Woodworker Manual Author #2: Percy A Wells and John Hooper

Percy A Wells and John Hooper, authors of one of the most highly acclaimed woodworker's manuals of the last century:-- Modern Cabinetwork: Furniture and Fitments, 1910 to 1952, six editions -- plus other books, and some examples of furniture designed by Wells.

Percy A. Wells (1867-1956), was the head of the cabinet department at Shoreditch Technical Institution in London. John Hooper was a recipient of the Order of the British Empire and an honors silver medalist at the City and Guilds of London Institute. Biographical info on these two authors is sketchy, although there is some promise that a 2001 study of the London College of Furniture, by Sean Glynn (London Guildhall University) will contain useful background. (What little info I have comes from the website of the archives of London Metropolitan Univeristy (London City campus) . I have also benefited from Stuart Evans, "Furniture for Small Houses", Furniture History: the Journal of the Furniture History Society 42 2006, pages 193-205.

From 1899, Wells was Chief Technical Instructor at the Shoreditch Technical Institute, based in Hoxton and run through the London County Council Technical Education Board. The Shoreditch Institute served as a training school for the furniture makers in East London while the Central School, in Holborn, served the up-market furniture trade of the West End, so Wells was in a good position to know the industry and how it operated.

As a local technical school, Shoreditch trained both male and female workers for the furniture industry. Wells students made the furniture -- one piece shown below -- in his book, Furniture for Small Houses.

... [In] Shoreditch Technical Institute -- which has a great reputation as a technical school for the furniture trades and one of the oldest established of the London trade schools -- [t]he course for furniture and cabinet making at this school consists of English subjects, arithmetic and mensuration, geometry and geometrical drawing, freehand and model drawing, design work associated with wood and metal, modeling in clay, elementary experimental science, workshops and technical drawing, technology of woods and metals, and a large amount of bench work for the use of woodwork and metal working tools.

The time allotted to the theoretical and practical workshop lessons is roughly equal to that allotted to the English, mathematical, and science subjects. This school prepares boys to enter the furniture and woodwork trades as cabinetmakers, carpenters, joiners, shop fitters, pattern makers, turners, wood carvers, or trade draughtsmen.

Source: C. W. Kimmins, "Trade Schools of London", The Elementary School Teacher 10, no 5 (January 1910), pages 212-213.

(Parenthetically, I must note that, for me at least, it is strange that we have so little analysis of the work of Wells and Hooper. Except for the few scattered mentions of Wells, the Evans piece that I cite above is the only scholarly evaluation that I have found, something that I find puzzling.

Now that Google books has added coverage of periodicals, chances of finding info on the work and/or influence of Wells has increased. For example, many more sources are becoming available that expose the connection of Wells with such more famous designers like Sir Gordon Russell.)

Fragment from Gordon Russell's autobiography, Designer's Trade

In this frame of mind, and from this strange and unlikely background, I set out for London armed with the photographs. I went to see John Gloag, the architectural historian, who was then assistant editor of The Cabinet Maker and whose name was familiar to me through the Design and Industries Association. I had come across this body only recently and I cannot say how much I owe to its early members, men like Harold Stabler, Crofton Gane, Ben Fletcher, Frank Pick, Charles Holden, Ambrose Heal, Noel Carrington, Harry Peach, Hamilton Smith, Herbert Simon, Harold Curwen, Alfred Read and Leslie Mansfield, all of whom were willing to share their experience with a greenhorn. Gloag was a keen protagonist of better design. He was interested in the photographs and asked if he might print them. The interview started a friendship which has grown with the years.

Then I saw Percy Wells, head of the cabinet making section of the LCC Shoreditch Technical Institute, whom I had met before the war when he was walking in the Cotswolds. He was charming to me and from that time on for many years his great practical experience was always freely available to us and his interest never flagged. He offered to come down and discuss the whole problem on the spot, an offer which I accepted gladly. We came to the conclusion, as we sat in a Lyons' teashop somewhere off Old Street in the City, that it would be necessary to repair antiques in one shop and make furniture in another, which would enable us to get or train a good cabinet-making foreman and to raise the whole standard of finish to somewhere near that of the best hand shops. As a family we mostly choose the difficult way of tackling a problem, so we decided to offer to train Edgar Turner instead of importing a ready-trained man. Edgar was rooted in the shop and had its interests much at heart. Moreover, as his army record-Military Medal and Bar-proved, he was good at handling men. He jumped at the chance and Wells fixed him up in a `small master's' shop in Shoreditch.

Source: Gordon Russell Designer's Trade: Autobiography of Gordon Russell London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968, page 123.

1910, 1952, six editions

Percy A. Wells and John Hooper. Modern Cabinetwork Furniture and Fitments: An Account of the Theory and Practice in the Production of all Kinds of Cabinetwork and Furniture With Chapters on the Growth and Progress of Design and Construction Illustrated by Over 1000 Practical Workshop Drawings Photographs and Original Designs. London: Batsford; Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1909.  384 pages.

1923 Edition Reprinted for Today's Woodworkers


The 1923, second, edition Modern Cabinetwork: Furniture and Fitmentsis reprinted for today by Cambium as Modern Cabinet Work

The original -- from the early 1900s -- is known as the "cabinetmaker's "Bible". The new edition of this 100-year-old handbook contains more than 2,000 line drawings -- one is shown on the left -- and hundreds of photographs that explain virtually every useful hand and machine technique and furniture design detail suitable for the small-shop woodworker.

Complete shop drawings are featured for dozens of exemplary furniture pieces and high-quality built-ins, drawn from all eras in furniture history, including those once deemed dated but built to last forever. With comprehensive chapters on drawing and layout skills, this classic guide carries traditional theories and techniques into the 21st century to once again become the definitive reference to modern woodworking.


