18th Century Highboy


woodmonkey
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Does anyone know how long it would have taken an 18th century cabinet maker to build one of those highboys? The ones with five or six thousand drawers and secret compartments etc.

Just curious.

Mack Headley (master of the Colonial Williamsburg Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker's Shop) wrote an article in 1999 that touched on this. The article is pretty long and detailed and is a really great read if you are interested in period furniture and period cabinet shops. You can find it here:

Mack Headley Article in American Furniture

In the article, he talks about a 1766 estimate book from the Lancaster, England firm of Robert Gillow. One such entry in the estimate book describes a clothespress, which would likely take about the same amount of time as a highboy or large chest on chest. The entry contained a drawing of the item:

10hb.jpg

The entry for this clothespress "notes that five joiners completed the case with a combined labor expenditure of ten weeks and two days. The carving shown on the cornice and in the corners of the doors was not included in the total." Carving was typically a specialized task that was contracted out to a professional carver, so it makes sense that the carving was not included in the time estimate in the Gillow account book.

"According to Robert Campbell’s The London Tradesman (1747), eighteenth-century cabinetmakers worked six days a week and twelve hours a day. This observation is reinforced by several entries in the Gillow account books, which calculate the workmen’s time in days and hours. Since the highest hourly total listed was eleven, it implies that a twelve-hour day was typical in the Gillow shop as well. Using this standard, the total number of hours invested in Mr. France’s clothespress would have been 744."

So about 750 total man hours to complete something the size of a highboy or tall chest on chest, including the finishing. The Gillow shop spread that 744 hours of work out among 5 different joiners to complete the piece. So that equates to just over 2 weeks of work per person. It's not noted the actual time it took to build the piece in real time, just in labor time. I think we can safely assume it wasn't delivered in 2 weeks as the finishing process itself takes longer than that due to drying times. However, to finish a piece this complex even in ten real weeks is amazing. They likely finished it half that time with the 5 joiners working on it. Considering the amount of work that goes into these pieces, that is an extremely fast pace to work without machines. If you consider our typical 40 hour work week, that would mean it would take one person today about 18½ weeks, or a little over 4 months, to finish the piece, including the finish, working on it for 8 hours per day, 5 days per week. I don't think most of us could do that today.

Master Headley also noted that the Hay Shop in Williamsburg would complete a small Newport style piece like the one pictured below in about 260 total man hours, including finishing. So for 1 person to work on it, it would require about 6½ weeks, working 40 hours per week.

12hb.jpg

I think the 6½ weeks for one person that the Hay shop would put into the Newport piece above would be very fast, but it gets even crazier :o. Master Headley also noted in the article that it is clear from research that the Newport craftsmen were much faster than this and could make the same piece in significantly less time. As a comparison, a similar, but slightly less complex and ornate small chest like the one pictured below was noted to take about 66 man hours to complete (including the finishing) in the Gillow account. While the chest is less complex and ornate than the Newport example pictured above, that's still a huge difference in time for a similarly sized piece.

23hb.jpg

At 66 man hours, we're talking about a little over 1 week and 3 days of hands on time for one person to complete this chest working 40 hours per week. So they could basically build a simple chest like the one pictured above in 5-6 modern work days (3-4 18th century work days!), then spend the remaining time on the finishing (probably a couple hours per day spread over another week or two to total another 2-3 modern work days). I'd be lucky to have all the rough milled boards hand planed in a week. Forget about completing the build. That would take me probably 2 months, before I even thought about the finish. It's clear these guys were extremely fast. I don't think most people could build this chest with machines in a week, using solid wood and traditional joinery methods.

It's really a fascinating topic. It's amazing that these guys were so good, and so fast, that they could complete these pieces, using only hand tools, in less time than it takes most of us today to do it with the aid of machines, and in many cases to a higher quality. It's clear that they knew how to work effeciently.

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Mack Headley (master of the Colonial Williamsburg Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker's Shop) wrote an article in 1999 that touched on this. The article is pretty long and detailed and is a really great read if you are interested in period furniture and period cabinet shops. You can find it here:

Mack Headley Article in American Furniture

Hi Bob,

I had some thoughts as to why it might be that the time needed to make these furniture pieces might seem lower than they might be.

