Chasing the Byrdcliffe Iris Desk, Part 2

Here is the second part on the article that I wrote in 2014, about my 2012 spur of the moment trip to see the Byrdcliffe Iris Desk. Part 1 is here.   The story of the Byrdcliffe colony and drawings for 28 pieces of Byrdcliffe furniture (along with patterns for recreating the carvings) in in my new book “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture”. At the end of this post you will find a link to pre order the print version of this book and receive the PDF version at no additional cost.

Byrdcliffe Iris Desk Bob Lang

I was also allowed to remove and examine the drawers and take detail photographs of the desk. It isn’t often that this level of study is allowed.

About That Panel
In the photos I had seen of the desk, the actual construction of the front panel wasn’t completely clear. The original sketches and renderings from Winterthur didn’t clear things up, because they show the front panel in different ways, with and without a mitered frame around the panels. I had assumed that the panel itself was stile and rail construction with the carved panels as separate pieces let into the framework.

I was amazed to find that the panel was entirely solid wood; three pieces of poplar glued edge-to-edge with the grain running vertically. That single slab was surrounded by a mitered frame. This is why I imagined that Ralph Whitehead and his cabinetmaker argued. A single panel that wide will move enough to break apart the surrounding frame. The Iris desk, beautiful as it is has seen damage to the panel and the case, due to the panel shrinking.

Byrdcliffe Bob Lang

These hinges lock the front panel into position between the front legs. When the panel shrank, damage was done to the legs and the rail below the panel.

The choice of knife hinges mounted between the end of the panel frame and the leg made a bad situation even worse. As the panel shrunk, the hinges resisted the movement and pulled loose, creating splits in the front legs near the hinge locations. Apparently this piece was either sold or given to a local resident. To add insult to injury, it was discovered in a basement, painted white in the 1970s.

Some restoration has been done to the desk. The white paint was removed and thin strips of wood have been added to the outer edges of the front panel, filling in the gaps and allowing the panel to be reattached. New brackets have been added inside to support the panel when it is lowered. Other than that, the desk is nicely made, but there are places where it looks as if the builder were in a bit of a hurry. Perhaps his heart wasn’t in it, knowing what would likely happen at some point in the future due to the front panel construction. On my way to Woodstock I had planned on making a faithful reproduction, but on my way home (and in the months since) I decided to make and hinge the front panel differently than the original.

The front panel is made from three pieces of wood glued edge to edge and surrounded by a mitered frame.

Thin strips of wood have been added to the original panel, filling the gaps and allowing the hinges to be refit.

As with most Arts & Crafts period pieces, the construction is simple and obvious. The four square legs are connected with rails side-to-side and front-to back. This basic skeleton is connected with mortise and tenon joints, and panels are let into grooves in the sides and back. In the upper section of the cabinet, the space above the writing surface is divided into a series of pigeonholes. This is constructed as a separate unit and slid into place. This unit acts as a stop and dust seal for the drop front.

The cornice molding was created by hand and the ends were trimmed after the molding was attached to the case. The Byrdcliffe logo and date are to the right.

The back of the panel, the surrounding frame and shelf behind are all in the same plane. The supports are modern replacements.

The pigeonholes are constructed as a distinct unit, slid into place and nailed to the sides of the desk. The two holes are probably not original.

The drawers slide on simple runners attached to the legs and to the back panel. Guides on top of the runners position the drawers side to side.

No joinery is apparent in the 1/4” thick gallery as all the front corners butt together. The reasonable approach to making this is to cut shallow dados that stop behind the front edges, and notch the ends of the parts that fit within. A few nails into the sides hold this assembly to the inside of the case. A cove and fillet cornice molding wraps the top on the front and returns down both sides. From the back, saw marks are visible indicating that the molding was attached, then trimmed flush to the case. The molding was likely made by hand with a hollow plane to form the cove and a rabbet plane to make the fillet. The best evidence for this is seen from behind the case. The fillet is a few degrees out of square, but that isn’t evident from the front or the sides.

Below the writing surface are three drawers, two spit the distance above a single wide drawer. All the drawers ride on simple runners and guides, with the runners nailed at the front and back. The outer runners also attach to the legs, with the guides attached on top of the runners. In the middle of the two smaller drawers, the back of the runner is attached to the back panel. There is a single intermediate rail on the paneled back, at the level of the writing surface.

Below the drawers, small blocks reinforce the corners where the runners meet the legs and the rails. These appear to be newer wood than the rest of the drawer support structure and may be either replacements or late additions. There are also kickers above the two small drawers on the outside. These pieces could also be later additions or replacements. In addition to preventing the drawers from dropping forward, these small pieces also act as cleats to reinforce the connection between the shelf above and the legs.

The drawers are made with traditional construction, hand-cut half-blind dovetails at the front with the beveled bottom slid into place above the dadoed and nailed back.

The angle on the dovetails approaches 45⁰ and there is a significant amount of tear-out on some of the drawer sides.

The drawers themselves have half-blind dovetails at the front, and a thick solid bottom. Beveled edges on the front and sides of the bottom slip into grooves in the drawer front and sides. The drawer back sits in dados at the back, set in from the back of the drawer sides about 1/2˝. The bottom extends slightly past the sides and a thin strip of wood has been added to the back of the drawer bottom to act as a stop. The drawers are inset at the front, with the faces set in slightly from the surrounding frame.

As I was crawling out from under the desk after taking pictures, a neatly made repair in the left rear leg caught my eye. Its location is in line with the groove for the panels and the mortise above. It isn’t visible when standing beside the desk, and is barely visible when crouching down. Rather than scrap a leg with several mortises and grooves already made, the original builder cut a patch from matching wood, an understandable decision given the location and colored finish of the desk. The leg has shrunken over time, leaving the patch barely proud of the surface.

This patch, covering a misplaced mortise or a groove cut farther than planned, would have been flush when the desk was originally built.

The hardware is copper, and this pull/escutcheon was likely made at Byrdcliffe. The other pulls and escutcheons may have been commercially made.

