In our age of flat-panel, knock-down (KD), assemble-at home furniture it's hard to imagine the amount of work that went into creating the hand carvings on pre-industrial age furniture. Stroll through an antique mall on a Sunday afternoon, and you will hear shoppers "ooh-ing and ahh-ing" the Victorian and Empire period furniture, exclaiming "Look at this hand carving! Isn't it Bee-Yoo-Ti-Full?"
The modern misunderstanding of "hand carving" appears to be more or less universal. I recently performed an eBay search on the phrase "hand carved sideboard" which returned 20 results. Only one of the items offered was actually hand-carved; the other nineteen were machine-carved. How can one tell the difference? For those of you with inquiring minds I offer the following primer on how to tell the difference between hand carving and machine carving.
I've found that an effective way to analyze and date any antique is to compare the clues offered by the piece with a history-technology timeline.
If we know a bit about the results that can be achieved by using different materials and techniques and when those materials and techniques were in use (I call these "technology markers"), then it's fairly easy to date a piece. Knowing how "carving" is achieved on furniture can help antique enthusiasts more accurately date their finds and avoid over-paying for what is being sold as "hand-carved" furniture. Conversely, knowledgeable pickers will be able to identify real hand-carving and pick up some good buys from less knowledgeable sellers.
Let's begin our journey by following a history-technology timeline from about the Mid-Eighteenth Century, when English furniture was coming into it's heyday with the release of Thomas Chippendale's catalog. In Chippendale's time, furniture was hand-made. There were machines of course (lathes come to mind) but machines weren't used for mass production. Making furniture was a group effort, but efficiency was the goal. After all, even in the Eighteenth Century a shop had to make a profit.
Efficiency demanded specialization. If one man excelled at drawer making, that was his job: he made all the drawers for everything. He may not have been the man that carved the claw feet or made the chair rails; those were different specialties. Sometimes, in a chair making shop, one man might make the front stretchers and another would make the crest rails. But, in any given set of chairs, all the crest rails will have been made by the same worker and would look like a matched set. If you're looking at a set of 8 antique chairs and one doesn't quite seem to match the others, don't let the dealer tell you that a "different worker in the same shop made that chair". Didn't happen; you're not looking at a matched set, but rather a "patched" set.
A key element in handmade furniture is the appearance of speedy, casual craftsmanship. In hand craftsmanship, there are inconsistencies; what today might be called "quality control issues". But, in the Eighteenth Century, such inconsistencies were the norm. Chair spindles may have varied slightly in diameter; carving may not have been mirror-matched on both sides of a cabinet, and there might have been differences in the contours of carved ornamentation. No attempt was made to achieve perfection; rather, functionality and beauty was the goal. When His Lordship took delivery of his new furniture, he didn't expect mass-produced consistency because he'd never seen it.
The key to identifying real hand carving is to look for these inconsistencies.
Look at the carvings up close, and from a distance. Does the carving on the right side of the cabinet match the left side, exactly? If so, it's not hand carving, because hand carving will have inconsistencies. A carved leaf might be formed differently on each side, or raised slightly higher. Don't just look; rub your hand across the ornamentation. Does it feel the same on both sides? Look at the carving with a magnifying glass: can you see tool marks? Are the tool marks consistent across the piece, or are there slight variations? Remember, variations are the key to identifying hand carving.
The Nineteenth Century ushered in the Industrial Revolution. Furniture makers - along with every other industry - welcomed the age of machinery and the increased productivity that came along with it. The rise of factory production led to jobs and a population that had the means to purchase the newly produced goods. Middle class homes needed to be furnished, and small furniture shops gave rise to large, well-equipped furniture factories that produced moderately priced furniture.
Of all the machines that revolutionized furniture making two in particular had significant impact: the steel die cutter (about 1870) and the spindle carver (about 1817, with variations over the next 100 years). Such machines rough-cut the carvings into the wood, which then had to be "cleaned up" to remove wood chips, etc.
Early spindle carvers were anchored to a floor or workbench and a worker moved the wood around the cutter to create a design. Later carving machines anchored the wood, and the carving machine moved around the wood to create a design. Some of these machines were quite complicated: King Manufacturing of Grand Rapids MI used a machine that could cut six identical panels simultaneously. By the turn of the 20th Century, machines such as the Salstrom carver took up entire factory floors with their carving capacity. Machinery manufacturers (Jordan, for one, in England) touted as much as 60% savings in labor costs. Over time, it was found that the actual savings was closer to 35%.
In the late 18th Century, spindle carvers were used to create ornamentation that could be purchased in bulk and simply glued onto a surface to give the impression of carving. Manufacturers could take a basic flat furniture panel and adorn it in many different ways to create a variety of furniture styles.
Die cutters consisted of steel plates with a design scribed into them. The die's design had very sharp cutting edges, and when the die was forced by steam pressure onto a wooden panel, the die would cut away wood to create the desired design. The most recognizable die-cut design is found today in what are called "press-back" chairs, usually made of oak, to accompany a dining set.
The availability of cheap ornamentation and lower labor costs resulted in the over-adorned look of Victorian furniture. It was easy to "fancy up" a piece with a little glue and ready-made ornaments. Manufacturers could produce furniture that, at first glance, resembled the hand-made creations that M'Lord and M'Lady had in their Manor House. Such furniture was a source of pride for the upwardly mobile Middle Class.
Here's the importance of all this to today's antique furniture buyer: Queen Victoria began her reign in 1837, well past the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and about 20 years past the invention of the spindle carver. She died in 1901, at least 20 years after steel die cutters came into general use. So, an overwhelming majority of the furniture made during the Victorian era was machine carved, not hand carved. When you see an ad for a "Hand Carved Victorian Sideboard", don't believe it. Check it very carefully before handing over your money because chances are very high that it isn't hand-carved at all.