1. One of the first things mentioned in Mack Headley's article is that subcontracting was often done by the cabinet makers. I assume that the labor time of the subcontractors wouldn't be included in the accounting.

2. My impression is that the shops discussed in the article and in your post were on top of their game in the furnituremaking world. In which case, to take these labor estimates as being representative might be like extrapolating the average 0-60 mph time of the average car from looking at Porsches and Ferraris.

3. For all of us who sneak in shop time after the kids get to bed, ramp-up and ramp-down time is probably more of a factor. In other words, due to set up and cleaning up, and figuring out where you were the last time you stopped working on the project, you could get more done in one straight 10 hour session than you could spending 2 hours a night Monday through Friday.

Of course, I could be way wrong on all of these. ;)

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Of course, I could be way wrong on all of these.

No, I don't think you are completely off the mark.

1. One of the first things mentioned in Mack Headley's article is that subcontracting was often done by the cabinet makers. I assume that the labor time of the subcontractors wouldn't be included in the accounting.

This absolutely did happen. There's documented evidence of it occurring. The subcontracting would likely be the specialty work that wouldn't be done in house. So things like carving would be contracted out to full time professional carvers. Upholstery would likely be done similarly. Large quantities of resawing of thick stock to make thinner would probably be sent out. But the casework part of the build would most definitely all be done in house. So, for example, the 66 hours listed for the last piece pictured above, which really doesn't have any specialty work like turning, carving or upholstery, would be a pretty accurate representation of their actual build time I think.

2. My impression is that the shops discussed in the article and in your post were on top of their game in the furnituremaking world. In which case, to take these labor estimates as being representative might be like extrapolating the average 0-60 mph time of the average car from looking at Porsches and Ferraris.

Maybe to some extent, yes. But I don't think you would likely find big differences in working speeds between shops. In places like Philadelphia, for example, there was a standardized price schedule for certain types of piecework. You can actually still get a reprinted copy of one such book from the Winterthur bookstore and the Philadelphia Art Museum store. These books standardized pricing based on typical labor estimates in order to keep cabinet shops on an even playing field. So while the shops noted in Master Headley's article may have been some of the more well known shops, I don't think they were necessarily Ferraris while the other less known shops were Pintos. More like Ferraris vs. Corvettes. If you wanted reputation and prestige, you bought from the Ferrari shop, and paid for the name. However, if you jut wanted a well designed, well executed, and well built piece, you bought from the Corvette shop. You still got a high quality piece from a shop that worked just as fast as the more prestigous shop, but you may pay a little less, or not have to wait as long for your piece to be built, because the shop was not as prestigious. I think most professional shops that employed apprenticed journeymen, regardless of how big or small they were, probably worked at about the same pace. If they didn't, the shop wouldn't survive, or at least that journeyman's employment under the master wouldn't last long. If you couldn't keep pace, you wouldn't keep a job.

3. For all of us who sneak in shop time after the kids get to bed, ramp-up and ramp-down time is probably more of a factor. In other words, due to set up and cleaning up, and figuring out where you were the last time you stopped working on the project, you could get more done in one straight 10 hour session than you could spending 2 hours a night Monday through Friday.

This is most certainly true. My own experience working for multiple straight hours on a weekend, for example, versus working the same amount of time spread out over several evenings during the week has proven this to me.

Still, even working full time (40 hrs per week) on a piece like that last small, simple chest pictured in the drawing above, I don't think I could complete the woodworking part of that in anywhere even close to 1 work week. Perhaps if I was starting with stock that was already planed I might be able to have the woodworking done in one or two work weeks. Starting from rough sawn stock, however, there's no way I could do it that fast, and I think I'm pretty fast when it comes to hand planing boards from rough sawn to ready for joinery. The drawers alone would probably take me at least a week or two to do from rough sawn.

I think no matter how we try to justify it, the fact is that those guys were able to work much faster than most of us can today. A result of nothing more than experience and time on the job I'm sure. After all, they served a minimum of a 7 year apprenticeship working 72 hours per week. It still doesn't make it any less amazing to me though, knowing they could build a piece in probably 1/3 of the time or less than I can. B)

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