Almost Instant Recognition of the Manual's High Order of Excellence

When the London publisher, New York-based John Lane Company, introduced this book to an American audience in 1910, its appearance received the briefest of notices in an issue of the New York Times:

The same house is bringing out a volume by Percy A. Wells and John Hooper on "Modern Cabinetwork Furniture and Fitments". This book includes 1,000 diagrams and measured drawing of all kinds of tables, and miscellaneous furniture, carved and veneer work, etc.

For the second and subsequent editions, the American publisher is the mainline Philadelphia house, J B Lippincott.

Indexed in Index to Handicrafts 1936.

The 1915 Books on the Manual Arts describes the Wells  and Hooper manual as the "best and most comprehensive book on cabinetmaking".

Comparing Editions:-- 1910 - 1952

I have spent several hours comparing four editions of this famous English book, of six editions, published between 1910 and 1952.

I have posted on the web these Introductions to MODERN CABINETWORK: FURNITURE AND FITMENTS because its content -- in six editions between 1910 and 1952 -- informs us about significant events in woodworking through the centuries leading up to the 20th century. Even with its English roots, these books themselves have helped me understand some of the events that impacted upon amateur woodworking in America.







Below are reprints of the (1) Introduction (directly below) of editions One through Five -- unchanged in all these editions -- (2) the special addendum, "Modern Developments ", added for the Fifth edition, and (3) a distilled version of Hooper's 21-page Introduction for the Sixth edition



. percy_wells_bowsaw

Origin of Cabinetmaking; Development of Furniture; The Cabinetmaker, Old and New — Division of Labour — Present-Day Requirements and Prospects.

It is a long stretch from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, but it covers a period that embraces the beginning and gradual rise of a craft which has taken a place in the front rank of skilled trades. No one engaged in it, whether apprentice or journeyman, salesman or designer, manager or master, can afford to ignore its historical side, when at any time he may be called upon either to design, make, or sell a piece of furniture which directly or indirectly bears some relation to the fashions of bygone periods. Having to face this fact, we may briefly refer to the development of cabinetmaking, and to changes at different periods, before turning to the practical reasons for which this book is written, namely, to explain the actual making of furniture of all kinds.

Cabinetmaking grew out of the needs and necessities of the times, as ideas of household comfort and taste grew and improved. Even the furniture of the fifteenth century -- rude as it appears to us -- was an advance on that of the thirteenth, when goods and chattels were preserved in "dug outs", or chests roughly hewn out of the solid, and chairs were luxuries for kings alone. As domestic life improved, and housekeeping articles increased, it became necessary to "cabin" or enclose them, and the "joyner" who made the "cabins" or "cupboards " gradually developed into the cabinetmaker. How and when the separation took place it is impossible to say, as the transition was a slow one, but the earliest records we have of it are in the doings of a "Guild of Cofferers", a society of craftsmen in the fifteenth century who made a specialty of the construction of chests, "coffers" or "hutches" as they were named, and it is reasonable to suppose that they also made other articles of household use. From the chest -- which for a long time served as cupboard, seat, table, and bed -- we can trace the development of much of our modern furniture.

It improved in construction as time went on, and was panelled and framed into legs. It was an easy and natural thing to lengthen the legs and add another "cabin" or drawer as seen in the fifteenth century Gothic cabinet illustrated in Plate II. Shelves were fixed on the top, or another cup-board with a cornice supported by pillars was added, and the old chest became a "buffet" or "court" and "cheese" cupboard, and from this it is not such a big jump to the Yorkshire "dresser", or to the nineteenth century sideboard with cupboards, drawers, and a back. Again, the chest with back and arms became a "settle" the forerunner of our settee and sofa. Out of it, too, grew the "almery", "armoire", "press", and the chest of drawers. A fine example of a "press" is illustrated on p. 3 ; it may be compared with a modern wardrobe.

Much has been said in praise of the old cabinetmakers, and deservedly so, for we can learn a great deal from their work, but the conditions of labour and living are changed, and the cabinetmaker of to-day is called upon to show a finer skill and larger resource than were ever exhibited by the craftsmen of the ancient guilds.

The demands upon his craftsmanship vary from making the daintiest articles for the boudoir, to the massive furnishings of a Town Hall. He must be equally ready to repair an umbrella stand or fit up a royal saloon, a yacht, or an office; to tackle any job that comes along in any style or material, or to cheerfully pack up his tools when there is none. When so much praise is given to the old cabinetmakers, equal recognition is due to their successors in modern times.

The introduction of flats ; the increase of luxurious hotels ; the changes and improvements in house building which have brought the "fitment" and the " ingle nook," have all tended to widen the scope of the cabinetmaker's craft. But his work is not confined to domestic furnishings only. Special furniture is made for ships, yachts, trains, schools, hospitals, sanatoria, museums, offices, municipal buildings, libraries, and reading rooms. Photography has created a demand for minute but skilled work ; the increasing use of stationery, and the manufacture of surgical and scientific apparatus, have brought about the "case-maker," whilst the theatre, the garden, and various sports all call for work of a specialized character.

On the other hand, the decline of the apprenticeship system, and the increasing division of labor, tend to produce a specialist in one branch of the trade only, as against an all-round workman, and it is more difficult for a lad to get a thorough training than in former years. Any decline in the standard of workmanship must end in disastrous results for all concerned, and beginners in the trade who seriously wish to master their craft will not be satisfied at learning one part of it only. As fashions change, there must ever be a demand for good and resourceful cabinetmakers, and although it may be necessary to specialize for a time, there are numerous means whereby a man may study various sides of his craft. It is hoped that this .book may serve a useful purpose in giving a practical insight into some of these branches.

