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Is John Goddard the most significant cabinetmaker in American history?

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Parnel Desautel believes he is. I have long found this question very interesting. Parnel’s reverence for John Goddard has driven him to spend a lifetime of learning, working wood, replicating, and writing about Goddard’s craft.

Current conventional wisdom on the subject of Newport furniture is that you really can’t separate the work of the Goddards and the Townsends, both famous for their 18th and early 19th Century furniture. So virtually all furniture experts talk about the “Townsend Goddard” furniture of Newport. All experts, that is, with exception of Parnel Desautel. Have these other experts spent 70 years, not only studying, but also reproducing Goddard’s work? It has often been said that in order to really understand a man, you must walk a mile in his moccasins.

Part of the problem is that most of the surviving pieces from this era do not have marks identifying the maker. Cabinetmakers of that time did not, for the most part, sign their work, or leave an engraved plaque on the inside of a drawer. There was no need. These guys were building furniture to make a living. The customers, who were generally the well-to-do merchants of the day were impatient to get their furniture delivered and likely waited longer than they wanted to while the craftsmen took their time to do it right. When the very wealthy John Brown of Providence ordered a secretary desk to be built, he called on the shop of John Goddard. Why? At that time, it was generally known that Goddard made the best. Brown would accept only the best. He could afford it. So it was with many other commissions. There was no need for Goddard to sign his work. He just needed to get it done and delivered.

It was generally accepted that Goddard’s work was the best during most of the 19th Century. Then in the 20th Century, the furniture historians found themselves unable to draw clear distinctions between the Townsends and Goddards.

It was in fact the senior Job Townsend who was really the patriarch of both families. It was in his shop that a very young John Goddard served his apprenticeship and learned not only the craft of cabinetmaking, but the basics of the Newport style. Panel’s study has led him to conclusion that John Goddard was a genius, who was inventing ideas and techniques even before opening his own shop.

Goddard made several different types of furniture, including tall case clocks, chairs, and chests of drawers, but it was the secretary desk, such as the one at left, that was his masterpiece. He made a total of 16 to 18 of them during his career, and no two were alike.
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The following article was originally published in the Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, Fall, 1994

Art and Engineering — John Goddard and the Ogee Foot

by Parnel Desautel and Phil Dickinson

The most celebrated innovation of cabinetmaker Job Townsend (1699-1765) was the Newport block front and shell design. This innovation took place during John Goddard’s apprenticeship with Townsend, which began about 1735 and likely ended in 1746, the year that Goddard (1723-1785) married Job Townsend’s daughter Hannah. The two cabinetmakers were probably very close and exchanged ideas about their trade. However, it can be argued based on what we have been able to learn about Goddard that the Newport style of furniture, defined by Townsend, was refined to near perfection by Goddard in the shop he opened in 1748 on Washington Street in Newport. When John Goddard crafted an ogee foot to support a tall secretary desk, for instance, he was working with a different set of standards from other cabinetmakers, even of the same era. The ogee foot was the support for a series of innovations and modifications of Job Townsend’s basic design that allowed John Goddard to set new standardsin the art and engineering of cabinetmaking.

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Photo: Parnel’s first 3-shell lid, completed at age 15. All three shells are carved into a single slab of black walnut. It was actually replicating Goddard’s work that taught Parnel much of what he knew about Goddard.
Block and Shell: Added Work, Added Wood

Job Townsend took the concept of “block front” furniture and embellished it by making the block relief much deeper. Before Townsend, the block front had been little more than surface relief. Though shell designs were used by many cabinetmakers in Europe and in the colonies during most of the eighteenth century, the Newport shell, as defined by Job Townsend’s shop feature three shells across a closed desk lid, drawer front, or bookcase doors. The outer two shells were raised and perched atop raised panels. The center shell was recessed and topped a recessed “block” that balanced the two raised blocks. This three-part design gave the front of the desk a deeply sculpted look. The design also added considerably to the amount of work and, in many cases, to the amount of wood required to complete the job.