The hardware is solid copper and except for the pull and lock escutcheon at the top of the panel looks like typical commercial hardware of the day. Reproductions of the pulls are still available, although not in copper. I’m still on the fence about the hardware. I’ll likely give making the top pull a try in copper and buy the other pulls in brass. Copper used in the early 1900s was usually patinated and it can difficult to distinguish between the two metals.

I’m also not sure if I want to duplicate the green stain, which was also a bit of a personal struggle when I built my reproduction of the Byrdcliffe linen press. It just seems wrong, but the linen press has aged nicely and I’m now fond of the color. I’m tempted to build two of these, one duplicating the original green and one with a clear finish on the cherry. In any case, the drop front will definitely be stile and rail construction with floating basswood panels. I believe that if the front panel is made with rift sawn cherry, the overall movement would be minimal and that would allow the mitered frame. I definitely won’t be using knife hinges, instead I’ll use fall front hinges between the fixed shelf of the desk and the bottom of the front panel.


We are now taking pre-orders for “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture”. Books will be arriving in mid-May. Order your signed copy and receive the PDF version now.

– Bob Lang

Chasing the Byrdcliffe Iris Desk, part 1

Bob Lang Byrdcliffe LogoI like to say that behind every good piece of furniture is a good story. The same is true for books. My first book “Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture” took about 20 years to go from idea to completion. My latest, “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture” has be percolating since the summer of 2012, but I may have considered it when I built a reproduction of the Sassafras Linen Press in 2006. What follows is an article I wrote in 2014 for the short-lived 360Woodworking. Due to the length of the article it will be spread out in two or three parts. If you’re patient enough to make it to the end of this post, you’ll find a link to your opportunity to be one of the first to get the new book.

Here is part one of the article:

Bob Lang Byrdcliffe Iris DeskIt started innocently enough. A couple of readers on my blog suggested that I teach a class on building the Byrdcliffe linen press, a project I built for the cover of the April 2006 issue of Popular Woodworking. That large cabinet, with carved and colored sassafras leaves on the doors and green-stained quartersawn white oak is one of my all time favorite pieces of furniture. But I recognized that it would be too much to tackle in a week-long class.

Almost immediately I thought of the Iris desk, another Byrdcliffe piece that is similar in many ways to the linen press, but considerably smaller and with simpler carving. Like the linen press, the desk is stained green and the carved panels are colored. Unlike the larger piece, the desk is made of cherry. I went on line and started researching, and made the happy discovery that the Winterthur Museum has many original drawings from the Byrdcliffe colony.

In the world of American Arts & Crafts furniture, the output of the Byrdcliffe colony was but a spark. The cabinetmaking shop was in operation for less than two years and only produced about 50 pieces of furniture. What sets these pieces apart is that they were a collaborative effort of the artists in residence at the colony and the craftsmen in the cabinet shop. Adding artistic decoration to furniture is difficult to do well, but the Byrdcliffe designs do it in grand style, a wonderful blend of good proportions and subdued decoration. This small group contains some of the most interesting and captivating designs of the period.

A Troubled Paradise

Despite its idyllic setting and lofty goals Byrdcliffe wasn’t the most peaceful place. Started as a utopian arts community in 1902 by Englishman Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and his wife Jane on 1500 acres just outside Woodstock, New York, most of the artists were gone by 1915. Whitehead was from a wealthy English family, the family fortune came from the ownership of a manufacturing mill that produced felt for piano keys.

Several of the original buildings of the Byrdcliffe colony are still in use, surrounded by the woods in the hills above Woodstock, New York. The colony is now owned by the not-for-profit Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. The guild hosts artists-in-residence programs and educational uses at the original site

Ralph went off to study at Oxford and became a follower of English Arts & Crafts pioneers John Ruskin and William Morris. When he returned home from school ready to take his place in the family business, other family members were taken aback by his talk of the dehumanizing affects of factory life and the glorious days of craft guilds. Essentially they paid him to stay away from the business.

He spent several years touring Europe, studying art and living a gentlemanly life of leisure. He had a keen interest in the arts, and loved the company of artists but didn’t possess much talent himself. Some accounts suggest that he “apprenticed” with a German cabinetmaker during this period, but the apprenticeship amounted to a few months of afternoon instruction from the master after the cabinetmakers had gone home for the day.

After marrying Jane, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family, the couple settled in California before purchasing land in New York in 1902. Some 30 buildings were constructed and a number of artists and writers moved in. Within a year or two several of the original artists moved out. What apparently caused a rift between the freedom-loving artisans and the colony’s founders was the Whitehead’s desire to micro-manage and orchestrate activities on a daily if not hourly basis.

At the Museum
Bob Lang Byrdcliffe Linen Press

This linen press features painted door panels, and may never have been finished. Part of the scheme was to wait for a piece to sell, and let the buyer select a color.

Among the original drawings now at Winterthur are sketches of several cabinets similar to the one in the photo at right, and the linen press. Different artists made their interpretations and several of the cases were made, some with painted panels and some with carved panels. Among the longer-term residents at Byrdcliffe were Zulma Steele and Edna Walker, who had studied with Arthur Wesley Dow at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York.

Walker designed the sassafras leaf panels of the linen press, while Steele produced the drawings for the panels in the Iris desk. It isn’t clear who created the actual furniture designs. Whitehead is credited by some sources, but there isn’t any hard evidence for that, although he certainly had considerable input in the process. Several of the drawings at Winterthur are labeled “Ralph Whitehead personal copy” and many show evidence of having been used in the shop; mainly hand-written notes about dimensions.

In 1904 it was full speed ahead for the furniture shop at Byrdcliffe, but the shop was closed in 1905 the year after the Iris desk was made. The most common reason given for the closure was the inability to make a profit in this branch of the enterprise. That makes sense on the surface, but there really weren’t any money makers at the colony.

