Ming Inspiration

Post 1 in a thread describing the design and construction of a table based on a 16th century Chinese example. The client for this dining table project and I are quite excited to see what eventuates, and I have received an enthusiastic approval from the client to describe the design/build process in detail here on the Carpentry Way.

Some may have come to this page as their first visit to this blog, and be wondering why a blog on the topic of ‘carpentry’ is about to set out on a build thread about a piece of furniture. I mean, isn’t furniture a completely different category of thing than architecture? Well, as both furniture and carpentry constructional practice are followed most commonly in the West, that is true, however I am hardly following common practice in my work. I don’t follow common practice in either field, carpentry or furniture design and making, because, by and large, common practice is all about economy, cranking out for the most part cheap ticky-tacky stuff to make a buck and with only the short term view in focus. It’s a disease of modern western society, and it’s awfully hard not to be infected or affected by it. I’m not here to stand on that particular soapbox here today though.

Well, maybe I’ll stand on the box a little longer…

The reason that I am designing and building both furniture and architecture, and why both find a place on a blog ostensibly about carpentry practice is that I strive follow the examples set by the traditions of old China and Japan, not those of the culture in which I find myself today. I don’t see much being constructed around me that will be any sort of gift to future generations, nothing for which they would likely thank us for at least, so why would I want to be part of such selfishness? Much of what I observe is simply resources being wantonly gobbled up, converted into flashy consumer items, adding often to a increasing ugliness of the built environment, and then not too long afterward adding to an increased ugliness that is the land fill. Chew up, and spit out, then repeat. Harsh words to be sure, and I feel bad that this is what ‘the progress of civilization’ has resulted in – alienation for the most part. It’s not what I would have wanted, and not what I call progress.

For the Chinese in ancient times, working with wood was divided into two categories: ‘big carpentry’, meaning architecture, and ‘little carpentry’, meaning furnishings. The two forms of carpentry are essentially but book ends of a continuum, overlapping spheres of technique if you like, the foundation of that technique being all-joined, solid wood construction. Architecture, let’s face it, came before any form of furniture came along, and when furnishings were developed they took their constructional methods and fabrication cues from the world of timber frame architecture. Many furniture pieces were, and are, quite architectural in their form. Even steel and stone structures arose initially in emulation of timber frame structural logic, that is, post and lintel construction employing all-wood joinery.

While over time each form of carpentry developed its own specializations and while there are forms of joinery which are by and large exclusive to one or the other sphere, in my mind if you’re using solid wood and connecting it together with joinery, then it is carpentry, whether the final product is a bell tower or a vase stand.

I’m interested in making things out of wood because of that material’s inherent warmth and beauty, its diversity of characteristics, and it’s workability. I’m also keenly interested in respecting the resource I use by constructing things in a sustainable manner. Now, ‘sustainable’ is becoming one of those marketing whizz-bang! buzz words of late, fast losing any real meaning, so I shall define my terms. To my way of thinking, sustainable in regards to the use of wood is to construct objects such that their lifespan matches, at a minimum, the length of time it took the tree to grow. After all, if I took some wood from a 100 year old tree, and made an object from it which lasted 100 years, then at the end of its lifespan there was a sufficient interval of time for a replacement tree to have grown to the point where another identical piece could be made if so desired. All wood is in the natural planetary carbon cycle, so using it responsibly and carefully is something I am comfortable with.

This idea of sustainability precludes the use of trees with significant amounts of juvenile wood, sapwood, high internal stresses, or rot present. On the other end of the scale, sustainable means that material coming from really old trees, 500~1000 years old say, must be used extremely judiciously. Probably in 99% of cases, such old growth material is better not used at all and the trees left alone. The only applications for such material are in structures of great value intended to stand for millennia which will be meticulously cared for and maintained. Unfortunately that pretty much rules out anything built in North America these days at least, as such practices are entirely alien here, and have been, with very few exceptions, since the colonists landed.

