I Built a Harvey Ellis Dresser and it Almost Killed Me

Harvey Ellis was a gifted architect who worked for the furniture manufacturing firm owned by Gustav Stickley. His tenure at Stickley’s firm was brief but significant, bringing curves and ornament to Stickley’s sometimes blockly designs. He contributed work for the 1904 catalog and drawings for Stickely’s magazine The Craftsman before his untimely demise.

We needed a dresser for our bedroom and Kelly and I really wanted the Ellis model. Unfortunately, not many were made and when they show up at auction they go for around $8,000 to $10,000. So I decided to build one myself and now I know why they cost so much.

In 1904 the dresser sold for the princely sum of $39, over $1,000 in today’s dollars. Stickley simplified the design in subsequent years since the details in Ellis’ design make the dresser a bit of a pain to manufacture. But those subtleties are, in my opinion, worth the effort.

Building this dresser was like being able to inhabit Ellis’ head temporarily to understand his design vocabulary. Ellis was clearly riffing on Shaker style cabinets. What makes it so special are the details. The legs not only taper towards the bottom but also subtlety taper towards the top. Ellis echoes this up and down tapering by changing the size of the drawers–bigger in the middle than at the top and bottom. Then there’s the graceful arch on the base and the paneled sides. All of these details make for a lot more work.

It’s interesting to compare Ellis’ dresser to its Ikea equivalent. Ikea’s dresser isn’t terrible, design-wise, but you can tell that ease of manufacture is a primary consideration. And while I don’t want to romanticize early 20th century furniture work, I think I’d rather work in Stickley factory than Ikea’s. I made the Ellis dresser in much the same way it would have been built in 1904–mostly with machines (table saw, bandsaw etc.) but with hand planes for the fine work (fitting drawers, finishing surfaces). Late 19th and 20th century furniture making involves not just one task all day but a mix of responsibilities as well as aesthetic decisions such as deciding which way to run the grain. The Ikea dresser is made on a post-Henry Ford assembly line where workers either monitor machines and/or do the same repetitive task all day. This makes for a much cheaper product but an unhappy worker.

I made many mistakes building my Ellis dresser. It was, by far, the most complex object I’ve ever built (including nine dovetailed drawers that had to be precisely fit to within 1/32 of an inch). I won’t bore you with the long list of errors, but the biggest one was not having a precise plan for the details of the inside of the dresser. There are many different ways to handle the inside of cabinets. There’s not one right way but it’s good to commit to a particular plan before you begin construction. I also could have done a better job matching the grain on the drawer fronts. If you’re interested in finish methods for this period of furniture I used these helpful directions and the accompanying video.

Much to Kelly’s chagrin, Ellis mania has broken out in the house and I’m ignoring “important” work in order to build an Ellis bookshelf and china cabinet.

Mortise and Tenon Magazine

Two years ago I decided to declutter some of my eclectic interests (goodbye beer making) and focus on upping my carpentry and woodworking skills. Partly, this was out of necessity. Our house needed some work and those skilled with planes and hammers are busy building custom staircases for Barbara Streisand and don’t have the time for a 980 square foot bungalow in the HaFoSaFo district.

I took a few classes, subscribed to some woodworking and home building rags and I now spend my evenings pondering the grain orientation of drawers. To further my interest in traditional woodworking, I just signed up for the twice a year Mortise and Tenon Magazine.

As is fitting for a magazine that focuses on craftsmanship, Mortise and Tenon, edited by Joshua Klein, is itself a work graphic design artistry. In the current issue woodworker Kate Fox turns a neighborhood tree that had to come down into a Viking sea chest in a process she describes as, “four days of hard labor, one friend with a chainsaw, a scissor-jack pinched from my ’67 VW bug, lots of swear words, and a Costco bottle of ibuprofen.” In another article we get to see the inside joinery of a 18th-centry mahogany tea table. Two other articles focus on woodworking in apartments.

I especially liked the article by Kim Choy who does some amazing work in a small apartment in Singapore. What was refreshing about his writing is that it was, basically, a long list of all the mistake he made in his self-educated attempt to build things with traditional Japanese tools. It’s a refreshing take in an era of Instagram boasting. Despite those mistakes and the limitations of Choy’s space, he manages to create large and very elegant furniture.

My prediction: Mortise and Tenon is the new Wired (Un-Wired?).

No Tools? No Problem

From Wooodworker West, a story that should come with a dental trigger warning,

Designer Nikolas Bentel wanted to create a stool by hand . . . or better said by teeth. Not wanting to use any tools, he harvested wood by venturing up into New York’s Adirondack Mountains and rocked a dead Birch tree until if finally fell over. He then shaped the soft wood by slowly and methodically rubbing it with his hands, scratching it with his fingernails,, and chewing it with his teeth, in much the same way one tackles corn on the cob. “I got a few splinters along the way, but in ended up working out,” with all his teeth intact.

Here’s the video to prove it:

And another video where Bentel becomes an entire (NSFW) furniture collection:

Who needs Ikea?

You can find Bentel at All Purpose Nik.

An Arts and Crafts Masterpiece in San Francisco

During a spare hour on a trip to San Francisco to visit relatives I remembered an Arts and Crafts era landmark I had only known through books, the Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco on Lyon Street in the Pacific Heights neighborhood. Thankfully, the church is open for visitors during business hours and we popped in to take a look.

The church was designed and built by team of architects and designers that included Bernard Maybeck, A. C. Schweinfurth, A. Page Brown, William Keith, Bruce Porter, and the Rev. Joseph Worcester in 1895. On the walls are a series of stunning California landscape paintings depicting the four seasons by William Keith that echo the naturalistic theme of the building. The upright and stern chairs allegedly touched off the mission furniture craze.

Should you find yourself in San Francisco this church is a must see–and it’s free! Visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday. The address is 2107 Lyon Street at Washington Street. You can also arrange a tour. See the church’s website for more information.

The Walls Have Eyes

I was at the “Big Orange Store” as Eric of GardenFork calls it, looking for shelf hardware. Using their app (because human employees can be hard to find) I searched for “hidden shelf.” I was looking for something like this:

The app, however, autocompleted “hidden camera.” That’s odd, I thought, and followed the link. It turns out that Home Depot has your pervy spying needs covered.

There’s the “LizaCam USB Wall Plug with Hidden IP Camera.”

The “Revo Wall Clock with Hidden Built-in Covert Camera.”

The “Bush Baby Smoke Detector DVR Hidden Camera with 30-Hour Battery and 16GB Memory” and many more: fans, alarm clocks, power adapters etc all equipped with hidden cameras.

Could their be legitimate uses for these devices? Maybe the sight of a baby monitor offends your aesthetic sensibilities and you’d prefer it discretely hidden in a smoke alarm? Possible but unlikely. We all know but don’t want to think about these inexpensive electronics in the hands of Airbnb voyeurs. While our ancestors once scanned the savanna in the hopes of bagging a gazelle for dinner we moderns can spend our time searching for cameras hidden in our toasters and lamps.

I’ll also note how the Home Depot website has come to resemble Amazon, where every whim and thought of our collective subconscious achieves physical embodiment via an ever growing network of cheap Chinese factories. Marcel Duchamp’s readymades are seeming less like conceptual art and more like a blueprint for eCommerce. If I blog about a “R.Mutt urinal fountain with hidden camera” will they make one? How about a hidden camera with a hidden camera in it?