Construction Methods

As noted in the history section, there is no doubt that Rosenstengel’s journeyman years would have provided him with significant experience in relation to modern (at the time) methods of construction. In particular, his time spent in Grand Rapids USA would have equipped him with the knowledge he needed to balance the tradeoffs always evident between efficient manufacture and product quality. There’s no doubt that the majority of Rosenstengels work, his bread and butter if you like, was relatively high volume production furniture. Rosenstengel went to great lengths though to differentiate his products from what he considered mass production furniture. Many of his relatively standard lines were often customised to meet the specific needs or taste of an individual client and of course there were one off designs and special commissions. There is evidence to suggest in a number of cases that the small output from his shop in the form of special commissions were on occasion produced at a commercial loss, possibly to satisfy the desires of Rosenstengel and his tradesman to produce items of the highest quality to break the monotony of a production environment. Clearly, the manufacture of special commissions also had the benefit of raising Rosenstengel’s profile as a manufacturer of unsurpassed quality and style. Rosenstengel was an astute businessman and he knew that high quality work built an enviable reputation which drew in potential customers who clearly could not afford such items. An example of this was the beautifully detailed Tudor revival sideboard in Maple that took pride of place in Rosenstengels Brunswick St showroom window for over 17 years to attract the attention of passersby and potential customers. Although Rosenstengel valued his reputation as a high quality producer he also knew that he needed the steady and certain cash flow that standard, more affordable products provided. It was these standard lines, produced at relatively high volume that provided the continual trade to sure up the profitability of the business. Ed Rosenstengel mounted many advertising campaigns making it clear that anyone could afford to purchase items of Ed Rosenstengel furniture (seen at right noting 75% of owners have incomes under 300 pound). Indeed his motto of “buy direct from the man who makes it”, was to assert his ability to remove the middle man (the retailer) to deliver a net saving to his potential customers. To Rosenstengel though, nothing was more important than the quality of the final product. His notes are littered with reflections on what he saw as a continual degradation of quality and standards of manufacture within the arts and crafts. In 1953 he noted, “I would like to think that my success is due to the fact that I have always placed my craft before profit”. As evidence of this, Ed Rosenstengel had a number of principles relating to construction quality that he never deviated from throughout his career. These included:

  • A commitment to the use of solid timber for all construction. The use of 3 ply and masonite was largely restricted to drawer bottoms and never used in visible surfaces of his furniture.
  • Solid timber used was of prime quality or select grade and air dried for periods of usually three to four years
  • Cabinet backs were also of solid timber. Usually of stained pine, cabinet backs were solid timber panels between solid timber muntins (shown at right). Despite this construction method being time consuming, Rosenstengel never lowered his standards by shifting to plywood backs on his cabinet work as did the majority of his competitors.
  • Surface finishing was always done by hand with hand plane and cabinet scraper prior to finish sanding. This was required on the highly figured timbers that Rosenstengel used as a feature of his work. Such timber could not be prepared for finish by machine alone.
  • Polishing was also always done by hand. Again, many of his competitors migrated away from hand polish in the 1930’s in preference to sprayed nitrocellulose lacquer. This produced a similar finish in much less time, however, as lacquer is largely unrepairable, it does not stand the test of time like a hand polished surface in shellac.
  • Where possible screws were used in preference to nails
  • Hardware (locks and handles) and tapestry fabrics were of the highest quality, usually of English origin and significantly more expensive than that being used by many of his competitors.

Despite the above, Rosenstengel must have realised the commercial realities of operating a profitable business would require some concessions to be made. Some may argue, but on close inspection the majority of his furniture, including the special commissioned items, will be found to be relatively utilitarian in construction. It seems he understandably focused his skilled tradesman in producing high finish quality, sacrificing some elements of construction quality along the way.  There are a number of examples of this:

  • Selection of joint type. As all cabinet makers know, there is no substitute for the quality of mortise and tenon construction, yet almost without exception Rosenstengel chose dowel joints for all cabinet and carcase work. This had the huge benefit of increasing production efficiency by allowing carcase components and door frames to be cut cleanly to size without the need to consider dimensions of joints and subsequent detailed fitting by hand. Dowel joints however, result in a relatively small gluing surface area leaving highly stressed joints such as chair frames susceptible to breakage.
  • Door fitting: Rosenstengel cleverly included timber beading into his designs especially between pairs of cabinet doors or where single doors closed against the cabinet carcase. This avoided the time consuming hand fitting of doors in preference for a quick solution that had the added bonus of decorative appeal.
  • Cockbeading: The small decorative bead often fitted to drawers was nailed and glued to the drawer front rather than being applied across the full width of the drawer in a rebate as was more typical in work of the highest quality.
  • Cross Grain construction: Drawer runners were commonly screwed to the solid timber sides or gables of sideboards and chest of drawers. This resulted in gross grain construction which should always be avoided in high quality work. Cross grain construction commonly results in splitting of the solid timber gable as the drawer runner screwed across it prevents the natural movement of timber during seasonal variances in humidity.

Of course, some may consider the above unfair criticism. As noted previously, Rosenstengel loathed the thought of mass production impacting on the quality of the finished article. In his diary notes he wrote, “Whenever commerce (mass production) rears its ugly head, the arts and crafts, music, literature etc are prostituted and abused in the holy name of dividends”.  History would suggest that the concessions noted above, if they could be considered such, were well informed, as although Rosenstengel’s construction method was far from perfect, items were still executed to the highest possible standard and resulted in furniture of the highest quality. Again quoting from his notes, his logic was based on one theme, “build it better, better still and still better”.