and shaping a tenon was performed—one at a time—for one component—by one operator—on one machine. Production was slow—albeit excellent.
CURRENT FACTORY PRODUCTION:
Fancher’s production still begins with dimension stock, (wood pre-cut by lumber mills in sizes specified according to end use). Their lumber mill has already kiln dried the lumber to a level of 6 to 8% moisture.
Too dry, wood absorbs glue and doesn’t develop a bond. Too wet, wood may warp and twist.
SQUARING WOOD STOCK:
Before components are shaped, dimension stock must be ‘ripped’ by a ripping saw at the furniture factory, to assure edges are all perfectly squared at right angles.
Fancher Chair had always been capital and labor intensive
but during my recent visit, I witnessed significant change.
Now, capital expenditures include digital technology that
not only speeds production; it improves the consistency of their excellent quality.
Chairman Emeritus Bruce Erickson demonstrated how digital technology makes current production superior.
CURRENT PRODUCTION OF UNIFORM COMPONENTS:
Skilled operators program digital machines to perform several tasks simultaneously and precisely—for one— or one thousand components.
In one operation, components are shaped
complete with mortise and tenon or double dowels.
The accuracy and speed of perfect precision is a dream. And we—the consumer—are beneficiaries!
Machines simultaneously cut and shape components for both left and right sides of a chair.
ASSEMBLY OF WOOD COMPONENTS:
How components are joined;
is a measure of craftsmanship and quality.
MORTISE AND TENON: A mortise (drilled cavity) and tenon (projection at the end of a component) are glued and interlocked to resist movement and provide maximum stability.
These photographs illustrate the consistency of perfectly precise fittings —because of digital technology.
Glue flash binds in 15 minutes and achieves 85% binding strength in 30 minutes.
All components of this chair have been glued, joined and held in spring clamps for one hour prior to sanding by a rotating sanding machine.
Standards are rigid as finished frames are examined under brilliant light as traces of excess glue are scraped, sanded and buffed if necessary prior tostaining or finishing.
STAINING AND FINISHING
After inspection, Fancher’s ‘made-to-specification‘ chair frames are shipped to their status brand manufacturers who use labor intensive techniques to stain and finish them to match finishes of their furniture collections.
Fancher employees stain and finish their ‘contract chairs’in their factory.
Conveyors advance frames through a succession of hand-rub-downs, sprays of toners, non-grain raising stains, wiping by hand, more sprays of sealers, lacquers, hot-air blasts, more hand-rub-downs and final waxing. This controls cost and maintains good quality.
Finished frames are seated according to specification. Machine-woven caning, plywood covered with padded upholstery fabric or webbing are only a few of the possibilities.
PULL UP A CHAIR!
HAVE A SEAT!
PLEASE SIT DOWN!
Fancher is one of many long-standing, good-quality global businesses affected by rising raw material, technology and labor costs but digital technology has contributed greatly to the speed and consistent excellence of their current chair production.
Leaving Falconer, I marveled not only at how Fancher Chair
maintains their standard of excellence for mass-produced
wood chairs, but at how far man has come to perform tasks
formerly powered by treadles, winches and steam.
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
I have no commercial ties and neither promote nor negate brand names for any of the international everyday products I write about.
I’m proud to make two exceptions:
one for artisan wood furniture from KITTINGER FURNITURE;
the other for mass-produced furniture from FANCHER CHAIR.
My posts explore the excellence of their furniture made in America, in western New York, where I grew up and where I live!
for Excellence in Design and American Manufacturing
Accepting this prestigious award at the U.S. Capitol July 4th, 2012,
Ray Bialkowski, President of Kittinger,
praised his company, employees and hand-crafted products
as symbols of ‘Made in America’.
Founded in Buffalo in 1866, Kittinger Furniture’s unparalleled craftsmanship enriches many rooms in the White House including the oval office —and throughout the country: presidential libraries, boardrooms and living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms and home offices of American families.
