The Shaker style is one of the most popular and enduring furniture styles in the United States. Woodworking luminaries such as George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick were influenced by the Shakers, and so are many contemporary makers like Garrett Hack, C.H. Becksvoort and Thomas Moser.
It seems that all furniture makers eventually pay homage to the work of the Shakers. What makes Shaker furniture so distinctive and lasting? What makes it so compelling to build? In this post I’ll describe the context in which the Shakers designed and built their furniture. I’ll also identify some of the characteristics that define the Shaker style and discuss how they came into being.
Note: I took most of the photos below at the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.
A Shaker chair basking in sunlight at the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill
First and foremost, the Shakers were a religious sect. Officially called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming, their faith was characterized by pacifism, celibacy, communalism, gender and racial equality, and independence from society, which they referred to as “the World.” Their furniture was both an expression of their religious faith and a reflection of their methods for survival.
Form follows function
The Shakers believed that ostentatiousness was self-indulgent and sinful. Therefore, they avoided anything that could be considered showy. The Shakers eschewed luxury. They had limited resources and used them as economically as possible as an expression of gratitude for their provision in the first place. The result of their modesty and practicality is a style of furniture that is the embodiment of the adage “form follows function.” The iconic Shaker chair, for example, is as sturdy as it needs to be, yet light enough to be lifted easily and stored on wall pegs. To accomplish this, the legs and stretchers are turned to reduce weight but leave enough material for strength. The seat is woven rush, which is comfortable and much lighter than a wood seat. The chair is pitched at a slight angle to be easier to get in and out of. All of these features are designed for practicality, but the resulting form of the chair is beautiful and elegant.
Two Shaker chairs stored on wall pegs at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky
Characteristic features of Shaker woodworking
There are several features that define the Shaker style. Here is a list of some of them and how they are incorporated in Shaker furniture.
The Shakers used tapered legs on tables whenever possible. The main advantage of tapering is reduced weight. It was important to the Shakers that furniture be light enough to be moved out of the way when not in use.
Turning, like tapering, is another great way to reduce mass while still leaving enough material for structural integrity. Turned legs, stretchers and spindles were also easy to replicate. Actually, most turned parts were often tapered also, like the base of the candle stand in this photo.
Rockers in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill via Wikimedia
Instead of using metal pulls, which would have been considered showy, the Shakers employed wooden pulls whenever possible. Turned pulls are easy to make on a lathe. The Shakers would also make pulls in the same species as the rest of the piece to avoid attention.
Side table at the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill
To avoid showiness, the Shakers did not use inlay or intricate woodwork that called attention to itself. Instead, they kept the wood plain and used rounded or gently beveled edges. They also avoided highly figured wood, which was seen as showy. They did not use veneer because they considered it to be a deception.
The Shakers used dovetails and mortise and tenon joinery extensively. For drawers, they generally used half-blind dovetails, which are visible only when the drawer is pulled out. The Shakers often used pegs to fortify tenons, especially on table legs, but the pegs would be the same species of wood as the legs to avoid notice. This is different than the Arts and Crafts furniture of Greene and Greene, who used pegs of a contrasting wood like ebony to serve as decoration.
In most chests of drawers, the bottom drawer would be large and the other drawers would get incrementally smaller as they went up. This feature, with the sizes of the drawers set by the Golden Ratio, gave the pieces beautiful proportions, allowing the piece to appear grounded but encouraging the eye to move upward. That decision was only partially aesthetic, as it makes sense to have smaller drawers near the top to store light items. Storing heavy items that high up could cause the chest to topple.
Chest with graduated drawers in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill
Shaker furniture has always been inspiring to me in my own woodworking because it challenges me to streamline my designs -- to keep the essential and discard the superfluous. The style is so enduring because of its restraint. A Shaker table would fit well in a home that has a Mid-Century Modern, Arts and Crafts or contemporary style. I encourage you to visit a Shaker village to see their amazing craft in person.