Of course, the best material for making structures of all kinds often comes from old trees, especially if one seeks material free of knots, with very straight grain, or with certain dimensions and grain patterns. The youngest tree I am likely to make use of would be about 50 years old, so 50 years is the absolute minimum design life I would consider in my work. Sometimes big old trees keel over in windstorms and we have an opportunity to use the material even if we otherwise wouldn’t have cut the tree down. Sometimes we can reclaim material from logs that sank in rivers many years ago, or from salvaging old structures. In my work, I often employ material from older trees so it is incumbent upon me to consider very carefully how I will use the wood, where the wood comes from, and how best to make such natural treasure stand up to the ravages of time and use. It is definitely possible to sustainably manage forests, removing large trees from time to time and without detriment to the resource. Of course, with human beings, while much is possible or rational in terms of direction and strategy, we often do not ‘choose’ such courses. ‘Choice’ has become more of a marketing ploy in a world of mass production than anything else these days, it seems to me, and we are rather less free to choose than we might think or wish. Anyhow…

I really am getting off that soapbox now…

Building something to last means building something that can be taken apart and repaired, or even re-configured and re-purposed. Demountable structures are structures in which glue is not used to put components together, or is a structure in which the glue is of a type which can be readily reversed. That rules out epoxy, urea formaldehyde, and most woodworking glues in common use today. Certain animal or starch based glues are better choices in this regard. If this sort of demountable construction is not possible, then a second option would be to construct a piece such that it has a high percentage of recyclable/re-purposable material in it. That means solid wood, not veneered construction over particle board or plywood cores. Let me say as well that this perspective is one I have arrived at over time, and have in fact made use of non-reversible glue, to one extent or another, in pieces made in the earlier part of my career as a designer builder. Those days however, are behind me now and my goal here on out is to use glue absolutely minimally. Three rules which were adhered to by furniture craftsman in ancient China were:

-no glue except where absolutely necessary
-no pegs
-no turned work (ie., the lathe)

I understand the logic of using no glue, and I’m starting to grasp why pegs are not always a good choice, but the rule against the use of the lathe to turn (instead the piece, say a leg or similar, is to be shaped by planes) remains outside my current understanding.

Solid wood is tricky to use, as it is a material without entirely predictable behavior. That’s one of the reasons that industry prefers not to use it. Like a flock of sheep, with wood the best one can hope for is to merely corral the divergent characteristics in such a way as to obtain a semblance of control. Solid wood moves, both when it is cut up into pieces, and keeps moving when it is in service. An intimate knowledge of these characteristics is required to develop pieces which stand up well over time. The museums I’ve visited are filled with old furniture pieces in which mistakes were made by the craftsman in not allowing for wood movement, and cracked panels and split bracketed feet assemblies are commonly seen. Some who reproduce such pieces actually duplicate even the mistakes in constructional logic in their zealotry to produce an accurate reproduction, which has never made any sense at all to me. The past is a great teacher if we actually pay attention!

I say that it is wise to examine the fine works from the past masters and to learn from them. That means, where possible, noting what worked and what did not, and advancing the designs or seeking to improve upon them in some small way, once the logic of those designs are fully digested and appreciated. Often such improvements are not possible frankly, and some pieces made long ago are simply nothing short of works of absolute mastery on the part of the makers.

Case in point is the Ming period side table which serves as the primary design inspiration for the dining table I am to construct. It is a work of exceptional genius, though the reason why it was so advanced for its time may not be at all readily apparent upon initial inspection:

One must admit this is a fairly modern-looking piece in many respects with its very clean lines and lack of ornament. This is a corner leg side table, or tiaozhuo, made entirely from a type of wood called huanghuali (黃花梨). While the Chinese written characters for this species directly suggest “yellow flowering pear”, huanghuali is in fact a true rosewood, dalbergia odorifera. Here’s a look at some of that tree’s foliage:

Huanghuali is a slow growing tree, a trunk of 12″ diameter taking some 100 years to form. This wood was already in scarce supply in China by 1500 and its use was restricted to the very highest class of Chinese traditional furniture. In fact, most of the finest extant examples of Ming period furniture are of huanghuali wood. Large pieces of this wood were especially rare, and furniture pieces which have survived hundreds of years and retain large sections of huanghuali wood in their structures are especially treasured. Here’s a sample of the material which apparently, like other rosewoods, has a distinctive scent (hence the second half of the latin name for the tree, d. odorifera):

This wood is pretty much unavailable these days, and in fact finding any type of rosewood in adequate dimensions to make larger pieces of furniture is very tough and the prices, when material can be obtained, are in the $100 board/foot and up range. I won’t be making this dining table from rosewood, however I have found a wood which I think will be a most excellent, if not superior substitute – more on that in a later post.

