Blog — Issue Four RSS





An Assembly of Incredible Minds

After breakfast, we broke into our working groups of six to eight, each with different responsibilities as well as our own truss, to hew, cut, scribe, and assemble. It was wonderful to have the apprentices around. Most of them were young (about 15 years old), and though they were not yet skilled carpenters, their presence greatly expedited the sheer amount of hewing we had to get done. They also added historic accuracy to the project, as on old worksites there were likely a handful of experienced carpenters working alongside boys who did the bulk of the labor for little or no wages. Taking a step back from the action, it was awe-inspiring to hear the axes echoing through the ash...

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More Than One Bench

The number of tools necessary for a woodworker to conduct his business varied of course with his occupation and with the size of the craftsman’s establishment. It is difficult to make a precise determination of how much of an investment was represented by a woodworker’s tools. Inventories are of some help but these must be used with caution because monetary standards varied from colony to colony and from state to state. Moreover, the age of tools listed in estates is not given and the depreciation factor is difficult to compute. Then, too, there can be no guarantee that the appraisers of an estate were familiar with tools and their value. Despite these precautions, useful information can be gleaned from estate...

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Pragmatism in the Name of Efficiency

Analyzing our data pools, it became apparent that handmade furniture doesn’t remain within its average tolerances the way machine-made furniture does within its level of precision. This 0.01" mechanized range is an absolute boundary, and for the most part there are simply no outliers beyond it. Straight and parallel are predictably regulated by machines, and are in fact necessary for the industrial manufacturing process. CNC machines, for example, rely on unmovable benchmarks that must be established to function properly. Throw a piece of tapered, warped, rough-cut lumber on the worktable, and you’re asking for trouble. However, the measurements we took from our pre-industrial examples were rife with outliers – areas of noticeable, often radical divergence from general tolerances. It is...

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One of Those Little Things

Show a rail to the table leg to determine the amount of reveal you’d like. (Many tables’ rails are not flush to the legs but are recessed a bit.) To envision how far the mortise should be from the leg’s outside face, you can set your mortise chisel to it. Typically, the mortise is approximately centered on the rail’s thickness. Mark the mortise position onto the leg with your knife and set your mortise gauge to scribe the lines. It is common practice to allow the gauge lines to run a little past the bottom mortise line, so don’t bother trying to make a perfect stop there. If you’ve resisted buying a mortise gauge, you really ought to remedy that....

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Intrinsically Connected to the Crafts

What these men taught me about production work turned my world upside down. Originally, I had thought that production work would turn me into a machine making soulless objects. Those soulless objects for me were tied to a system that cared more about profit for shareholders and less about quality workmanship and design. But I had confused production work with mass production, because production work, in its most basic form, is intrinsically connected to the crafts.   Throughout history, quality objects have often been made in large quantities with a high degree of skill by using craft production methodology. When I came to terms with that, the stigma of production work was lifted and I began to feel free to experiment...

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This is the Key

If you take only one thing away from this article, it should be this: Hand tools rely on reference faces. When you use a square or marking gauge to thickness stock or lay out joinery, it is essential that you be consistent about which surface you use for reference. This is important because of human error but also because it frees you from having to perfectly and consistently thickness and square all sides of a board. With this system, all you need is one flat and smooth face and one square edge. That’s it. The rest can be hatchet marks for all we care (and sometimes is) because all your layout is referencing off the one good face. This system...

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Only Skin Deep

Undeniably, the natural effects of the centuries on surfaces, finishes, and structure play into that first impression, at least to some degree. Entropy has a way of softening edges, moderating pigments, and altering the appearance of wood in a way that is difficult to replicate artificially. One exception, likely the most famous example of artificially produced patination, is the Brewster Chair made by Armand LaMontagne in 1969. After handcrafting a near-replica of the famous chair of William Brewster, a signer of the Mayflower Compact of 1620, LaMontagne spent months aging the chair. He scratched the wood in typical wear areas, burned parts with an acetylene torch and scraped away the carbon, then stained, smoked, bleached, and adhered centuries worth of...

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Taking Our Work to the Next Level

For those who seek to continually grow in their craft, production work isn’t something to be afraid of or to avoid. It may seem contradictory to think that repetition can open us up to new experiences, but it does. It also helps us to solidify the traits and characteristics that we need to take our work to the next level. It is when we refine our processes as craftspeople that we can increase our level of professional maturity. Production work develops our physical skills through practice and repetition, and helps us find inspiration when we reflect on the process of even the simplest task. Most importantly, production methods tune our mental state with focus, right attitude, and observation. All these...

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Working in Circles

I hate working in circles. There once was a time that I came at woodworking as an artist – I wanted to experience, to play, to create unfettered by time or convention. Back then I just wanted to be in the shop, regardless of what I accomplished. I loved making shavings and agonizing over tight-fitting dovetails. During the past few years, though, as I’ve learned to walk in the footsteps of the craftsmen before me, I’ve grown weary of this kind of meandering.  Any good student of historic furniture making will tell you that apprenticeship-trained, full-time cabinetmakers didn’t fool around at their workbenches. As they set out to tackle yet another table build for another customer, they had a construction...

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But to Replicate the Facility

I flew into Bucharest and caught a long ride north with Mihai Bodea, our documentarian, through the broad, flat Moldavian tableland along the Siret River. In addition to breathtaking views of the Carpathian Mountains in the far west, I caught a few glimpses of distinctive Romanian traditions: vineyards; market fairs by the side of the road; lots of small roadside stands selling onions, peppers, grapes, melons, and other produce; and the iconic caruta horse carts the country is famous for. Many people still use horses in daily life as a practical option, part of a widespread living tradition of regional self-sufficiency. This way of life also manifests itself in other ways such as keeping a home milk cow, scything hay, keeping a...

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