I enjoy doing demonstrations for local historical organizations and civic groups where I show people how furniture and millwork were made during the 1800s. Visitors who watch my demonstrations normally use several words to describe me, including carpenter, wood carver, wood worker or wood wright. Since I never want to sound argumentative I usually don’t correct them or suggest an alternative. However, in the 19th century there were many specialized craftsmen working with wood who made particular things with their own special tools. Each craftsman and craft had a name that identified them and their trade.
Three trades wood working with wood are carpenter, joiner and cabinet maker. Depending on the event and what I’m making, I usually describe myself as a cabinet maker or joiner. I’m never a carpenter. So, what is the difference?
The Carpenter: In his 1837 book The panorama of professions and trades Edward Hazen wrote:
“It is the business of the carpenter to cut out and frame large pieces of timber, and then join them together, or fit them to brick or stone walls, to constitute them the outlines or skeleton of buildings or parts of buildings.”
In short, a carpenter builds buildings. He frames the walls and roof using heavy timbers and mortise and tenon joints or dimensioned lumber and nails. He shingles, builds scaffolds and trusses and sheaths the framing. He works on the job site using heavy tools such as large augers, saws, wooden beetles and chisels. In Hazen’s time this did mean timber framing, but later in the century this could have meant balloon framing or platform framing too.
The House Joiner: Hazen wrote:
“The joiner executes the more minute parts of the wood-work of edifices, comprehending, among many things, the floors, window-frames, sashes, doors, mantles &c.”
It was the joiner who made all the special, wooden bits built into a building. He made the decorative molding, window sash and trim, doors and casing, mantelpieces, built-ins such as shelves and cabinets and all sorts of ornament like corbels and crests. He worked at a bench either on the job site or in a shop using smaller tools like molding planes and carving gouges.
There was overlap between the carpenter and house joiner as some of their work was quite similar. Indeed, many men did both jobs.
Hazen noted that:
“Carpentry and joinery, however, are so clearly allied to each other, that they are commonly practised by the same individual.”
There were more opportunities for tradesmen to specialize in house joinery and develop their skills to the highest degree in larger cities with many high-style homes. Furthermore, the trades were regulated according to English guild traditions in large cities like Philadelphia or Boston during the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. These inherited guild regulations required specialization and adhering to one’s practiced trade, meaning joiners joined, carvers carved, turners turned (that is. used a lathe to make spindles) and carpenters built buildings. Later, as the demand for buildings grew and the country was flooded by trained immigrants, many of these regulations were ignored and tradesman worked wherever doing whatever they could to earn a living.
The Cabinet Maker: Hazen tell us:
“It is the business of the cabinet-maker to manufacture particular kinds of household furniture, such as tables, stands, bureaus, sideboards, desks, bookcases, sofas, bedsteads, &c., as well as a certain description of chairs made of mahogany and maple. Many of the operations of this business are similar to those of the carpenter and joiner, although they require to be conducted with greater nicety and exactness.”
The cabinet maker makes furniture (sometimes called movables, or things that can be moved from room to room or house to house). The cabinet maker works at a bench in a shop and makes the finest work using smaller saws, chisels and gouges, molding planes and other special tools. He often finishes and sometimes upholsters his work, although in larger cities these operations were frequently done by other tradesmen specializing in these crafts.
Although the distinctions between these trades might seem clear, it can be a bit muddled depending on when we are speaking. During the settlement period in North America there weren’t cabinet makers, but only joiners. During the 1600s furniture was simpler and made using mortise and tenon joints. The joiner was the craftsman who made things using these basic techniques. To see the work of a modern-day joiner who worked at the Plimoth Plantation historic site using these ancient methods, take a look at Peter Follansbee’s blog.
During the 18th century craftsmen began making stylish furniture using exotic woods such as mahogany, rosewood and satinwood along with figured veneers. They also began building casework (or furniture such as sideboards made from various box-like components ) using new joinery techniques such as dovetails. This distinguished the work of the new cabinet maker from the common joiner. In fact, the French work for cabinet maker is ébéniste, or a worker making high-style furniture using exotic ebony.
Thereafter, the craftsman who made basic furniture and other pieces from pine and common wood species was called a joiner, the craftsman who made decorative pieces for buildings as well as doors and windows was called the house joiner, and the elite craftsman who made high-style furniture from mahogany and veneer was the cabinet maker. These distinctions were somewhat blurred in the United States (especially for the common joiner) where the absence of a strict guild system prevented craftsmen from protecting their distinct trades from encroachment of other wood workers. However, these distinctions are illustrative of some of the different types of wood workers and how their trades were practiced in the 19th century.