The furniture designers and cabinetmakers of to-day have to show the public that they can design and make furniture equal to if not surpassing the antique specimens for which there is such an increasing craze. It is only by showing the public that well-designed and soundly-made furniture can be produced at moderate prices, that a demand for such will be established and increased.

In looking ahead, it is safe to say that the future of the English furniture and cabinetmaking trade generally must depend upon the quality of the work put upon the market. The combination of designer, maker, and machine should produce a type which can hold its own against all comers, and appeal to all buyers. There is a growing desire for good furniture, and it behooves the cabinetmaker to be ready for these changes, and well equip himself for fresh demands upon his intelligence and labor.

Cabinetmaking is a craft which must always be closely allied to the great mother art of architecture. It embodies some of the finest traditions of English craftsmanship, and whatever changes have taken place or may come, these traditions must continue to hold the imaginations of the workers in it, whether individual or collective. If these traditions are carried on, we should then have English furniture what it has been in the past — good to make and pleasant to live with.

Below is a part of the text added in 1938 to their intro:

At the time of writing (1938) the modern movement in furniture may be said to have established itself. It is essentially a type of design based on a material, which lends itself to rectangular forms, straight lines, and flat treatment. In this respect, it owes little or nothing to past styles.

Changes Incorporated in 1952 Edition

In the shaded area, below, is text added to 1938 edition of MODERN CABINETWORK, FURNITURE, AND FITMENTS (on title page “fifth edition revised with additional illustrations.

Also is this note, by John Hooper:

1. The chapter on Machines in the previous editions has been omitted and replaced by one on Plywood and Lamin Boards. Modern machines are so intricate and varied in type that it was eliminated


The preceding introduction was written for the first edition which was published twenty-five years ago. As a description of the development of the craft of cabinetmaking up to that time, the introduction needs no emendation. In the course of a quarter of a century, however, it is inevitable that conditions, fashions, and values change, and new methods and materials are introduced. It is therefore necessary to write an addition to the introduction of 1909, and to summarise the changes.

Modern design in English furniture may be said to have had its origin from the scarcity of timber during the years of the Great War — 1914 to 1918. The need for economy led to cutting out the non-essentials. For the first time, wardrobes, cabinets, and book-cases appeared without pediments, cornice-boxes, and plinths. The skeleton carcase was left, but the essential purpose of a wardrobe remained. After the war the housing problem arose, and with it an increased public interest in the reform of furniture. The interest was stimulated by the propaganda of such organisations as The Design and Industries Association with its slogan of " Fitness for purpose " in the design and manufacture of household goods. The Paris Exhibition of 1925 also had a marked influence on design. The French designers discarded traditional claims and boldly declared for modern expression. They gave an extravagant prominence to material, particularly to figured woods


A third and more direct influence on the design of modern furniture was the introduction of plywood and lamin boards. This material, which is fully described in Chapter XIII, gave opportunities for the use of figured veneers in a way never before attempted. The treatment of large flat and flush surfaces with English, Italian, and Australian walnut, and many newer woods, produced designs which could not have been thought of twenty-five years ago. The framed-up door in furniture is slowly disappearing. Walnut has been the most popular wood, and it has been used successfully with Macassar ebony, Indian laurel, zebrano, and other decorative woods. Mahogany has been out of fashion, but there are signs of its returning to favour. The long period of " Jacobean " oak has declined to the popularity of walnut, and to the modernised finish known as "limed " or "weathered" oak.

The whole effect of these changes in material and finish has been to simplify form, and to rely on the colour and figure of veneer for decoration. Carving and moulding have almost disappeared. The old type of chest of drawers has given way to the chest cupboard in a bedroom set, and washstands have been replaced by hot and cold water basins fitted in the rooms. It is admitted that in general efficiency and fitness for purpose, design has made marked progress and shown much originality. Dressing-tables are fitted with frameless mirrors, and bed-heads are provided with every .contrivance and convenience for lighting and reading. The design of dining-tables has reverted to the fixed trestle or centre pedestal type, and sideboards are fitted with elaborate and complete arrangements for cocktail service. In door fittings the change has been noticeable. Wood, composition, or chromium-plate handles have taken the place of brass or oxidised metal. The introduction of "wireless" and the gramophone, as well as the cocktail habit, has developed the production of suitable cabinets into a highly specialised branch of the furniture industry. For the ever-increasing number of "Flats," the "unit" idea in furnishing has provided an ingenious and practical solution to " slender purse" difficulties .... There is also a growing demand for built-in furniture.

Perhaps the most startling change in material has been the introduction of steel tubular and chromium-plated furniture, to which must be added " armour-plate " glass. The steel tube has lent itself chiefly to chairs and frames for tables with glass tops. Chromium-plate is also used in conjunction with wood and glass as sliding doors for book and other cases. Time alone can show how far this change from wood to metal and glass will prove popular.

Some of the synthetic productions such as "bakelite," "ivorine," and "ebonite" are displacing wood in table tops, trays, lamp-stands, and other small articles. Bakelite is produced in large slabs, and is hard and durable. It is applied as a bond in plywood and can be moulded for handles and similar products.

Upholstery has been greatly improved and has conformed to the straight lines of other furniture in the design of lounge chairs and settees. Methods of manufacture have been accelerated by improvements in machines and factory organisation by which " mass production " has been extended. The " spray gun " and cellulose have revolutionised shellac and hand polishing, although the polisher with his " rubber " is still essential to give a job the best finish. Chemistry has provided stains by which almost any tone of colour can be given to wood.

At the time of writing (1938) the modern movement in furniture may be said to have established itself. It is essentially a type of design based on a material which lends itself to rectangular forms, straight lines, and flat treatment. In this respect it owes little or nothing to past styles.

