A Look At Shaker Woodworking
What it takes to be Shaker
The first Shakers came to America from England in 1774. Following them from the outside world, they recruited members to live and work in self-sufficient, communal settlements. By the early 1800s there were 18 Shaker communities in seven states.
Shakers became known in the world outside their settlements for excellence in whatever they grew or made, especially their furniture. In keeping with the Shakers' unadorned lifestyle, they built purely functional pieces devoid of ornamentation. Yet their furniture displayed delicately constructed, graceful lines, and sensitivity to proportion reminiscent of Danish modern or Scandinavian-style furniture of the 20th century.
The 1830s marked Shaker furniture's Golden Age. But they continued producing it, even commercially, into the early 20th century.
Native wood from the forest Shakers used local trees. Ash, basswood, birch, butternut, cherry, white pine, and sugar maple (especially figured) were common in New England settlements. Beech, chestnut, yellow poplar, and walnut were added in Kentucky and Ohio. Fruitwood (apple, pear, etc.) was used widely for pulls.
Finishes varied with the stock Because several woods went into chest of drawers, cabinets, and tables, these types of furniture were painted. In the early 19th century the paint was opaque. Later, it was a wash through which the grain was visible with varnish as a top coat. Chairs and rockers made of only one kind of wood were varnished or shellacked after staining. Darker hardwoods, such as cherry, were finished with linseed oil.
Joinery that stayed together The Shakers invented the tongue-and-groove cutting machine, so they employed it to edge-join boards. Splined grooves, butt joints, lap joints, through tenons (wedged and keyed), and dadoes for shelving were favorite joinery methods. Dovetails are the most observable construction feature. They were used for their strength and durability rather than for appearance.
Details didn't decorate Shaker case goods featured drawers, usually combined with larger storage spaces covered by frame-and-panel doors. Except for a restrained top-edge molding in cove, quarter-round, or bullnose shape, case goods were simple. They sat directly on the floor, had cut feet, or applied legs.
Side chairs, hung on wall pegs when not in use, were light and graceful with plain turned stiles, legs, and stretchers. Finials at the top of the stiles were intended as handles to lift the chair, not as decoration. The bottom of the back legs usually had turned tilters (early Shaker) that protected the floors. Later, tilters were commonly made of brass.
Rocking chairs had finials atop their stiles, too, or a plain crossbar on which to hang a pillow. On the top of the front arms were mushroom-shaped, wooden tenon covers. Chair and rocker seats featured woven wood splints, rush, leather, cane, and, after 1830, colorful cloth tape made on special looms.
Trestle tables were known for gracefully arched feet (on small tables, too). A raised stretcher beneath the top added leg room for seating comfort.