Lang Byrdcliffe Iris Desk

Most of the desk is made of cherry, but the carved and colored front panel is poplar. The overall design is a wonderful blend of function, proportions and decoration.

My theory is that the cabinetmakers and Whitehead didn’t get along and the workers either left in frustration or were asked to leave by an equally frustrated and demanding patron. My theory is based in part on statements from Whitehead on the superiority of designers over craftsmen. He thought workers of a coarse nature who needed to be watched lest they spoil the designers work. (Note: This isn’t quite true – I made the mistake of quoting another author who published a misleading quote from Ralph Whitehead. I clear this up in the introductory chapters of “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture” RWL)

The roots of my theory took hold after I saw the desk for the first time in person. While it is as nicely proportioned and beautifully rendered as it appears in photographs, there is a fatal flaw in the construction that to me represents an argument lost by a competent cabinetmaker and won by an overbearing patron with the sense to engage a great designer, but without a basic understanding of the material. It is a shame that this wonderful design was doomed from the start. The panel that is the focal point of the design was built to self-destruct.

A Long Trip on Short Notice

Lang Byrdcliffe Iris Desk

The shallow relief carvings were designed by Zulma Steele. The surfaces of the carving are quite flat, similar to wood-block print carvings.

As I dug deeper into online images of this desk, I realized that I was also digging myself into a commitment to build this piece. I knew that it still existed, but I wasn’t sure where it was. A couple of photo credits led me to the Woodstock Guild, so I sent an e-mail asking if they still had the desk. What followed was a quick and hospitable exchange; yes they had it, they asked if I wanted to come see it and they didn’t mind if I brought my camera and measuring tools.

I have had the opportunity to see some significant pieces in person, but never without serious restrictions. Usually photography is out of the question, or limited to no lights, flash or tripods. Sketching is OK, but no touching or measuring is allowed. It seemed to me that an opportunity like this should not be wasted, so I decided to take a trip as soon as possible. I went home to ask my wife if she would be interested in a long weekend trip to the Catskills.

Along the way, I thanked her for her patience, understanding and cooperation, mentioning that a lot of wives would have said “You’re crazy, what a ridiculous idea to drive 1500 miles to see one piece of old furniture”. Her response was this “well, I know you’re crazy, I guess I’m used to it by now.”

Byrdcliffe Iris Desk Bob Lang

I was fortunate to be able to study the desk for the better part of a day, comparing dimensions to the scaled drawings from the Winterthur museum.

When we arrived in Woodstock, the staff of the Guild couldn’t have been nicer. They moved the desk from their executive director’s office and placed it in their gallery. They helped move it closer to the windows for better light and they let me pull out the drawers, crawl underneath and measure all the bits and pieces. Before I left home, I downloaded an elevation and patterns from Winterthur, and used those to create a SketchUp model.

From that model, I printed un-dimensioned elevations and sections so that I wouldn’t have to waste time on site drawing; I could measure and record the dimensions on my rough drawings. I wanted to be prepared to document the desk efficiently, but in spite of my preparations, I was in for a big surprise.

Part two of the article will appear soon. In the upper right corner of this webpage you can subscribe to this site either through an RSS feed or by email. I don’t share your information with anyone-ever and I’m one of the world’s worst email marketers. You will get notified when new content is posted to this site, and once or twice a year I send out a newsletter.

Okay Bob, what about the new book, like you promised?

“Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture” is in the process of being printed, and signed copies of this book will be available directly from me in a few weeks. If you want to be among the first in line for a print copy, you can do that here. While you wait for the print book, you can enjoy the PDF version at no additional cost. If you want to explore the carving designs of Byrdcliffe, you can add a PDF of the patterns to print them at actual size.


– Bob Lang

Byrdcliffe Chair Iris Carving

Byrdcliffe Iris carving by Robert W. Lang

Click on the photo to see a larger version

This piece is for sale, in stock for immediate delivery. Scroll down for purchasing information.

This carving of a stylized iris is similar to the carvings on the front panel of the Byrdcliffe Iris desk. The artwork is also from the Byrdcliffe colony, the work of Zulma Steele in 1905. The carving was originally intended to be placed in the center slat of a simple chair. I have taken some liberties with the original artwork; the scale is a bit larger in my carving and I reduced the height. As drawn the leaves extend farther down.

The Byrdcliffe colony was located in the hills above Woodstock, NY and many of the original buildings still exist and are in use by the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. It was an experiment in combining art and craft in a utopian community. The experiment failed and some intriguing designs were developed, but only a few pieces of furniture were produced. I believe that the designs are worthy of being stand-alone works, so my experiment is to pursue that. My favorite thing about these carvings is that the draw you in; what appears two-dimensional at a distance becomes three-dimensional as you get closer.

detail of iris carving by Robert W. LangIn the few original examples that exist, the carving is flat surfaces with rounded edges. I can’t leave well enough alone, so my versions show more detail and relief. The colors on this piece are similar to the colors in the original Iris desk. The carving is done by hand in solid basswood, and the simple frame is solid cherry with a mahogany dye stain. The colors on the carving are light-fast watercolors with a wash coat of amber shellac. The entire piece is top coated with a durable flat lacquer finish. The frame is 10-3/8″ wide x 17-1/8″ high and the panel is 4-7/8″ wide x 10-1/2″ high.

Click button at right to purchase for $225.00 + $25.00 shipping to US addresses

Click button at right to view shopping cart and checkout









— Bob Lang

Iris Carving with Curly Maple Frame

Iris Carving Robert W. Lang

Click on image for larger version.

This piece has been sold, but I would be happy to make another for you. E-mail for details.

This is an interpretation of one of the panels from the Byrdcliff Iris Desk, panels designed in 1902 by Zulma Steele. To read more about the original piece of furniture, and to see images of the original panels, CLICK HERE.