In spite of the modern developments there remains a demand for repro­ductions of " period " designs and antiques, for with such a great tradition behind it, there must always be a live interest in old English furniture:

With regard to the future, a well-known artist of the modern school has said that " a return to classical tradition in painting is inevitable with a corresponding reversion in interior decoration and furniture, since these things always follow painting," an interesting conjecture which only the years ahead can verify.

This summary would not be complete without some reference to important developments in Technical Education and Training for the furniture industry. The decay of apprenticeship has brought into being the Trade Schools. At Shoreditch there are Senior and Junior Day Schools and Evening Classes for training cabinetmakers, upholsterers, draughtsmen, salesmen, and others, who wish to obtain basic instruction or to improve a limited knowledge. It is now possible for a boy to enter the trade as an improver after a three-years training, or for youths over sixteen to acquire an all-round insight of business methods and requirements. At the Central School of Arts and Crafts (Southampton Row) there are day and evening courses. Other centres in London are at Beckenham, Camberwell, Camden Town, Hammersmith, and West Ham. In the provinces there are furniture schools at High Wycombe, Birmingham, Barnstaple, Bradford, Leeds, Batley, Newcastle, and other towns.

The City and Guilds of London Institute hold yearly examinations in cabinetmaking, theory and practice, and in furniture design. A silver medal is the coveted highest award. There is now every opportunity for a youth to study and improve himself in a craft which is second to none in historic, artistic, social, and constructive interest. A list of suitable books will be found at the end of this volume. The Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington, the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square, the Soaue Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, the Bethnal Green Museum, and the Geffrye Museum in Kingsland Road, all contain fine examples of furniture of all periods, and every facility is given to students for studying them.

Source: John Hooper, Modern Cabinetwork: Furniture and Fitments 1952.

Unlike the two documents above, which preserve the original integrity of the Introductions, the length and content of the document below is reduced, but only in those areas considered nonessential to understanding the gist of Hooper's intent in his 1952 comments.


Scope of New Edition. The first edition of this book, which was prepared in the years 1905 to 1909 for publication in July 1909, was intended as a textbook for students, cabinetmakers, and draughtsmen, and the workshop practice and technique described were characteristic of technical practice then prevailing in good London and provincial firms.

Design during that period [1905 to ]  was based chiefly upon traditional types of Tudor, seventeenth century, Queen Anne, and later eighteenth century examples.

The workshop practice was almost identical with that practised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

In the production of high-grade furniture few machines were used in West End [London] shops, and were, when used, restricted to primary machines such as circular, band, and fret-saws, lathes and spindles, and occasionally mortising and tenoning machines.

In a few exclusive shops, handcraft methods in the Gimson tradition were practised

Since then there have been major changes in the furniture industry.

Contemporary design has a different technique arising from new materials, improved machinery, the introduction of the Vacuum Vag Veneering process, and the development of shaping and forming presses; and it has been found necessary to effect an almost entire remodelling of the book, although it should be stated that much bench practice in individual jobs is a continuation of practice originated in earlier centuries and continued until the present day.

The [sixth editon 1952] book is now related to pre-war and post-war practice in handcraft and machine production, as distinct from the highly specialised machine and assembly processes of mass production.

Early Cabinetmaking Practice

When Wells and Hooper's manual appeared in London in 1910, the craft of cabinetmaking could be divided into two grades, designated by the following terms:

(1) Hand shops,

(2) Machine and hand shops.

In Great Britain, London -- the largest centre of cabinetmaking -- was led … by some direct descendants of the eighteenth century masters … These firms employed first-class designers, and much fine work was produced almost entirely by hand processes.

Briefly, …  fine furniture of that time was made by hand processes identical with those of the eighteenth century and earlier.

The workshops of these exclusive firms were termed "hand shops."

These firms produced fine domestic furniture, panelling, and fittings for the town and country houses of the wealthy classes, and, in addition, fine furniture and panelling for ocean liners and notable yachts.

The Arts and Crafts Movement

This movement owes its origin mainly to the example of William Morris, who established workshops for the design and production of carpets, fine textiles, stained glass, metal work, tapestries, and furniture. Other designers and designer craftsmen entered the movement which achieved new standards of design in the domestic arts and crafts.

The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was established, and the first exhibition was held in the New Gallery, Grafton Street, London, in 1888. 

The designer, Ernest Gimson, and the craftsman, Sidney Barnsley, formed a partnership in 1902 and produced much fine work in their country workshops with a team of craftsmen which included Peter Waals, the managing foreman. At the time of writing the Gimson-Barnsley tradition is carried on by Edward Barnsley. Other designer craftsmen include Eric Sharpe, and Stanley W. Davies, trained by Romney Green, a contemporary of Gimson and Barnsley.

These craftsmen practice traditional handwork for highly individual productions, and their work [was] …  produced almost entirely by traditional hand processes. In such work, machines play a subsidiary part. The work of the hand craftsman is essential to producing these fine examples of design and crafts­manship. 

A second phase in the evolution of modern furniture design was in the formation of the Design and Industries Association which encouraged good industrial design.

In the field of furniture design Ambrose Heal and Gordon Russell, who designed in the Gimson-Barnsley tradition, made the chief contributions, and in addition to designing much fine individual work also designed for commercial production in which machinery was appropriately used for primary and constructional processes in repetitive work, with a considerable percentage of handwork in the assembling and finishing processes.

Present Position. At the time of writing,  in 1949 – just four years after the most devastating war in Britain’s history -- the furniture industry in Great Britain is trying to regain its pre-war activity in the face of shortages of materials and also trained craftsmen. Many of the latter were engaged on aircraft production during the war and have continued in that industry.

The future activity of the furniture industry in Great Britain will be covered by the following rough classification:

(a) Mass production.

(b) Machine and hand production.

(c) Handcraft production.