Townsend typically carved the raised block and shell from separate stock and applied it with glue. He created desk lids from six-quarter stock (one-and-one-half inches)planed to a thickness of five quarters (one and one quarter inches). The wood needed to be this thick for Townsend to be able to carve the center recessed shell. One can imagine heated debate between young Goddard and his master, because examination of pieces credited to John Goddard indicates that he did not believe in applying the raised black and shell with glue. In Goddard’s furniture all three shells were carved in the single original stock.
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This photo shows a detail of a raised shell that has been carved into a thick slab of wood as opposed to carving the sell in separate wood and applying it to the desk top with glue. Notice the narrow gouged-in channel at the very edge of the shell where it meets the flat surface. This was an unavoidable result of carving the shell and planing and chiseling the flat surface of the lid up to the edge of the shell. Imagine how difficult it is to carve a raised shell and then take the flat surface down another inch or so without nicking the shell. It would be so much easier to plane the whole lid, then carve the recessed shell and glue on the two raised shells. But applied shells simply do not provide the same sculpted look. Photo is of the lid Parnel carved as teenager.
Newport cabinetmakers at that time were blessed with a good supply of West Indian mahogany, which came from the Caribbean in the hulls of Newport trading vessels. It was an elegant wood with great strength and tight grain patterns. Properly dried, joined, and finished, it had the quality to last for centuries without weakening, warping, or opening up. West Indian mahogany is now extinct and only the softer, more porous species of mahogany survive.

Cabinetmakers stacked their mahogany, placing small pieces of wood called “stickers” between the layers, and left it to dry naturally by air over a perios of time. The heaviest stock of wood, cut to a thickness of three to four inches for use in block front drawer fronts and desk lids, was allowed to dry for twenty years or longer. Wood that was cured properly and worked properly would improve with age. Eighteenth century cabinetmakers knew this; it was in their heritage — knowledge passed from father to sone, from master to apprentice. A cabinetmaker’s future was determined in part by his stock of fine wood. It was as important as his tools or his reputation.

West Indian mahogany was prized for its ability to take fine carving and for the beauty of its grain. In a Goddard desk the figure of the wood’s grain was an important component of the piece’s appeal. Goddard selected each piece of wood with great care, using the grain to best artistic advantage. Applying raised blocks and shells with glue completely disrupted the harmonious effect of the wood’s grain. When all three shells and blocks in the desk lid were carved from one piece of stock, the grain was continuous. In Goddard’s hands, the lid became a work of sculpture.
The problem with this approach was that it added astronomically to the number of hours spent on the job. It was necessary to start with stock that was over three inches thick, then slowly carve it down to its ultimate shape. If Goddard removed wood too quickly, the lid would be in danger of bowing or cupping over time. The carving had to be paced at no more than one-sixteenth inch per week. Further, carving all the shells in the same piece of wood added the element of risk to the job. The lid could be destroyed by a slip of the carving chisel. There were other complications that were avoided by cabinetmakers who applied the shells with glue. One such complication was the addition of an “end cap” to cover the end grain at the sides of the lid.

Normally, a cabinetmaker would cut in about three inches, leaving a miter cut at top and bottom. This Could be accomplished with a saw. Goddard had to carve the wood away from underneath the outside edge of the raised block and shell, which would then overlap the end cap. This task alone added enough extra work to the lid to discourage most cabinetmakers.
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Block and Shell: Added Weight

But what does all this have to do with the ogee foot? The design and joinery of the ogee foot, like every other detail in the secretary desk, was subject to the scrutiny of a young man looking for a better way to do things. Carving raised blocks and shells into the desk lid, drawer fronts, and bookcase doors meant that Goddard was using very thick wood in a number of places. This added considerably to the weight of the finished piece. The ogee feet extended outward almost five inches from the sides of the desk. There was tremendous pressure exerted on them, not only downward but also outward. Over time, a weak joint could succumb to the pressure.

