Work in Progress: The Carpenter

Wood Work in Progress New Working Environments

They are and always have been profound experts and sought after craftsmen, or even celebrated artists or functionally-aware designers. Their material comes from nature and what they manage to create from it bears eloquent witness to human culture. There has rarely been a profession which has been able to stay so important without losing touch with the present.

The conditions are naturally perfect. Wood, in addition to stone and metal, is amongst the most important materials of humankind in almost any place of the world. Even the industrial revolution of the 19th century did not put a sudden stop to this. 
The early machines usually still had wooden frames or wooden mechanisms. Only with an increase in requirements for wear strength or load torques did iron managed to oust wood from its dominating position in favour of greater load bearing strength and breakage resistance.

And in the beginning there was…

One of the first and at the same most impressive traditions in elaborate wood art dates back to Egyptian times as one would expect from the ingenious Egyptians. In 3,500 B.C., the Egyptians already recognised how versatile wood was and how is easy it is to work.  Veneer technology was already used for ships, buildings, furniture and objects for daily use and a type of plywood was developed. The sarcophagus of the god-king Tutankhamen is a special example for early craftsmanship.
The wood craftsmen of the Greek and Roman empires perfected these work techniques mainly by developing new tools. Amongst others, the plane as we know it today was finally developed from little spades which were used to smooth the wood. Furthermore, not only domestic woods were used but for special purposes rare and exotic woods were processed thanks to the active trade in the ancient world.

Outside influences

The Middle Ages brought a negative turning point - as in many other areas.  With the decline of experienced Roman craftsman, a huge amount of existing knowledge vanished, too. It took almost 800 years to regain this knowledge.
Wood is versatile in its uses and therefore the specialisations that different craftsman undertook such as becoming a woodturner, wainwright, joiner or carpenter are just as versatile. In the middle of the 12th century, the first incarnation of a "carpentry fraternity" appeared which combined professions such as model carpenters, furniture makers, chair makers, stair makers etc.

Being a craftsman in Europe during those centuries which were dominated by church and feudal reign was not exactly easy. For one, the service had to be provided to a certain sovereign and no work was to be carried out for another count or duke. At the same time, this servitude was passed on to the sons. In the beginning, there was no salary - only living quarters and food.  Material and tools were also provided for by the sovereign. Only when there was no longer enough work available for all craftsmen, were they were allowed to do work for another sovereign against payment.  And this paved the way to drudgery and paid labour.

Urban and flexible

The growth of the cities created new social challenges… and grievances due to the increased demand for craftsmen services.The unregulated free competition lead to moral depravity, exploitation of customers, the destruction of competitors and the violent persecution of "troublemakers and botchers".

This lasted until the Church finally established a new "Trade Honour", so-called fraternities which as guilds and artisan organisations were both economical and religious associations and which monitored adherence to a certain code of honour. Sometimes with strange results: Right up to the 19th century carpenter and joiner apprentices were subject to forced celibacy. 

The development of the carpentry trade - making doors, windows, furniture - which is comparable to the one still working today also had something to do with an increasing urban life.   In the early Middle Ages "furniture" was mainly made by the woodworkers who built the house - mostly rough in finish and usually fitted to walls and floor. Increase in wealth and improved living conditions in the cities brought a desire to have furniture that could be moved and this required a completely new set of product characteristics: furniture needed to be lighter, required more precision in statics and had to be made from "parts" which were connected with glue, dowels or grooves. Refined techniques such as veneer or inlay work replaced the rough surfaces of early furniture.

Socially anchored - or not

Furniture carpentry developed into its own profession due to an increase in demand. Some carpenters were even employed by the cities during the 15th century. The work was hard and demanding, the hours (14-16 hours a day) - every day apart from Sunday. Master craftsman monitored the work to avoid botched jobs. Only after the daily work was completed were the craftsmen allowed to do repair work on their own account. Furniture was only made to order - the production of stock items only happened much later.

By the way: The guilds did not include at any time all members of a certain profession, sometimes, they did not even include the majority. During the 17th and 18th century and outside of the guilds, the Sovereigns initiated so called "court carpenters" who developed centers of outstanding artistry and skill. For the guilds, which were on a city level well organised and integrated in the city's administration, the association of carpenter apprentices became strong opponents as they demanded higher wages and better working conditions. These associations were seen as the main social flashpoint during the 18th century and were the cause for escalating confrontations.

Nothing works without a machine

In a historical context, the 19th century brought many significant changes. On the one hand, the marketplace became more open - carpenters could open a business without a professional certification. On the other hand, trade of furniture spread all over Europe. "Imports" from other regions or cities were often better and cheaper (Hamburg, Berlin and Hannover e.g. were fierce competitors). And finally, the growing industrialisation of work previously carried out by hand was faster and delivered more precise results whilst providing an overall greater output.

Despite this, the pieces themselves had to increasingly meet new requirements and rise to a new way of thinking with regards to constructing and living from a technical and formal point of view. Architects such as Bruno Paul or the protagonists of the Bauhaus contributed significantly to this new understanding of carpentry and furniture making.

Intelligent and suitable for the masses

The mass furniture item had actually arrived on the marketplace due to the growing furniture industry. Many carpenters who had not engaged with automation ended up in fatal dependency situations due to being forced to do supply and assembly work in areas where the furniture industry outsourced jobs. The Great Depression in the 1930s and the World War left small workshops with a master and one or two apprentices almost no chance.

Deep structural modifications have changed the carpenter’s job and its sector drastically over the last decades.  Since the early 1990s, the computer has been used in the carpentry workshop. Today complex CAD systems are used for design and construction of products - mainly for work preparation.  Using CNC technology, the computer aided numerical control, lead without a doubt to a new era of industrial furniture production and classic carpentry, which has stepped up the competition due to the necessary high capital expenditure in order to increase productivity.

Still innovative.

One thing is certain: the job of a carpenter has to be looked at from a completely different angle. In the last 30 years pretty much everything has changed again: economic and social framework conditions, materials, products and the way the products are used.  Tools and processing methods have never been more refined, never has it been possible to combine different materials in this way and link precision with artistic skills to such a high level. And there are the idealistic requirements for a sustainable production which put wood products back in the focus of public consciousness.

Many of these developments can be seen also at Bene during its 200 year history. The company was founded in 1790 by Michael Bene in Waidhofen an der Ybbs and remained a classic carpentry workshop right into the 1940s. A company side-line, founded in Vienna in 1929, initially only manufactured office accessories such as wooden letter trays.

In 1951, the furniture arm of the company switched to the industrial manufacture of office furniture. The production facilities spread over an area of 15,000 sqm in 1975. Since the 1980s, Bene has been working hard to develop its own international sales network. In 2000, Bene expanded the Waidhofen factory to 40,000 sqm and made it one of Europe's most modern production facilities. 

Finally: what else has changed the self-image of the carpenter and his profession apart from industrial production, computers and sustainability? It is the way we now use the space. The knowledge of human habits, needs and practical requirements. Individual pieces that are not only functional or beautiful, but that also integrate, serves its function within its surroundings and brings aesthetics and human communication together. Eventually it does not really matter whether a piece is made in clever mass production or creative workshop. The product has to speak for itself...


Brigitte Schedl-Richter

Texterin, freie Journalistin,