In the original desk, this panel is part of a triptych carved from poplar and framed with cherry, the drop-front panel of a small desk. I became intrigued with the concept of carved, colored panels when I built a reproduction of the Byrdcliffe Linen Press.  As with the linen press, I can’t leave well enough alone and reproduce the carvings – they always look too flat and rather lifeless to me. I’ve carved all three of the panels with more relief than the originals but with the original color scheme. Some photos of those panels are in this post.

I’ve never been afraid of “what if” questions, and when my wife asked me “what if you did one with more realistic carving and coloring?” I agreed to give it a try, if she would do the coloring. So I carved another iris panel, following her suggestions for the details on the petals. While she colored the carving, I made a frame from tiger maple, finished with amber shellac.

Iris Carving by Robert W. Lang

click image for larger version

The carving is 4-3/4″ wide and 11-1/2″ tall, the same dimensions as the original desk panel. The frame is 9-1/4″ wide and 16″ tall. The colors are light-fast watercolors. The carving is sealed before coloring, and top-coated with shellac and lacquer. The colors are translucent, so the character and grain of the hand-carved wood panel are visible.

Of course a good “what-if” question leads to several more. “What if this were a triptych panel, as in the original desk front but with this style of carving and coloring?” “What if that panel was the drop front of a reproduction of the original desk, built from tiger maple with this finish?” If your interested in seeing the answer to that question (and having it in your home) get in touch with me and we can discuss a commission.

In the meantime, the piece shown here is for sale and available for immediate delivery for $275.00 + $17.90 for priority mail shipping to addresses in the United States.

Framed Iris Panel hand carved by Robert W. Lang and hand painted by Joyce M. Lang

Click Here to Inquire about other colors or custom carvings.

Arts & Crafts Furniture Tour – Part 1

Bob Lang Craftsman Furniture TourLast Saturday during my presentation at the Cincinnati Woodworking Club I made the point that seeing authentic examples of period furniture was far better than seeing pictures in a book or online, and that seeing the furniture in context was even better yet. I suggested a two-part journey to see original pieces by Stickley, Roycroft, Byrdcliffe and other makers of the Arts & Crafts period of the early 20th century. After the meeting one of the members asked if I had further information (perhaps on this website) about where to go. I replied that I should and wondered why I hadn’t done that yet.

All four of these places are highly recommended to those who want a better understanding of this furniture and the folks who made it. Each is a worthy destination and if you find yourself traveling east from Buffalo, New York or north from New York city consider making a stop along the way. None of them are far from interstate highways and all of them are in historic settings that will open your eyes to life in the early 1900s.

Roycroft Inn, East Aurora, New York

The Roycroft Inn is part of the Roycroft Campus, established by Elbert Hubbard east of Buffalo. We stopped and spent the night on our way to teach at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine about 10 years ago. The inn was built in 1905 and was restored in 1995. It’s a good sized hotel featuring period rooms and good restaurants and an overnight stay will give you plenty of time to examine the furniture. At each end of the building is a lobby filled with original pieces of furniture. The best part is the fact that this is a hotel, not a museum. Guests are welcome to sit on the furniture, take a close look and take as many pictures as you like.

Click the image for a larger version

The Roycroft furniture operation was never as large as the factories of Gustav Stickley (and his younger brother Leopold) but it made a significant contribution to the period. There are some unique pieces in the inn, including the double-wide Morris chair seen in the photo at right. Also in the photo is an L. & J.G. Stickley “Prairie Settle”. In this same room is a nice conference table and many more pieces that were made across the street or down the road near Syracuse. As amazing as the furniture is, the entire room is significant. The architectural details, light fixtures, murals, rugs and carved mottos on the doors all serve to take you back in time. At the other end of the building is an even bigger lobby, filled with even more furniture. As you walk through the building more pieces of furniture can be found.

There aren’t many places where you can sit in an original Gus Stickley Morris chair and have a conversation with someone sitting in another Morris chair, with a period table in between. Of course the lamp on the table is also from the period as is the fireplace to the right. Overhead Dard Hunter lights are suspended from the exposed beams. The picture to the right is of a little nook in the room where we stayed, the perfect place to write a “wish you were here/glad we’re not stuck at home” letter.

Click Here to Visit the Roycroft Inn Website

When it comes time to leave you can grab a doughnut and get to the New York State Thruway if you’re in a hurry. But you’re better off with a leisurely breakfast at the inn (on the veranda if the weather is nice) and a drive across upstate New York on Route 20. It’s pretty country, the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement and somewhere around the top of the Finger Lakes soft drinks change from “pop” to “soda”. In a few hours you will arrive at

The Stickley Museum, Fayetteville, New York

Syracuse, New York is where Gustav Stickley laid the cornerstone of the American Arts & Crafts movement. His factory was located in Eastwood, a suburb on the east side of town. A few miles away is Fayetteville where younger brother Leopold built his factory. The original L. & J.G. Stickley building still stands and most of it is now the Fayetteville Free Library. In the upper floor of the original structure is the museum, which opened in 2007. The current operation of L. & J.G. Stickley is a few miles south and east in Manlius, New York. You can read more about the building here. There is a strong connection between the current Audi/Stickley company and the museum and this is a place where history is written by the winners/survivors.

The collection is very nice and like most museums you can get close (but don’t touch) the furniture. When we were there they didn’t mind us taking pictures, but the lighting is on the dim side. The museum is not open every day, so be sure to check the website for current operating hours before you go.

When you are inside and up the stairs be prepared for many examples of original pieces that are not often seen, including examples of the early inlaid furniture most likely designed by Harvey Ellis during his brief tenure working for Gustav Stickley. When we were there one of my favorite pieces was a 913-nine drawer dresser. This is a later piece, held together with dowels that are now coming apart. The best part is one of the drawers is removed so you can see the inside of the opening, the arrangement of the drawer guide and the interesting construction of the drawer. You can find details about Gus Stickley’s drawer construction in this post.

One of the reasons I began researching and writing about Arts & Crafts period furniture was due to poor examples I saw in existing books and magazine articles. At that time, more than 20 years ago it was hard to get a close look of genuine examples. A few hours at this museum will give you a deep understanding of what original pieces look like as in these details at the top of this Stickley music cabinet in the photo to the left. You can find details of my reproduction here and my book Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture here.