The U. S. Cabinet meets around this 22’ x 7’ Kittinger conference table.
And this past February, Raymond Bialkowski,
delivered 16 new leather chairs made for the Roosevelt Room,
a staff meeting room in the West Wing—steps from the Oval Office.
Mahogany is the hallmark of Kittinger furniture. Their experts select prime mahogany in South America to meet rigid specifications.
It is kiln dried and pre-cut to their specification.
All furniture is hand crafted by: cabinetmakers, carvers, wood and veneer experts. Stains and finishes are hand-applied, hand-sanded and hand-rubbed.
Historical research is fundamental in Kittinger designs. Sketches are drafted into auto-cad drawings—then detailed drawings— for making jigs and templates for cutting parts in the Kittinger mill.
Kittinger’s production standards apply
to all artisan wood furniture —traditional or contemporary.
They will help you judge quality for yourself.
VENEERS TO CREATE FLAT SURFACES:
The standard thickness of mahogany veneer is 1/32″ . A continuous roll of veneer is peeled
by spinning a wet, trimmed log on a rotary lathe against a sharp blade. Flat sheets of veneer are sawn across or lengthwise for different grain patterns .
Flat surfaces are constructed of five layers for warp-resistance and stability. The core of each flat panel is a five ply construction and glued to each side of the core is a cross-banded veneer.
Mahogany face veneers are applied to both sides, completing the panel.
The direction of grain is alternated for each layer—for surface strength.
Glue is applied between each layer: finished boards are clamped for 24 hours to assure perfect union.
Before application, face veneers are inspected. Some are slip-matched or book matched to align the direction and configuration of nature’s artwork —and then perfectly matched on furniture tops, doors and drawers.
Rubber sanding machines smooth flat surfaces;
other machinery sands all edges.
A single pattern may have hundreds of parts:
tops, sides, drawers, doors, dust panels, moldings, legs, etc.
Carefully following the draftsman’s detail drawings, digital technology is used to shape precise furniture components as chair top rails, arms and legs from selections of solid mahogany.
Carving uniform arm and leg components for tables and chairs.
Components as cabriole legs are hand-carved,
and some are embellished by hand-carving or engraving.
A hand-carver fashions a scroll on the knee of a cabriole leg ending in a ‘claw and ball‘ foot. With concentration and intensity, the artisan uses hand tools to freely achieve a three-dimensional design.
One leg takes more than a day to hand-carve; almost one week to complete four.
ARTISAN MADE QUEEN ANNE CHAIR
Components for every chair are joined
and sanded, corner blocks installed and
splat edges rounded by hand-sanding,
all by a single cabinetmaker.
Every chair is perfect prior to staining
Solid wood, prepared for double dowel joinery.
Master craftsmen join components for bookcase/secretary units and ‘high and
lowboys’ with drawers.
All drawers have dovetailed corners and
glide on mahogany rails; a costly and superior method of drawer construction.
Drawer interiors are mahogany veneer.
Solid pine dust panels separate all drawers.
Three inch thick blocks of mahogany are used to create the curved bottom of this bombé shaped ‘chest-on-chest’. Because of the curve, dovetails for the
drawers are cut at compound angles.
Computer-controlled routers eliminate imprecision and heighten efficiency by performing several cutting and boring operations at once, allowing craftsmen to focus on the fine art of wood-working.
Small pieces of veneer are inlaid in the troughs cut by the routing machine in flat surfaces of wood furniture before staining.
Inlaid woods are covered with shellac so they don’t absorb stain.
The checkerboard is made by alternating inlays of contrasting veneers.
HAND-STAINING AND HAND-FINISHING:
Diverse finishes are applied–all by hand–in 21 to 24 steps. The natural wood furniture is bleached to a uniform color and dried overnight before stain is applied by hand.
Because bleaches and stains raise grain, wood is hand-sanded after every application. Wood fillers are applied to fill any porosity. Inner-drawer wood is sealed —but not stained.
