There is a valuable lesson in this for today’s woodworkers: We need to be careful about where we derive our standards of “good” work and sense of appropriate tolerances. Sometimes this means separating truth from myth. We need to recognize that modern dogma about engineer-like precision and glass-smooth secondary surfaces is an anomaly in the history of craft. As these photographs reveal, tear-out, knots, and coarse plane tracks are normal characteristics of hand work throughout history. It’s not sloppy or slipshod. It’s normal – even for the Shakers who aimed for perfection in all their efforts.
As Brother Arnold explained to us, dealers and curators have developed a mythology around Shaker furniture in order to market these objects at art prices. A painted vernacular chest that would normally sell for $200 might command 10 times that amount if the word “Shaker” could be associated with it.
Woodworkers are not immune to this tendency – we can fall into the trap when we perpetuate this myth of supernal precision in order to charge astronomical prices for our Shaker reproductions. We also need to be careful about how we present the work of those gone on before us, especially if it is the work of another culture, faith, or people. If we desire to understand the richness of a craft tradition, we must look closely at the originals and tell the truth about what we see.
Based on the examination Mike and I have done, it appears that while the Shakers’ design might have been unique amongst their contemporaries, their craftsmanship was not. The countless pre-industrial Shaker pieces we examined exhibit the customary blow-out, tear-out, and unevenness of typical period work. Much of it was competently and conscientiously built, but none of it emanated divinity.
If any dealer, curator, or furniture maker tries to tell you that Shaker faith inspired uniquely precise or smooth work, I encourage you to show them Brother Arnold’s words and the photos in this essay. Or better yet, invite them to see these objects in person. All it takes is a flashlight presented at a low angle and these tool marks stand forth plain as day.
Yesterday’s craftsmen of all traditions developed a crucial blend of facility and pragmatism in the workshop. Mastery of the trade depended on accuracy where it counted and expediency where it didn’t – that is to say, these guys knew what was important and when to quit. Shaker furniture makers, like all other period craftsmen, left overcuts, tear-out, layout lines, and more because they were human beings just like you and me, no matter where they were on the road to perfection.
–Joshua A. Klein and Brother Arnold Hadd, excerpt from “As Part of a Life Lived: A Shaker’s Perspective on His Community’s Craft,” in Issue Seven