Brief descriptions of these sections are given as follows :

(a) Mass Production

The mass production of furniture has been stimulated by the present abnormal need for enormous quantities of domestic furniture for the lower income groups, and by the war-time extension of large woodworking plants for aircraft and other woodwork required for direct and indirect war activities.

It is essentially a large-scale teamwork job in which designers, engineers, chemists, craftsmen, and other technicians devise the most economic method of producing machine-made furniture in large quantities. This highly specialised industry has developed elaborate high-speed machinery and technique in which the design and the prototype are all important. The number of designs in relation to total production is relatively small, and many architects and industrial designers now design for mass production. Designers who have taken a leading part in the post-war period include R. D. Russell, Brian O'Rorke, and Edward Barnsley, working in the Gimson and Barnsley tradition.

(b) Machine and Hand Production

This term is applied by the writer to high-grade furniture, panelling and fittings required for individual schemes, or for production of selected designs in small quantities. In this form of production the mill and the machine shop are used to the maximum extent in fabricating components and parts which are fitted and assembled by expert craftsmen….  [T]he main function of this book is to assist in the training of such craftsmen. Most of the examples illustrated in the photo plates were produced by machine and handcraft production, and the remainder by mass production and handcraft production.

As this book is intended chiefly as an aid for students, designers, craftsmen wishing to acquire a general knowledge of furniture craftsmanship, highly specialised mass production involving important engineering and jig practice cannot be dealt with in detail.

Mass production is essentially a subject demanding a separate book.

(c) Handcraft Production

Handcraft production, in the broadest application of the term, is the technique of hand-made work in combination with the use of prefabricated mpractised by designer-craftsmen. The term is also applicable to the production technique used in some Technical and Educational Institutions andalso Art Schools in which handcraft technique, with the minimum use of machinery, is used to obtain a particular quality of form and texture appropriate to individual pieces.

At the head of the Handcraft section are craftsmen such as Edward Barnsley, who is carrying on the Gimson and Barnsley tradition in the production of fine hand-made furniture.

Fundamental Constructions

Changes of design, technique, and workshop practice between 1919 and 1949, which necessitated remodelling this book, have been considerable, and as the development of components technique has resulted in changes of construction, it is thought desirable at this early stage to describe some features of contemporary construction which have wide application and should form part of the background of technical knowledge to be acquired at an early stage by students, craftsmen, and designers.

Most of the examples illustrated and described in later chapters are based upon machine and hand production in a technique appropriate to individual pieces. There is, however, an inevitable overlapping and variation of technique.

Another example to illustrate the need at an early stage of a general background of technical knowledge is a main feature, though not exclusively used, in mass production. This consists of a process of connecting straight or curved carcase ends, either coopered up by handcraft methods or fabricated in a ply technique in shaping or forming presses by means of horizontal frames. This technique was a natural development arising from the use of formed ends which were much thinner than solid timber ends, although stronger in use, and its place in mass production was due to its suitability. This horizontal frame technique has an undoubted value, as an alternative to lapped dovetailing, in individual work in furniture and shop fittings.

The remaining part of this chapter is chiefly devoted to some characteristic examples of woodworking technique which are developed more fully in later chapters. The headings in this chapter are:

(a) Basic forms of furniture construction, carcase dovetailing

(b) Machine production, framed carcase technique

(c) Introduction to hand, machine, and press forming technique.

(d) Curved rim technique.

These brief descriptions -- not comprehensive -- are considered adequate to illustrate some basic factors which should be acquired soon after mastering the elements of drawing, design, and woodwork. In later chapters related practice is dealt with in more detail and wider application.


Carcase Dovetailing

The student of furniture design and construction requires:

a good working knowledge of elementary woodwork and drawing

a detailed knowledge of joints and their use or application and

a clear understanding of the fundamental basis of furniture construction

It will be advantageous to all students to understand the fundamental features or bases of furniture construction which, in their broadest classification, are

(1) Carcase Work, which is primarily based upon a dovetailed box, chest, or cupboard, and

(2) Table or Framed Work, which is based on mortised and tenoned, or dowelled, frames or stands.

When this book was first prepared for publication in 1909 the furniture technique of manufacture was broadly grouped into two categories :

(A) Hand-made, usually referred to as a Handcraft job, and

(B) Machine made.

At the time of writing in 1949, furniture production falls into three main categories as follows:

(1)Handcraft production as practised by designer-craftsmen, following the Gimson or Cotswold tradition, in which machinery plays a very small part. This technique is also that practised in Technical and Art Schools

(2) Handcraft production, in combination with machined parts and components, for individual jobs in special shops of large organisations, or in small factories specialising in high-grade furniture required for public buildings, colleges, board-rooms, and the highest class of domestic furniture, which may be termed machine and hand production.

(3) Mass production, which has a characteristic and highly developed technique arising from new materials, scientific adhesives, highly developed machinery, and heavy plant functioning with precision at great speed.


It should not be assumed that mass produced furniture has a low quality, and it should not be confused with a mass of pre-war furniture of very low quality, made with inferior constructional material, and unsound construction in imitation of better-class furniture.

The outstanding characteristics of Handcraft Carcase Work are shown in the Diagrams 1-8, page 7. ... 


Framed Carcase Technique. Improvements in the mass production of commercial plywood and the development of multiply, block, and lamin board naturally led to new technique appropriate to these materials and to their extended use in good-class furniture and fittings. 

