You say mortice and I say mortise. Let’s call the whole thing off.

“VERNACULAR: The language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people of a country or region” (Oxford English Dictionary)

Popular culture has taught me to call it “folk” furniture. Antiques dealers have convinced me that it is “rustic” or even “primitive.” Peter Follansbee and Chris Schwarz, on the other hand, have given me a new lexicon for the work: vernacular furniture.

I find that appellation much more fitting because it reminds me that furniture construction is a language all its own, and that dialects within such a language are not right or wrong, but rather inevitable. Calling something rustic simply situates it in the time and place from which it came and denoting it as folk places it within a population or tradition, but to call something primitive is making an atavistic sort of judgement that frankly rakes against my populist leanings.

That’s probably a discussion for a different day.

It is enough to say that, not unlike studying vernacular speech patterns, studying vernacular furniture often forces you to abandon categories and judge things on their individual merit. Instead of asking “is that mortise and tenon joint executed correctly?” I find myself asking “How is that mortise cut and why does the tenon fit the way it does?” and then only secondarily “How has that thing held up for a century?”

For me, one of the joys of being on vacation and away from my own tools and work for a time is that I am forced reminded to observe the world around me a little. When I’m not focused on fitting my own joints and solving my own problems my eyes seem attuned to pick out the details in the woodworking I encounter along the way.

This week I’ve encountered a farmhouse table that began life in a real farmhouse and not a Crate and Barrel store, and I’ve found myself studying it every time I sit down at it to eat.

The top is tongue and groove pine like you would find on almost any table of the type, but what has really captured my attention are the mortise and tenon joints connecting the aprons to the legs. At least I guess you still call them tenons. Really, it’s the whole apron set into a slot in the top of the turned leg.

From the inside, the joint looks like this.

I will preface this by saying this table has held up for nearly a century of hard use on an actual farm. Vegetables were put up and canned on this table. Pork sausage was made on this table. Lots of eating has happened around this table.

But, the weak points of the joints are hard to miss. There’s not a lot of wood on the inside of the joint, and really not a lot on the outside either. Thankfully the joints don’t do much of the work because there’s a whole framework under the table for that.

The framework adds rigidity, but the downside is there’s an awful lot of extra wood and nails required which puts extra weight on the aforementioned weak places in the mortise.

When working with wood there are always trade-offs. Some trades are better than others, but the proof is in the testing of the thing, and this one has done alright for itself.

Well, mostly. There is this:

At some point the outer wall of this mortise cracked right along the grain and split out. Who knows what trauma caused the split. The construction and the grain orientation didn’t help. The missing part was nailed (and maybe glued) back into place. The repair obviously has some age on it as well.

A break like that probably has a story behind it.

And, to me that’s the interesting thing about vernacular furniture. These are not kept showpieces, pampered and polished to a keen shine. Such furniture has existed “in the wild” and has either proven its utility or shown its hand. Each scar tells a tale of a life lived. Each piece is begging to tell a story bigger than itself even if it does take some time to decipher the accent.

There are still a lot of meals to be eaten at this table, and I’ll be sharing one there tonight.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s