Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 199, February 2023 Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
Stories from Grandpa's Workshop
Copying in Woodworking
By Bob Rummer

“Can you make one like this?” the client asked. A mahogany bowback chair sitting on the tablesaw was missing two of the spindles in the back. I had three intact spindles to copy from so this job would be a piece of cake. Copying a spindle is basically roughing out a cylinder to the major diameter, measuring and transferring the principal features to the blank, and then shaping the contours to match the profile pattern. Woodturners copy things all the time on projects with multiple pieces like legs or spindles. A common remark when people look a turned project is, “How did you make them all the same?” My canned response is that the first one was easy, but the real challenge is in making the second one to match.

There are tools that help us copy things. On this project, I used calipers to transfer diameters from the original spindle to the new one, dividers to transfer lengths, and I used a contour gauge to check my profile. If I was going into business making chair spindles, I would probably invest in a lathe duplicating attachment to speed up the work … and that is where we hit the existential question, “Is copying really craftsmanship?” I can hear Mrs. Marshall, my third-grade teacher, saying, “Keep your eyes on your own paper! Don’t copy Billy’s work.” Where is the line between good copying and bad copying in woodwork?
Figure 1. Copying a chair spindle for a bowback chair.

On the plus side, copying is an essential woodworking skill. We learn the craft by copying the techniques of others. One day Grandpa Rummer showed me a ball-in-a-cage with a wooden chain. I was entranced. “Wow Grandpa, how did you get that ball in there?” “Well, first you mark out your stick like this …” I followed his design and his sequence of steps and my ball-and-cage looked a lot like his when I was done. If you are learning to carve figures you might use a whittling study stick to guide your practice. Or you could watch online woodworking videos and follow along as someone demonstrates how to cut precise dovetails. This is all good copying and I know when my skill has developed if my ball-and-chain comes out looking just like Grandpa’s or my dovetails like Frank Klausz’s. When I am restoring furniture, the best compliment is when customers can’t tell the difference between my carving and the original.
Figure 2. This chair is missing a piece of the carving.
I have to copy the left side to fill in the hole on the right

If we take this a step further, we can learn to copy special techniques that give a design its signature “look.” I am a big fan of Greene and Greene. In my mind their combination of flowing curves, accent plugs, and glowing woodtones are the epitome of American Arts and Crafts style. Darrell Peart is a master of the style and he shares the shop techniques to make the key design elements that characterize G&G. Copying his methods I can make cloud lifts, ebony splines, and breadboard ends just like the masters. I built a bathroom vanity using Greene and Greene design elements. It is not a copy of any actual Greene and Greene piece, but it uses their style language. I would call it “inspired by Greene and Greene.” Mrs. Marshall didn’t buy it when I said my answers were inspired by Billy and I lost points on that assignment. But in woodworking we draw on a vast library of design ideas all the time—cabriole legs, bowfront desks, stacked dressers, frame-and-panel, Shaker style legs, hayrake stretchers, on and on. If I use G&G features am I copying their design?

I am pretty comfortable copying techniques and style elements from others. However, woodworkers also often copy the whole design. I think the most comfortable chair I have ever made is a Stickley #369 drop-arm Morris chair with an ottoman. The detailed plans were taken from actual measurements of a Stickley chair and the joinery and assembly were carefully deduced from study of the original. My chair is most definitely a copy of Stickley’s. My skill as a woodworker is actually demonstrated by how closely I can copy the craftsmanship of Stickley’s workers. If I was trying to pass mine off as a Stickley original (~$9000 today) that would be unethical. But if someone would like to buy a nice copy of a Stickley #369, I am happy to oblige with no qualms.

But what about copying the designs of contemporary makers? When I start a new project with a client we generally work together on a “design book” pulling together lots of different pictures of things they like. For example, I am just starting on a project for a farmhouse kitchen table. It is so easy to cut-and-paste pictures from online that we will quickly fill up a book of examples. Then I can blend the best of the best and create something unique for the client. Am I copying? I don’t think so, this is how designs evolve.

It hasn’t happened to me yet, but what if a customer comes in with a picture of something (very expensive) from another maker or exclusive retailer and they ask, “Can you build this for me at a lower price?” I have admired Caleb Woodard’s organically-styled furniture for a long time. He was featured on Episode 53 of the Highland Woodworker and shared some of his design approach and construction techniques. If someone asked me to build a “Woodard” I would have to say, “Go buy it from him.” Someday I am going to try to make a sculptural piece of furniture using an angle grinder just to explore the techniques and possibilities, but I will not be marketing pieces that look like Caleb’s.

This whole discussion of what is copying and what is imitation and what is inspiration has been debated since the time of Plato and the ancient Greeks. We can be drawn into deep issues of who is really creative (the copier or the originator) or we can fall off the tracks into a lengthy discussion of legal issues, copyrights, and ethical behavior (see for example the Fine Woodworking forum from 2006). But as I finish the spindle project and put this column to rest, I think Grandpa and Mrs. Marshall taught me everything I need to know. Build your woodworking capabilities by copying people that are more skilled than you, explore the styles and designs and innovations that inspire you, and then set your imagination and creativity free to try new things. Just don’t try to take credit for Billy’s work.

Bob Rummer lives in Colorado and is a part-time woodworker. He can be reached directly via email at rummersohne@gmail.com. You can see his shop and some of his work at www.JRummerSons.com.

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