In the early days of plywood manufacture its use was almost restricted to subsidiary components, such as dust boards, drawer bottoms, and carcase back panels. …  

This basic type of construction is appropriate for either handcraft or machine production, as the non-shrinking quality of fabricated material renders it practically monolithic, and it may safely be glued to horizontal fillets running across the ends. … 

Introduction to Hand, Machine, and Press Forming Technique. The introduction of fine quality plywood, multiply, lamin board, and block board effected far-reaching changes in the construction of furniture and fittings. … 

The production technique may be divided into (1) Handcraft technique, in which machinery plays a very subordinate part; (2)Handcraft and simple plant technique; and (3) Machine and press production with varying details in each category. … 

Curved Rim Technique. The technique of Curved Rims, which includes circular and elliptical table rims as well as serpentine, bow, and swept curves …

Technical Education in the Furniture Industry. The first practical steps in giving technical instruction to those engaged in the furniture industry were taken by the Regent Street Polytechnic, London, aided by the London County Council, about 1903. Evening classes in Design and Drawing were formed, and students were prepared for the City and Guilds Examination in Cabinetmaking. The instruction in these classes was supplemented by attendance in the Evening Art School and also the Technical School for practical geometry and related subjects. …



Percy A Wells. Woodwork. London, New York [etc.] T. Nelson and Sons,  1913. vi, [7]-218 p. front., illus. 15 cm.

As part of a "The Hobby Books" series by the London-based publisher, Thomas Nelson, this manual is designed for amateur woodworkers in an era when most woodworkers only worked with hand tools.

In many ways this English-oriented manual resembles its American counterparts, such as Ira Samuel Griffith's 1911 Wood-working for Amateur Craftsmen. by Ira Samuel Griffith (Popular mechanics press, 1911). Read more here about woodworker's manuals published in this era .


Percy A Wells. Furniture for Small Houses: A Book of Designs for Inexpensive Furniture With New Methods of Construction and Decoration London: Batsford, [1920]

percy_wells_dresser1Designed to address a specific need -- recovery in the aftermath in Britain from the devastation of World War I -- Wells directed Furniture for Small Houses toward engaging furniture producers in creating furniture for the "working man".

    Wells gives us "a group of designs for furniture intended for the homes of working people, some of which were shown publicly as room settings in London and regional centres, and published in book form."  

    In design, Wells's recommends furniture with an Arts and Crafts theme, but, as Stuart Evans, the material culture historian, notes, "pared down and without the expressiveness and individuality produced by that movement". Each of its seven sections cover one type of furniture — for example 'Dressers and sideboards' — with several alternative designs for each type of furniture. Nonetheless, it becomes clear that comments by Wells in the book are addressed directly to a trade reader, when we read the following:

the revival of wooden bedsteads is not only popular, but is likely to develop into a permanent demand.




The greater part of the book is occupied with monochrome plates showing a total of fifty seven furniture designs, with seventeen photographs of finished items, four of furnished rooms and the remainder are working drawings for items. There is also one colour plate showing "Patterns for combing".

The drawings show each item in plan and elevation with constructional details, and are accurately reproduced to scale at three-quarters of one inch to one foot (1:16).

"Wells's designs are rational rather than exciting and traditional rather than modern in appearance", Stuart Evans, notes, while Wells himself states in Furniture for Small Houses that any piece in it can be produced with either hand tools or power tools. (Such issues are worth considering, of course, because the post-WW I era was the pivotal point for electrification. )

Source: Stuart Evans, "Furniture for Small Houses", Furniture History :The Journal of the Furniture History Society 2006, pages 193-205.


The image on the right reproduces Plate 153, of John Andrews' Arts and Crafts Furniture, published by the Antique Collectors' Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK, 2005. Acknowledged as a Wells' design, the oak dresser is from the 1919 catalog of the commercial firm, Heal and Son.

Careful scrutiny shows the similarity of lines in both pieces.

Image on right courtesy The Millinery Works and Jefferson Smith, taken from Arts & Crafts Furniture by John Andrews, published by the Antique Collectors' Club.)

Below, in the box, is the text that introduces Furniture for Small Houses


THE title of this book is intended to include all the smaller types of houses in town or country, whether they be known by the name of villa or cottage. The designs have been prepared in response to hundreds of applications — many from overseas — for assistance in producing pleasant and inexpensive furniture.

It is still happily possible to step into a seventeenth century living room in a wayside cottage or farm-house which has not yet felt the modern touch in furnishing. The instant impression that one gets is of a simple dignity and homely restfulness. The gate-leg table, the dresser, the sturdy chairs, all seem so fit for their place and purpose. It would be absurd to claim that such furniture is altogether suitable for modern needs, but now that thousands of well-planned cottages are to be built it is reasonable to hope that something of the quiet dignity and fitness may be introduced into their furnishing. A well-known and large manufacturer of furniture has recently said that "the humblest home can be made pleasant at no greater expense than is incurred in making it ugly". The designs contained in the following pages are an earnest attempt to prove that the claim made in that statement is both possible and practicable.

It is not claimed that the attempt exhausts the possibilities of design, construction, or finish in suitable furniture for small houses. There is a wide field for local craftsmanship and tradition to vary both form and the manner of making. The designs here shown are done more for experiment and suggestion. Some new ideas have been introduced in the making and finishing. There is no article which cannot be produced by modern methods, hand or machine. Ease in moving and cleaning, and a minimum of work in dusting — pressing needs of the housewife — have been duly considered. Non-essentials, such as cornices and pediments, have been discarded, and the whole aim of the designer has been to suggest a type of furniture which is useful, pleasant to look at, and moderate in price.

It is readily admitted that the great bulk of cheap furniture has been both flimsy and ugly. Little or no thought has been given to suitable proportions and dimensions for small rooms. The designers and manufacturers must not take all the blame for this, for the public have been too ready to demand a showy article with plenty of polish and plate glass rather than a really serviceable one. This is well illustrated by the type of sideboard or over-mantel overloaded with ugly and useless details which add to the cost and mean so much labour to keep clean. On the other hand, if the public are to be educated in selection and taste, education can only come through the designers and makers who put the goods on the market, and the salesman who comes into personal contact with the purchaser. There is now a decided demand for brighter homes and better furniture, and there is no excuse that ugliness and flimsy work should be the commonly accepted features of cheap goods. Fitness for use, good proportions, and bright, pleasant colour will not cost any more than bad proportions and unpleasant colour. As a matter of fact they should cost less, for better proportions would mean a reduction in material, and good lines on the inevitable "apron" or "curtain" pieces could be cut quicker than the coarse, switchback, curves which are made to fit any job or position.

