The Phoenix Furniture Company decided around 1887 to manufacture a finer line of furniture. Asa Lyon, the company’s designer, created some fine suites and beautiful china cabinets with curved glass doors and curved ends. To make one sample from the detail drawings submitted by the designer for these suites was comparatively easy for cabinetmakers like John Koopman, a Phoenix employee. However, when the suites were put on the market and orders received to the extent that the company was compelled to produce these on a production basis, Mr. John T. Strahan, the superintendent ran up against many unforeseen problems.
It was very difficult to cut the curved stock for these pieces from the paper detail drawings because the drawings shrunk, tore, and soiled quickly. It was almost impossible for the workmen in the plant to make the stock come out to an all-important one-sixteenth of an inch.
Mr. Strahan, knowing Mr. Koopman, his sample room foreman, to be a very skilled and precise worker, asked him if he could work out some method so that these beautiful cases could be produced on a production basis without too many mistakes.
After studying the problem for some time, Koopman conceived the idea of making patterns for the cases from the paper detail drawing, and then transferring them onto a wooden panel, usually basswood or white maple. After he had drawn all the lines and shown all the necessary construction on the panel, he gave it a coat of shellac. This kept the drawing from becoming soiled and unreadable.
Before Mr. Koopman introduced his method, there was a machine room foreman by the name of Frank Worfel, who had a system of rodmaking. He used a square stick of wood, in which he cut notches to show the different lengths of the various pieces of stock to be cut. This method served its purpose while the company was making inexpensive and straight furniture; however, when their new and fine line was introduced this method was found wholly unsatisfactory and was discarded, with the exception of the name of this measuring stick, which Mr. Worfel had called a “rod”.
This name “rod” was given to the new panel drawing made by Mr. Koopman. The success the Phoenix Company had with this rod system was a stimulus to other Grand Rapids manufacturers and one after another adopted the system, which enabled them to speed up their production and also eliminated many overhead expenses involved in the use of paper detail drawings.
GRAND RAPIDS ADVANTAGE
John H. Klok, a native of the Netherlands, who apprenticed there in furniture design and worked in cabinet shops in Germany, learned factory methods of furniture production after he came to the United States. Klok said that he had often been asked why Grand Rapids was the Furniture Capital of the world. Why didn’t some other city that had furniture factories before Grand Rapids had them, and in those days, some of these cities had better shipping facilities than Grand Rapids? Although Grand Rapids had a disadvantage compared with other towns, it came out on top and became the leader of the entire industry.
Mr. Klok commented that he, also, had been interested in this question for many years, and had studied it from many angles. The conclusion he reached, despite the credit due to great leaders like the Berkey brothers, Comstock, Nelson, Matter, the Widdicombs, and other far-sighted businessmen of their day, was that these men were not alone the real power behind the success of Grand Rapids. Those factories outside Grand Rapids also had good men at their heads and had as much, or more, capital behind them. It was Klok’s opinion that the success and superiority of the Grand Rapids furniture industry belongs to Mr. Koopman’s invention. For, by the use of the roding system, Grand Rapids manufacturers were enabled to produce a quality of furniture which far exceeded that of any of their outside competitors.
Through the used of rods, Grand Rapids was enabled to figure out better construction methods and show them easily on the rod, while it would have made paper detail drawings hopelessly complicated. Klok stated that rod-making was still very little known outside of Grand Rapids (1930) and that was the reason Grand Rapids produced furniture with an inside construction, which was the best and foremost found anywhere in this country or abroad.
Rods as they were by 1930, when Klok published his article, were more complete and more easily read by the workmen than the original rod made by Koopman. Many improvements were made by Koopman; many other rodmakers have made improvements, including Klok.
Rods made under the direction of Klok are complete and easily read by workmen. They are usually made on strips of five-ply white maple, one foot wide, 76 inches long and ¼ inch thick. Each rod is an individual rule, which gives the workman the exact size of every piece of stock.
The front, side and horizontal views are shown. Every piece in the front view is drawn in full length rather than half-length, as in drawings on paper. The stock is measured directly from the rod—no other measuring stick is needed. The workman does not have to multiply fraction of inches. He does not have to do any figuring. He simply lays the stock on the rod, marks it and cuts it. Since the rod never shrinks, back rails may be cut by it weeks after the front rails are cut and they will match precisely.
Besides the measurements, each dowel and tenon, each groove and dovetail and other construction detail is indicated. Every part is shown in its proper relation to other parts. There is a small sketch of the furniture itself on the rod to help the assembler.
Klok evolved a system of numbering the different parts of furniture in order to make it easy for workmen to read. It is therefore easy to introduce them into a factory. A workman who could not understand a detail drawing can read one of Klok’s rods almost at once. Stock saving suggestions, which would make a detail drawing hopelessly complicated, are easily included in a rod.
Through all these great improvements, rodmaking has become an art in itself, and requires an intensive course of training.
A Short History of Furniture Drafting and Why Grand Rapids became the Furniture Capital, John H. Klok, Instructor of the Furniture Capital School of Detailing and Rodmaking. 1930. Collection 233, Box 1; History & Special Collections Dept., Grand Rapids Public Library.
Importance of Good Rods, Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, July 1928. Pg. 57-58.
Additional articles about furniture rods available at the History & Special Collection Dept., Grand Rapids Public Library.
- Study of Practical Cabinet-Making, Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, Jan., 1911, page 14-15.
- Drawing and Detailing a Chair, Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, July 1913, page 346.
- Rod Making as a Practical Drill, by C.A. Zuppann, Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, June, 1914, page 316-317: July 1914, page 42-44.
- Importance of a Knowledge of Rod Making, by Arthur Kirkpatrick, Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, May 1924, page 213-215.
- How to Make and Use the Furniture Rod, by Royal S. Forbes, Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, Feb. 15, 1938, page 20 & 32.
- Detail Rod-Making, by Charles R. Dodsworth, Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, Sept. 15, 1938, page 9 & 38-39.
- A Rod-Making Demonstration of a Dining Room Chair, Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, Sept. 15, 1938, page 10-11.