The block front drawers and carved-in shells were not the only design features that added to the volume of wood in the desk. It was not Goddard’s nture to skimp on wood or time anywhere in a tall secretary desk. Goddard built the bookcase portion of the desk as a case within a case, which result in a double wall nearly three inches thick. This “double-casing” may have been considered overkill by other cabinetmakers, but Goddard considered it the most effective way to construct the bookcase. Horizontal and vertical walls of both the out and inner case were joined with dovetails, ensuring a solid construction. Because the bookcase doors had a deep block front design with carved-in shells, and because they were double-hung on one side, Goddard used heavy hinges and needed a sturdy case wall in which to anchor them. The double-casing was also the sturdiest way to provide the recessed corner into which Goddard fitted the quarter column. Permanent dividing panels in the inner case were installed with through-tenons and secured permanently with wedges in the tenons.

The bookcase was not attached to the desk; its weight alone held it in place. The casing or “carcase” (the term used more frequently today is “carcass”) of the desk, had to be extremely sturdy to hold the weight of the bookcase and support the heavy wood in the desk lid and block front drawers. Additionally, if you pull out the bottom drawer in a typical desk or chest, you will be able to see the floor, unless, as was not uncommon in the eighteenth century, the maker had inserted a think piece of wood to act as a dust catcher, creating a barrier below the bottom drawer. This piece of wood had little weight and no structural significance. Goddard, on the other hand, used four-quarter stock (one inch)below the bottom drawer, which enabled him to employ a fundamentally different structural design. Goddard also believed that it was important to join the sides of the desk with dovetail joints both top and bottom. To do this, he needed the carcase to continue across the bottom with a wide horizontal piece that was joined by dovetail to the sidepieces. All of these innovations added wood, and weight, to a John Goddard tall secretary desk.

The Movement of the Wood

Wood is made of once-living cells that worked together in a tree’s lifetime in an ever-changing process of absorbing and transmitting moisture and nutrients. Even after twenty years of drying, wood is still not completely stable. It continues to react to seasonal changes in humidity and moisture in the air, and it continues to move. In the summer, the base of a tall secretary desk can expand to become as much as one-eighth inch wider. John Goddard was aware of the problems associated with the movement of woood and built furniture that could withstand these stresses for centuries.

The base of a John Goddard block front secretary desk was constructed of four pieces of wood, each 1-1/2 to 2 inches thick, joined to form a horizontal rectangle. The front of the base was carved to continue the block front design. The carcase was not glued to the base, butwas attached with two heavy brass screws, one on each side. It was the only place where Goddard used fasteners of any kind in his joinery, and he did sonot to save time, but to allow for expansion of wood around the screws during humid summer weather. The bottom of the carcase and the base could expand together in the direction of the wood’s grain. If this piece were glued to the base all the way around, it would do a great job of holding the four pieces of the base together at a solid right angle, but the base would be wrongly constricted and when the wood expanded, it would succumb to the pressure and cracks would appear.

This meant that the four pieces of the base had to be joined in a way that would hold them together at a perfect square angle. Here, Goddard used dovetailed blind mortise and tenon joinery that would not only hold the square, but would be extremely strong. This kind of joinery was very time-consuming. For the joint to be strong, the angles had to be cut with near perfect accuracy. When pressed together, even without glue, the two pieces would have to make a fitso tight thaty they would be very difficult to separate. Made permanent with glue, the joint was stronger than the surrounding wood.

