The (Mostly Forgotten) Power of Vernacular Design

This simple woodworking clamp was developed thousands of years ago from a tree branch. Modern manufacturing methods made the tool less effective. How do you fix that?

If you want to get serious about your rock ‘n’ roll, it’s not enough to get your inspiration from the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. To really understand the musical form, you need to listen to what the Stones listened to. You, my friend, need to spin some records from blues legend Robert Johnson.

The same goes with design. It’s simply not enough to look for inspiration from people who are living or recently dead. You need to reach further back in time—as far back as you can—until the trail goes cold.

What will you find there? Almost always, you will find objects that were designed and made by the end user. These objects, which are sometimes called “vernacular,” are almost entirely utilitarian. Ornament is rare. And usually the object serves only one purpose, not some multi-tool that grates the cheese and mows your yard.

Finding these objects is like getting to see the universe’s Big Bang. You can learn an astonishing amount about what’s important—and what’s not—about the everyday objects that we now assume should come with two cup holders and a laser. Understanding an object at its basic level can also change your relationship to the raw materials that are used to make it. And you will find shortcuts that will help you in manufacturing—most vernacular objects were designed and built by people who were two weeks away from starvation. They didn’t have time to mess around.

I know that the claims above are big TED Talks stuff. But I assure you I can back it up. As a furniture maker and tool designer, I’ve spent my adult life with my nose in dusty old books in an attempt to build better things for future generations. To demonstrate some of the stuff you can learn from vernacular pieces, let’s talk about two objects: an armchair and a woodworking tool called a holdfast. The holdfast is the simpler example, so let’s begin with that.

A holdfast that’s dropped into a hole in the workbench. Strike the top, and the holdfast grabs your work.

Holdfasts: Ruined by Modern Methods

Holdfasts are a woodworking (and blacksmithing) clamp that works by dropping it into a hole in your workbench. Whack the top of the metal holdfast, and it cinches down to hold your work in place. Rap the back of its shaft, and it releases its grip.

The earliest metal holdfasts we know of are from Roman times (circa 87 A.D.), so they have been in continuous use for at least 2,000 years. Oddly, modern holdfasts don’t hold as well as the old ones. I spent years trying to figure out why.

The quick answer: Modern manufacturing and efficiency had ruined the tool. They made the tool’s surfaces curvier and wonderfully smooth. They made the tool smaller in diameter to work with other similarly sized tools to create a “system” of clamps and holding devices. They tapered its shaft to make it easier to insert the holdfast in a hole and to save money on steel.

As a result of these “improvements,” modern holdfasts don’t clamp down reliably. They can bounce around instead of holding the work 100 percent of the time. And manufacturers have convinced woodworkers that this is normal. It’s not. So I hit the books.

My first revelation: After finding a 19th-century French holdfast that was stuck in a dung pile (and cleaning it), I was astonished by how well it worked. This drove me to the history books and old paintings to find out how the tool had changed for the worse.

It also made me wonder: Where did this tool come from? Did it start out as a metal hook-like tool? Or did the holdfast evolve from something else? Somewhere in my research I stumbled on an image that showed a woodworker using a curved tree branch like a holdfast. One end of the branch went into a hole in a workbench. The other end of the branch held the work. You hit the branch with a mallet. The natural springiness of the wood made it flex and clamp the work.

An image from a 1930 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine shows the wooden holdfast in use (horizontal, it’s the thing he’s about to whack with a hammer) even into the 20th century.

These branch things were obviously user-made. You just cut them from the canopy of a tree or the hedge. The only downside? If you hit the branch too hard, it would break. And after you hit it a bunch of times, it would break anyway, because it’s wood.

So my second revelation was that the shape of the tool came from a tree. The surface of the branch was rough because of the bark, which allowed it to get stuck in the hole in the workbench. And the springiness of the wood was what made it clamp.

Now I just had to figure out how to make a metal holdfast more like a tree branch and embrace the details of the holdfast dug up from the dung. The first fix was to find a springy material that was cheap and easy to form. Old holdfasts were made from wrought iron, which is impossibly expensive these days. So I settled on ductile iron, which bends but doesn’t break—it’s like an indestructible tree branch. Plus, ductile iron can be inexpensively cast to shape. (Ductile is a relatively modern invention, so my process isn’t just about embracing old ways.)

The rough texture of the holdfast was more difficult to manufacture than a smooth surface. But it helps the tool grip better.

Next, I made the tool’s surface rough instead of smooth. Straight from the iron foundry, the holdfasts were too smooth, so we media-blasted them with shot to give them a scaly, bark-like texture.

Finally, I didn’t skimp on the iron. Old holdfasts could weigh 4 lbs. or more. I made it 1″ in diameter (33 percent bigger than typical modern tools), and I didn’t taper the tool’s shaft to save a few bucks on iron. Turns out this detail was way more important than I thought it would be. An untapered shaft grips far better than a tapered one.

When I hit the holdfast that I designed based on the vernacular examples, it cinches down 100 percent of the time (instead of 75-something percent of the time). This holdfast might not be smooth and shiny, but I’m quite glad of that. Now I just need to convince the rest of the world I’m right. (I have no advice on this matter.)

The holdfast is a straightforward example of how ancient vernacular forms can guide modern makers. A more complex example is embodied by the chairs I build. Here the problem isn’t the functional design of the chair—all chairs manage to hold your bum off the floor. Instead it’s the aesthetic qualities of the object. And that’s tricky stuff.

One of my modern Welsh stick chairs, which is fairly close to a 200-year-old vernacular pattern. My customers who collect Midcentury Modern love it.

