Part 1 – Making Shaker Furniture the Modern Way: The Fascination of Shaker Furniture

If you like to create your own pieces of furniture, the Shaker style is one of the best choices for simple furniture design. Shaker furniture has a centuries-long reputation of being the most uniquely simple design that conveys a constant sense of beauty into everyday life.

Shaker furniture is named after the sect that made it–the Shakers.  The Shakers were originally part of the Quaker movement in 17th century England, and became their own sect after they began to “shake” with frenzy during worship services, becoming first known as “shaking Quakers.”  As a new religious group in Restoration England, they could find no welcome in their homeland, so they moved to America, which was already viewed as land of religious freedom.

The Shakers needed as much tolerance as they could get.  More than 200 years ago, they supported in social, spiritual and economic freedom for all.  They believed in pacifism, feminism, natural health remedies, natural hygiene, and an overall freedom from any type of racial prejudice. They practiced celibacy and avoided any type of marriage.

Why is this important to mention in relationship to their furniture?

Staircase in a Shaker building
Staircase in a Shaker building

It’s important to know about Shaker belief because their beliefs were the basis for their amazing furniture.  This seems strange to our modern eyes because we view a representation of a belief or cause by the symbols, designs or even words that would be carved into the furniture. For the Shakers, the furniture itself expressed their beliefs.

How was that possible?

The Shakers believed that ideas could take form.  They also believed that God lived in the details of their work and in the quality of their craft.  Consequently they aimed for perfection in all that they did, from carving a staircase to building a better beehive.  Everything they touched was well done because it was a way of living their belief. Work to them was a form of worship.

The Shaker design used no ornamentation and they did not waste materials in creating their designs. Each form and curve had a purpose and a meaning.  Thomas Merton once said that “the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel may come and sit on it.”

As one historian put it, “I think you have to see the Shaker with their artifacts to really understand them.  Because the simplicity of the furniture, the craftsmanship, the skill with which it is done, the beauty all exemplify the way they lived.”  If their furniture is any example, it must have been a beautiful life indeed.

Building interior--Courtesy of Shaker Museum at South Union
Building interior–Courtesy of Shaker Museum at South Union

The outside world was fascinated by the Shakers.  At the height of their popularity, there were thousands of Shakers in 16 communal villages, and the world came to gawk. As more people came to simply watch the Shakers in their worship, they began to admire the beautifully unique architecture of the buildings and the furniture.  Eventually, the visitors wanted to buy furniture from these master craftsman.

Even the farm tools they made to handle hay, dirt and manure were beautiful in their simplicity, their lines, and their elegant designs.

Shaker farm tools--Photo courtesy of the Farnsworth exhibition
Shaker farm tools–Photo courtesy of the Farnsworth exhibition

Using only rudimentary hand tools, Shakers would create furniture for sale to “the world’s people” as well as for their own use.  The different between the articles is that if there was a minor defect in a piece, the Shakers would keep it for use in their own settlement.  Only pieces that approached perfection were allowed for sale.

Even though they were intentionally creating products for sale, their daily efforts were not focused on profit or product but perfection. They were also always innovating and inventing. In fact, the invention of the circular saw is credited to a Shaker woman named Tabitha Babbit.

Shaker furniture is simple in design, easy to join but it requires a dedication to detail that is not found in most furniture of such clean lines. To bring symmetry to Shaker furniture, a carpenter must focus on creating equal angles from all perspectives, a difficult accomplishment with hand tools.  But somehow the Shakers were able to accomplish it.

It’s all in the wood

Shaker ladder back chairs on pegboard
Shaker ladder back chairs on pegboard

The furniture was made of chestnut maple, birch, and butternut wood, often covered with a stain of yellow ochre of even Venetian red.  The ladder back chair was one of their most well-known items. Shaker craftsman made a large number of items in addition to chairs and cabinets.  Tables, beds, bookcases, sewing boxes, oval boxes and desks were all created for their personal use as well as for their buyers in the outside world. 

Light legs

Shaker table with drawer -- Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shaker table with drawer — Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

If a piece of Shaker furniture had legs, those legs would often be tapered.  Not only did this provide a graceful line it also reduced the weight of the furniture.  The lighter weight was important because if the furniture was not in use, it would be moved.

 

Wood over metal

Shakers also used wooden knobs instead of metal hardware on their furniture.  Metal pulls or knobs would be considered showy and not at all simple.  Because of this call knobs were made of the same wood as the furniture so the knobs did not look like decorations.

 

Plain is better

For the same reason no inlay or pattern work was used on furniture.  The wood was plain, and finished with beveled or rounded edges.  Veneers were not used because the Shakers considered covering the surface of one wood with another was a type of deception or lying.

Shaker bench -- Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shaker bench — Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Shaker round table -- Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shaker round table — Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shaker work table with measuring stick border -- Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shaker work table with measuring stick border — Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

In joinery, the Shakers used various types of dovetails along with mortars and tenons, all with the purpose of concealing them.  Drawers were made with half-blind dovetails that were seen only when the drawer was removed.   Pegs were used to reinforce tenons, most notably on table legs.  But just like the drawer pulls, the pegs were made of the same wood as the leg to avoid calling attention to them.

Would you like to create your own version of Shaker furniture? Join us for Part 2 in which we’ll outline how to create a piece of Shaker heritage for your home.

 

Leave a Comment