In conjunction with the exhibition Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, craftsman Allan Breed turns and carves a bedpost after the renowned nineteenth-century furniture maker Duncan Phyfe, taking us through the carving of a leaf motif. As he works, Breed explains the cuts, the tools, and the intricate and highly refined techniques and behind each move, describing not only the practical methods but also the poetic rhythm of cabinetmaking.
Allan Breed, The Breed School of Fine Woodworking
Learn more about the exhibition Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York:
Learn more about Duncan Phyfe on the Heilbrunne Timeline of Art History:
Learn more about the newly reopened American Wing at the Met:
Produced and Directed by Christopher Noey
Director of Photography: Wayne de la Roche | Editor: Corinne Colgan | Gaffer: Dave Hallas | Sound Recording: Fred Burnham | Production Assistant: Seth Uhlin | Scholarly Consultant: Peter Kenny
ALLAN BREED: I am reproducing a section of Duncan Phyfe's bed. It was about seven feet tall, so this is just a small piece of it. And this is a piece of mahogany, and I'll be turning it on a modern, powered—electric-powered—lathe. I'm looking at this original to get an idea of the flow of the vase section here, because this pretty much has to be done by eye.
And so I'm turning this section here, and this will be rounded over into a nice vase form. So I know that this is the maximum diameter. This is the smaller diameter, which I'll caliper. I'm shaping the vase with a gouge. I'm coming from each side into the low spot. This is the skew chisel, and this will take the last few little bits of the gouge toolmarks away. Most of this will be carved away so it's just the flow of it that needs to look good. And now I can take it off the lathe and start carving.
What Phyfe did here was he wrapped his post in leafage—carved water leaves here, and so he's taking an essentially unornamented turned mahogany post and putting leaf carving on it to ornament it.
So I'm going to start at the high point of the vase here and follow that line. And so, from the high to the low I can cut this way, because all the fibers are exiting this way, and from the high to the low here, I can cut this way, because the fibers are all exiting, sort of, the edge of the canyon wall that way. I'll put the tool right on my ribcage and just lean into it, like that. And so I'm getting a lot of power; it's not just—I'm really not just using my hands and arms, you have to use your whole upper body.
The hollow part that separates one leaf from another, this is where this trough is happening, right on these points. And once you start carving, you immediately erase all your lines, and so drawing in the initial cuts is okay, but after that, you're kind of on your own.
Actually, sound is pretty critical. I will be listening for it to start snapping. If it starts to make a snapping sound, it means that I'm running into oncoming grain and I want to turn around and come the other way. Because you do get into a certain rhythm, and a certain motion that's repeated, and it's a lot easier to do those repeated cuts—do similar cuts one after the other—instead of going from one type of cut to another then switching back again.
So now I'll go to a tool that's going to scoop out this rib that I've left in here, and leave the hollow space between the leaves. So once this groove, once this space between the leaves has been cut, I'll just check these V cuts again and clean them up. So here we've got—the divisions between the sections of the waterleaf have been modeled with a V cut and the hollow cut, and now I'll round off what's left. And I'm trying to cover the entire width of that piece with one cut.
Now I have to go back and round off the other half of these, and so I'll probably have to come in the other direction. This is a back-bent gouge, and this moves the handle out of the way so I can reach in there and cut this part of the carving. So I'm going to turn it over and come in from this direction, because this is the way the grain wants to be cut on this particular part. And then there are a couple more things that need to be done. One of them is to round off the end of each leaf. This gives it just a little bit more three-dimensional roll. See the rhythm I just got into doing all those one right after another? Chop, chop, chop.
You don't want any straight surfaces anywhere. That's kind of my mantra with carving, especially with Rococo stuff. I mean, there's no straight line anywhere. The last thing I do is to round off this rib, and I'm just going to detail this rib just a tiny bit. Another instance of where this tool might sit in the drawer for ninety percent of its life, but once in a while... It's the perfect tool for this job.
So that's rounded over. And now what he did was take a cut from right about here—and I've got to go in two directions because the grain switches right here. So I'll do the top half of it from here up, and the bottom half from here down. I really only have once chance to get that. So there we go.
I would not normally carve one leaf from start to finish. All these cuts, all these V cuts I did—I would just keep spinning it and do all the ones with my right hand, spin it, do all my left hand ones, then go back and do all the next cut on everything. Just slowly melt it down in, bring it into focus.
By making a nice contrast between the high spots and the low spots, and ruffling the edge, all of a sudden, it has some motion. It's crawling up here and in the process it's sort of waving, and by making these deep cuts and rounding these off, it gets a little rhythm going. And it breaks up this turned post. You've got this stark turning here, and here, and then all of a sudden you've got leaves wrapping around this. So I think you get a lot of power in the contrast between carved and uncarved.