A-industrial Woodworking at Colonial Williamsburg

Mike and I are on our way back to Maine after the Colonial Williamsburg “Working Wood in the 18th Century” conference, and what an incredible time we had. I gave two presentations about the life and work of Jonathan Fisher as well as an after-dinner talk titled “Pre-industrial Woodworking in the 21st Century.” It was a blast to see old friends and meet so many new ones. Bill, Brian, Ed, and John from the Hay shop were so welcoming and inspiring to talk to.

The theme of the conference was “Five Shops, Five Traditions.” Al Breed, Steve Voigt, Joshua Lane, as well as the CW joiner and cabinetmaking shops also gave presentations covering topics such as carving, molding, foot-powered turning, joinery layout, etc. There was a healthy balance between hands-on work and historical information. If Mike and I could’ve dreamed up a conference it would surely be something like this.

Just like every trip we take, there are many things Mike and I are reflecting on as we make our way home. Besides the fact that we enjoyed our conversations with the hundreds of people we met this weekend, the biggest take away was hearing the Williamsburg joiners and cabinetmakers express to us that they see their work as more than “puffy-sleeved anachronism.” Sadly, many of their visitors at the museum seem to think that quaintness and nostalgia are the only values of historic interpretation. But that’s rubbish. Many of our conversations, with Bill Pavlak and Peter Hudson in particular, revolved around the immediate relevance of hand work in our day and age.

In our digitally oriented consumer society, a gasp for authentic tangibility is evident in “hand-shaken” coffee drinks, “hand-cut” cheese, and “artisanal” sandwiches. People still long for real things.

Mike and I have been talking about how our vision at M&T overlaps with the mission of museums such as Colonial Williamsburg in important ways, though our emphasis is on the immediate relevance of the craft. We don’t see our attention on “pre-industrial” craft as nostalgia because we don’t think of these skills as time-bound. We are simply interested in the way wooden objects have been made for all of human history until a couple hundred years ago. We see the shift to mechanization and hyper-specialization that began in the 18th century and came into maturity in the late 19th, as presenting a whole different approach to the production of wooden objects. Deliberately, Mike and I aren’t trying to be historic interpreters doing “pre-industrial” woodworking. Rather, we see ourselves as modern woodworkers interested in non-mechanized human work. So perhaps “a-industrial” woodworking is a better descriptor.

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about this concept of human-powered, human-guided woodworking as “humane” work in the sense of labor that it “has qualities befitting human beings.” Mike and I believe that hand work and manual labor are not things to avoid in the 21st century because they offer innumerable benefits. Many of us spend our entire work day sitting down staring at computer screens. Our backs are incessantly sore, our wrists seize up, and our stress levels are through the roof. The belief that the “information” era has liberated the worker from the drudgery of manual labor is, at best, an overstatement. Ask your chiropractor… we were not designed to be sedentary creatures.

To compensate for our professional inactivity, many of us go for a run or go hiking to get our blood flowing again. The reason leisure time in modern, urban life is often a retreat into nature for physical activity is because we all know it’s good for us to sweat once in a while. Jonathan Fisher also, even in his frailest state as an elderly man, attributed the maintenance of his health to manual labor. He wrote, “My labor conduces to my health. ... The ax, the saw, the plane, the shovel, and the hoe may many times add life and vigor to our composition as well as add years to the number of our days.”

And this is exactly the emphasis Mike and I hope to bring to the workshop we’re hosting this summer – one of our primary goals is to cultivate “respect for and appreciation of physical labor.” It will be a week of sweat and challenge because it is only through hard work that we discover our potential. Plus est en Vous (There is more in you than you think).

Stay tuned for more info about our workshop.

- Joshua


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