That’s a lot to take in, but if you’re ambitious there are two more places worth seeing that are relatively close. If you want to avoid the Thruway, route 20 gets you east of Syracuse to Albany where you can pick up 9W to head south to Woodstock and

The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.

Byrdcliffe isn’t exactly a museum, but a visit to Woodstock, New York is an unforgettable experience if only to see businesses named “Surreal Estate” and “Transcend Dental”. This small village is mostly known for the music festival that was held down the road. It’s been a mecca for artists, writers and musicians since Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead established the Byrdcliffe Colony in 1903. The guild is the caretaker of the remaining buildings of Byrdcliffe just up the hill from the village along with original pieces of furniture, related art work and other objects. I’ll be the first to admit to an abnormal affection for Byrdcliffe furniture that began with an image from a book I came across in the 1980s. When I worked for Popular Woodworking magazine in the 2000s I built a reproduction of the Sassafras Linen Press that put me deeper down the rabbit hole.

A few readers suggested I teach a class on building that piece which reminded me of another Byrdcliffe piece, the Iris desk. After a bit of online research I discovered that the desk still exists in the care of the guild. The next thing I knew I was driving across Pennsylvania on my way to Woodstock. Here are a couple of posts about that adventure: Part 1 and Part 2.

That trip was not without consequences, one of which was my latest book Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture and an online discussion about the colony and there furniture that was constructed there. Here is a link to a video of my online discussion. Most of the existing Byrdcliffe furniture is now in museums, but the guild has some notable pieces. Those pieces aren’t on regular public display but there are occasional tours of the White Pines residence where you can find a dining set and a tall case clock.

If you visit you should plan ahead and reach out to the guild to see when a White Pines Tour is available and what pieces you might be able to see. The main function of the guild is to support the work of current artists including gallery shows and an artists-in residence program held in several of the original buildings. The self-guided walking tour gives a good feel for what the original colony was all about but be aware that some of the buildings are private residences and others are studios of working artists. The guild is a wonderful group of folks, but we should all be respectful and not poke around where we haven’t been invited.

This post shows some photos of the pieces in White Pines and a link to a wonderful group of images around the colony.

Click here to visit the website of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.

Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms

In 1905 Gustav Stickley moved his offices and showroom to New York City and beginning in 1908 he purchased land in suburban New Jersey for a grand project called Craftsman Farms. The initial plan was to establish a school, a working farm and a large residence for his family. The log structure seen in the photo at left was intended to be a club house for events to be held at the property. His plans for the property and details of various structures were frequent subjects for articles in The Craftsman magazine. In 1912 he invested heavily in the Craftsman Building in Manhattan which was home to his offices, the magazine, a showroom for his furniture, several floors devoted to showrooms for manufacturers of building products and a restaurant that featured produce from the farm. Unfortunately there was an economic downturn on the eve of World War I and the home he had planned was never built.

1911 Photo of InteriorStickley and his family moved into the log clubhouse at this time and after his forced bankruptcy in 1915 the property was sold in 1917. In 1989 the property was purchased by the township of Parsipanny-Troy Hills and is maintained in partnership with the museum. The log house has been restored back to its original appearance and efforts are underway to restore and conserve other structures on the property. An education center was recently completed but there was damage done to the log house annex and kitchen in 2020. Reconstruction is nearly complete and tours are by reservation only. Visit the website to make reservations before you visit.

The interior of the log house is a delight to see as it gives us a close look at the way Gustav Stickley applied his ideas about homes and their furnishings on a personal level. We get to see original pieces in their original locations and it’s easy to picture Gus in his favorite chair, reading in front of the fireplace, or to imagine yourself as a guest for dinner. Seeing furniture in person is a great experience, but seeing it in context is exponentially better, especially when the context is the home of the man who brought the ideals of the Arts & Crafts movement to the United States.

Most American art museums have a few nice pieces of Arts & Crafts period furniture in their collections and are also well worth your time. I am extremely grateful for the places listed in this article and for the good folks who are working everyday to ensure that access to places like this are available today and in the foreseeable future. When I was in school history was taught with a focus on wars with little mention of the times in between. The period between the Spanish American War and World War I saw a great leap forward not just in furniture design but in the way we consider the homes we live in and the effect of our surroundings on the quality of our lives.

– Bob Lang


Byrdcliffe Furniture In Woodworker West Magazine

My new book “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture” is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of Woodworker West magazine. Editor Ron Goldman got in touch with me recently and included a four-page essay about the book, and about my examination of the Byrdcliffe Iris Desk, one of the pieces featured in the book. As an independent author/publisher I appreciate the exposure, as my promotional budget is rather small. If you’d like to see the entire issue, visit the Woodworker West website where you can purchase a digital issue, a print issue or subscribe.

Here is a portion of what Ron had to say about me:

Bob W. Lang has produced a new edition to his series of Craftsmen-style Shop Drawing books. Ranging from furniture to interiors, the books include accurate shop drawings of work by Gustav Stickley, Charles & Henry Greene, and others — taken from actual antique pieces — with complete material lists.


In his new book, he explores the lesser-known – but highly-significant – work done by New York’s Byrdcliffe Colony. Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture (228 pages, $45) provides the historical background on the craftsmen, as well as drawings, detailed plans, and material lists for 28 pieces of desks, case goods, tables, blanket chests, wall cabinets, chairs, and stools.


In this essay, Bob explains his discovery of the Iris Desk and his thoughts, before undertaking the project. Plans and drawings of this piece are included. This book is currently available in a soft cover print edition or as a downloadable PDF at In addition, full-size carving patterns are available.


