Magnum Opus

I love to build furniture.  My guess would be is that most woodworkers would put furniture building right up there at the top of the heap as an expression of skill and ability.  But after more than fifty years of experience in interior joinery and architectural carpentry, I might be inclined to take issue with that notion.

There are four words that will make me take immediate notice each time I hear them;  Post, beam, mortise, tenon.  Put together with the appropriate conjunction, these words describe a building process that has provided human beings around the world with structures that range from the lowly cow shed to the soaring cathedral.  Post and beam – Mortise and tenon.

Look at a pile of dismantled barn timbers and it suddenly becomes obvious.  This is complicated work.  This is work that requires skill and ingenuity.  This is work that requires mastery over subjects like geometry, as well as artistry.  This work requires physical strength, as well as intellectual stamina.  This is big work, magnum opus.  Heavy timber work.


Joined timber construction is amazingly strong and durable.  It utilizes a renewable resource that is, usually, at hand.  And, in many cases, salvaged timber will work as well as something fresh from the log yard.  Timbers can be sawn or hewed.  Many times an irregularly shaped timber will be used to take advantage of its natural strength.

The beauty of timber joinery cannot be overstated.  And I am struck by the tremendous similarities of Oriental and Occidental joinery.  While it’s true that the actual process of cutting the joints might be somewhat different, the results are usually the same.  The same types of scarf joint will be found in Japan, France and England.  However, if you watched these joints being made in these three areas, you’d be surprised at the difference in technique.  (There is no RIGHT WAY! – only the way that works for you)

from  "The Art of Japanese Joinery"

from “The Art of Japanese Joinery”

Anyone who has built furniture in a one man shop knows that it is a solitary job.  While solitude, in itself, can be spiritually rewarding, most of us need some peer contact on a regular basis.  Being complimented by a fellow carpenter is very much akin to being awarded an Academy Award.  Your peers know the level of your skill by their own experience.  And, the term Master Carpenter is more often an honorific conferred by brothers and sisters in craft, rather than a mere licensing document.

When the weather is cold and blowing, I’m content to be in the shop.  But as these spring days begin to warm, I realize that I miss the good natured banter of the jobsite, that has persisted through the ages.  And most of all, I miss working alongside carpenters doing heavy work.  I can think of nothing more rewarding.

From "Art de la Charpente", Diderot et D'alembert

From “Art de la Charpente”, Diderot et D’alembert

To learn more about Traditional Carpentry in Europe visit Charpentiers d’Europe dt d’ailleurs.

To download a very good, free booklet on historic timber framing in the United States, go to

If you think you’re a good carpenter, visit Chris Hall’s blog.  But be warned.  Chris’ blog is serious stuff, for serious carpenters.

Explore posts in the same categories: historic woodworking, life in craft

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2 Comments on “Magnum Opus”

  1. Kerry Says:

    Great post. Forty years construction… contractor, builder, remodeler, cabinet maker, furniture maker. Post and beam always intrigued me, though I never dipped my toes in it. I recently made a post & beam inspired Roubo… sort of a tip of the hat. The rest of your sentiments… I fully appreciate.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      I gotta say Jack, that is one impressive bench you’ve built there. Although I certainly don’t need another workbench, I’ve got a couple of old rack type cast iron vises that I’d like to see on a nice heavy bench. I might have to follow your lead and go for the full post and beam model. Enjoy your blog. There is that fellowship of “brothers in trade” that not all have the opportunity of experiencing. We’re very lucky.

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