Ar ts & Craf ts Style by the Numbers
It's no wonder Arts & Crafts furniture appeals to so many of today's woodworkers: When it flourished from 1880 to 1920, the style emphasized a return to traditional craftsmanship, a reaction to the growing industrialization of the period. Pioneers of the Arts & Crafts (A&C) movement rejected low-quality, mass-produced goods, and favored simple forms with less ornamentation reminiscent of medieval times when common people possessed the skills to design and build structures and furnishings.
Each number in the lettered photos refers to a specific element of A&C style. Some especially popular style elements appear in various forms in multiple locations.
In the heyday of the A&C movement, various designers and craftsmen including William Morris, Gustav Stickley, the Greene brothers, and others put their own twists and spins on the style. What we collectively call Arts & Crafts today encompasses all of their contributions to the genre, often mashed up with elements of similar and ensuing styles such as art deco.
In this article we'll share with you some of the most common traits of A&C design—ones you can incorporate into your projects to give them the distinctive look that has made this style so endearing for nearly 150 years.
➊ [Photos A, B, C]
The strength, stability, and straight grain of this lumber suits the A&C aesthetic perfectly. The wood was often darkened, and its characteristic medullary rays enhanced, through treatment with ammonia fumes.
Sturdy, simple hardware
➋ [Photos D, E]
Knobs, pulls, and hinges, often made of dark-finished brass or steel, pair well with Arts & Crafts furnishings. You'll find A&C hardware in big-box stores and online. Some favorite suppliers include Rockler, Woodcraft, Horton Brasses, and Lee Valley.
➌ [Photos A, C, E]
Arts & Crafts furniture has few curves or molded edges. The straight lines lend a simple elegance in repeating patterns such as multiple square spindles or slats.
The preponderance of straight lines in Arts & Crafts design makes sparing ornamentation really stand out. So consider these eye-grabbing A&C touches, but avoid using too many of them in combination—doing so could give your project a cluttered look.
Corbels ➍ [Photos A, D, E]
Like the stone corbels of medieval architecture that supported overhanging structures, A&C corbels lend a look of strength and permanence. Build them short or long, and place them beneath overhanging tops, shelves, and lids.
Cutouts ➎ [Photos B, F]
Make a bold statement with large square cutouts, or send a subtle message with long, narrow recesses reminiscent of flower stems.
Inlay ➏ [Photo C]
Add some challenge to your A&C project with a floral inlay. You can even combine it with string inlay for a design element that seizes the attention of even the most casual observer.
Gentle arcs ➐ [Photos A, B, E, G]
Use a compass or fairing stick to mark graceful arcs on the bottom edges of rails. Cut and sand carefully for a smooth, eye-pleasing curve.
Beveled ends ➑ [Photo G]
End grain can detract from a project's appeal, and flat-cut ends on tenons or leg tops can look unrefined. Make those ends more interesting by beveling them. You can bevel square ends to a "diamond" point with a low-angle cut of about 20°—you don't want a sharp point on the end.
Ebonized buttons ➒ [Photo B]
There's no shame in using screws to fasten your Arts & Crafts masterpiece, especially when you hide those fasteners with ebonized buttons meant to mimic through-tenons. Bevel-cut their exposed ends to a low point as already described, then blacken them with dye, stain, or India ink.
➓ [Photos F, H]
A well-designed A&C piece tells the world it was built by a craftsperson, not a machine. Few construction details convey that message as well as through-tenons. To emphasize a through-tenon, add a wedge to hold it in place [Photo H]. The wedge can be functional or purely decorative (glued on like an ebonized button), depending on how difficult and true to traditional building methods you want the project to be.
Divided flat panels
[Photos A, E]
Like rows of square spindles, multiple stiles or rails add visual interest and symmetry to flat panels devoid of routed edges or other ornamentation. Float solid-wood panels between the stiles and rails, or simply make a plywood panel and divide it with glued-on rails and stiles.