Lee Valley Tools    Woodworking Newsletter
   Vol. 4, Issue 1
   September 2009
   Decorative Carving in 17th Century New Mexican Furniture

Imagine you're a 17th century carpintero (woodworker) living in New Mexico. You are most likely of Spanish or Pueblo Indian descent, and your time is divided between building simple and practical furniture and fending off warring Navajos, Comanches, Apaches and Utes. You have in your tool arsenal an axe, an adze, a pit saw, a handsaw, a plane, a chisel, an auger, a knife, a grooving plane and a compass. If you're lucky, your buddy in the next pueblo might have a pole lathe.

Your skills were taught to you by Franciscan friars who imparted furniture-making techniques that are rooted in medieval Spanish and Moorish traditions.

Both Hispanic and Native-American styles influence your work, but you are bound by the tenets of the carpenters' guild, which was established in Mexico City in 1568, to uphold specific requirements in style, design and proportion. And in keeping with the tradition of European guilds, you preserve the practice of the craft within your family.

Because the only wood available in abundance is ponderosa pine, a wood that tends to split, and because you are limited by simple tools, the baroque style currently in fashion in Europe is out of your reach. So, you ornament your furniture with simple patterns and representative symbols and hope that the pretentious ensembladors (joiners and cabinetmakers who make more complex and inlaid pieces of furniture) will be impressed.

  The bullet design
  The bullet design
You might embellish a caja (chest) or trastero (armoire) with a repetitive bullet motif. Varying the lengths of the rows makes it more dynamic. Notching the uprights with a sawtooth pattern adds a new dimension, and carved rosettes elevate the piece to another level. Other elements in your decorative canon include pomegranates (symbolizing fertility), lions (representing courage), scallop patterns, shells (indicating pilgrimage) and birds.

History books underscore New Mexico's isolation from outsiders while under Spanish and Mexican rule from 1600 to the first half of the 19th century. Because of this, furniture styles remained primarily unaltered. Although, with the influx of eastern Anglo-Americans, who introduced new tools, new artists and new materials, the traditional New Mexican furniture style experienced sweeping changes in the second half of the 19th century.

However, in the early part of the 20th century, upper-class Anglo-Americans' interest in historic preservation and fostering folk crafts revived the traditional style and helped launch a new one known as Spanish Colonial Revival furniture.

Today, craftsmen continue to include 17th century chip- and gouge-carved elements in their own unique take on this style. And the good news is, you still only need a few simple tools to create them.
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