Chairs: Find the Skeleton

Historically, chairs have been status symbols. Hence terms such as the “seat of power” and “chairman of the board.” And so chairs are prone to heavy ornamentation and iconography to illustrate the sitter’s position in society. See also: Thrones.

In pre-industrial homes, chairs were rare. Most people sat on stools or similar low seats. But the Industrial Revolution ushered in machines that churned out vast quantities of furniture that the middle and lower classes could afford. And thanks to automated lathes, carving machines and wood pressed in dies, these chairs could be dang fancy—just like the chairs owned by the foreman at the factory you worked in.

And that’s why my paternal grandfather—a simple paper salesman—had ornate imitation Queen Anne chairs around his dining table.

Ornamentation is not my thing. In college I spent my spare time in galleries that specialized in Danish modern furniture, so I’ve long been a fan of Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen. But I knew that 20th-century Danish stuff had to come from somewhere else or sometime earlier.

One day I was reading Good Woodworking—a British woodworking magazine—and came across a column by John Brown, a Welshman who built vernacular chairs in the Welsh tradition. At the time I barely knew where Wales was, but his chairs opened my head like a can opener.

An antique Welsh stick chair at the St Fagans National Museum of Wales. Remove 200 years of soot and wear, and this old chair looks shockingly modern.

They were angular, alive and had zero extraneous parts. Bonus: Welsh stick chairs were never made in factories—it was almost always the village carpenter or off-season farmer who built them. So they weren’t bound by whims of fashion. These chairs, which might be 200 years old, look modern enough to fit into any TriBeCa loft.

I discovered John Brown and his chairs about 1997. Since then, I’ve devoted way too much time researching these chairs, building reproductions and developing my own designs based on their ideals. During the last 22 years, these chairs have taught me more about design and woodworking than any living human.

Here’s a small taste of the good stuff these chairs (and the Welsh people who build them) have taught me.

Here’s a typical split from a tree. You can see how a little splitting and planing would easily produce a hexagonal leg. Other shapes (octagons, for example) would require more work or be a less efficient use of material.

Six-sided legs: Many early chairs, not just Welsh, have components that are hexagons. In a woodworking manufacturing environment, hexagons are rare compared to octagons (it’s a geometry thing). So the hexagons have always vexed me. Then a Welsh chairmaker named Gareth Irwin showed me the trick.

It’s the shape of the tree, of course. If you split out your legs from a tree, your material comes in pie-shaped pieces (think of firewood). The outside curve of the tree and the pie-shape of the billet screams hexagon. You just have to cleave away the first bite at the point of the pie, and you are most of the way home to a hexagon.

By the way, legs made this way are made with almost no waste and are stronger than modern sawn material.

Here’s my template for a curved arm sitting on the curved wood at the butt end of a tree. The natural curve makes the part stronger and look better.

Curvy arms: The arms of chairs are usually curved to cradle the sitter and mimic the curved shape of the seat below. Bending wood requires time, energy and is prone to failure. You first have to create an enclosed chamber that can steam the wood. Generate a lot of heat and steam. And make devices that bend the wood and hold it in place so it keeps its shape. Bending an arm—start to finish—can take a week or two to complete.

Or you can go full Welsh and forget bending the arms. Instead, just look at a dang tree. You might have noticed that trees swell in size near the ground as the roots venture out looking for water and nutrients. When you cut a tree open, that area near the root ball is filled with wood grain that is already curved. The tree did all the bending work for you.

This material near the roots is typically junk for a cabinetmaker. But it’s solid gold for a chairmaker. And it saves us tons of time and effort compared to steambending (or using high-tech cold-bend hardwood).

Here’s a stack of ash seats. You can see how the natural curve of the tree became the bevel on the underside of the seat.

Seats: I’ve been studying and making chairs since the 1990s and have always beveled the underside of my seats. Why? Well, it makes the heavy seat look lighter without reducing the strength of the joints where the legs enter the seat. At least that’s the explanation I’ve always been given (and have given to others).

I now think that’s not quite right. Recently I was cutting out a bunch of chair seats from some giant slabs of black ash. As I stacked up the seats I noticed how the underside of the seats was already beveled thanks to the natural round shape of the tree’s trunk. The bevel allows you to harvest more seats out of a tree.

And yes, it makes your seat look thinner—always a good thing.

How to Research Vernacular Pieces

If researching vernacular work interests you, here are a couple ideas on how to get started. I love books. So when I start delving into the material culture of the past, I use Google Books, and my local library (you can borrow books from anywhere with Interlibrary Loan). When I find a source I like, I check the author’s bibliography to see what sources she used. Then I search out those books. I then search their bibliographies and repeat the process until I end up in the Bronze Age.

But books aren’t enough.

Few big-city museums specialize in vernacular works. St Fagans in Cardiff, Wales, is one big exception.

For me, the richest source of material for finding vernacular objects has been small-town museums and historical societies. Big city museums tend to collect and display the high-style stuff that appeals to pinkies-up donors and members. And that reinforces their status in society.

Small-town museums, on the other hand, tend to display stuff they’ve collected from local residents. Sure, there might be a few high-style pieces there. But you will find a wealth of farm implements, simple furniture, tools and work clothing. (Perhaps even a few old blues records.)

Researching vernacular work is difficult. There are 500 books on Thomas Chippendale for every one book that discusses furniture made in the mountains of West Virginia. But don’t let that deter you. The incredibly clever people who made these vernacular objects might be long gone, but they would love to teach you a thing or two.

You just have to learn to listen for the older tunes.


Christopher Schwarz is the editor at Lost Art Press and one of the founders of Crucible Tool. He works from a restored 1896 German barroom in Covington, Ky. You can see his furniture at

Source: core77

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