Issue Three T.O.C. - Modern Revivalist Toolmaking: What Yesterday’s Tools Can Teach Us Today

“Modern Revivalist Toolmaking: What Yesterday’s Tools Can Teach Us Today” by Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney featured in the upcoming Issue Three.

Technical innovation has smiled on the modern woodworker – combinations of castings, pulleys, blades, bits and all manner of motors, rigged in many ways, can flatten, cut, curve, bend or join boards of wood. They do so quickly, repeatably and, often, portably.

When woodworking switched its diet, from the manual to the mechanical, a lot changed. Joinery shifted in shape, better suited to rotating cutters than saws and chisels. So, too, did our methods of design, as we took advantage of flexible and industrious software, moving away from the pencil and drafting table. Simultaneously we turned away from proportion and the old, body-based measures, instead unifying and metrifying from a thousand systems to only a few, often losing proportion to the cold arithmetic of measurement. 

And yet, a constancy of aesthetic and interest in well-made and fairly-proportioned furniture has remained. While ornament and proportion change, from William & Mary to Wegner & Maloof, the skilled craftspeople of yesterday and today still find beauty in the solidity and durability of well made goods, with the telltale signs of good design and consideration of the human form.

While so many modern woodworkers work to revive the practices of our pre-industrial woodworking, so, too, does the modern toolmaker work to facilitate the revival. With the advent of networked communities, even diffuse networks of hobbyists can discuss their needs in a central forum, and so, too, can the toolmaker make his goods available there. Toolmakers today find the digital marketplace enough to financially sustain what used to be strictly a local enterprise.

And through the game of generational telephone, or even better the discovery, retranslation and republishing of source materials, we remember the techniques of the past, more and more every day.

Sometimes, though, we hear the description, or see an illustration, of a tool that we no longer use, or a measure for which we have no analog. Many tools have survived total obscurity, in some barn in Maine or in the back of a cabinet shop in Michigan. So, too, have the design practices of the past survived, evidenced by a notched stick in a tomb or a passage in an old French book.

Through the reproduction or recreation of the past’s tools, the modern revivalist toolmaker makes available the knowledge and practices of the past. I’d like to share with you some of my own research, where I’ve worked to revive and reintroduce work of the past to contemporary workshops. In doing so, I have surprised myself, finding new uses and adaptations for many tools, even in concert with modern techniques and designs. The past is a rich mine of inspiration – all we need are the tools to work it.


-Brendan Gaffney,


Stay tuned tomorrow for the next article upcoming in M&T Issue Three...


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