Bob has been a cabinet and furnituremaker for over 40 years, with a particular interest in the American Arts & Crafts movement. He wrote articles for WoodShop News and Fine Woodworking, before joining the staff of Popular Woodworking. His books include Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture, More Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture, Shop Drawings for Craftsman Interiors, Shop Drawings for Craftsman Inlays and Hardware, The Complete Kitchen Cabinetmaker, Shop Drawings for Greene & Greene Furniture, Drafting & Design for Woodworker’s, Furniture in the Southern Style, and Woodworker’s Guide to SketchUp, and Building Blocks of SketchUp.

My thanks again to Woodworker West and my readers who enjoy my work and share what they think about it with their friends.

“Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture” is available directly from me, either in a print or downloadable PDF version. Full-size patterns of the carvings are also available in PDF format for printing and use in your shop.


– Bob Lang

Byrdcliffe Carving Patterns – Full size PDF

The signature feature of Byrdcliffe furniture is the colored carvings designed by Zulma Steele and Edna Walker. The image at right is the drop-front panel of the Iris Desk. In original pieces there are several variations of the iris, and in my book “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture” are drawings for building the desk, the wall cabinet seen in a few magazine articles, a bookcase with a door, and a chair with a carved back splat. When building furniture drawings that are scaled to fit on a standard page are fine, but when it comes to recreating a carving there is no substitute for a full size pattern. In my work I print the pattern full size, stick it to the wood with spray adhesive and do the initial carving through the paper print. When I created the book I included the carving patterns scaled to fit the page with a grid over the pattern. That’s a time-tested method, but it’s time consuming to recreate the grid and draw the pattern. Modern technology now allows a reader to photocopy a page from a book and scale the page until it is full size. Better than doing it by hand, but it can still be slow and tedious.

Byrdcliffe Carving Patterns

Click on image for larger version

To make things as easy as possible for my readers, I’ve put all 30 of the patterns from the book into a single PDF file. Each image is formatted to print at actual size on standard paper sizes. About a third of the patterns fit on “letter” or “legal” size paper so you can print them from home on virtually any printer. The rest require larger sheets, (ranging from 11″ x 17″ to 24″ x various lengths), and those can be handled by almost any local “copy & print” center.

Byrdcliffe Carving Patterns PDFYou can find patterns quickly in the PDF by browsing in the Page Thumbnails on the left side of the screen. Each design is in two forms; with and without the grid. The grid is handy for lining the image up with the edge of something, and you can measure the spacing on the grid to make sure the scaling is correct. The grid-less version contains only the image and the image border so you can use that to create just about anything from an image to hang on the wall, or lines to send to your laser or CNC machine.

Instructions are included for printing and for exporting individual sheets from the PDF. This short video gives you a look at the contents:


This PDF is now available for sale as a download, in conjunction with the publication of the book “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture”. Click the button below to purchase only the Carving Patterns PDF, or follow this link to purchase with the book at a special price.


Click the button below to purchase the PDF download of “Full Size Byrdcliffe Carving Patterns” for $29.95 View cart and complete your order

Why Woodworkers Should Write About Furniture History

Byrdcliffe Iris Desk Lang

This single picture says a lot about the person who built this piece and how he made it.This image is looking at the back of a case piece.

I’m working on a new book project, but because I’ve been at this one for several years now it doesn’t feel so new. In any case I’m approaching the finish line (excerpt for figuring out how to publish it). I take history seriously. I feel a responsibility to get the facts right, although I believe that puts me in a minority of writers. If I have to guess I’m okay with saying “this is my best guess because . . .”) and if it’s a situation where no one really knows I say so. Writer’s are told to use an “authoritative voice”, and saying “I don’t know” or “here’s a guess” breaks that rule. I’m not trying to dump on any other authors but I’ve been going over everything I can find on my topic. It reminds me of how I felt while working on my first book “Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture”. Here’s an important area of our cultural history and no one is doing a decent job of recording how this stuff was really made so maybe I should do it.

When you read thoroughly about a particular topic you realize how much authors depend on earlier authors and how often they repeat what someone else wrote. If you read from latest to earliest you can track ideas and generally accepted facts back to their origin. Bob Flexner has done a lot of this with finishing information and believe it or not there are authors who make stuff up that sounds plausible and there are editors who either don’t care or can’t tell the difference between good information and BS spoken in an authoritative voice. Because a couple of my sources have proven to be suspicious to me I’ve had to go back as far as possible, and it has taken me additional time, but that’s alright. It’s essentially the same process as checking a measurement one more time before cutting a valuable piece of material.

Byrdcliffe Desk Drawer Lang

This drawer won’t win any beauty contests but it has held together and functions well after more than a century.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to take a close look at old and special pieces of furniture. Because I’ve spent a lot of time in various shops making various things I often get a sense of what the guy who made it was thinking. In this piece the maker was pretty talented, but was either in a hurry or didn’t have his heart in the project. But that doesn’t mean the end product isn’t a masterpiece. I spotted a few things that some would consider flaws, but none were noticeable when looking at the piece in its entirety from a normal point of view — I had to get out my magnifying glass and look from an angle from behind or below. I spotted a repair that I’m sure was unnoticeable for a long, long time. I could only see it from down on the floor, looking up at just the right angle. It was an elegant fix to a mistake I’ve made and seen others make. I could imagine the language when the damage became obvious and I admire the repair, which saved time and material. I wonder if he showed off his solution to his shop mates, or kept quiet about it so he wouldn’t have to admit he had done wrong. I don’t have any idea which way he went, but my best guess is he spent some time considering the alternatives.

They don’t cover this sort of thing in art history classes, and they don’t mean a thing to the collector’s market, so you rarely see things like this mentioned in print . But the woodworkers I know (who are a bit nutty about old furniture) love to consider these things. Because we’ve spent time in the shop we understand what happens along the way from a good design and a pile of lumber to a finished piece of furniture. We know the mistakes that can doom an otherwise great design to eventual destruction and the difference between a piece of furniture that received care and attention all of its life and one that was stashed away in a damp and gloomy place.

Your mission, as a reader is to leave a comment with what these two pictures tell you about this piece of furniture and the guy who made it. Wild guesses and conjecture are expected and appreciated.