Machine productions should make no difference to the right application of the above principles, and we have to get rid of the fallacy that machine-made articles must necessarily be unpleasant in form and repulsive to good taste. It is hoped that the general public will begin to realise some of these simple and practical principles, and to apply them when purchasing household goods. With a public asking for better things and knowing what they wanted there would be no doubt as to improvement in quality.

A complete set of the furniture illustrated has been made, with the consent of the Education Authorities of the London County Council, at the Shoreditch Technical Institute. The set comprised a more or less completed furnishing for a five-roomed cottage, including a living room, parlour, and three bedrooms. The articles in the largest bedroom (see Plate I) were made of birch and whitewood polished only. In the living room (Plate 11), the chairs were made of birch and the other articles of whitewood and deal. These were stained a light brown and polished.The sets in the smaller bedrooms were made of deal and painted (Plate III). The painting was done as an experiment.

Hitherto, cheap bed-room furniture has either been stained to imitate mahogany or walnut or grained in a wretched attempt to make it look like oak or maple. Paint, as a medium for finish, offers many advantages. It is durable, easily applied, and it gives a wide field for variety in bright and pleasant colours. Above all there is no sham or imitation about it. Plain painting in one or two colours would be infinitely better than the ugly yellow oak graining. This graining is done with a steel comb, and in the two bedroom sets a similar process has been adopted in two colours of paint, for example, blue superimposed on green. The combing is done before the blue is dry, and the green shows through the combings. An almost limitless number of patterns can be done by the comb (see Plate XLVI), and it is obvious that there can also be a wide variety of colours.

Paint has a great advantage over stain in that the cheaper woods, such as deal, and " seconds " or " thirds " in pine, which are not suitable for staining, are quite adequate for painted furniture. The cheap bedroom 11 suites " of satin-walnut, though ugly in design, would look more pleasant painted in good colours than polished in the ghastly yellow which has always been the recognised finish for them. Is it not time that the trade " began to consider the need for a brighter and more honest finish for cheap goods? Here, at least, is a suggestion for anyone to carry beyond the experimental stage. The special construction for painted work will be described in detail when the actual making of the articles is under discussion in the chapters devoted to wardrobes, dressers, chest of drawers, etc., etc., but the designer disclaims any desire for finality in design, construction, or finish. It is agreed that cheap production can only be obtained by a large output, and that to a certain extent standardisation is inevitable. There is not so much to fear in this if local traditions are allowed for, and there is plenty of play and opportunity for variety in form and colour without adding to the cost or seriously interfering with standard methods of production.

The author is indebted to the Design and Industries Association' for much help and encouragement. This Association is composed of manufacturers, designers, and business men and women who are interested in the betterment of household goods. They maintain that these things can be both "cheap and good," and are ready to encourage any effort in that direction.

In pursuance of this policy the Association has taken a first-hand interest in this experimental furniture. The suggestion that paint would make a better and brighter finish for furniture was immediately taken up, and the Association obtained permission from the L.C.C. to carry out experiments at the Brixton School of Building. The two painted bedroom sets are a result of these experiments in combed paint. Many of the other designs in the book could be treated in a similar manner. The Association secured the loan of the furniture for exhibition purposes, and arrangements are being made with firms to put the articles on the market.

The author gratefully acknowledges the generous co-operation of the Principal (S. Hicks, Esq.), Miss H. J. Plowright, and members of the Staff at the Shoreditch Technical Institute.

1935: Percy A. Wells Design in Woodwork. Philadelphia: J B Lippincott, 1935.

(I was myself inspired by Wells Design in Woodwork:-- using native woods of the Pacific Northwest (Big-leaf Maple Burl and Vertical Grain Old_Growth Douglas Fir -- tried to capture one of Wells' designs in a veneered table-top -- to view this example, please scroll down.)


It is admitted on all sides that an improvement in commercial and industrial design is both necessary and desirable. This need applies chiefly to the numberless things in common and everyday use. Committees, appointed by the Government, inquire laboriously into the question and issue Reports. Conferences are held, at which educationists and manufacturers attempt to find a solution. All are agreed that the improvement must begin in the schools, and in the "teaching and practice of Art". Considering the fact that nearly all the crafts are taught in schools, it is a matter of regret that more stress was not laid on design in this particular application.

During the course of one year, thousands of articles are made in the schools, and it is not too much to expect that as these things are done in the name of education, and at the public expense, the design should be of the best possible quality. In the school there is no question of time, cost, or competition, and under such conditions there can be no excuse for bad design, for although the scholars and students are young and inexperienced, teaching is responsible for the character of the work.

The whole craft should be taught. If reasons are given for construction, there are equal reasons in design, and the student should know them. The book has been planned to show that the principles of good design are simple, and are easily applied to small as well as to larger things. Proportion and restraint are perhaps the most difficult and important, but the author claims that they can be demonstrated by simple and practical means. In this way, the difference between good and bad lines, shapes, spacings, colour, and decoration should be appreciated and remembered by the scholar.