A final coat of lacquer imparts high gloss and the heirloom furniture is sanded one last time, hand-rubbed to a glassy finish and delivered to their prestigious destinations .
I first visited the Kittinger factory 20 years ago but never
forgot my respect and appreciation for their principles of
excellence! My recent visit generated my same respect and appreciation.
The following pictures illustrate the vast real estate necessary
to produce these heirlooms of the future!
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
I have no commercial ties and neither promote nor negate brand names for any of the international everyday products I write about.
I’m proud to make two exceptions:
one is artisan wood furniture from KITTINGER FURNITURE;
the other is mass-produced furniture from FANCHER CHAIR.
My posts explore the excellence of their furniture made in America, in western New York, where I grew up and where I live!
My next post: MASS-PRODUCED WOOD FURNITURE : Fancher Chair
Artisan craftspeople use special carving tools to freely cut away (displace) wood to create a three-dimensional design in the surface of wood.
Chisel marks are called wood carvers ‘beauty marks’.
By machine: Exacting duplicate shapes can be machine carved.
Embossing is easily identified because it lacks tool marks.
Steel cutting dies are pressed deeply into wood to create a raised three dimensional design (known as ‘relief’ ). Wood fibers are compacted —not cut away or displaced.
Skilled craftsmen guide engraving tools to create designs by displacing wood.
Veneer shapes fill spaces cut-out of surfaces of a different veneer to create designs of contrasting wood grains and color.
Designs are also inlaid with varieties of wood veneer, brass and ivory.
Distressing is a carefully planned art of destruction.
For customers who prefer ‘new’ furniture that looks 200 years old, distressing techniques simulate pin holes, dents, scratches and worm holes!
BENDING BY HEAT : Bamboo (a very moist wood) is bent into a shape using heat and pressure .
Finishing all wood furniture includes: sanding, bleaching, sealing, staining, lacquering and polishing.
Artisan cabinetmakers perform each of these steps by hand. As the moisture of bleaches and stains raises the grain in wood—sanding and rubbing processes must be repeated many times to create finishes ranging from matte to high gloss until every finish meets their standard of excellence.
Mass-produced furniture is usually finished using assembly-line work-saving technologies. These may include sprays that bleach, seal and stain and are not sanded after each procedure.
Side by side, finishing differences are apparent—although both may be good.
Stains are used to enhance the natural beauty of wood grain. If a stain is dark, it must be translucent and blended into the grain — as opposed to ‘sitting’ on the surface of the wood.
Opaque stains are often used to masque inferior grades of wood. The beauty of wood grain, even dark woods like ebony and rosewood (jacaranda), should be visible through stain.
Labels reading ‘mahogany finish’ or ‘cherry finish’ describe only the color of the stain; they do not identify the species of wood used to make the furniture.
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
My next post: ARTISAN WOOD FURNITURE: Kittinger Furniture Company
THE SUM OF THE QUALITY OF ITS’ COMPONENT PARTS
Identifying component parts of furniture is key in learning to judge each component for uniformity and quality of both shape and joinery.
Finding quality furniture,
we no longer judge the component parts;
we enjoy the beauty of the whole.
Identifying each component helps us focus on the design or style of furniture and make it easier to recognize and compare similarities and differences of finished designs—–plain and ornamented.
Each of these components is common to every chair: contemporary and traditional.
A rail across the top of a side chair and joined to the splat or spindles. Top rails may be simple or incorporate embellishment as carving.
Vertical panels in the center back of a chair–joined to top rail and chair seat.
Plain or ornate, splats showcase creative abilities.
Spindles of all sizes and shapes are mounted vertically as railings and chair backs. Windsor chairs incorporate multiple spindles from the top rail to the seat, capitalizing on the design principle of repetition. Spindles may be hand-carved or made on a spindle carving machine.
Chair and table legs and feet may be simple or distinctive. The Egyptians hand-carved bird and dragon claws,
often grasping a ball at the base of chair legs.