Bob Lang

Down the Byrdcliffe Carving Rabbit Hole-Part 1

Like a guy who remembers the first girl he kissed, I know exactly when and where my fascination with Byrdcliffe carving began. In the late 1980s I came across one of the best books about the Arts & Crafts period, Bruce Johnson’s “The Official Identification and Price Guide to Arts and Crafts: The Early Modernist Movement in American Decorative Arts: 1894-1923”. If you follow the link, snap up one of the used copies. You can thank me later for pointing you toward a comprehensive resource on who was who and who did what in the early 20th century.

JohnsonBookA few years later I was working in a cabinet shop outside Columbus, Ohio. I did the shop drawings and built the tricky stuff, mainly large reception desks. After a few years of building projects that needed to be lifted off the bench with a forklift I was ripe for something smaller and more creative. I went back to the book and this black and white image set something off and I decided I should learn to carve. Who knows what would have happened if the image had been in color, but my idea was to make small cabinets that hung on the wall, with a carving on the door. A strict reproduction never crossed my mind, I just liked the form and the addition of the carving. So I started getting up really early and carving for a few hours before work.

iris_0001When I felt comfortable about the carving, I built this little cabinet out of butternut. It’s “inspired” by the Byrdcliffe piece, but I changed the proportions. This is the first (and last) time I used the Golden Ratio in a design.  I don’t think it worked out, the open area to the right would look better if it were a bit wider, and the entire cabinet is too deep. There is nothing special about the case, it is a dovetailed box with a shiplapped back. There is a french cleat behind the back boards to hang it on the wall. Soss hinges and a touch latch make the door open and close. I drew my own sketch and thought the carving came out pretty good.

LinenPressDoorsFast forward to 2006 and I was working as an editor for Popular Woodworking Magazine. A reproduction of the Byrdcliffe Linen Press made it to our list of projects that no other magazine would publish. To make a long story short I ended up building the piece and carving the doors in addition to researching it and making the drawings. That piece is a close reproduction, although I added more shape to the carvings. The photo at left is of the doors of that piece. It’s one of our favorite pieces. I didn’t think much about Byrdcliffe for the next few years, until the summer of 2012.

Desk_0139_SMIn a comment to a blog post about an upcoming class, a couple of readers suggested than I teach a class on building the linen press. While I’ve been known to be overly ambitious in selecting projects for classes I teach, I recognized that notion as insane (at least for a one-week class, maybe it could be done in two). But that notion rekindled the Byrdcliffe jones in me and I began thinking about a smaller, more approachable Byrdcliffe piece, perhaps the Iris desk. As I researched the desk I learned that the original piece still existed and the people in charge of taking care of it didn’t mind if I came and took a look. That’s where I also recognized that what I had been calling a fascination is more accurately described as an obsession. A couple of weeks after reading an innocent suggestion I drove hundreds of miles to see an old piece of furniture.

Building the desk is now at the top of my bucket list projects, and as it was when this whole thing started, I figured I better start by practicing on the carved panels.

—Bob Lang



Byrdcliffe Carving Class Follow Up

Byrdcliffe-Panel-w-Lang-4A few weeks ago I spent the weekend teaching a class on carving reproductions of the panels from the Byrdcliffe Iris Desk at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking deep in the corn maze of central Indiana. Carving is the part of woodworking that I’m most passionate about and if I had my way I would spend a lot more time carving and a lot less time sitting at a computer. My interest in carving came about when I was first exposed to furniture from the Byrdcliffe colony, although it took several years to get up the nerve to color wood in the way in was done 100 years ago.


3PNL_0073The photo at right is the drop front panel from the Byrdcliffe Iris desk, and the goal of the class was to carve and color one of the three panels. After listening to me explain that the best way to get a really keen edge on a carving gouge is to make a mean face and stick your belly out as far as you can (while holding the stone so that the camera can see it but you can’t) the students jumped to it and got to work.They made good progress and we finished up Sunday afternoon working on coloring the carving with watercolors, and mixing up a home brew oil stain to turn cherry frames green.

Byrdcliffe-MASW-36Most of the original Byrdcliffe carvings are pretty flat. The art work has wonderful lines, but when I carve these I can’t leave well enough along. I like things to be a little more lively, so I add texture and curves. I think it looks better, but who am I to think I can improve someone else’s masterpiece. So these aren’t really reproductions in the strictest sense.

After roughing out their carvings, the class decided to follow me into the deep end. By the time I got through explaining that they could, and probably should leave things flat they were making leaves look more like real leaves, petals look more like real petals, and asking how to make undercuts to add shadows. Even though we all made a lot more work for ourselves, we had a great time.

Byrdcliffe-MASW-42Why not include color and carving in our furniture? Why not take a carving that originally was part of a piece of furniture, frame it and hang it on the wall? That’s an area I plan on exploring further. I usually don’t get all gushy about using hand tools, except when it comes to carving. When I carve there’s the wood and me and a sharp edge in between. There is a design that will most likely require breaking the rules and going against the grain both figuratively and literally . There’s an element of risk because to get away with breaking the rules the tools need to be as sharp as possible and I need to be careful and pay attention.

In the end, if things go well, there’s a physical result that hopefully other people will enjoy, whether they understand the effort that goes into it or not. Here is one of my finished panels. The carving is basswood colored with watercolors and the frame is cherry.

IrisRT_8214—Bob Lang

Byrdcliffe Panel Carving Class

Byrdcliffe Iris Panel

This is the original panel of the Byrdcliffe Iris desk

Space is still available for this class August 1 & 2, 2015-Click Here to sign up at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking website.

On the weekend of August 1 & 2 I’ll be teaching a weekend workshop at the Marc Adams School or Woodworking in Franklin, Indiana. There are still a couple of spots available as I write this post.

