Glossary: Carcase

Sometimes Carcase Work or Carcase Construction or Case Construction. In this entry, Carcase is treated together with Casework, because, in writing about woodworking activities where these terms are relevant, often the terms are used interchangeably. Because their meanings are easily confused, precisely defining each term requires explaining how they function in woodworking contexts. In context, while both terms refer to an object under construction, Casework refers to the process, Carcase to the product.

Philip Leon, professor emeritus of English at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, helps us sort out the etymology of "carcase":

To make a strong highboy, begin by making a carcass. You can spell this word carcass or carcase. Both spellings are common today and are pronounced the same, "CAR-cuss." As far back as the 13th century, carcass has meant "a dead body." Nowadays the word is a term of derision: "Get your lazy carcass out of that recliner!" Because carcass means a corpse or skeleton, woodworkers appropriated the term to describe the framework, or skeleton, of a piece of furniture.

Source: Philip Leon, Popular Woodworking 22 No 2 April 2002, page 88.

To define these two terms within the context of furniture design and construction: carcase refers to the basic "box", i.e., product, consisting of, say, six sides, as in the six-board chest, i.e., a front, a back, two ends, a bottom, and a top or lid. One of the simplest forms of furniture construction, when joined together, the six boards form an enclosed storage area. Likewise, in furniture design and construction, casework refers to the processes in which woodworkers engage in while constructing the basic "box".

To the Englishman, Ernest Joyce, in constructing larger furniture pieces, i.e., " carcase constructions", because

...any large carcase must provide for possible distortion, or "ricking", ... either under the weight of its own members, or by applied forces, pushing, pulling, lifting, upending, and so forth, or by setting on an uneven foundation, such as a sloping floor.

Source: Ernest Joyce, Encyclopedia of Furniture MakingNew York: Sterling, 1976, pages 267 and following.

For the American Industrial Arts instructor, Franklin H Gottshall, and prolific writer:

Many other kinds of carcase construction have evolved from the basic box-type represented by the six-board chest.

Source: Franklin H Gottshall, "Carcase Construction", American Woodworker, September, 1985, page 40.

To illustrate the different meanings of carcase (product) and casework (process), take these examples, first from William F. Vroom, in a 1903 issue of Manual Training Magazine,

"Casework" [process] is a term used to denote such articles of furniture as chests of drawers, bookcases, cabinets, sideboards, wardrobes, etc. In general, these have level surfaces and straight lines, though many examples may be seen, both ancient and modern, in which curves predominate. The joints used in their construction include a con­siderable variety, such as the mortise-and-tenon, the dovetail, the tongue-and-groove, lapped, and housed joints....

carcase

The first is undoubtedly sound in principle, and may be adapted to almost any piece of casework by a designer of intelligence and originality. It is not, however, the method most in favor among cabinet-makers, though it is used now­adays in a more or less modified form in furniture factories in the con­struction of bedroom furniture, sideboards, etc. The second method is obviously the one best adapted to bookcases, small cabinets, etc., in which the depth is inconsiderable; but it is also the one which has become crystallized by usage among good workmen for generations, in framing chests of drawers, secretaries, and general casework [process] of average size and simple design.

Source: William F Vroom, "Constructive Design in Woodwork III" Manual Training Magazine 4 January 1903, page ?

Second, from R Davis Benn's 1904 Style in Furniture, where Benn is discussing the achievements of the 18th century furniture designer and maker, Thomas Chippendale

...Generally speaking, the armoire, livery-cupboard or hutch was built by a country carpenter and then pierced with a crude imitation of geometrical detail or of a local church window. The carcase [product] is bold, as we would have it; the piece is rare, and it touches the collector's heart.....

Chippendale's "clothes-presses" rested on deep feet or short legs.... The carcase [product] would be sometimes square, at other times bombe in form, but it seldom displays the amount of garnishment we should expect to find on it after a perusal of Chippendale's book of designs....

Casework [process], whether we consider its simpler forms or the more elaborate shaping and decoration, reached perfection; while mouldings and decoration, colour schemes, and general finish led to the creation of models of the most decorative value.

Source: R Davis Benn's Style in Furniture 1904

In a more up-to-date source, Christian Becksvoort, uses both terms in one sentence on two occasions :

In casework as in any furniture, the basic construction of the carcase affects both the look and the function of the piece.

All of the Shaker casework and virtually all of the 19th-century furniture I've worked with, is constructed in one of two ways, with solid wood carcase sides or by solid wood panels let into the frames.

Source: Christian Becksvoort, "Building a Chest of Drawers", Fine Woodworking's Traditional Furniture Projects page 13.

Sources: R. Davis Benn, Style in Furniture New York: Longmans, Green, 1904; page 17; Franklin H Gottshall, "Carcase Construction," American Woodworker , September, 1985, page 40; Christian Becksvoort, "Building a Chest of Drawers", Fine Woodworking's Traditional Furniture Projects page 13.