Back to that Ming Table. The Ming Dynastic Period, for those of you unaware, spans the years from 1368 to 1644. This particular table is estimated to have been constructed around 1580, the craftsman unknown.

I’d like talk in general terms next about Chinese tables from the classical periods (namely the Song, Ming and early Qing periods). In Chinese classical furniture, there are two basic categories of table: those with recessed legs (), and those with corner legs (/). Tables with recessed legs are practical and sturdy and related most directly to the architectural post-and-lintel construction precedent. Tables with corner legs are elegant and seamlessly show the beauty of the wood flowing over the joint, however they are often more fragile due to this construction than the other type.

For the corner leg tables, (‘‘ in Chinese/’‘ in Japanese), the character ‘‘ breaks down as follows: ‘‘ on the bottom, is an abbreviated form of the character ‘‘ (which means morning), and connotes darkness dispelled by the rising sun; and ‘‘ on the top, which in this case is a variant on the character for person, ‘‘. Thus, ‘‘, which gave the idea of a person who rises above all others, came in time to mean table because a table is an object of surpassing height. In Chinese, the character ‘‘ also therefore connotes profound, brilliant, lofty, and distinguished. Further, the use of corner leg tables in ceremonial events cements the association of corner leg tables as being a more refined and elegant type of furniture.

The primary design issue with corner leg tables, as mentioned earlier, is their structural reliance upon the joints at the corners between the leg and apron, a connection which is mechanically vulnerable to the loads imposed it repeatedly over time. In many cases, the aesthetic pursuit of austere purity of line led to tables with structural systems which did not stand up very well to use. As noted Chinese Classical furniture scholar Curtis Evarts notes in his analysis of this table form,

From a technical point of view, only precise and intelligent joinery systems coupled with good luck could prevent the breakdown and loosening of a table’s corner leg mortise and tenon joint over a long period of use. And without the benefit of additional reinforcing devices such as spandrels, stretchers, or curved corner braces to distribute the forces multiplied by the leverage of the table’s long legs, a condition of instability gradually develops that even Gustav Ecke admitted “does not inspire confidence,” referring to his own lute table of similar form.

The use of stretchers and interior diagonal braces, or giant’s arm braces (bawangcheng, ‘霸王棖‘), stems from well before the Ming Dynasty, however for some reason in the late 16th century they fell out of fashion. A minimalistic taste appears to have prevailed. In the next post in this series we’ll continue our look at Chinese corner-leg tables, exploring the variety of constructional systems employed, and reveal why the table pictured above in this post is such a remarkable piece.

Stay tuned and thanks for coming by today. –> go to post 2

8 Replies to “Ming Inspiration”

  1. Now that I am caught up with the archives I no longer feel like the school boy starting mid term. Look forward to following along.
    I sympathize with your views expressed. Nice to know there are more out there who share the same values.

  2. Dale, I'll keep 'em coming as fast as I can. Been sick the past three days which has slowed me down a bit mind you.

    RS, I'm sure I'm not the only one with such views – I think it is simply that I just happen to be willing to stand on a box and drone on about it. Glad you found the blog and thanks for taking the time to read your way through past postings.


  3. Hi Chris,

    Just read through your Ming Inspiration series and all I can say is, Wow! I had never paid much attention to the three corner joint and now thanks to you, I know enough to try one!

    I also admire your philosophy of not compromising on your workmanship when many seem bent on producing things the fastest and cheapest way. Kudos!


  4. Hi,

    Just found you blog…was wondering if modern society held anything for me in the form of ancient carpentry and then found this site. Really great that others do still value these ancient, forgotten techniques that have been refined and designed over centuries.

    Hopefully I'll be able to catch up on all your past archives.

    Thanks for the blog!
    – LA

Anything to add?

error: Content is protected !!
%d bloggers like this: