The Ogee Foot: Art and Engineering
Because he knew the wood would move, and because the desk had so much weight, and because of the careful craftsman that he was, Goddard elected to take no chances with the joinery in the ogee foot. It had to be strong as bedrock. Generally, an ogee foot was made by joining two blocks of wood at a ninety-degree angle using a miter-and-spline technique. A miter cut that crossed the grain of the wood at a forty-five degree angle was essentially a cross-grain cut. Gluing two pieces of wood end to end or “endgrain to endgrain,” did not work very well because it was like trying to glue two bundles of drinking straws end to end. To compensate for this in a miter-and-spline joint, a groove or channel was cut into the end of each piece, and a thin piece of wood, the “spline,” was fitted into the channels, joining the two pieces together and providing a surface that could be glued effectively. Another way to strengthen the intrinsically weak design of the ogee foot was to glue a “corner block” on the inside corner of the foot. The quality and effectiveness of the glue available to Eighteenth Century cabinetmakers was excellent. A well made miter-and-spline joint could last for centuries. It was characteristic of John Goddard, however, to be always looking for a better way to joint the wood. In the case of the ogee foot, he felt he had no choice.
There was a type of joinery first conceived during Roman times, then perfected during the Renaissance in France, known as “full blind dovetail.” It was a dovetail that stopped short of continuing all the way through the thickness of the wood. The pins and tails had to be cut carefully with a chisel, leaving the last 1/4 inch or so of wood uncut.
This remaining wood was miter cut at a 45 degree angle. In other words, the outside of the joinery was miter, and the inside was dovetail. It was invisible and very strong, but it was very difficult to accomplish and extremely time consuming. When John Goddard used this kind of joinery inside an ogee curve and block front foot, he was breaking new ground, raising the art of joinery to new heights. Once it took its place as a cornerstone beneath the desk, the ogee foot would never again be seen the way Goddard had seen it as he worked on it. In his hands, the foot was a work of sculpture. He had to work on each foot for several days, not only to cut the complex full-blind dovetail, but also the carve the curves with precision. Artistically, the foot had to create a feeling of weightlessness. Structurally, it had to have the strength of solid rock.
The John Goddard ogee foot represented an extraordinary harmony between aesthetic design and engineering. There was absolutely no compromise of on to accommodate the other. This harmony was the very think that made the Goddard secretary desk such a magnificent piece of furniture. The process of creating the lines and the visual effect did not stop upon the completion of a desk. With each piece, he sought improvement. Therefore, every desk was different. The shells, the ogee curves, the finials, the quarter columns, even the moldings were all different. Sometimes the differences were subtle, but each piece was a new creative experience for John Goddard — not only a piece of furniture with utilitarian value, but a work of sculpture. In the search for the quality that distinguish John Goddard’s work from all the rest, we find details of craftsmanship, as well as of design. Goddard was a man who believed in uncompromising quality; if there could be a better way to engineer the design, a technique to better ensure the longevity of the piece, Goddard would find a way to use it. Perhaps what makes this cabinetmaker unique is that it is impossible to tell which standard — the aesthetic or the engineering — was more important to him. He always found a way to make his two standards perfectly harmonious.