In class, students will carve one of the three panels shown in the photo at right. This panel is the fall front from the iconic Iris desk, made in the Byrdcliffe Arts & Crafts colony in Woodstock, New York in 1904. A couple of years ago I spent a day measuring and photographing the original as well as documents in the collection of the Winterthur.

Byrdcliffe Iris panel in progressThis is a great introduction to basic relief carving, as well as applying colors to carvings. You’ll also hear the story of the original makers and designers and see slides of the original desk. The material fee for the class includes wood for the panel and frame, a set of watercolor pencils, and patterns for all three of the panels.

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon getting some practice in. If you can’t make the class stay tuned to this blog. I’ll be posting more pictures of the process over the next week or so.


If you have any questions, send me an e-mail. 

If you sign up, please get in touch with me directly so I can be sure to provide enough material.

—Bob Lang



Down the Byrdcliffe Carving Rabbit Hole-Part 2

lotuscabWhen you reach a certain age you find yourself becoming more careful about some things, but not giving a hoot about others. There are a lot of interesting things I could pursue, but I find myself deliberately avoiding some new things (rendering 3D models and 3D printing for example) because the list of older things I haven’t explored as much as I would like to is pretty long. I have too many reminders (and too many partially finished projects kicking around) that life won’t be long enough to do everything I want to do.

I’ve put down and picked up carving several times over the last 20 years. That’s about how long it’s been since I made the little cabinet on the left. It’s made out of poplar (with some serious coloring) with a stylized lotus carved in the door. The inspiration from this began with my exposure to the work of Zulma Steele and Edna Walker at the Byrcliffe colony in the early 1900s. You can read about how that started in this earlier post. The lotus blossom is based on a Harvey Ellis linen design, similar to the designs he created for inlays on Gustav Stickley’s furniture.

Where I get into trouble is one thing always leads to several more. A spark of an idea gets some oxygen and it becomes a flame that might spread out of control. My interest in Arts & Crafts furniture inevitably led me to Harvey Ellis and the Byrdcliffe colony. The trivial thought of “maybe I should learn to carve” spiraled into “what if other designs from the period became carvings instead of graphics?” Twenty years ago it was easy to let these ideas slide. Now with the resources available online, chasing down these notions isn’t that difficult. What takes time is all the “what if” questions that come along with the information.

Iris_3PanelsI carved these three panels to be framed individually, because I wanted to see if each of the panels could stand alone. I think they do, but I’d also like to have a version as a triptych, as they appeared on the desk. I could pop out the panels and build a single frame, but it would be nice to compare them side-by-side. I also tried to match the original colors in this set, but to my mind the better color for an iris is more purple and blue. I already have a couple of the carvings pretty far along; ones I used to demonstrate during the class, so it wouldn’t be that big of a deal to go ahead. I can use the practice anyway.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. While researching the desk I came across a bunch of original designs from Byrdcliffe that are worth trying. And that’s just Byrdcliffe. I’ve carved a couple things based on Harvey Ellis designs, but didn’t add any color. Several of those might look pretty good too with some color added and Harvey seemed to be able to shake them out of his sleeve. And that’s only a few of the great designers from the period. What about Charles Rennie MackIntosh? What would his graphic designs look like carved and colored? That last question led to some action, seen below.

MackRose_8213That’s a test piece, a proof of concept. It’s a snippet from a much larger stencil design. Now I’m imagining a bunch of other carvings based on MackIntosh’s stuff. My wife tells me the color isn’t quite right so I’ll need to do another one (or two or three or four) to see if she is right, even though more that twenty-five years of experience in that realm tells that that of course she’s right. She also has her own ideas for colored carvings, and they sound pretty good too. Add them to the list.

So I better take care of myself so that I live long enough to try as many of these ideas as I can. It’s a lot of fun and I think these are great things to hang on the wall. And I need to figure out what to do with the overflow.

—Bob Lang

Improve the Past, or Recreate a Fatal Furniture Flaw

Iris Carved Panel from Byrdcliffe DeskOne of the things I like most about building reproductions is that it takes me out of familiar territory and puts me in a place where the easy way out isn’t an option. If left to my own devices, I would not make the challenging choices that were made by far better designers than I am, and the furniture I build wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting. Since last July, I’ve been trying to decide how close I should stay to the original in a piece that I keenly want to build. The problem is this; there is a construction problem in the original that caused failure in the major element of the piece, a carved, triptych panel.

There are actually a couple of issues with the panel, one that I was aware of before seeing the original in the flesh, and one that came as a surprise. I had studied photos and original drawings before traveling to see this piece, and the drive was long enough to consider numerous options. There are renderings both with and without the mitered frame around the panel, and beneath the green stain is solid cherry, except for the panel itself. The two rendered versions indicate that there was some indecision before building began, and perhaps some debate between builder and designer.

I’m not wild about the idea of the mitered frame, but it is possible to make that work, if the frame around the carvings were traditional frame and panel construction and the frame made of tight grain rift or quartered stock. That would be the best way to accomplish this. The worst way would be to do what the original builder did over a century ago; glue up three boards side-by-side to make a single wide panel and carve in the stiles and rails. I had never imagined that the original piece was built that way and was amazed when I saw it. That construction maximizes the distance that this panel, about three feet wide will move when the humidity rises or falls. The proof of that is in the condition of the piece, and repairs that have been previously made.

Click on the photo to see a larger version. About 1/8″ has been added to each of the outside vertical pieces on the mitered frame. That repair had to be made to make the panel operable, after it had shrunk. The panel is hinged from the bottom, and when it moved, the mitered frame came with it. To make matters worse, the hinges attach to the sides of the panel and the sides of the case. When the wood moved, the the hinges let go, and the panel flopped on the lower corners, causing the damage you can see. This piece now lives in a stable environment, so hopefully it won’t move enough to cause further damage.

So what does a would be reproducer do? I’m toying with the idea of building two, one green and one with a clear finish. The green one would be built as the original was, doomed panel and all, and the other would have the panel “made right”. But I don’t know if I really want to do that.

What would you do?

–Bob Lang