A flat horizontal frame made of solid pieces of wood
that connect and support vertical components of chair seats or tables.
Apron corners must be securely joined to legs for stability (see corner blocks) .
Simple horizontal rails of wood connect legs of tables or chairs to each other.
Stretchers maintain vertical stability and offer a place to hang one’s feet!
Stiles are vertical solid wood rear legs that extend the full height of the chair. They are joined to the top rail, splat and apron.
JOINERY: Joining structural components for strength and durability is a measure of craftsmanship and the quality of furniture.
Learning her antique table was not valuable, the owner’s pain
was palpable as experts on the Antique Roadshow explained
the drawer front wobbled because it was not dovetailed; and a
leg was loose because it was joined by a single dowel instead
of mortise & tenon.
MORTISE AND TENON:
A tenon (straight-sided, square-cornered projection) at the end of a piece of wood fits precisely into the mortise (straight-sided, square-cornered cavity) hollowed from the piece of wood to be joined.
Both the mortise and the tenon are interlocked with glue so their tight-fitting straight edges and corners resist movement. This joinery provides strength and longevity.
DOUBLE DOWELING: two dowels and two holes Two round projections or dowels on one piece of wood are glued into corresponding holes drilled in the other. This, also, is secure joinery.
Single dowel joinery (one dowel and one hole) may result in loose joinery.
CORNER BLOCKS:Corner blocks are necessary reinforcement. Shaped blocks of wood are glued and screwed into the corners of the rails of a table or chair where legs are joined to the apron beneath the flat surface.
Alternating positive and negative ‘tooth-like’ shapes cut into the ends of two boards are interlocked and glued at right angles.
Interlock the fingers of both hands tightly.
Your ‘grip’ mimics dovetail joinery.
Dovetail is excellent joinery especially for corners of drawers.
The wood cannot separate as a drawer is pulled back to front.
DADO JOINT: A channel is cut into the side of one piece of wood to accommodate the edge of a second piece of wood glued into the channel.
MITER: Ends of two pieces of wood are each cut at perfect 45º angles. Joined, they become a perfect 90º angle. Mitered corners are a sign of quality for both door frames and picture frames.
BUTT JOINT: Two end pieces of wood butted-together and held with glue and screws. This is not durable wood joinery.
TONGUE AND GROOVE: Consecutive pieces of wood are joined by interlocking cut-outs, just as pieces of a puzzle interlock. Hardwood floor boards are usually installed using tongue and groove joinery.
Flat surfaces of wood furniture as top, side panels
and drawer fronts are considered solid wood, even
if the surface is made of narrow planks of wood bonded together to prevent splitting and warping.
Because wood can shrink and warp, legs, arms and other structural
components are cut and shaped from solid pieces of lumber. Each
component of a table, chair, or other—must be of the same wood
species as it’s flat surfaces.
Wood veneer is a sheet of thinly sliced wood, laminated to a substrate.
When the substrate is wood, labels for the wood veneered furniture read: solid wood veneered furniture. If the substrate is not wood, the furniture can not be labeled solid wood.
Appreciation for the beauty and application of wood grain veneer dates
back to ancient Egypt, but veneered furniture was not common until the 17th Century.
Solid wood furniture of the last three centuries, made with applications of beautiful wood veneer, is highly valued by antique dealers; and splendidnew wood furniture continues to feature wood veneers.
Whether to peel or saw veneer depends upon the desired grain.
Peeled veneers are made by spinning a wet, trimmed log on a rotary lathe against a sharp blade to produce a continuous roll.
Sawn veneers: Sawn veneers are cut across or lengthwise to reveal different patterns of natural grain.
Whether peeled or sawn, veneers are meticulously applied to a wood substrate.
Consecutive slices of sawn veneerslaminated to a substrate can create consecutive panels of almost identical grain.