Again, what does all this have todo with the design of the ogee foot? The ogee feet were glued to the bottom surface of the front and back sections of the base. It was a very secure glue joint that connected wood with parallel grain, with each foot covering an area about 3 inches by 6 inches. When the wood expanded in summer humidity, the desk width expanded by about 1/8 inch. This had the effect of forcing each ogee foot to slide 1/16 inch across the floor, while bearing hundreds of pounds of outwardly directed pressure. As the wood dried out in colder months, the feet would slide back again. This cycle has now been repeated hundreds of times with a Goddard desk. Goddard knew this would occur, and he made his ogee feet to last.
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The Ogee Foot: Art and Engineering

Because he knew the wood would move, and because the desk had so much weight, and because of the careful craftsman that he was, Goddard elected to take no chances with the joinery in the ogee foot. It had to be strong as bedrock. Generally, an ogee foot was made by joining two blocks of wood at a ninety-degree angle using a miter-and-spline technique. A miter cut that crossed the grain of the wood at a forty-five degree angle was essentially a cross-grain cut. Gluing two pieces of wood end to end or “endgrain to endgrain,” did not work very well because it was like trying to glue two bundles of drinking straws end to end. To compensate for this in a miter-and-spline joint, a groove or channel was cut into the end of each piece, and a thin piece of wood, the “spline,” was fitted into the channels, joining the two pieces together and providing a surface that could be glued effectively. Another way to strengthen the intrinsically weak design of the ogee foot was to glue a “corner block” on the inside corner of the foot. The quality and effectiveness of the glue available to Eighteenth Century cabinetmakers was excellent. A well made miter-and-spline joint could last for centuries. It was characteristic of John Goddard, however, to be always looking for a better way to joint the wood. In the case of the ogee foot, he felt he had no choice.

There was a type of joinery first conceived during Roman times, then perfected during the Renaissance in France, known as “full blind dovetail.” It was a dovetail that stopped short of continuing all the way through the thickness of the wood. The pins and tails had to be cut carefully with a chisel, leaving the last 1/4 inch or so of wood uncut.
This remaining wood was miter cut at a 45 degree angle. In other words, the outside of the joinery was miter, and the inside was dovetail. It was invisible and very strong, but it was very difficult to accomplish and extremely time consuming. When John Goddard used this kind of joinery inside an ogee curve and block front foot, he was breaking new ground, raising the art of joinery to new heights. Once it took its place as a cornerstone beneath the desk, the ogee foot would never again be seen the way Goddard had seen it as he worked on it. In his hands, the foot was a work of sculpture. He had to work on each foot for several days, not only to cut the complex full-blind dovetail, but also the carve the curves with precision. Artistically, the foot had to create a feeling of weightlessness. Structurally, it had to have the strength of solid rock.

The John Goddard ogee foot represented an extraordinary harmony between aesthetic design and engineering. There was absolutely no compromise of on to accommodate the other. This harmony was the very think that made the Goddard secretary desk such a magnificent piece of furniture. The process of creating the lines and the visual effect did not stop upon the completion of a desk. With each piece, he sought improvement. Therefore, every desk was different. The shells, the ogee curves, the finials, the quarter columns, even the moldings were all different. Sometimes the differences were subtle, but each piece was a new creative experience for John Goddard — not only a piece of furniture with utilitarian value, but a work of sculpture. In the search for the quality that distinguish John Goddard’s work from all the rest, we find details of craftsmanship, as well as of design. Goddard was a man who believed in uncompromising quality; if there could be a better way to engineer the design, a technique to better ensure the longevity of the piece, Goddard would find a way to use it. Perhaps what makes this cabinetmaker unique is that it is impossible to tell which standard — the aesthetic or the engineering — was more important to him. He always found a way to make his two standards perfectly harmonious.
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Above: An ogee foot in the making. The full-blind dovetails are measured and marked with a sharp knife. Unlike simple dovetails that can be cut all the way through with a saw, the pins and tails of a full-blind dovetail must be carefully carved with chisels and carving tools. The ogee curve has been chalk marked for carving on the left half. The right half has been roughly carved to final shape.
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Roughed out and ready for gluing, this ogee foot will shed another 1/16 to 1/8 inch before its shape is final. Goddard did the fine carving after the foot was joined. Once welded together by invisible joinery and glue, the pieces that make the ogee foot will be as strong as bedrock.
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Glued and ready for final shaping and fine carving of the scroll.
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