Examples of good and bad are given in the book which deals with woodwork only, a craft which takes the largest place in nd application to constructive woodwork, which takes the first and largest place in school crafts. As it is definitely accepted that these basic crafts should be taught in schools, it is essential that the whole craft should be practiced, which means both design and construction. It is not enough to teach the actual construction of a box or a cabinet with a door to fit it. The parts of the box, such as the lid and the base, or the dimensions of the cabinet door, have a certain relationship one to the other, and this should be as clearly understood by the student as the making of the necessary joints in the job. The same principle applies to work in any material. Another aspect suggests itself — the future. It may be, and it seems possible, that a "leisure" period is coming when people will have more time to use their hands and will want to use them. The schools, in teaching crafts, are preparing the way.


It is admitted that too much attention has been given to technique, and not enough to design. It has not been recognised that the principles of good design can, and should be, applied to the smallest object made; to a candlestick as much as to a cabinet or a cathedral. Everything that is made must be thought out — designed — before it can be fashioned or manufactured either by hand or machine.

The machine is not responsible for shape, or form or fitness, and it does not follow that because a thing is hand-made it is beautiful. Something else is required before both machine and hand can do their work. This something is design, and it depends entirely on the designer as to whether the thing designed is ugly or beautiful.

In commercial work there are many conditions which do not apply to the school. The teacher of craftwork is not worried by overhead charges, cost, competition, or sales. On the other hand, he should possess a right understanding of the fundamental principles which govern both design and craftsmanship. These principles are few, and easy to apply. They can be taught and demonstrated. Design is not a question of taste or opinion. The principles are fixed and unchangeable. They are straightforward and simple.

A fair definition of the word design is —

the putting together of the parts of a thing, made in any material, sothat the whole is harmonious.

When this is done with good lines, shapes, proportions, and colour, the product should be a good design, a thing made in good taste, or to put it higher, a beautiful thing. The understanding of these principles should enable anyone to discriminate between good and bad, and the teacher of craftwork should certainly be able to demonstrate the difference between good and bad lines or form, as clearly as a class master corrects bad composition. The first principle is fitness for purpose, but fitness has more than one purpose. It does not end in utility only.

All things made for use should do their job well, as with a saucepan, a spade, or a typewriter. In such articles, fitness ends when the full purpose is served, but in things of permanent human interest, fitness should combine beauty — that is, good design — with utility. Such things should be a pleasure to look at and possess: the intimate things we use and live with day by day. A chair may be comfortable and still be ugly in form, in which case it does not completely fit its purpose, for it should add its quota of beauty and dignity in a room. Pictures, and some pottery, serve only one purpose, to give pleasure.

On the other hand, things of pure utility which do not fulfil their functions satisfactorily are a nuisance. So, "fitness for purpose " must be interpreted with discretion and right application. The second principle is sound construction, which includes the right use of material. A handle which can be forged in metal will not suit the texture of wood. A moulding in oak cannot be as fine as one in mahogany. A chair should not be made of soft wood, or of "short in the grain" hard wood. A dowel should not be used if a tenon is the right construction even though the dowel may be quicker, easier, and cheaper to use. (Wells' text continues below image.)

Below is my own attempt toward applying Wells' principles of design and construction: -- Read more here


This second principle can be summed up as right workmanship.

The third, and perhaps the most difficult of the principles is the understanding and appreciation of restraint in lines, spaces, and proportions.

The parts of a shaped bracket or the curves in a rail or "curtain" piece (p. 8) should be subject to the law of proportion as much as the whole job. Mouldings on boxes, frames, clock cases (see pp. 4 and 5), and small cabinets (p. 7) are frequently too heavy and out of all proportion to the object. The spacing of a sunk panel in a door, the width of banding around a table top (p. 9) and the projection of the top itself, are all details which make or mar a design. These are the little, but vital things in design, and they all depend on the right appreciation of proportion. It is often said that proportion is too subtle a thing to be taught or even talked about, and so long as this attitude is taken there is little hope of training scholars to appreciate good design. It is not enough to point to an example and call it beautiful; the reasons for its beauty should be analysed and explained. In a like manner the faults in a bad example should be clearly demonstrated.

A simple illustration of this would be that if a boy in the school workshop cuts a bad line or shape he should be told why it is bad, and where it can be made good. Most people have a sense of proportion but they do not know it, for the sense has never been trained. Scholars have a keen sense of the ridiculous, and anything out of proportion, such as a small hat on a large head, excites their interest and merriment. This sense can be trained, by concrete methods, to the serious side; diagrams on p. ii show some examples. In a given space or panel it is desired to put a spot of decoration, A, which may be carving, inlay, recessing or colour. Ask any class of scholars if No. 1 is a good place to put the spot and with one accord they will say it looks "silly and one-sided," another definition of being out of proportion.

Similar answers would be given to Nos. 2 and 3. Ask them where they would put the spot themselves and their unanimous verdict would be : "In the middle" (No. 4). Having brought the class to that sense of rightness it is then possible to take them to a better sense in No. 5, and explain why the spot is given more importance and dignity in relation to its space and surroundings. The diagrams on p. 13 show the development of spacing in a tracery door or window frame, in which the same problems can be demonstrated. The first five diagrams would be described as commonplace, and "not much in them," but the last four would excite keen interest.

The same principle applies to placing the clock in a case, to mouldings on a box, to the spacing of a panel and to curved lines and shapes of brackets, book-stand ends, tray ends, mirror frames and brush racks. Examples of these are given on pp. 6, 8, and it will be noted that in the bad examples the number of the curves is out of proportion to the width of the end or curtain piece, whilst no prominence is given to any one part.

Opposite to them are suggestions for better shapes, which are also more suitable for tool manipulation. These examples are enough to illustrate the difference between good and bad in proportion and restraint. If more attention could be given to these details, school work generally would be improved. Rightly understood in small things, the principles will be applied to the bigger ones when the time comes for the scholars to plan and furnish a home, and select things for themselves.

In this alone, design is fundamental, and far-reaching in its influences.