Wood veneer may be as thin as 1/32”. The natural beauty of the wood grain is further exploited by positioning sections of veneer with the grain sliced, matched and facing in different directions as: book matching, end matching, slip matching and herringbone.
Unless you know the species of the veneered wood
and the composition of the substrate, you cannot determine its’ quality. PLYWOOD:
Today, plywood is used from furniture to buildings.
Layers or pliés of wood —stacked (as pancakes)— and laminated together, become 1/8” to 1” inch thick plywood.
The grain direction of each plié is alternated in right angles to the one beneath, resulting in a strong workable material with uniform strength of width and length and capable of being molded by heat and pressure—a technique used to make grand pianos since the 1830’s.
Veneers or pliés of wood may also be laminated to a core of wood as birch, ash and Douglas fir. The most attractive grain of wood veneer is used for the top layer.
Veneering/ Laminating Processes:
Veneers of woodORsheets of plastic —can be laminated (glued and pressed) over a core or substrate of solid wood, plywood, OR man-made fiberboards. Diverse combinations run the gamut of both price and quality.
Fiberboards are inexpensive man-made substrates marketed as particleboard, hardboard and chipboard. They are invisible beneath a visible surface veneer which may be natural wood veneer–or a man-made
Durability and cost of fiberboard varies greatly because
the particle size and density of which they are composed
ranges from natural wood particles, chips, shavings and
wood waste from a mill or plywood factory to synthetic
particle products compressed with heat and pressure and
bonded with synthetic resins.
Even though the furniture industry uses man-made fiberboard products as ‘legitimate’ substrates for furniture and cabinetry: many are less-than-good. Substrates are beneath the surface veneers—so it’s impossible to view their particle size and density—or to know the kind of glue and pressure with which they are compressed.
There are no labeling laws for furniture substrates.
I suspect the furniture industry doesn’t want labels to reveal less-than-good substrates. Surface laminates as wood veneer, plastic and engineered paper ‘hide’ man-made substrates which cannot be drilled or joined by traditional joinery methods.
Shopping for a computer desk (in dozens of furniture stores), answers to my questions about veneers, substrates and joinery were unsatisfactory. One store owner showed me a picture of a well-designed desk and told me it was cherry veneer over a solid wood substrate. Before considering it, I had to see the quality of the manufacturer’s work.
I located furniture made by the same manufacturer in another store but a ‘depression’ in the top flat surface of their table was a ‘red flag’ that the substrate was not wood. My call to the manufacturer confirmed the use of particleboard substrates for ALL their furniture. After my negative experiences with man-made substrates, I passed.
Finally, I found a desk where the style, scale, finish and hardware suited my needs. Told it was solid wood with mortise & tenon joinery, I nevertheless checked the manufacturer’s web site which listed all raw materials and production methods for their products. So far, so good—but I still phoned the manufacturer to dispel any doubt.
My desk cost little more than the one made with a particleboard substrate.
I spend hours at it every day, including writing this post.
MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) is a dry-formed panel substrate made by gluing wood fibers together with a synthetic resin using heat and pressure. MDF is very dense and has no knots, so it can be drilled and traditional methods of joinery can be used.
Although some better cabinet makers use MDF as a substrate for fine wood veneers, know that MDF is a man-made fiberboard substrate and the furniture cannnot be sold as solid wood. Ask for written proofthat a substrate is WOOD.
Plywood and all varieties of fiberboards have traditionally been made with wood binding adhesives, synthetic resins and finishes we now call VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) which vary greatly in safety by releasing fumes causing eye, skin, nose and throat irritation in addition to creating hazardous waste. Their vapors can depress and damage the brain and nervous system, and some are carcinogenic—especially if they contain formaldehyde.
The U.S. federal government classifies formaldehyde as a ‘possible’ human carcinogen although California has classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen– and declared fiberboards made with formaldehyde, illegal.
The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, signed into U.S. law by President Obama, July 7, 2010, establishes limits for emissions from composite wood products: hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard and particleboard.